Calyx krater
When ancient Greece was at its height it was resource poor and overpopulated. The Greeks needed to colonize the Mediterranean to get resources. Half of the population in some city states were farmers who lived outside the city.

By the 4th century B.C. it has been estimated that in all of ancient Greece there were only about 250,000 people. After the Peloponnesian wars and the plague the population city-state of Athens had been reduced by from around 80,000 to as a low as 21,000.

Birth Control and Contraceptives in Ancient Greece

According to historians, demographic studies suggest the ancients attempted to limit family size. Greek historians wrote that urban families in the first and second centuries B.C. tried to have only one or two children. Between A.D. 1 and 500, it was estimated the population within the bounds of the Roman Empire declined from 32.8 million to 27.5 million (but there can be all sorts of reason for this excluding birth control).

Birth control methods in ancient Greece included avoiding deep penetration when menstruation was "ending and abating" (the time Greeks thought a woman was most fertile); sneezing and drinking something cold after having sex; and wiping the cervix with a lock of fine wool or smearing it with salves and oils made from aged olive oil, honey, cedar resin, white lead and balsam tree oil. Before intercourse women tried applying a perceived spermicidal oil made from juniper trees or blocking their cervix with a block of wood. Women also ate dates and pomegranates to avoid pregnancy (modern studies have shown that the fertility of rats decreases when they ingest these foods).

Women in Greece and the Mediterranean were told that scooped out pomegranates halves could be used as cervical caps and sea sponges rinsed in acidic lemon juice could serve as contraceptives. The Greek physician Soranus wrote in the 2nd century A.D. : "the woman ought, in the moment during coitus when the man ejaculates his sperm, to hold her breath, draw her body back a little so the semen cannot penetrate into the uteri, then immediately get up and sit down with bent knees, and this position provoke sneezes."

Valuable Ancient Greek Contraceptive Plant

In the seventh century B.C., Greek colonists in Libya discovered a plant called silphion , a member of the fennel family which also includes asafoetida , one of the important flavorings in Worcester sauce. The pungent sap from silphion, the ancient Greeks found, helped relieve coughs and tasted good on food, but more importantly it proved to be an effective after-intercourse contraceptive. A substance from a similar plant called ferujol has been shown in modern clinical studies to be 100 percent successful in preventing pregnancy in female rats up to three days after coitus. [Source: John Riddle, J. Worth Estes and Josiah Russell, Archaeology magazine, March/April 1994]

Known to the Greeks as silphion and to the Romans as silphium, the plant brought prosperity to the Greek city-state of Cyrene. Worth more than is weight on silver, it was described by Hippocrates, Diosorides and a play by Aristophanes.

Sixth century B.C. coins depicted women touching the silphion plant with one hand and pointing at their genitals with the other. The plant was so much in demand in ancient Greece it eventually became scarce, and attempts to grow it outside of the 125-mile-long mountainous region it grew in Libya failed. By the 5th century B.C., Aristophanes wrote in his play The Knights , "Do you remember when a stalk of silphion sold so cheap?" By the third or forth century A.D., the contraceptive plant was extinct.

Abortions in Ancient Greece

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silphion symbol
Abortions were performed in ancient times, says North Carolina State history professor John Riddle, and discussions about featured many of the same arguments we hear today. The Greeks and Romans made a distinction between a fetus with features and one without features. The latter could be aborted without having to worry about legal or religious reprisals. Plato advocated population control in the ideal city state and Aristotle suggested that "if conception occurs in excess...have abortion induced before sense and life have begun in the embryo.”

The Stoics believed the human soul appeared when first exposed to cool air, and the potential for a soul existed at conception. Hippocrates warned physicians in his oath not to use one kind of abortive suppository, but the statement was misinterpreted as a blanket condemnation of all of abortion. John Chrystom, the Byzantine bishop of Constantinople compared abortion to murder in A.D. 390, but a few years earlier Bishop Gregory of Nyssa said the unformed embryo could not be considered a human being. [Riddle has written a book called Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance ].

Ancient Greek Holidays and Festivals

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Festivals and feasts were held throughout the year. In Athens alone there were 120 days of festivals a year. Most festivals were harvest festivals or religious festivals. As Greece became urbanized more people turned out for these festivals and the activities became more elaborate. Festivals were often financed by the state and were regarded as a reflection on the city's image.

The citizens of Athens gathered once a year for the Panathanaic procession in which they dressed in woven robes like the one believed to be worn by Athena and marched through the city to the Acropolis. The procession was led by the Athenian cavalry and included priests, sacrificial animals, chariots, athletes, and maidens. One of the marque events was the apobates , in which contestants in full armor leapt on and off moving chariots.

The Greeks had some strange festivals associated with destroying things and ideas thought to be impure. During Bouphonia in Athens a sacrifice was held, then the ax used in the sacrifice was tried and condemned to death and thrown in the sea. After a hanging in Cos the rope and tree were banished. During the Ionian festival honoring Apollo sins were loaded onto a cart and taken out of town. ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Comic playwrights had the most fun on the Day of Misrule, a holiday when nothing was sacred. Arcane philosophers were satirized, sexual morality was mocked, and even the gods were objects of ridicule.

Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo contains good descriptions of religious festivals.

Ancient Greek Parties and Symposia

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Symposia Banqueter
A symposium was a dinner party with family, friends or associates. It generally began with a bout of drinking, followed by a big meal. There were often rules to ensure equality. Conversation topics included philosophy, politics, gossip. For a short period Greeks used birthday cakes.

The word symposia was used to describe the party and the place were it was held and is the source of the modern word symposium. The parties were usually lead by a feast master. Sometimes the guests wore garlands. Some people drank heavily; others held back.

There are vivid description of party entertainment in Xenophon’s dialogue Symposium (380 B.C.). The host pays a man from Syracuse to bring traveling performers (probably slaves), a girl flutists, acrobats, a dancing girl and a boy who dances and plays the kithara , a kind of lyre. The group played music and did performances involving music, dance, acrobatics and mine. The girl juggled hoops, performed acrobatic stunts over a hoop rimmed with knives, and acted out mythical love scenes with the boy. Socrates, one of the guests, was quite taken with the boy.

The citizens of Sybaris in present-day southern Italy were such big partiers they reportedly banned roosters so the populous would not be woken to early in the morning. They also supposedly had wine piped directly from the vineyards to the city.

Wild Dionysus Festivals

To pay their respect to Dionysus, the citizens of Athens, and other city-states, held a winter-time festival in which a large phallus was erected and displayed. After competitions were held to see who could empty their jug of wine the quickest, a procession from the sea to the city was held with flute players, garland bearers and honored citizens dressed as satyrs and maenads (nymphs), which were often paired together. At the end of the procession a bull was sacrificed symbolizing the fertility god's marriage to the queen of the city. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

The word “maenad” is derived from the same root that gave us the words “manic” and “madness”. Maenads were subjects of numerous vase paintings. Like Dionysus himself they often depicted with a crown of iv and fawn skins draped over one shoulder. To express the speed and wildness of their movement the figures in the vase images had flying tresses and cocked back head. Their limbs were often in awkward positions, suggesting drunkenness.

The main purveyors of the Dionysus fertility cult "These drunken devotees of Dionysus," wrote Boorstin, "filled with their god, felt no pain or fatigue, for they possessed the powers of the god himself. And they enjoyed one another to the rhythm of drum and pipe. At the climax of their mad dances the maenads, with their bare hands would tear apart some little animal that they had nourished at their breast. Then, as Euripides observed, they would enjoy 'the banquet of raw flesh.' On some occasions, it was said, they tore apart a tender child as if it were a fawn'"μ

One time the maenads got so involved in what they were doing they had to be rescued from a snow storm in which they were found dancing in clothes frozen solid. On another occasion a government official that forbade the worship of Dionysus was bewitched into dressing up like a maenad and enticed into one of their orgies. When the maenads discovered him, he was torn to pieces until only a severed head remained.μ

It is not totally clear whether the maenad dances were based purely on mythology and were acted out by festival goers or whether there were really episodes of mass hysteria, triggered perhaps by disease and pent up frustration by women living in a male-dominate society. On at least one occasion these dances were banned and an effort was made to chancel the energy into something else such as poetry reading contests.

Other Ancient Greek Festivals

Dancing maenad
There were two major festival for Athenian women every year: The Thesmophoria promoted fertility and honored Persephone with piglet sacrifices and the offering of mass-produced statues of the goddess to receive her blessing. The Adonia honored Aphrodite's lover Adonis. It was a riotous festival in which lovers had openly licentious affairs and seeds were planting to mark the beginning of the planting season.

During Thesmophoria, an annual Athenian event to honor Demeter and Persephone, women and men who required to abstain from sex and fast for three days. Women erected bowers made of branches and sat there during their fast. On the third day they carried serpent-shaped images thought to have magical powers and entered caves to claim decayed bodied of piglets left the previous years. Pigs were sacred animals to Demeter. The piglet remains were laid on an Thesmphoria altar with offerings, launching a party with feasting, dancing and praying. This rite also featured little girls dressed up as bears.

Athena, see Greek Gods Under Religion

Ancient Greek Character

Based on ancient Greek mythology and art and stereotypes of modern Greeks, many people think of the ancient Greeks as a fun-loving people who indulged themselves in the good life: they drank lots of wine, cherished the sun and the sea, and participated in wild Dionysian festivals. Even so the Greeks regarded overindulgent people as possible traitors who might put their appetites before their loyalty to the state.

Important virtues included: style, grace, eloquence and self control. The Greeks looked down on conspicuous consumption and lack of self-control. The historical James Davidson wrote: "The Greeks imposed few rules from outside, but felt a civic responsibility to manage all appetites, to train themselves to deal with them, without trying to conquer them absolutely... The true gentleman manages his appetites. He is in charge of himself...Those who consume immoderately are the true slaves, being slaves to their appetites. It is the profligate and inconsistent who really engage in menial tasks as they are for ever running back and forth trying to fill their leaky jar with desire.”

The Greeks were very competitive. They were obsessed with battles and sports and even made speech making and poetry-reading into competitive events. The key piece of advise that Achilles was given by his father was: “Always to be the best and outdo the others.”

Greek had a deep sense melancholy and pessimism based on submission to fate. The historian Jacob Burckhard wrote : “The hero of myth scrupulously directs his whole life according to obscure sayings of the gods, but all vain; the predestined infants (Paris, Oedipus among ethers) left to die of exposure, are rescued and afterwards fulfill what was predicted for them.” Some Greeks believed it was best not to be born. The great sage Solon even went as far as saying: “Not one mortal is happy; everyone under the sun is unhappy.”

Lawrence Alma-Tadema painting of Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends

What Made the Ancient Greeks Laugh?

Mary Beard wrote in the Times of London, “In the third century BC, when Roman ambassadors were negotiating with the Greek city of Tarentum, an ill-judged laugh put paid to any hope of peace. Ancient writers disagree about the exact cause of the mirth, but they agree that Greek laughter was the final straw in driving the Romans to war. One account points the finger at the bad Greek of the leading Roman ambassador, Postumius. It was so ungrammatical and strangely accented that the Tarentines could not conceal their amusement.[Source: Mary Beard, Times of London, February 2009. Mary Beard is the author of The Roman Triumph published in 2007 and Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town, 2008 . She is Classics editor of the TLS.]

The historian Dio Cassius, by contrast, laid the blame on the Romans’national dress. “So far from receiving them decently”, he wrote, “the Tarentines laughed at the Roman toga among other things. It was the city garb, which we use in the Forum. And the envoys had put this on, whether to make a suitably dignified impression or out of fear---thinking that it would make the Tarentines respect them. But in fact groups of revellers jeered at them.” One of these revellers, he goes on, even went so far as “to bend down and shit” all over the offending garment. If true, this may also have contributed to the Roman outrage. Yet it is the laughter that Postumius emphasized in his menacing, and prophetic, reply. “Laugh, laugh while you can. For you’ll be weeping a long time when you wash this garment clean with your blood.”

Despite the menace, this story has an immediate appeal. It offers a rare glimpse of how the pompous, toga-clad Romans could appear to their fellow inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean; and a rare confirmation that the billowing, cumbersome wrap-around toga could look as comic to the Greeks of South Italy as it does to us. But at the same time the story combines some of the key ingredients of ancient laughter: power, ethnicity and the nagging sense that those who mocked their enemies would soon find themselves laughed at. It was, in fact, a firm rule of ancient “gelastics”---to borrow a term (from the Greek gelan, to laugh) from Stephen Halliwell’s weighty new study of Greek laughter---that the joker was never far from being the butt of his own jokes.

Ancient Greco-Roman Joke Book

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perfume bottle
On the only joke book to have survived from the ancient was a Roman-period work written in Greek. Beard wrote, “Known as the Philogelos, this is a composite collection of 260 or so gags in Greek probably put together in the A.D. fourth century but including---as such collections often do---some that go back many years earlier. It is a moot point whether the Philogelos offers a window onto the world of ancient popular laughter (the kind of book you took to the barber’s shop, as one antiquarian Byzantine commentary has been taken to imply), or whether it is, more likely, an encyclopedic compilation by some late imperial academic. Either way, here we find jokes about doctors, men with bad breath, eunuchs, barbers, men with hernias, bald men, shady fortune-tellers, and more of the colourful (mostly male) characters of ancient life. [Source: Mary Beard, Times of London, February 2009]

The "egghead", or absent-minded professor, is a particular figure of fun, along with the eunuch, and people with hernias or bad breath. "They're also poking fun at certain types of foreigners---people from Abdera, a city in Thrace, were very, very stupid, almost as stupid as [they thought] eggheads [were]," said Beard. Pride of place in the Philogelos, Beard wrote, goes to the “egg-heads”, who are the subject of almost half the jokes for their literal-minded scholasticism (“An egg-head doctor was seeing a patient. “Doctor”, he said, “when I get up in the morning I feel dizzy for 20 minutes.” “Get up 20 minutes later, then?”). After the “egg-heads”, various ethnic jokes come a close second. In a series of gags reminiscent of modern Irish or Polish jokes, the residents of three Greek towns---Abdera, Kyme and Sidon---are ridiculed for their “how many Abderites does it take to change a light bulb?” style of stupidity. Why these three places in particular, we have no idea. But their inhabitants are portrayed as being as literal-minded as the egg-heads, and even more obtuse. “An Abderite saw a eunuch talking to a woman and asked if she was his wife. When he replied that eunuchs can’t have wives, the Abderite asked, “So is she your daughter then?” And there are many others on predictably similar lines.

Beard said the Philogelos shows the Romans were not the "pompous, bridge-building toga wearers" they were often made out to be but rather were a race ready to laugh at themselves. Alison Flood of The Guardian wrote, “Beard's favourite joke is a version of the Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman variety, with a barber, a bald man and an absent-minded professor taking a journey together. They have to camp overnight, so decide to take turns watching the luggage. When it's the barber's turn, he gets bored, so amuses himself by shaving the head of the professor. When the professor is woken up for his shift, he feels his head, and says "How stupid is that barber? He's woken up the bald man instead of me." [Source: Alison Flood,, March 13 2009 ]

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boar head oil lamp
"It's one of the better ones," said Beard. "It has a nice identity resonance ... A lot of the jokes play on the obviously quite problematic idea in Roman times of knowing who you are." Another "identity" joke sees a man meet an acquaintance and say "it's funny, I was told you were dead". He says "well, you can see I'm still alive." But the first man disputes this on the grounds that "the man who told me you were dead is much more reliable than you". An ancient version of Monty Python's dead parrot sketch sees a man buy a slave, who dies shortly afterwards. When he complains to the seller, he is told: "He didn't die when I owned him."

In her quest to find out if people today found the same things funny as the Romans she told a a joke to one of her graduate classes, in which an absent-minded professor is asked by a friend to bring back two 15-year-old slave boys from his trip abroad, and replies "fine, and if I can't find two 15-year-olds I will bring you one 30-year-old," she found they "chortled no end". "They thought it was a sex joke, equivalent to someone being asked for two 30-year-old women, and being told okay, I'll bring you one 60-year-old. But I suspect it's a joke about numbers---are numbers real? If so two 15-year-olds should be like one 30-year-old---it's about the strange unnaturalness of the number system."

Beard, who discovered the title while carrying out research for a new book she's working on about humour in the ancient world, pointed out that when we're told a joke, we make a huge effort to make it funny for ourselves, or it's an admission of failure. "Are we doing that to these Roman jokes? Were they actually laughing at something quite different?"

Analysis of Ancient Greek Jokes

comedian actor with goat,
3d century BC
The most puzzling aspect of the jokes in the Philogelos is the fact that so many of them still seem vaguely funny. Across two millennia, their hit-rate for raising a smile is better than that of most modern joke books. And unlike the impenetrably obscure cartoons in nineteenth-century editions of Punch, these seem to speak our own comic language. In fact, the stand-up comedian Jim Bowen has recently managed to get a good laugh out of twenty-first-century audiences with a show entirely based on jokes from the Philogelos.

Why do ancient Greek jokes seem so modern? In the case of Jim Bowen’s performance, careful translation and selection has something to do with it (I doubt that contemporary audiences would split their sides at the one about the crucified athlete who looked as if he was flying instead of running). There is also very little background knowledge required to see the point of these stories, in contrast to the precisely topical references that underlie so many Punch cartoons. Not to mention the fact that some of Bowen's audience are no doubt laughing at the sheer incongruity of listening to a modern comic telling 2,000-year-old gags, good or bad. [Source: Mary Beard, Times of London, February 2009]

But there is more to it than that. It is not, I suspect, much to do with supposedly “universal” topics of humour (though death and mistaken identity bulked large then as now). It is more a question of a direct legacy from the ancient world to our own, modern, traditions of laughter. Anyone who has been a parent, or has watched parents with their children, will know that human beings learn how to laugh, and what to laugh at (clowns OK, the disabled not). On a grander scale, it is---in large part at least---from the Renaissance tradition of joking that modern Western culture itself has learned how to laugh at “jokes”; and that tradition looked straight back to antiquity. One of the favourite gags in Renaissance joke books was the “No-but-my-father-did” quip about paternity, while the legendary Cambridge classicist Richard Porson is supposed to have claimed that most of the jokes in the famous eighteenth-century joke book Joe Miller’s Jests could be traced back to the Philogelos. We can still laugh at these ancient jokes, in other words, because it is from them that we have learned what “laughing at jokes” is.

actor as donkey
5th century BC_
This is not to say, of course, that all the coordinates of ancient laughter map directly onto our own. Far from it. Even in the Philogelos a few of the jokes remain totally baffling (though perhaps they are just bad jokes). But, more generally, Greeks and Romans could laugh at different things (the blind, for example---though rarely, unlike us, the deaf); and they could laugh, and provoke laughter, on different occasions to gain different ends. Ridicule was a standard weapon in the ancient courtroom, as it is only rarely in our own. Cicero, antiquity’s greatest orator, was also by repute its greatest joker; far too funny for his own good, some sober citizens thought.

There are some particular puzzles, too, ancient comedy foremost among them. There may be little doubt that the Athenian audience laughed heartily at the plays of Aristophanes, as we can still. But very few modern readers have been able to find much to laugh at in the hugely successful comedies of the fourth-century dramatist Menander, formulaic and moralizing as they were. Are we missing the joke? Or were they simply not funny in that laugh-out-loud sense? Discussing the plays in Greek Laughter, Halliwell offers a possible solution. Conceding that “Menandrian humour, in the broadest sense of the term, is resistant to confident diagnosis? (that is, we don’t know if, or how, it is funny), he neatly turns the problem on its head. They are not intended to raise laughs; rather “they are actually in part about laughter”. Their complicated “comic” plots, and the contrasts set up within them between characters we might want to laugh at and those we want to laugh with, must prompt the audience or reader to reflect on the very conditions that make laughter possible or impossible, socially acceptable or unacceptable. For Halliwell, in other words, Menander’s “comedy” functions as a dramatic essay on the fundamental principles of Greek gelastics.

On other occasions, it is not always immediately clear how or why the ancients ranked things as they did, on the scale between faintly amusing and very funny indeed. Halliwell mentions in passing a series of anecdotes that tell of famous characters from antiquity who laughed so much that they died. Zeuxis, the famous fourth-century Greek painter, is one. He collapsed, it is said, after looking at his own painting of an elderly woman. The philosopher Chrysippus and the dramatist Polemon, a contemporary of Menander, are others. Both of these were finished off, as a similar story in each case relates, after they had seen an ass eating some figs that had been prepared for their own meal. They told their servants to give the animal some wine as well---and died laughing at the sight.

The conceit of death by laughter is a curious one and not restricted to the ancient world. Anthony Trollope, for example, is reputed to have “corpsed” during a reading of F. Anstey’s comic novel Vice Versa. But what was it about these particular sights (or Vice Versa, for that matter) that proved so devastatingly funny” In the case of Zeuxis, it is not hard to detect a well-known strain of ancient misogyny. In the other cases, it is presumably the confusion of categories between animal and human that produces the laughter---as we can see in other such stories from antiquity.


Stephen Halliwell’s View on Greek Humor

In her review of Greek Laughter by Stephen Halliwell, Mary Beard wrote in the Times of London, “Halliwell insists that one distinguishing feature of ancient gelastic culture is the central role of laughter in a wide range of ancient philosophical, cultural and literary theory. In the ancient academy, unlike the modern, philosophers and theorists were expected to have a view about laughter, its function and meaning. This is Halliwell’s primary interest. [Source: Mary Beard, Times of London, February 2009]

His book offers a wide survey of Greek laughter from Homer to the early Christians (an increasingly gloomy crowd, capable of seeing laughter as the work of the Devil), and the introduction is quite the best brief overview of the role of laughter in any historical period that I have ever read. But Greek Laughter is not really intended for those who want to discover what the Greeks found funny or laughed at. There is, significantly, no discussion of the Philogelos and no entry for “jokes” in the index. The main focus is on laughter as it appears within, and is explored by, Greek literary and philosophical texts.

In those terms, some of his discussions are brilliant. He gives a clear and cautious account of the views of Aristotle---a useful antidote to some of the wilder attempts to fill the gap caused by the notorious loss of Aristotle’s treatise on comedy. But the highlight is his discussion of Democritus, the fifth-century philosopher and atomist, also renowned as antiquity’s most inveterate laugher. An eighteenth-century painting of this “laughing philosopher” decorates the front cover of Greek Laughter. Here Democritus adopts a wide grin, while pointing his bony finger at the viewer. It is a slightly unnerving combination of jollity and threat.

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Dedication to Bacchus by Alma-Tadema

The most revealing ancient discussion of Democritus’s laughing habit is found in an epistolary novel of Roman date, included among the so-called Letters of Hippocrates---a collection ascribed to the legendary founding father of Greek medicine, but in fact written centuries after his death. The fictional exchanges in this novel tell the story of Hippocrates’encounter with Democritus. In the philosopher’s home city, his compatriots had become concerned at the way he laughed at everything he came across (from funerals to political success) and concluded that he must be mad. So they summoned the most famous doctor in the world to cure him. When Hippocrates arrived, however, he soon discovered that Democritus was saner than his fellow citizens. For he alone had recognized the absurdity of human existence, and was therefore entirely justified in laughing at it.

Under Halliwell’s detailed scrutiny, this epistolary novel turns out to be much more than a stereotypical tale of misapprehension righted, or of a madman revealed to be sane. How far, he asks, should we see the story of Democritus as a Greek equivalent of the kind of “existential absurdity” now more familiar from Samuel Beckett or Albert Camus? Again, as with his analysis of Menander, he argues that the text raises fundamental questions about laughter. The debates staged between Hippocrates and Democritus amount to a series of reflections on just how far a completely absurdist position is possible to sustain. Democritus’ fellow citizens take him to be laughing at literally everything; and, more philosophically, Hippocrates wonders at one point whether his patient has glimpsed (as Halliwell puts it) “a cosmic absurdity at the heart of infinity”. Yet, in the end, that is not the position that Democritus adopts. For he regards as “exempt from mockery” the position of the sage, who is able to perceive the general absurdity of the world. Democritus does not, in other words, laugh at himself, or at his own theorizing.

Vintage Festival by Alma-Tadema

What Halliwell does not stress, however, is that Democritus’ home city is none other than Abdera---the town in Thrace whose people were the butt of so many jokes in the Philogelos. Indeed, in a footnote, he briefly dismisses the idea “that Democritean laughter itself spawned the proverbial stupidity of the Abderites”. But those interested in the practice as much as the theory of ancient laughter will surely not dismiss the connection so quickly. For it was not just a question of a “laughing philosopher” or of dumb citizens who didn’t know what a eunuch was. Cicero, too, could use the name of the town as shorthand for a topsy-turvy mess: “It’s all Abdera here”, he writes of Rome. Whatever the original reason, by the first century BC, “Abdera” (like modern Tunbridge Wells, perhaps, though with rather different associations) had become one of those names that could be guaranteed to get the ancients laughing.

Book: Greek Laughter: A study of cultural psychology from Homer to early Christianity by Stephen Halliwell (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Ancient Greek Customs

The custom of making a toast to one's health dates back to 5th century B.C. Greece when a host took a drink of wine from a decanter to show it was safe to drink before his guest took a drink. Later the act became associated with pledge of friendship. The Romans sometimes dropped a piece of burnt toast into a cup of wine, which gave birth to expression toast.

The Ancient Egyptians, Asian, Persians, Greeks and Romans showed respect by kissing the hand, feet or hem of the shirt of important people. Herodotus wrote that Persian kisses ranged from lip on lip for equals to the ground or feet by an exorbitantly lower status person to a higher one. A Babylonian creation story recorded on stone tablets in the seventh-century B.C.---based on much older oral legends---includes references to a kiss of greeting and a kiss of the ground or feet in supplication. The Roman emperor Caligula had subjects kiss his feet, which also was a custom throughout the Middle Ages. [Source: Leanne Italie, Associated Press, March 12, 2011]

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Roman-era mosaic of slaves

Ancient Greek Society and the Rich, the Poor and Middle Class

Greek aristocrats were not very fond of the masses. One member of the ruling elite used to walk through the streets clubbing people he disliked. Aristotle classified humanity into two kinds of people: The few, smart people destined to be masters: and the multitudes of less talented people designated to be slaves.

As people were able to make a living by trading and selling crafts, a fledgling middle class emerged.

Labor and Slaves in Ancient Greece

The Greeks were not known for having a strong work ethic. Citizens abhorred physical labor and came to rely on slaves. Even the tireless classifier himself, Aristotle, believed that the goal of a civilized man was to attain a life of leisure so that he was free to pursue the higher things in life. How was this life of leisure attained?...With slaves, of course. Tradesmen and merchants were looked down upon and teachers and doctors had about the same status as a craftsman. The only respectable occupations were farming, politics and philosophizing. Aristotle also believed that the laws of nature dictated that free men should rule and dominate slaves and women.|[Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

Slaves were bought at the market. The were used in mining, agriculture, construction and as household slaves. Slaves could be craftsmen, entertainers, teachers, secretaries or even businessmen trading for themselves. One thing a slave was not was a citizen. Mycenaean tablets, dated at 1200 B.C., described slave women who worked as grain grinders, spinners, and pourers of baths, They were often grouped by the places they were captured: "women in Asia," "women of Knidoes," "women of Miletos."

The Greeks used slaves and prisoners to build their temples. Most slaves were people captured in wars or pirates raids. In many cases they were serfs, or conquered people, that came with the land and passed their statuses down from generation to generation .

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collared slaves
The status of a slave was often closer to that of an animal than a human being. They were tortured on the stand in a court of law until they told the "truth" and put to death for simply belonging to a murdered man. They sometimes held their chamber pots of their masters. Slaves were branded on their faces until the A.D. 4th century when Constantine, the first Christianized Roman emperor, decided that it was a inhuman thing to do to a creation of God, so he ordered that they be branded on their arms and legs instead. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

A good book on slavery in the ancient world is Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology by Moses Finley. On this book Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard said, “When I read this book it was the first time I realized that there could be, and ought to be, an explicit connection between a modern political stance and the ancient history that I was studying. Slavery is a classic case for thinking about those connections. Greece and Rome were one of the few mass slave-owning societies that there have ever been. What Finley was interested in doing was looking hard at ancient slavery and thinking about how it was the same or different from modern slavery. One key difference that comes out is that modern slavery is tinged by racism, whereas ancient slavery wasn’t. He was the first person I had read who looked ancient slavery in the eye and said it was something really terrible. All the stuff that I had read before had been slightly embarrassed about ancient slavery and saw it as a blot on the landscape. They said: “The Greeks were so wonderful and slavery was a bit of a problem but you shouldn’t think about it. It was more like domestic service really!” And Finley says you can’t let the ancient world off the hook. You have to have a moral stance on this one.

Slaves were often freed or allowed to buy their freedom.

Slaves, See Labor Under Economics

Minorities and Racism in Ancient Greece

Different states had different personalities: Sparta was the land of warriors. Sybaris was known for its love of luxury. The word barbaros , from which “barbarian” is derived did not originally have pejorative connotations. It simple meant people who didn’t speak Greek and their speech sounded to the Greeks like bar-bar-bar .

On racism in ancient Greece and Rome, Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard wrote in her blog A Don’s Life: “There is no doubt at all that they often treated outsiders badly. The idea of the “barbarian” (someone whose speech is just an incomprehensible “ba ba”) is a well known Greek invention. But the cultural identity of both societies was even more pervasively based on what we would now see as an unhealthy distrust of anyone different from themselves. Xenophobia in other words. [Source: Mary Beard, A Don’s Life Blogg, January 22, 2007]

The list of unnatural things that foreigners were supposed to get up to is a long one. It ranged from peculiar eating habits (not just frogs legs or poppadoms, but at its worst cannibalism) to strange regimes of hygiene (women standing up to piss was a notable source of wonderment and/or disdain) and topsy-turvy ideas of sex and gender (women in charge).

The Greeks painted a contemptuous picture of the Persians as trousered, decadent softies who wore far too much perfume. Then the Romans came along and, minus the trousers, said much the same about the Greeks: a nice example of being given a taste of your own medicine. But, strikingly, it’s usually claimed that neither Greeks nor Romans bothered very much about skin colour. This was a time “before colour prejudice”.

It’s certainly the case that there seems to have been no general idea of social, cultural or intellectual inferiority based on the colour of a person’s skin. There was no homogeneous slave class, of a different race and colour from their masters. And, in fact, exactly what skin colours were represented, and in what numbers, in the multi-cultural population of the Roman empire is something of puzzle. The second century AD emperor, Septimius Severus who came from modern Libya definitely wasn’t black (even though that’s sometimes asserted); but then he probably wasn’t as white as some of his marble busts make him seem either.

Ancient stories too suggest a very different set of assumptions about blackness and whiteness. There is marvellous episode which touches just this subject in the Aethiopica (Ethiopian Story), a novel by Heliodorus, a third-century AD Greek writer from Syria. Persinna, the black queen of Ethiopia, with a black husband, gave birth to a white daughter. How did she explain it? She had been looking at a picture of (white) Andromeda at the time of the girl’s conception.

But is it all quite so simple? Probably not. There’s a recent book by Ben Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, which claims to have identified if not racism, then at least “proto-racism” in the ancient world. Isaac insists (as do most serious analysts) that racism goes beyond casual xenophobia. It is a deterministic ideology, which sees some groups as unalterably inferior, thanks to natural or inherited characteristics. In modern society, the key natural characteristic has been skin colour.

Not so in the ancient world. But Isaac thinks he can identify something similarly deterministic (and so racist) in other, quite different, natural factors. For him, the ancients were not colour-prejudiced; instead they were geographical and environmental determinists. To over-simplify a bit, he charges the Greeks and Romans with being “proto-racists” in the sense that they believed that the characteristics which certain races derived from their (inferior) environment and from the climate in which they lived---the rain and fog of Northern Europe, for example -- were fixed and irreversibly inferior.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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