While Greece was a confederation of city-states, it never reached the unified status of a nation – the rivalries and mistrust among the various city-states was too great. Daily life in ancient Greece revolved around a much smaller sphere than the entire peninsula of Greece, and political structures differed widely from one city-state to the next.
The fourth century BC is often called the “Golden Age” of ancient Greek culture. Sparta was a monarchy focused on maintaining the ultimate in military discipline – young boys were taken from home at an early age and trained in communal, all-male camps to fight as Spartan warriors. If you’ve seen the movie 300, then you have an idea of the principles behind the culture – glory in war as the ultimate virtue, a glorious death the best end of all. Athens, while in possession of a fine navy, strove to live as a democracy, using the voices of the governed to make policy.
Daily life in ancient Greece looked quite a bit different than it does today. While the city-state of Athens prided itself on its unique form of government – democracy – the form wouldn’t seem all that democratic to us. Only men could be citizens, and only wealthy males received an education. While much is made of the strength of women in Greek literature (note the strong queen Penelope in The Odyssey and the wily wrath of Clytemnestra in Agamemnon), they had few, if any, rights in the political arena, and they would never have entered the job market.
One in four ancient Greeks was a slave – a servant class that generally came from the hordes of prisoners brought home from the constant wars that Greek city-states fought with each other, or with foreign powers. These slaves did not just work around the dwellings of their owners; instead, they provided most of the labor in quarries, shipbuilding yards, and mines as well.
For the wealthy, life was relatively easy. No homes were lavish in size, but most had the luxury of a central courtyard. Most people spent their time outside. The Greeks also ate much differently than we do: breakfast and lunch just consisted of bread dipped in wine. For dinner, fish, fruit and vegetables were common fare; meat was not eaten except for meals celebrating religious holidays.
As with most agricultural societies, daily life in ancient Greece revolved in large part around the agricultural cycles of the seasons. The rocky Greek soil made farming fairly difficult; common products included grapes, olives and grain.
Grape harvest generally took place in the early fall, and the fruit was split into stores for eating and for conversion into wine, which involved stepping on the grapes and fermenting the juice.
Olives grew in trees, and harvesters either picked them by hand or used sticks to knock them down. Some were saved for eating, while others were saved to make olive oil – a vital product for Greeks that had applications for beauty products, lighting fuel, cooking, and even in the area of sports.
Grain harvest generally arrived about a month after the grape harvest, and took place behind a plow pulled by oxen. The grain would then go through the threshing process, to separate out the chaff.
As far as spices and sweeteners, the most common seasonings were sesame seeds and coriander, and honey was the most common table sweetener.
What about fun?
Life in ancient Greece wasn’t all hard work – even for the slaves. The boys in ancient Greece played a game somewhat like hockey, in addition to the contests that would become the Olympic Games. Indoor games included versions of what we know as dice, marbles and checkers, although Greek checkers were closer to what we call backgammon.