Birth in Ancient Greece is a dangerous affair for both mother and child. A woman in labour must rely on the help of close relatives, friends and the midwife. Within the privacy of the mother’s home the midwife uses a mix of herbs and olive oil to help sooth the pain and speed the delivery. Votive offerings are made to Artemis for the child and to Hera for the mother. Smaller superstitions are rife, such as removing all knots from the home lest they delay the birth, and burning the mother's clothes as a sacrifice to the gods. A successful birth is signalled by hanging a piece of wool over the door if it's a girl or an olive branch for a boy.


Education in Greece is given to children between the ages of four and fourteen. It is arranged privately with no provision from the polis and teachers are regarded as the lowest level of society. They are poorly paid but still only the richest can afford to hire them so most Greeks have no formal education.

Once hired, a teacher will give lessons in the home wherever space can be found and usually with the assistance of a household slave. Lessons are slow-paced and rely on rote learning to teach basic literacy and to commit poems and writings to memory. Once these are mastered, lessons then focus on teaching morality and civil behaviour. Mathematics, music and physical activity are taught where deemed necessary for a healthy mind and a moral outlook.

In recent years a new type of education is being pioneered by the sophist philosophers of Athens. The wealthiest pay them to take children into schools to be taught maths, geometry, architecture, philosophy and other intellectual subjects. This is controversial as it instils the children with a desire to ask questions of the world and develop new ideas of their own.


Skilled tradesmen take on apprentices, either funded by the family or the work the child itself produces. There is no formal process to apprenticeships but they last until the child comes of age.

A form of apprenticeship exists in the upper class of Athenian society which features a very close emotional bond between the teacher and the student. Instead of being taught a manual trade by a skilled worker, the child is taught how to be a "perfect Greek" by a mentor. The mentor is an unmarried aristocrat between twenty and twenty five, who takes on a charge aged between thirteen and seventeen. It is the mentor who approaches the family and must prove their abilities and trustworthiness before being allowed to teach the youngster. The mentor takes the charge into their home and becomes a trusted teacher. Lessons focus on striving to become an ideal Greek who is well-versed in logic, ethics and morality. Fitness and physical training are also considered essential, with the mentor becoming a coach in all aspects of life.

Social Strata

The Greeks pride themselves on being a meritocracy with the Olympic games held up as an example where anyone can enter and win, regardless of gender or background. The reality is somewhat less ideal but the basic principle remains. Regardless of gender or race people are judged and respected on their abilities. The exception to this is in social classes where there is a clear difference between the aristocracy, the citizens, the non-citizens and slaves.

The aristocracy are the monarchs and rulers of cities with a strong family history. If an upstart general or a commoner raises themselves to a position of power they would never be considered as part of the ruling class. However, their child, and certainly their grandchildren, will be assumed into the aristocracy if the family has managed to maintain its position of power.

Members of the aristocracy have access to great wealth and influence and, even in democratic cities, money talks. Though not immune to the law or above the anger of the mob, an aristocrat enjoys a huge amount of freedom.

Citizens of a polis are the property-owners and the middle class of Greek society. They are men and women who have land, own slaves and often run a business though they shy away from anything close to physical labour. In democracies each citizen has a vote, may acquire government positions and enjoys equal rights under the law. Though lacking the resources of the aristocracy, citizens can find security and influence by working with like-minded individuals.

Non-citizens are foreigners which means anyone from outside the city. They are barred from owning land and have no vote in democracies. In theory they are protected by the law as much as a citizen would be but in reality most non-citizens lack the resources to defend themselves. The process of becoming a full citizen varies from city to city but it involves the support of a current citizen and spending gold. Not all non-citizens seek to join the city. Some rich and powerful traders have found it useful to be independent of a city and beyond the normal political process.


Slavery is practised all over Greece and only the poorest citizens do not possess a domestic slave. Richer households, such as merchants and tradesmen, will own more and use them to support the business. The richest own hundreds of slaves and lease them out to work on farms and in mines and quarries.

Slavery is seen as natural and economically essential but the status of slaves is complex. Slaves are just as likely to be Greek as they are non-Greek and come from any level of society. The foolish, the unlucky and the criminal may all find themselves condemned to a life of slavery.

Making up the majority of the labour force, slaves are used for all sorts of work, from domestic labourers to clerks, city guards and soldiers. The highest status slaves are the eunuchs who are used by royal families as officers of state since they cannot breed and so pose no dynastic threat. Regardless of their work slaves are seen as the bottom of the social order. They are treated with disrespect by their supposed betters but are part of Greek society. They worship the same gods and those fated for fame and fortune receive no less adoration because of their humble birth. Greeks prize bravery and brilliance no matter where it comes from.

Sources of Slaves

People enter slavery through three routes: military defeat, piracy and bad debt. In the first case a polis loses a war and some of the population is enslaved and sold on. This practice is rarer now and regarded as morally wrong, but whole peoples have lived as slaves for centuries. The Helots were conquered by Sparta generations ago and until very recently were a slave race supporting the Spartan martial society.

Piracy is now the most common source of slaves, where pirates capture a ship and attempt to ransom whoever is aboard. Anyone who cannot afford the ransom is sold as a slave and markets exist throughout Greece and the Mediterranean to trade in them. Pirates do not discriminate in who they catch so many slaves in Greece are Greeks, but the slave trade brings in people from all over the world including Persians, Egyptians and Nubians.

Some Greeks end up as slaves because they could not repay a debt. The creditor can seize the debtor and sell them as a slave to recover the money. A court may also condemn someone to slavery when exile or death is seen as too lenient or too extreme.

Life As A Slave

The conditions of a Greek slave depend on their employer and work. Slaves in mines face the most brutal conditions and always die young. Domestic slaves are treated as a part of the family, worshipping with them and taking part in their rituals and special occasions. Those of the highest status, serving as public officials or guards, can expect to lives as rich and full as many citizens.

Slaves are still property so while they can marry and have children, the family is also the property of the owner and can be sold as they see fit. Slaves can be freed by buying their freedom, especially those enslaved by creditors. In some cases masters let slaves work on their own account to earn money. This ensures a better-motivated and harder-working slave. A slave can buy their freedom from their master in a public ceremony of manumission where the slave is emancipated. This is known as being "sold to the gods".


The houses of the poor are modest and small affairs, made of sun-baked bricks on a hard stone foundation. The blank, flimsy outer walls face directly on to the street, serving little purpose other than holding up the roof. With floors of beaten dirt and high small unglazed windows, it is rare that the house is more than a single storey, though the tiled roof gives the houses a high ceiling.

Middle class houses are larger, having multiple rooms and sometimes a second storey. They are built around a central well and courtyard with all rooms leading off this space. The two largest rooms are the andron where the guests are entertained and the loom-room where the household work takes place. The rest of the house is small bedrooms and storerooms. If the house also contains a shop there is a separate entrance to the street.

The houses of the rich are much larger and well-appointed. They can be large enough for a cloister around the courtyard plus private bathrooms and a gymnasium. The rooms are airy and spacious and the stone or wooden floors are detailed mosaic decorations. Tapestries and statues decorate the interior walls.


Ancient Greek furniture is sparsely used and limited to tables, chests for storage and seating in the form of chairs, stools and couches. A bed is at best a couch with several thick woollen blankets on it. Cooking is done over an open fire using metal or ceramic pots. The poorest houses have little if any furniture, and most of life takes place out of doors with the house serving as little more than a sleeping shelter.


A typical Greek eats three to four meals a day with a breakfast of bread, wine and olives; a light lunch around midday; and a larger supper at nightfall. Occasionally a second lunch is eaten in the late afternoon. There is no fork, only a knife, and food is eaten off either terracotta bowls or loaves of flat bread.

The food itself varies widely based on location and wealth but is always underpinned by wheat, wine and olive oil. Fruits and vegetables are common yet difficult to get fresh in the cities. Fish is ubiquitous around the coast and salted for sale inland. The eating of meat is rare since fresh meat is expensive in the cities and the playwright Aristophanes recalled paying three days wages (three silver drachma) for a single piglet. Fresh meat must also be eaten with the correct religious observances, with the fat and bones being burnt as a sacrifice to the gods. Meat is often reserved for important occasions and religious feasts. Cooked or dried meats do not require this ceremony and so are more commonly eaten. The drinking of milk, both cow and goat, is a barbaric practice and instead milk is used to make cheeses. However, animal blood is a common drink.

Spices and salt are very expensive, being brought to Greece over great distances from all around the world. The only source of sweetness is honey which is a prized luxury so bee hives are valuable.


The most common drink is water, especially clean spring water which is highly valued. In the cities, public fountains fed by aqueducts and leats are the common source of clean water.

Greeks are very fond of their wine and use it for a range of purposes. Greek wine is very strong and drinking it neat is considered barbaric. The worst wines are cheap enough for any but the very poorest. The best wines are kept for recreational and religious purposes. Both whites and reds are available, with the best produced on the islands of Lesbos, Thasos and Chios. These fetch a high price and are highly desirable everywhere in the civilised world. Wine often plays an important part in religious ceremonies.

Wine is also drunk for its medicinal qualities. Examples include wine from Arcadia, said to make men amorous and women fertile, and Achaean wine is thought to induce miscarriages. A common drink amongst the poor is kykeon, a barley gruel with herbs, wine and sometimes with added honey or grated cheese. It is drunk for its sustaining properties and used as a part of an army's rations thanks to its low cost.

Dinner Parties

Dinner parties, called symposia, are a key part of Greek high society and regular events in the houses of the rich. Attending a symposium is regarded as the highest act of civility and conduct there defines how civilised and Greek a person is. This has given rise to intricate rules of etiquette and formality.

Guests arrive wearing garlands of flowers and are admitted to the reception room which is decorated with blossom, vines and ivy. Reclining couches are arranged along the walls, along with chairs and tables holding the wine and food. Wine is served by the host in rounds and the order of serving indicates favour and perceived status, which can change dramatically over the evening. The wine itself is served only in shallow and wide bowls which the guests are expected to drink from whilst reclined, one-handed and without spilling a drop. Failure to do so gracefully is seen as uncouth and bad etiquette. Food is not served as a meal, but picked at over the course of the evening.

The guests are expected to entertain one another with the highest conversation or prepared speeches on a wide range of topics. Failure to meet a high standard of conversation can see one's social standing fall overnight. Poems and songs are recited, either composed by the guests or well-known popular verse. The well-off host pays for a comedian or for some children to dance, sing and perform gymnastic tricks. As the evening wears on, games amongst the guests become popular. One favourite is kottabos where the dregs of wine in the bottom of a bowl are flicked at a target. Guests are judged as much on the grace of their action as their aim.


Greek high society sees work as a dirty business and while they understand the worth of crafts and industry to a polis, they do not value work for its own sake. Instead, it is seen as a drudgery that is best avoided and prefer to do something that brings either glory or simple enjoyment. After all, time spent indoors working on crafts is time which could be spent honing the mind or body. In the worst case, being stuck working can leave someone with no free time to visit friends resulting in uncivilised social skills and bad political sense. This attitude filters down and many Greeks view having to work as an infringement of their liberties and liable to distract them from a true Greek's obligation to improve themselves.

Aristocrats and elite citizens never work, instead drawing their income from owning businesses and land. Poorer free citizens do work but restrict themselves to being merchants or skilled craftsmen. This work is carried out at home, either in the main room or a dedicated outbuilding. There are few larger workshops, dedicated to projects that require a team of workers. Skilled workers can expect to earn one drachma a day, enough to feed a family and to buy the occasional luxury. With so few citizens being willing to work, the majority of the unskilled labour force comes from slaves.

Sickness & Health

Effective medical knowledge is almost unknown in the Hellenic world. Theories about humours and blood letting do little to improve a patient's survival chances. Surgery in Ancient Greece is basic and brutal. A few surgeons have the finesse to remove a cataract but most are just butchers. An average surgeon can close a wound, stitch a deep cut or stop bleeding with a bandage but it is just primitive first aid.

Each Greek village has a healer though their level of expertise will vary wildly from place to place. In the larger towns and cities there may be a doctor, i.e. someone who has taken the Hippocratic Oath. While doctors claim to be scientific they lack any understanding of how the human body works and frequently give out bizarre prescriptions such taking a mud bath or finding a dog to lick their wounds

Recovery from illness or injury is, like all things in the Greek world, in the hands of the gods. The followers of Asclepius whose temples are centres of healing follow a few basic medical practices (e.g. cleanliness) offer the desperate some hope. Only the gods have true healing power and it may be granted to those who pray and make suitable sacrifices but it is hubris for any mortal to expect it. On a whim, the gods may cure a foreign slave while letting the devout monarch die.


The Greeks believe in a pantheon of dozens of powerful gods and hundreds of smaller divine beings. A few radical philosophers question the gods' existence or a mortal's need for them, but to everyone else they are real beings to be loved and feared in equal measure.

Worship is focused at the temple complexes and the large altars they contain. Despite the beautiful buildings to house the exquisite carved altars and statues, most of the ceremonies are performed outside on the temple steps. Only a temple's priests and priestesses may enter the central chamber containing the god’s statue. From a patio at the top of the temple stairs the clergy lead the prayers and songs of worship which are always offered with a sacrifice.

Worship in the home is with simple votive offerings to small statuettes of the gods most often associated with the home and family life: Hestia, Hephaestus, Hera and Hecate. These offerings are personal and, while forming a key part of daily life, are generally kept private within families.

Special occasions are marked by animal sacrifice with larger or more important occasions demanding larger, more expensive sacrifices. For a god's blessing on a banquet or special dinner, offal is burnt in a brazier. To request the god's favour on an army marching to war, one or more prize animals will be slaughtered on the temple steps and burnt at the altar. The expense of animal sacrifice makes it the purvey of the rich, with the poor making do with offerings of simple foods and wine.

Priests & Priestesses

Mortal religions reserves certain roles and rites for particular sexes. All priests of Zeus, and the High Priest of Apollo, are always male while the Oracle of Delphi is always female. Only women can be priests of Hera or Demeter and their deeper rituals, known as the Elusian Mysteries, cannot be witnessed by men.

None of these restrictions apply to champions. On Olympus there are eight gods and seven goddesses and they choose their champions as they see fit for their own purposes. The opinions of mortals on matters of gender and race mean nothing to the gods.


The layout of Greek temples follows a standard pattern. The exterior is formed by one or two rows of columns that support the bulk of the roof structure. Inside, a series of walls separate the interior into rooms. The naos is the core of the temple, which in smaller sites contains the divine statue. In larger and more important temples, the statue is kept in a separate adyton or shrine, where no-one, not even the priests, is allowed. The rest of the building is divided up into the pronaos (the entrance way), the opisthodomos (storage room), peristatis (the space between the columns and walls) and the pteron (anywhere outside the columns but still under the roof).

The solid base of the temple is at least one storey above ground level with the more important temples being up to three storeys high. This ensures a significant flight of stairs at the temple's front - a prominent place for the clergy to perform their public rites. The heavy stone temple base extends to at least half a storey below ground level. On this solid foundation temples as high as twenty metres can be built.

Temples are painted in bright blues and rich reds that work with the white stone to create an impressive artistic effect. Important and richer temples have carvings and reliefs on all the available stone work, with lots of sculpture adorning the edges and surrounds. Some sanctuaries charge an admission fee to support the cost of the temples while others enjoy the patronage of a wealthy sponsor.


The Ancient Greeks are not ones for conformity, and their forms of worship are no different. It is common for a Greek to join a cult that worships a particular aspect or story of a god. For example, Cretan worshippers of Zeus tend to focus on an image of him before he became King of the Gods, celebrating the potential of youth. Cults are not exclusive, allowing worshippers to choose the cult and ritual that best suits their divine needs.

Several of the gods have a polis with which they are associated. Each city has a large temple complex dedicated to their patron which houses important shrines and the clergy of more popular cults. Exclusivity is not practised but a patron god expects their polis to turn to them first.

Other Religions & Atheism

Greece is a cosmopolitan place, at least in the major port cities like Athens. Jews, Zoroastrians and worshippers of many other religions live at peace with their Greek neighbours. Their existence is tolerated though their power and influence are limited by laws and prejudice.

The existence of the gods is self-evident, but there are still those who reject them. These may be inquiring philosophers or those whose prayers are not answered. Other accept the gods' existence but reject their worship and espouse a belief that it is human endeavour which is important. Atheists walk a dangerous path and find themselves hunted by agents of the more conservative gods. Atheists are also blamed by their fellow mortals when a god's displeasure is manifested in the form of a natural disaster.


Mark Foster, 2013/10/14 19:53

chopped together from existing text. To do:

Put in birth rites etc reorder in order of life consider breaking up into three seperate sections does slavery belong in here or somewhere else?

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