The Greeks called themselves 'Hellenes', and their land was 'Hellas'. The name 'Greece' comes from the Romans. Ancient Greece is called 'the birthplace of Western civilisation', and about 2500 years ago, the Greeks created a way of life that other nations admired and emulated. The Greeks had a profound influence on the Romans who copied Greek art and Greek gods, for example. The civilisation of the ancient Greeks has been immensely influential on language, politics, educational systems, philosophy, science, and the arts.

The Ancient Greeks lived in mainland Greece and the Greek islands, but also in what is now Turkey, and in many colonies scattered around the Mediterranean sea coast. 


Sailing the sea to trade and find new land, Greeks took their way of life to many other regions. Most people lived by farming, fishing, and trade whilst others became soldiers. Some studied and became scholars, scientists or artists. There were beautiful temples built everywhere with countless stone columns and numerous statues, they had open-air theatres where people would sit to watch and enjoy plays and poetry recitals. With most of the population living in villages or in small cities citizens often had land outside the city which provided their income.  But of course many Greeks especially those who lived off the land and sea were very poor. Life was hard because farmland, water and timber for building were all scarce.


The ships of Greece had sails, and were move along by the wind. Small trading ships usually stayed close to the shore, mainly so that the sailors didn't get lost straying into the open waters.  The country of Greece was divided into 'City States'. These states did not always get on very well together and fighting was common. The Greek warships had both oars as well as sails. The largest warships had three banks of oars and were called 'triremes'. A trireme needed 170 men to row it - one man to each oar. It had a long narrow deck that soldiers could run along and fight from. The oarsmen sat underneath the deck.  

A Minoan trireme among the exhibits of the 
ancient shipbuilding museum in Hania.

Before a voyage, the sailors prayed to the sea god Poseidon, for a safe journey. Triremes were the finest warships of their era. In addition to employment as fighting galleys, triremes also transported horses and men. As a horse transport, about 60 oarsmen occupied the upper bench while the rest of the vessel was filled with as many as 30 horses. As a troop transport, a trireme could carry a total of about 200, including the crewmen. Archaeologists have measured the remains of ship-sheds where Greek ships were built, to work out how big they were. A trireme was about 35 m/115 ft long. In a battle,  no sails were used and the mast was removed to increase the speed of the trireme. The triremes tried to get close to the enemy ships and if possible crash into them. A trireme was steered by long steering oars at the stern or back of the ship. The captain ordered the ship to steer straight at an enemy ship. Fixed to the front of the trireme was a sharp metal-covered point or ram. When the trireme struck the side of an enemy ship, the ram smashed a hole in the wooden planks. Water flooded in and the damaged ship either sank or had to be beached on the nearest shore. The trireme's soldiers sometimes jumped onto a damaged ship and captured it. 


Advances in Greek warship design were aimed at achieving the speed necessary for successful ramming without loss of stability. Impact theory indicates that unless the attacker reached the critical speed of about 10 knots at the moment of impact, it would crumple, while the target vessel escaped almost unscathed! Another common tactic was to brush along the sides of the opponent's ship and snap all of the oars off. Once the ship was disabled and floundering in the waves then the over ship could move in and finish its opponent.


The Greek landscape and climate was difficult to farm restricting what crops could be produced and also which animals they were able to keep. Only possibly twenty percent of the land was usable for growing crops. The main crops were barley, grapes, and olives.  Whilst olive trees and bees flourished in such conditions. Olives were either picked by hand or knocked out of the tress with wooden sticks. Some were crushed in a press to produce olive oil and some eaten. The olive was the most valuable tree in Greece. People ate the fruit, but also crushed olives to make olive oil. They used the oil for cooking, in oil lamps, and cosmetics. The bees honey which was the main sweetening agent in all food, and were kept in terracotta. The beeswax is flammable and a fibre core (wick) was embedded in a wax cylinder to absorb the melting wax, with the upper end of the wick in contact with air it burns with a steady flame. Beeswax leaves no residue after burning. The oil lamp was a shallow vessel holding both oil and wick, found in many European Paleolithic sites. But beeswax candles needed no pottery vessel, and early evidence of them is provided by tomb paintings from Egypt. A socketed candlestick for a cylindrical candle, from around 16000 B.C. was found at the Palace of Minos on Crete.


Grapes were usually picked around September and either kept for eating or made into wine. Making wine was done by treading and was kept in jars to ferment, although they could be eaten or dried into raisins. Any grain cultivated was usually harvest around October to ensure it would grow during the wettest season. A man drove the ox driven plough, as second man sowed the seeds behind. In Spring the Crops were harvested using curved knives (sickles). After harvesting the grain, was then thrashed, using mules and the help of the wind to separate the chaff from the grain, the husks were then removed by pounding the grain with a pestle and mortar. 

As forests were cut down for timber and fuel, soil erosion increased, leaving less fertile land.

Animal such as deer, hare and boars were hunted only as addition to the food supply and the rearing of domesticated animals. Hunting was considered a sport for the rich, but it was a serious business for the poor, who hoped to put extra food on their tables. Simple snares nets and slings were used to trap lizards, hares and to bring down small birds. Whilst the Greeks who lived near the rivers, lakes and sea provided fish and shellfish that were their main source of protein. There is clear evidence that the Greeks had a large amount of fish in their diets. The Greeks had no refrigeration systems, so the fish had to be eaten before the meat spoiled. The poorer Greeks could only afford, little fish, such as anchovies and sprats. The wealthy could afford tuna, sea bass, and red mullet. Eel was considered the greatest fish delicacy in ancient Greece. Fish was smoked or salted for future use. But these men were always at the mercy of storms and shipwrecks.


Homes were built of sun-dried mud bricks and roofed with clay pottery tiles. They had small high windows with wooden shutters to keep out the hot sun as well as thieves (Greeks called house-thieves 'wall-diggers' as mud-brick houses were easy to dig into!) and floors of beaten earth, plaster. The rich decorated the walls and floors of their homes with coloured tiles in patterns or mosaic pictures. Most started as small structures, and more rooms were added on as the owner could afford them. Mud houses crumbled away in a few years, and had to rebuild. In rural areas, houses were often surrounded by a stone wall to protect the inhabitants and their domestic animals. Men and women lived in separate rooms and in different areas often of the same house. Richer households would have rooms for cooking and bathing in. Rich Greeks had slaves - sometimes 50 slaves worked for a rich family. Slaves did the hard work, on the farm, in the fields and workshops and in the house too. There was not much furniture in most Greek homes. People sat on wooden chairs or stools, couches also doubled as beds, chairs and tables.  At home, a Greek man sat on the best chair, called a 'thronos' . His wife and children sat on small chairs and stools.

Beds had leather straps, on top of which was a mattress stuffed with wool, feathers or dry grass. Most people went to bed as soon as it got dark. The only light at night came from flickering oil lamps and candles.


Ancient Greek food was simple as well. Poor people mainly ate barley porridge flavoured with onions, vegetables, and cheese or olive oil, eggs, fruit and fish, Octopus was a favourite seafood. Few people ever ate meat regularly, except for the free distributions from animal sacrifices at state festivals.


Bakeries sold fresh bread (barley or wheat) daily, while small stands offered snacks. Culinary historians credit the Greeks for developing bread baking into an art. Proper front-loaded bread ovens originated in Ancient Greece. The Greeks created a wide variety loaf shapes and styles of serving bread with other foods. Baking developed as a trade and profession as bread increasingly was prepared outside of the family home by specially trained workers to be sold to the public.  By 300 AD, the Greeks had developed over seventy different kinds of bread. Right are the remains of a portable clay oven. The oven was conveniently light and compact and features two handles for easy transportation. The fire is fed with oxygen through the rectangular apertures of the base. The clay cover prevents the heat from being wasted in the atmosphere.


The Greeks also pioneered sweetbreads, fritters, puddings, cheesecakes, pastries, and even wedding cakes. Often prepared in symbolic shapes, these products were originally served during special occasions and ceremonies. Wine diluted with water was a favoured beverage.  Seasoning usually involved coriander and sesame seeds. The Greeks did not have any eating utensils, so they ate with their hands. Bread was often used to scoop out thick soups. Bread was also used as a napkin to clean hands. After being used as a napkin, the bread was then thrown on the floor for the dogs or slaves to clean up at a later time.


Men often gathered for dinner parties called 'symposiums'. Having guests in the house was a 'male-only' affair. Women of the house were not permitted to attend. After giving a  offering of wine to the gods, the men drank and talked about politics or morals. Often young girls and boys would be employed to entertain guests with music and dance whilst women called 'etera' sang, danced and played music for the guests. A favourite after-dinner game was 'kottabos'. People flicked spots of wine from their wine cups, trying to hit a target.


Breakfast might be bread dipped in wine, with fruit. Lunch might be bread and cheese.  For pudding people ate nuts, figs and cakes sweetened with honey. Rich people always ate at home, only slaves and poor people ate in public. Greek men and women ate separately and if you had slaves they carried in food and wine on small tables. A quote made by Socrates 469-399B.C. the wise philosopher of ancient Greece - Thou should eat to live; not live to eat. - still makes a lot of sense in today's societies around the world. 


At home, Greek women spent much of their time spinning thread and weaving cloth. They looked after the children and prepared food. Rich women went out only with a slave, perhaps to visit women friends. In Athens, only poor women went shopping alone. Rich women always went with a slave or a male companion. Poor women went out more. They worked alongside their husbands, fetched water, and did the family washing in a stream. They could chat with friends while they worked. 


Greek clothing was very simple and practical. In the winter ancient Greeks wore clothes made of wool, and in the summer they wore clothes made of linen. Clothes and fabric could be bought in the agora, the market place, but it was very expensive. Therefore, many Greeks made their own clothes at home. This was the job of the women, the mother, the daughters, and the female slaves. 


Clothing in ancient Greece was loose fitting, unlike the tight-fitting outfits worn by those people the Greeks considered barbarians. A Greek woman wore a long tunic, called a 'chiton', made from a piece of cotton or linen material. It reached the ankles, while the menís were shorter. For the common person, the colour of cloth was plain. Those with the financial resources had their clothing dyed in various colours. Over it, she wore a cloak, called a 'himation' - thin for summer, thick for winter, and draped from the shoulders.


Their cloaks could also be used as blankets, for example if they were off fighting a war. Young men wore short tunics, older men preferred long ones. Slaves often wore just a strip of cloth (a loincloth). Many people went barefoot. Some wore leather sandals or, for horse-riding, high boots. Men and women wore wide-brimmed hats, to shade their heads from the hot sun. We know Greeks liked jewellery, because jewels were buried with dead people in their tombs.  Masterpieces of exceptional workmanship have been found in Crete and other Aegean Islands where the Minoan Civilization prospered.


Hairstyles in ancient Greece also changed over time. In the early days of Greece, men normally wore their hair short and grew beards. During the Hellenistic era, beards went out of style. Long hair was typical for Greek women, only slaves would wear their hair short. Women curled and braided their hair in early Greece. Later the style was to tie their hair back or put it up into a bun. 


Makeup was also used, as rich women stayed indoors most of the day, pale skin was fashionable and a sign of prestige. Women applied white lead (which was toxic) to their faces to lighten their complexion. Chalk was also used to lighten their skin tone, but it wore off quickly. Connected eyebrows were also fashionable, so women decorated their eyes with dark powder made usually from mixing charcoal with a little olive oil. Red powder was also applied to their cheeks.


There were public baths, some with hot water, but most homes had no bathroom - people washed in small tubs or in the nearest stream. The rich would have slaves to carry their water and would enjoyed baths at home, and afterwards rubbed their bodies with perfumed oil to keep their skin soft. 

Ancient Greek public toilets were very public - as many as 30 people in a row, over a pit. Most Greek towns had no sewage system, and just latrines for bathrooms. According to Aristophanes, a lot of men just went in the street, wherever they happened to be. Because their sewage just drained into the nearest stream or river, the water in towns was not safe to drink. So the bigger Greek cities like Athens built public fountains, with the water piped in from out of town, where it was cleaner.


ancient toilets at Falasarna Western Crete

In the homes it is believed that all waste was kept in a lidded jar and the women or slaves would take out the waste and spread it on the fields as fertiliser. 


Many Greek parents wanted a boy, as a son would look after his parents in old age financially. Whilst most  daughters went away when she married, and had to take with her a dowry. This could be very expensive, especially if a family had lots of daughters. 

A father could decide whether or not the family kept a new baby. Unwanted or weak babies were sometimes left to die outdoors. Anyone finding an abandoned child could adopt it and take it home with them, more often than not to raise it as a slave. If a couple were rich, they might hire a poor neighbour or a slave to nurse any new born baby. 


At the ago of 3, children were given small jugs - a sign that babyhood was over. Boys went to school at the age of 7. Girls were taught at home by their mothers and learnt housework, cooking and skills such as weaving. A few girls learned to read and write, but many did not. School-teachers needed payment, so poor boys did not get much of an education. A wealthy family sent a slave to walk to school with their boys, and the slave would stay at school to keep an eye on them during lessons which included, reading, writing, arithmetic, music and poetry. They wrote on wooden tablets covered with soft wax, using a pointed stick called a 'stylus'. They also used an abacus, with beads strung on wires or wooden rods, this was to help them with maths.  Part of their lessons included learning stories and poems by heart. Most Greek schools had fewer than 20 boys, and classes were often held outdoors. Boys also did athletics, this enabled them to keep fit and prepare them for war as soldiers. They ran, jumped, wrestled and practiced throwing a spear and discus. They trained on sports grounds called a gymnasium. A favourite Minoan sport was bull-leaping. People did gymnastic vaults over the backs of fierce bulls as depicted in the main picture above taken from Knossos palace in Heraklion.


We know about some Greek toys from pictures on pottery vases and from artifacts found by archaeologists. Children played with small pottery figures, and dolls made of rags, wood, wax or clay - some dolls had moveable arms and legs. Other toys were rattles, hoops, yo-yos, and hobby horses (a 'pretend horse' made from a stick). Children played with balls made from tied-up rags or a blown-up pig's bladder, marbles, dice, backgammon 'Petteia' and knucklebone. The ankle-bones of sheep or goats made 'knucklebones' or five-stones. There are pictures of children with pets, such as dogs, geese and chickens.


Greek boys played games like hockey, which were not part of the Olympic Games. The Ancient Greek boys usually played games naked, so girls were forbidden to watch. Ancient Greek women and girls were not expected to do much physical activity for recreation purposes. 


Most girls were only 13-16 years old when they married. Often their fathers chose husbands for them. A girl's husband was often older, in his 30s. The day before she married, a girl sacrificed her toys to the goddess Artemis, to show she was grown-up. 

Most boys had to work hard. They worked as farmers, sailors, fishermen and craft workers - such as potters, builders, metalworkers and stone-carvers. Some clever boys went on study in larger cities where teachers gave classes to older students. Aristotle, who became a great scientist and thinker, went to Athens when he was 17 to study at the Academy, run by a famous teacher named Plato. 




 More Round the Island pages
: Beaches - Western Crete : Apokoronas : Hania Town : Kournas Lake : Aptera :
: Frangokastello : Gramvousa : Spinalonga : Monasteries
: Phaestos : Knossos:



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