Ancient Greece: Relaxing Style of Life in Athens

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Greeks led a relaxed life in ancient times. They were not burdened by the Protestant work ethic as they felt that life was much too valuable to be spent working. So how exactly did a person spend a typical day in ancient Athens?

A painting of the Acropolis in Athens.
Ancient Athenians led a relaxed life, spending much of their time at the Agora.
The Agora was located in the heart of Athens, to the north of the Acropolis.
(Image: Leo von Klenze/Public domain)

People in Ancient Athens

The people in ancient Athens were generally wealthy enough to not have to work for a living, and most had one or more slaves. This was probably the condition of the majority of Athenians. This was so because the Athenians received tributes from their allied communities. These communities paid tributes—called phoros in Greek—to pay for the protection that Athens provided against the Persians. The literal meaning of phoros is ‘the thing brought’. However, the tributes were used to pay for a lot of other things as well as protection. Hardly surprisingly, the Athenians were able to spend most of their day relaxing.

However, even when they were relaxing, they never forgot the fact that they were citizens who belonged to a specific city-state. Citizenship, and the pride that people took in it, defined them as a person, whatever they happened to be doing.

A typical Athenian usually rose before dawn and, assuming he lived in Athens or its environs, he took a leisurely stroll down to the Agora. The Agora was located in the heart of the city, directly to the north of the Acropolis. The men usually had a slave accompany them—to carry anything they might want to buy in the market and to keep them company.

Learn more about being Greek.

The Greek Institution—the Agora

The Agora was a peculiarly Greek institution, located in the heart of the city. In physical terms, it was simply a level, open space, although over time buildings grew up around it on all four sides. It was the civic, legal, religious, and commercial heart of Athens. It was also considered Athens’ social hub. All manner of business was conducted there, both official and unofficial.

The image shows the ruins of the Agora in Athens.
The Agora in ancient Athens was a civic, legal, religious, and social hub. (Image: Dorient/Public domain)

The Agora was a place, quite simply, to hang out. In fact, there was a Greek word for this—agorazein—the best translation of which is ‘to hang out in the Agora’. Close to the centre of the Agora was the Monument of the Eponymous Heroes. The 10 Eponymous heroes were the heroes who gave their names to the 10 Athenian tribes among which the citizen body was distributed. On this monument, notices were attached to the boards underneath the statues. There were notices giving the agenda of the next meeting of the Assembly, notices with details about forthcoming lawsuits, and also notices with the names of the tribes that had been called up for military service. After reading the notices, men generally stuck around and joined in one of the many heated conversations.

In addition, there was a spot at the Agora where the philosophers habitually touted their ideas. While today people might not think of philosophy as a leisure activity, the Greeks definitely considered it so, and they put a very high premium on it. In fact, the Agora was the place where Socrates did most of his teaching. Later, it was used by Stoics or ‘men of the Stoa’. The Stoics took their name from the fact that they used to gather in the so-called Painted Stoa, one of the many colonnaded buildings in the Agora. Stoas were ideal places to hang out because they provided shelter from the elements. Bankers and businessmen also set their tables up inside the Stoas.

The image shows a statue of the famous Greek philosopher, Socrates.
Socrates, the famous ancient Greek philosopher, frequently visited the Agora in Athens and discussed philosophy with others. (Image: Anastasios71/Shutterstock)

There was also a section in the Agora where people used to set up stalls and make sales. Purchases were made by the visiting Athenians and then slaves were dispatched, carrying those purchases home.

The Agora was one of those spaces where all sorts of different people hung out. If someone happened to be a Greek from another city, say from Plataea or Argos, he would hang out with other Plataean and Argives, at the particular spot that they frequented.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Gymnasia in Ancient Athens

After spending the early morning at the Agora, the Athenian men used to idly saunter over to one of Athens’ many gymnasia. A ‘gymnasium’ means a place of nakedness. It was a kind of leisure center, rather like the Roman baths. It typically included a wrestling ground, a running track, and a bath. Many gymnasia also possessed a lecture room. So someone could get educated there as well as get fit.

The two most famous gymnasia in Athens in the 4th century B.C. were the Academy, the home of Platonic philosophy, and the Lyceum, the home of Aristotelian philosophy. Largely, it was the Ephebes who patronized the gymnasia; the word ‘Ephebe’ means ‘young men on the verge of manhood’. However, there were a lot of elderly Greeks who liked to keep in shape and hobnob with the young, and they also went to the gymnasia.

After spending time at the gymnasium, the men went home for lunch and to see the wife and kids. Then, if they did not have any business to attend to, they usually took a lengthy siesta. However, if they were feeling a bit more energetic, they used to go hunting or watch some cockfighting.

Learn more about the slaves in ancient Greece.

The Custom of the Symposium

The image shows a decorated krater with two handles.
During a symposium, the wine was mixed with water in a kratêr before being served to the guests. (Image: Olemac/Shutterstock)

Thus, the days for the Athenian men were very filling: they socialized, nourished their minds, and attended to their bodies. As evenings approached, they then used to go down to the local taverns for drinks. Taverns were certainly plentiful in the Greek world, but they were primarily patronized by the down and out. The more influential and richer men preferred to drink either at home or at the home of one of their friends in a semi-formal setting, known as the symposium or drinking party. Symposium literally means ‘a drinking together’.

The Greek writer Plutarch described a symposium as “a passing of time over wine, which, guided by gracious behavior, ends in friendship”. There is a lot of literary and pictorial evidence that tells about what used to happen at symposia. It was the setting for numerous scenes depicted on luxury pottery items that were used at such gatherings.

Common Questions about Ancient Greece and the Relaxing Style of Life in Athens

Q: What was the Agora in ancient Athens?

The Agora was a peculiarly Greek institution, located in the heart of the city. It was simply a level, open space used for hanging out.

Q: What was the Agora used for in ancient Athens?

The Agora in ancient Athens was used for various activities: civic, legal, religious, and commercial. Both official and unofficial businesses were conducted there.

Q: What does the Greek word ‘gymnasium’ mean?

A ‘gymnasium’ means a place of nakedness. It used to be a kind of leisure center in ancient Athens, rather like the Roman baths.

Q: What was a symposium in ancient Athens?

A symposium used to be a drinking party in ancient Athens. Symposium literally means ‘a drinking together’.

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