Since the ancient Greeks felt that life was much too valuable to be spent working, they had many sources of relaxation and entertainment. So what activities did an ancient Greek indulge in for relaxation? And did the men and women have equal opportunities to socialize and relax?
Ancient Greece saw people leading very relaxed lives. Most of the people were wealthy enough to not have to work for a living. When they were not dealing with a crisis, such as war, famine, illness, or bereavement—and those, of course, were all too frequent—even fairly poor Greeks led more relaxed lives than most do today.
Symposia in Ancient Greece
A symposium was basically a drinking party. It was held in a private home in a semi-formal setting. The wealthy men used to get together to drink for pleasure and engage in physically or intellectually stimulating activities.
Symposia could take a variety of forms, depending on the temperament, age, social class, proclivities, and mood of the guests. A symposium could range from being one where there were highly cultivated discussions to one where the drink overflowed and the guests indulged in sexual intercourse.
However, the awareness and pride of being a citizen weighed heavily on the guests’ minds and checked the worst excesses of an unregulated drinking culture. In addition, every symposium began and ended with prayers to the gods, particularly to Dionysus, the giver of wine, and to the Agathos Daimon, the good demon or spirit.
Another important point to note is that the symposium was a vehicle by which culture was transmitted. Politics also featured at the symposium. In fact, many of the songs that the drinkers sang were politically inspired.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Clubs in Ancient Greece
Another way to relax was by going to a club. Clubs became particularly important in the Hellenistic era, that is to say in the period following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. They usually had a religious dimension—many of them were organized around the cult of a specific deity. These clubs were especially favored by foreigners.
Clubs were particularly numerous in trading centers like the Piraeus (the port of Athens), on the island of Delos, and on the island of Rhodes, largely because they served to facilitate commercial ties between their members.
Many of them functioned, too, as burial societies. Once a person was officially enrolled and so long as he continued paying his dues, he was guaranteed not only a decent burial but also periodic deliveries of food and drink at his tomb.
At the club, one could socialize, do business deals, arrange marriage contracts, gossip, enjoy a good meal, and relax. Clubs also enabled citizens and foreigners, Greeks and non-Greeks, and even slaves and free men to come into contact with one another on a somewhat equal footing.
Athletic Contests in Ancient Greece
Athletic contests were a very important part of Greek culture. The most important athletic contests were attached to the four great Panhellenic (all-Greek) festivals that were held in southern central Greece and the northern Peloponnese.
The four in question were the Olympic Games, held in honor of Zeus at Olympia; the Pythian Games, held in honor of Apollo at Delphi; the Isthmian Games, held in honor of Poseidon at Corinth; and the Nemean Games, also held in honor of Zeus at Nemea.
One of these festivals took place every year, which meant that athletes and spectators always had something to look forward to. The events included the foot race, boxing, wrestling, pankration (a combination of boxing, wrestling, and judo), hoplitodromos (a race in hoplite or heavy armour), pentathlon, horse racing, and chariot racing. The athletes competed naked—or at least that is how they appear on Greek vases—although scholars have sometimes doubted if that was really the case.
At the games, one could also attend musical contests, including flute-playing, lyre-playing, singing, tragedy, comedy, and satyric drama, and competitions in the composition and recitation of epic verse. The games were the high point of the Greek calendar. They took precedence over everything else that was happening in Greece. If a war was in progress, it had to be suspended. On the way to and from the games, one was under the protection of the gods and guaranteed safe-conduct, even when passing through enemy territory.
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Theater in Ancient Greece
People in ancient Greece loved attending the theater. At first, they could only see productions in Athens and its demes, but by the Hellenistic period, theaters were being established throughout the Greek world. Productions were state-sponsored and, initially, plays were performed only once, although gradually revivals became commonplace.
The most prestigious theater festival was the City Dionysia held in Athens, at which both tragedies and comedies were performed in the theater of Dionysus on the southern slope of the Acropolis. People sat in a section or wedge of the theater that was reserved exclusively for members of a particular tribe. So this was yet another way in which relaxation took on a civic flavor.
Relaxation Opportunities for Women in
In ancient Greece, there were many more opportunities for men to relax than there were for women. A well-bred woman used to spend most of her time cooped up in the home. She would never be seen in public unless she was chaperoned. She was not allowed to attend the symposium. She was not permitted to attend the games because Greek athletes participated naked. There is no information available about whether she was even permitted to attend the theater.
The limited ways in which women could relax is one of the clearest indicators of their confined status in the Greek world. There were generally only three activities that a woman could indulge in: she could occasionally host or visit her female friends; she could participate in religious festivals, those that were open to both men and women and those that were exclusive to women (so long as she was accompanied out of the house at all times); and finally, she could enjoy the company of her husband once he returned home, either at lunch or late at night.
To conclude, it is clear that in ancient Greece, relaxation had many of the aspects of work, and conversely, work had many of the aspects of relaxation, since both, to a large degree, were forms of civic expression.
Learn more about women in ancient Greece.
Common Questions about Sources of Relaxation and Entertainment in Ancient Greece
A symposium was a drinking party. It was held in a private home in a semi-formal setting.
The most important athletic contests in ancient Greece were the following: the Olympic Games, held in honor of Zeus at Olympia; the Pythian Games, held in honor of Apollo at Delphi; the Isthmian Games, held in honor of Poseidon at Corinth; and the Nemean Games, also held in honor of Zeus at Nemea.
Ancient Greeks performed both tragedies and comedies. The most prestigious theater festival was performed in the theater of Dionysus on the southern slope of the Acropolis.
No, the women were not allowed to watch any athletic games in ancient Greece.