The Athenian ‘Polis’: Cultural, Material, and Political Life

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

by Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

The Athenian polis was among the most important of the 1,000 or so independent city-states. But what was life like for the average Athenian in the polis? Well, it would have depended on their gender and social class.

A view of the Acropolis of Athens at sunset.
The Athenian polis achieved great cultural heights due to its belief in the equality of men. (Image: Sven Hansche/Shutterstock)

Gender and Sexuality in the Polis

Greek men appear to have been deeply misogynistic. Not just in the Athenian polis, but in Greek society, a freeborn, respectable woman’s place was firmly inside the house. They received little, if any, formal education, had no political or legal identity, and could not leave the house unattended.

This brings us to sexuality. The desire of most Greek husbands was to have male offspring—preferably lots of them—and it was the wife’s duty to oblige. Greek men would have regarded extramarital relationships as their birthright, while strenuously denying that right to their wife. One of their biggest fears would have been that their wife would produce illegitimate children, thereby vitiating their line of descent.

Aristocratic Athenians might even have regarded homosexuality as a superior form of relationship to any that could exist between a man and a woman. Perhaps because it would often have provided the basis for a mentoring relationship between an older and a younger man.

They would not, however, have regarded homosexuality as a permanent orientation, but as a passing phase in a person’s life. They probably despised men who committed themselves exclusively to homosexual acts. Certainly, such people are treated with utter contempt in the Greek comic plays of Aristophanes.

Close-up of the decorations on an ancient Greek pot, showing two naked and bearded Greek wrestlers fighting and being watched by a clothed umpire.
It was usual for athletes in ancient Greece, like the two wrestlers depicted on this jar, to compete naked in a contest. (Image: Kleophrades Painter/CC0 1.0/Public domain)

Men in the polis wouldn’t have thought twice about appearing naked before other men either when they were training in the gymnasium or when they were competing in athletic contests. In fact, they would have taken great pride in their lack of inhibition.

But they were not comfortable with female nakedness—they even had reservations about women displaying their faces or limbs in public. So, when their wife or their daughter went out, they’d expect them to be veiled and fully clothed down to the ankles. Similarly,  while they had no objection to sculptural depictions of naked men in sanctuaries and cemeteries, they would have been outraged by depictions of naked women.

Learn more about Delphi and Olympia.

The Diet of the Athenians

The common people rarely ate meat. When they did eat meat, they usually ate pigs, sheep, goats, and chicken. Oxen were a rarity. It’s been estimated that cereals provided 70 percent of their daily diet. They spread cheese, honey, and olive oil on their bread. Olive oil was also their main cooking fat.

They enjoyed fish when they could get their hands on it. They ate it either fresh or preserved, ideally smothered in a fermented fish sauce. They also consumed a variety of nuts and vegetables, including cabbage, asparagus, lettuces, radishes, and onions. If they were poor, they probably did a lot of foraging for food. They used silphium (now extinct, but thought to have been a kind of fennel), sage, and rosemary as condiments.

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

Material and Cultural Life in Athens

It wasn’t just the diet that was pretty basic. The people had a limited appreciation of the comforts of life, and a limited use for wealth. They might have acquired some decorated pottery if they had a few drachmas to spare, silverware if they had a few more, and a horse if they had money to burn. But they certainly weren’t materialistic.

When the Athenian polis made a spectacular silver strike in the 480s, the people voted to spend the money in acquiring a fleet, and when, thanks to that fleet, they acquired an empire, they voted to use the proceeds to sponsor one of the most ambitious building projects the world had ever seen: the extraordinary buildings that grace the Acropolis—the Parthenon, the Propylaea, and the Erechtheum.

Picture showing four white marble statues, depicting women, forming the pillars of one edge of an ancient Greek building.
One edge of the Erechtheum in the Acropolis, with pillars in the shape of women. The Erechtheum is one example of the accomplishments of the Athenians in architecture. (Image: Chr. Offenberg/Shutterstock)

The Athenian polis—and others—produced one of the most sophisticated societies the world has ever known, not only in architecture but also in philosophy, literature, art, and science.

Learn more about Greece and the western world.

Athenian Participatory Democracy

One of the main reasons why they achieved all they did was because they put their faith in the common man. The Athenian polis expressed its faith in the common man partly through its system of government. We call that system of government full or participatory democracy. The Athenians didn’t elect officials to represent their interests as we do. Instead, each man represented himself directly. Each man could speak in the popular assembly.

When they needed to confine things to only a group of citizens, such as the Council of 500 which set the agenda for the Assembly, they did so by lot.

The Athenians believed that socioeconomic status, background, education, et cetera, were irrelevant. What mattered was that they were Athenian. The only thing not every Athenian could do was to serve as a general, stratêgos, since that obviously required experience and expertise. So, the Athenians elected their board of 10 generals by popular vote.

Identity in the Athenian Polis

All Athenians were enrolled in one of the 142 demes or townships scattered throughout Attica. A deme was very much like a miniature city-state. It had its own treasury and its own festivals, and they would be expected to participate in these local festivals, just as they would be expected to participate in the great state festivals.

They would also be enrolled in one of the 10 tribes. Tribal membership was the basis of all administrative arrangements. They served in the military on a tribal basis. And when they attended the theater to see the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, or the comedies of Aristophanes, they sat alongside other members of their tribe in the Theater of Dionysus, in 10 wedges precisely divided up for that purpose.

They would have spent their public life as members of a group and of various subgroups. This meant they could never forget that they were Athenian for one second—it was an all-enveloping identity.

Common Questions About the Athenian Polis

Q. What was the status of women in the Athenian polis?

Athenian women, as in other Greek city-states of the time, had no legal rights. Women were expected to stay in the house, and could not step out unaccompanied.

Q. What was the attitude of aristocratic Athenians to homosexuality?

For aristocratic male Athenians, homosexuality was seen as normal, but was also regarded as a temporary sexual orientation; a necessary part of a mentorship experience among men. Athenian men who were homosexual all their lives were the target of ridicule.

Q. How were the Athenians able to build grand monuments?

The Athenians used silver to build a grand fleet. Using the fleet, they soon had a great empire. The Athenians used the money they got from the empire to build the extraordinary buildings that grace the Acropolis—the Parthenon, the Propylaea, and the Erechtheum.

Q. How was Athenian democracy different from modern democracy?

Athenian democracy was participatory, not representative. This means that the people did not elect representatives to talk for them, but themselves participated in making laws.

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