If you bring up the time in which ancient Greek civilization dominated the Eastern Mediterranean, roughly between the sixth and third centuries BC, an individual would have a pretty clear view of that period.
This view will undoubtedly involve the Acropolis of Athens and the Parthenon standing atop it. It might include the great temples the Greeks built at Delphi, Olympus, and many other sites in Greece, Macedonia, Thrace, Asia Minor, or the hundreds of islands stretching from Cyprus westwards to Sicily that were dominated by Greek culture.
But this view of ancient Greece is a mirage, which tells us very little about how and where ordinary Greeks lived. It is the equivalent of thinking that the Empire State Building in New York City or the Burj Khalifa in Dubai represents life in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries.
So if the buildings we commonly associate with ancient Greece were out of the ordinary, what exactly were ordinary houses like at this time?
Regional Variations on an Ordinary Greek’s Home
Firstly, it should be noted that a remarkable number of variables were involved in house-building across the ancient Greek world. Perhaps the most famous example of this involved the city-state of Sparta, where the polis’s citizens, the Spartiates, largely lived in giant army barracks, their homes consisting of little more than large tents.
Later in Ptolemaic Egypt, after it was subsumed into the empire of Alexander the Great and came to be ruled by one of his great generals, Ptolemy I, homes were built using vernacular methods. These involved the use of mud and papyrus reeds to construct the walls.
Other communities favored using cave complexes as their housing, such as in ancient times among the people of Matala on the island of Crete and amongst the Lycians of Asia Minor.
And even within regions where housing was more standard, there was considerable variation between the rich and the poor, as in all societies.
The Greek Model – Housing in Athens
For our standard example of a Greek house, let’s take the city-state of Athens during its peak between the sixth and fourth centuries BC.
Hundreds of thousands of people lived in Athens at the height of its economic and political power in the mid-fifth century BC. These lived in small housing units, most of which would have consisted of less than half a dozen rooms.
At the center of these was a courtyard, which was shaded to allow people to enjoy a reprieve from the heat in an age before air-conditioning.
Windows would have been few to keep out the heat, and the walls were painted or built-in ways that repelled the heat and kept temperatures bearable during the summer months.
The rooms built around the courtyard were multi-purpose. Some could have been used for working in the mornings and then converted into venues for entertaining visitors during the evening.
Cooking, too, might have been carried out in a room early in the day and later be turned into a sewing room used for sewing. So the idea of rooms for distinct activities, such as we divide houses into today, was not as rigid in ancient times.
For some scholars, there was no such thing as a room delineated as a ‘kitchen.’ Bedrooms would typically have been upstairs, but in many cities and districts, the bedroom might also have been used for other activities during the day.
It is generally understood that the ancient Greeks divided their homes into the andron and the gynaikon. The former was a space for the men of the house and their visitors. The latter was the female members of the oikos or household.
These gender-assigned rooms might have been divided by the courtyard or by one lying upstairs and the other downstairs. They would use a hearth in the house to cook or provide additional heat during the colder parts of winter.
Life was dominated by the seasons in an age before electricity. People rose at dawn or shortly afterward when the rising sun brought light and tended to go to bed shortly after nightfall.
Artificial light, supplied by candles and oil lamps, was available during the darker winter months but was expensive and had to be used sparingly by the poor.
Access to Utilities
The rigors of daily life would have been incredibly time-consuming for men and women in the average household in Athens, Thebes, Corinth, or the many other cities of their kind throughout the Hellenistic world in ancient times.
The average home did not have a bathroom or toilet. Instead, one went to a public bathroom or in a pot of some kind which was later emptied out.
Equally, homes did not generally have direct access to running water. However, from the seventh or sixth centuries BC onwards, fresh water was delivered into cities like Athens using aqueducts and pipe systems.
This was necessary for cities like Athens, whose population reached the hundreds of thousands by the height of the classical period.
Nevertheless, there is no way for modern humans in the western world to fully appreciate how labor-intensive it is to acquire water from public fountains and carry it back home multiple times per day.
This water then had to be used to do all manner of tasks manually, which today we achieve with a few clicks of a button, from cleaning clothes and dishes to watering down wine and attempting to bathe, often with little more than a bucket of water and a sponge.
Of course, this indication that modern utilities such as bathroom facilities and running water were entirely lacking from Greek homes in ancient times begs the question of what else a person would have had to make do without two and a half millennia ago.
The answer is quite a lot. Furniture would have been sparse. Reed or straw mats would have covered the floors instead of carpet or tiles. Tables and chairs would have been laid out for dining on and relaxing, though the rooms where guests were entertained would have been more likely to be furnished with lengthy benches rather than individual chairs.
In the bedrooms, beds, albeit of a primitive nature, would have been available too. These would have consisted of bags filled with feathers, wool, or other soft material, often piled up on the ground and slept on there.
A timber-framed bed, such as those which dominate bedrooms in the modern world, would only have been available to more affluent Greeks. This aside, the cheaper version would have been comfortable enough, though we might question how prevalent back problems were in ancient times, given the lack of spinal support offered by such beds.
Clay jars and pots would have been plentiful, and these amphorae, alabastrons, hydriae and lekythoses would have been used to store everything from olive oil and wine to grains and vegetables.
No refrigerators were available, so life was a constant cycle of obtaining fresh food and water and bringing it back to the household. In short, life for the average resident of a Greek home 2,500 years ago was far more labor-intensive and time-consuming than it is for modern human beings.