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Daily Life

Daily life in the golden age of Greece varied, as it does today, according to economic status as well as by other factors such as war and even the type of government that was in place. The best way to get an appreciation of this is to look at a few specific examples and from these draw some general conclusions.

A. The life of a well-to-do young man growing up in Athens at the time of Pericles.

The advantage of being born a boy rather than a girl became apparent right at birth. It was considered very important to have a male heir, someone who could carry on the family line and name, who would care for his father in his old age and carry out the religious obligations that would ensure his well-being in the afterlife. The father decided whether his new born son should be allowed to live or whether he should simply be abandoned, put outside in a clay pot that would serve as his coffin. If he was kept, and most boys were except in times of siege or great economic hardship, he was given a name and became a part of the community. From that point on the father had no right to get rid of the baby. (Newborn girls did not fare as well, ancient sources noting that ‘a great number' were exposed and left to die.)

The father also decided how the child would be raised and educated, some favoring home schooling and others bringing in tutors to educate them. (Alexander, the Great's father King Philip brought in Aristotle to serve as teacher and mentor to the young Alexander.) Children grew up playing with a variety of toys ( rattles, balls, miniature chariots, wooden boats, clay houses; animal figures- pigs, goats, etc.) as well as perhaps a small number of pets- dogs, ducks, mice and, even, insects.

Formal education covered the usual 3 R's ( reading, w riting and a rithmetic) as well as physical education and music. For the ancient Greeks, music was considered to have great importance in a proper education curriculum and students learned both to sing and to play various instruments. The school master and the music teacher conducted lessons in their own homes, not in state constructed schools. Although the state valued and took an interest in education, carrying out the instruction was a matter of private initiative. The works of Homer were an important part of the course of studies serving an a source of inspiration for lessons dealing with matters of a moral or religious nature. Homer was perceived as a guide for a proper life while the writings of Hesiod and Solon were considered of secondary importance.

By the age of eighteen the young Athenian was ready for military service. Prior to this, from roughly the age of twelve, he would have had considerable exposure to physical training participating in a range of activities- running, wrestling, jumping, discus and javelin. Of course many of the skills learned in these sporting endeavors would prove to be useful in time of war.

B. The life of a youth growing up in Sparta in the same era.

The Spartans didn't write much. They had an aversion to writing literature and brevity of speech was considered to be a desirable trait so we have had to look at their society through the eyes of others. Four ancient sources- Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and Plutarch provide much of the information about this much-admired and often-feared society. A key attribute of the Spartan way of life was austerity which extended to their homes, possessions, clothing and the food they ate. Only those who had died in battle or in childbirth were allowed to have tombstones and these provided limited information. There were also modest grave offerings.

As the historian Thucydides noted, “If, for example, Sparta were to be deserted and only the temples and the foundations of buildings remained, I imagine that people in the distant future would seriously doubt that Sparta's power ever approached its fame.” Today we know the names of 20,000 Athenians and only a scattering of Spartan names and in the minds of many the story of ancient Greece is essentially the story of Athens. But in its heyday Sparta was the most powerful state in the Greek world, three times larger than the Athenian state and with its share of wealthy individuals. And it controlled its citizens literally from the cradle to the grave.

It began at birth. It was the state, not the father as in other Greek city-states, who determined whether a newborn male should live or die. If the baby appeared to be healthy and vigorous he would be kept; if not, he would be abandoned and left to die. Sparta was a military state, virtually always at war, and it needed a good supply of robust babies that could be trained to unquestioningly protect the interests of the state. The child, once accepted by Spartan officials, was raised at home until he reached the age of seven. At that point he left home and entered state schools to be trained to obey and serve in preparation for a life of military service that would last until he was sixty.

The Spartan student curriculum developed only basic skills in reading and writing. The emphasis was on content that would be useful in a military career- survival training, how to endure hardship, overcome obstacles and fend for yourself in hostile territory. Spartan youth went barefoot, they wore a single cloak in all kinds of weather and they were fed sparingly. They were encouraged to supplement their rations by stealing food and then whipped if they were caught in the process. The whip, in fact, played an important role in their upbringing.

By twenty, the Spartan youth had reached adulthood. At this stage he joined a “dining group” of his military peers. He ate all his meals with that group, bonding and developing a sense of camaraderie essential for hoplite warfare where all relied on each other. Sometime in the course of the next decade he would marry and live, not at home, but with his military messmates until he had reached the age of thirty.

Spartan girls enjoyed more freedom than their Greek counterparts in other states. They were educated by the state and their primary mission was to have children, particularly young soldiers-in-waiting. To that end they were well-nourished and encouraged to exercise, participating in a range of sports activities. Spartan women were also allowed to inherit and own property.