Story of the Greek People - E. M. Tappan

How the Early Greeks Lived

As has been said before, we do not know very much about what happened to the Greeks in the early times, what wars they fought or what tribes they overcame. We do know, however, how they lived, how they amused themselves, and what they thought on many subjects; and this is far more interesting.

If you had gone to the home of one of the Greek princes in the early days, you would have come first to a high, thick stone wall, with a strong folding-door. When the door was drawn back and you stepped into the court, a big dog would have sprung out of his kennel to see whether he, as well as his master, thought you ought to be admitted. If the master was an especially wealthy prince he might not have a real dog, but rather the image of one, made of gold or silver.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Close to the gates were benches of stone carved and polished, where people might sit and talk. In the farther part of the court were stables for the horses and oxen and carriages, and also places for pigs and geese and sheep. The court was large enough for a garden, and even an orchard of pear, apple, fig, and olive trees. Indeed, the house with its court and heavy wall was almost like a fortified village. There was a fountain, of course; and with plenty of water, with flocks and herds, and the grain that was kept in store, such a place could have endured quite a long siege without being starved out.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


The house itself had porticoes and pillars and many rooms. There was a second story; and here was a storeroom where the treasures of the prince were kept. There was no money in it, for the early Greeks did not coin money; they counted the value of things in oxen. A slave was worth from four to twenty oxen, for instance. There was plenty of the precious metals in other forms than money, however, for there were vases, cups, bowls, and other dishes of solid gold and silver. They were of graceful, beautiful shapes, for the Greeks so liked to have everything around them pleasing to the eye that even the coarsest earthen dish often had a border pretty enough for a silver vase; perhaps a dance of fauns was painted on it, or a foot-race, or Jason and his fifty companions setting out on the quest of the golden fleece. In this storeroom there were, too, great wooden chests ornamented with gold and silver and ivory; and in these were kept costly robes and cloaks and carpets and fine linen and woven coverings for the benches and beds. There were bracelets and necklaces of many sorts; and, more precious than all these, there were the swords and spears and knives and bows and arrows with which the prince and his men would protect their treasures if the house was attacked by enemies. The metal used in making weapons was sometimes bronze and sometimes copper; but the copper was hardened in some way that we do not understand.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


The princes who lived in such houses had slaves, some of whom had been captured in war and some stolen away from their homes; but the masters were no more afraid to work with their own hands than the poor people who lived in huts. Homer tells us that the royal Odysseus made his own bedstead; and one of the poet's prettiest stories is of the fair young princess Nausicaš setting out with her maidens and a basket of lunch for the river bank to do the washing of the family, and then playing ball with the maidens as merrily as any girl who was not a princess might have done. It is a pity that we cannot know what was in that picnic basket, full of "all manner of food to the heart's desire," as Homer puts it. There must have been dainties made especially to please the young girls, for at the feasts there seems to have been only the simplest of food, hardly more than bread and meat. The Greeks did not like to be hungry any better than other people; but when they went to a feast, they thought less about the food they were to eat than about the people with whom they should talk.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


If we could have looked in upon one of their banquets, we should have seen a room full of guests, with servants placing among them little tables only large enough for one person. A chair was put before each table, and the guests took their seats. The servants brought them silver bowls of water, in which they washed their hands. Then great joints were borne in and laid before the carver, who cut the meat into mouthfuls, a very necessary thing to do, for there were no forks in those days, and if people ate at all they had to eat with their fingers. A dish of meat was placed before each guest, and then baskets of bread were passed around. The drink was wine, but often three times as much water as wine was poured into the cup. It was always passed to the oldest first, even if he was only a common man and young princes were among the guests. To drink too much was a disgrace; for to the Greeks a drunken man was a most disgusting object, and there was nothing more insulting than to accuse a man of having ever taken too much wine. The bard was present, of course, and he was always a welcome guest. This is the way Homer describes his reception:—

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


"The page drew near, leading the honored bard. The muse had greatly loved him, and had given him good and ill; she took away his eyesight, but gave delightful song. Pontonous placed for him among the feasters a silver-studded chair, backed by a lofty pillar, and hung the tuneful lyre upon its peg above his head, and the page showed him how to reach it with his hands. By him he set a tray and a good table, and placed thereon a cup of wine to drink as need should bid."

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


If a stranger appeared and asked for food, he was treated as a friend, and no one questioned who he was or whither he was going, until he had eaten all that he wanted. Even if a man's worst enemy came to his door with an olive branch in his hand, or made his way into the house and knelt at the hearth, he must have food and shelter, and no one was allowed to do him harm.

The children of the early times did not go to school. Why should they when the chief thing for a girl to learn was how to manage the house as her mother did; and the chief thing for a boy to learn was how to do what his father did? Therefore the girl followed her mother about house, learning how it should be cared for, and how to teach slaves to do their work. She must learn to spin and weave, of course, and to sing and dance. The boy, too, was taught singing and dancing; but he must also learn to care for the herds and flocks, to cultivate the land, and to use weapons. There was no need of studying reading or writing, for there was little if any to study. All the arithmetic that was necessary could be learned from counting the flocks. As for history, that consisted of myths and legends, which were no harder to remember than so many fairy tales. Geography, too, must have seemed almost like a fairy tale; for the early Greeks thought the earth was a plain, around which the ocean, a broad river, was ever flowing. Beyond this ocean-stream was darkness, and no one knew what fearful monsters. The sky was two mighty domes, a bright one that was overhead by day, and a dark one that shut down at night: Greek children played games, of course, and some of them were much the same as those played to-day. One was called "Five Pebbles." In this the child tossed up five little pebbles and tried to catch as many as possible on the back of his hand. Those that fell to the ground he might pick up, but in so doing he must not drop the others.



The Greeks enjoyed life, and looked upon death as putting an end to all their joys. They believed that they would live forever, but they did not expect to be happy in the after life. Great heroes, to be sure, were borne to a beautiful place called the Elysian Fields, which lay far to the west, close beside the ocean-stream. Homer said of it, "No snow is here, no winter long, no rain; but the loud-blowing breezes of the west the Ocean-stream sends up to bring men to coolness." There the heroes went on with whatever they had liked best to do on earth, and there they enjoyed all sorts of pleasures; but no such happiness was in store for common men. They expected to be sent to a sad and gloomy place called Hades. There they would remember the light of the sun and long to see it again; they would remember their homes and friends, but almost as if they were dreaming. Nothing would seem real, and all things would be dull and cheerless. They would wander about like shadows in the dismal twilight forever, with nothing to enjoy and nothing to hope for.

As the Greeks did not expect any happiness after death, they were all the more eager to have as much as possible while they lived. They thought the gods had power to give them whatever hey wanted, provided the Fates did not forbid; therefore they worshiped them in order to win favors for themselves. They did not often think of the gods as being better than men, but only as being more powerful. Parents did not say to their children, "Zeus is good, and therefore you must try to be like him"; they said, "Zeus can give you what you want, and so you must offer up a sacrifice to him." They believed that one god had the power to give safe returns from journeys; another, recovery from illness; another, victory over enemies; and therefore they prayed to the one whom they thought most likely to grant the special favor that they wished.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


How to please the gods, and so get what they wanted, was an important matter. The Greeks who lived at the time when Homer is thought to have sung used to talk together of the golden days when the gods walked about among men, doing them harm sometimes, to be sure, but often helping and advising them. They no longer expected to meet gods and goddesses when they were walking about in the forests, and to learn their commands and feelings they watched for signs and tokens. If a sacrifice was offered to Zeus, the falling of a thunderbolt meant that he was pleased and would grant the prayer. A sudden tempest showed that he was angry. Birds that flew far up in the air were supposed to have learned the secrets of the gods, and therefore their movements were closely watched.

Greek worship


There was a surer way, however, of learning the will of the gods, and that was by going to an oracle, or place chosen by them to make their will known. There were many oracles in Greece, usually situated in wild, gloomy spots, in the depths of a forest or among the most jagged rocks and precipices. The oldest oracle was that of Zeus, in the narrow valley of Dodona in Epirus. Whoever wished to consult it first made gifts to the priests. They offered up sacrifices, and then listened to hear what answer would come. The only sounds heard were the cooing of doves, the rustling of the breeze among the leaves of the sacred oaks, and the murmuring of the spring at their foot; but the priests claims that they could understand these sounds and interpret them. No question was too important to be carried to Dodona, and non was too trivial. Heracles himself was said to have gone to ask when his labors would be at an end; and one troubled house-holder went to inquire whether his vanished coverlets and pillows were lost or had been stolen.

The most famous oracle was that of Apollo, at Delphi in Phocis. Here was a deep cleft in the rocks of Mount Parnassus, and from a fissure rose a stupefying vapor. The priestess was placed on a tripod over this fissure, and soon the gas made her half unconscious. Then the priests noted all her mutterings, and interpreted them for the one who had come to consult the oracle.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


These priests must have contrived to know a good deal about what was going on in the world, for their replies were exceedingly keen and shrewd. They were especially skillful in so framing their the oracle answers that they could be read with opposite meanings; and if the event did not result as the questioner expected, they could say that it was his own fault for not reading the answer aright. For instance, King Crúsus of Lydia asked, "If I invade Persia, shall I succeed?" The answer was, "If you invade Persia, you will overthrow a mighty empire"; and so he did, but it was his own, and not the Persian, as he had expected. The question was once asked, "Is there any man who is wiser than Socrates?" and the answer was "No." When the philosopher heard of this, he said. "The oracle is right. None of us know what is truly good and honorable; but I see my ignorance, while they do not see theirs; therefore I am wiser than they."

Wherever there was an oracle, there a temple was built. Suppliants always gave generously to these temples, and therefore they became very rich, especially that at Delphi. All Greeks looked upon the oracles as sacred, and lest some harm should come to the temples with their masses of treasure, groups of cities began to unite that they might protect them if need should arise. These unions were called amphictyonies, or "groups of neighbors." The Delphic amphictyony was, as one would expect, the strongest of all. This was made up of twelve tribes, all of whom dwelt north of the Isthmus of Corinth. They agreed to protect the temple of Apollo at Delphi, and to punish whoever might attempt to steal its treasures. They also took care of the roads that led to the shrine; and if any one ventured to annoy the suppliants who were on their way to it, he had the whole Delphic amphictyony to reckon with. In spite of this union, the tribes expected to make war upon one another if they chose; but they agreed that when they fought, they would not destroy one another's towns or try to cut them off from running water; and even this was a vast improvement on the usual way of fighting in those times, when it was thought fair to get the better of an enemy in any way possible.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


The amphictyonies did much to make the Greeks feel that they were of one race, and that even if they did quarrel, they all belonged to the same family. This feeling was strengthened by their speaking the same language. A third bond that united them more closely with one another than with the "barbarians" was the "games," in which Greeks alone were allowed to contend. Even in Homer's time, and no one knows how much earlier, the Greeks believed that the gods liked to watch athletic contests; and, therefore, at any large festival in honor of a god the races were as important as the sacrifices. Four of these festivals became famous, and the one held at Olympia in honor of Zeus was the most renowned of all. In later times, as will be seen farther on, many different kinds of contests were practiced; but the foot-race was always the chief event, and in earlier days it was the only one. In 776 B.C. the Greeks began to record the names of the victors. This date marks the end of the legendary times and the beginning of the real history of Greece.


The home of a Greek prince in early times was almost like a fortified village. The house contained many beautiful and costly articles and also weapons.

The feasts were simple, and the bard was ever a welcome guest.

Children were taught to do what their parents did.

The Greeks expected to live forever, but did not expect happiness in the after life. They worshiped the gods in order to win favors for themselves. The oracles were believed to reveal the will of the gods. The most famous was at Delphi. The temples at the oracles were very rich.

Three bonds uniting the Greeks were, (1) the amphictyonies; (2) the language; and (3) the games.

Suggestions For Written Work

Describe a visit to a Greek prince.

Write a story of a child's offering a sacrifice to Zeus.

Describe (from a picture) a Greek vase or cup.