6 things you (probably) didn’t know about the ancient Greeks

From the true identity of the poet Homer to the elephants used as the first 'weapons of mass destruction', there is much to fascinate in the stories of the ancient Greeks. Here, Paul Chrystal, author of The Ancient Greeks in 100 Facts considers six facts about the societies of ancient Greece – from the position of women in society to the belief in gods and goddesses that regulated daily life…

The auditorium of a theatre at Athens, as seen from the stage during a performance of Agamemnon by Aeschylus, painted by 19th century artist William Blake Richmond. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

There may have been no Homer

Who was Homer? The poet Homer is believed to have lived in the eighth century BC, some 500 years after the events he describes in the Iliad. Controversy, however, continues to rage over whether Homer actually ever existed as a single, real, identifiable poet. Nineteen different places claim Homer as their son, including Athens and Chios. The ancient city of Smyrna, however, seems to have the best claim.

Bust of Homer c850 BC. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Typically, Homer is depicted as a blind, bearded man; his famous poetry is an enduring legacy of an oral tradition which saw centuries of singer-poets, or bards, handing down exciting stories and legends of the past from one generation to the next. Before Homer, oral composition was the order of the day and it may well be that if Homer existed, he came just at the right time to take advantage of the newly available Greek writing alphabet and perhaps the services of scribes.

His legacy has shown few signs of dying out. The Iliad and the Odyssey crop up throughout modern literature: the Odyssey can be seen in James Joyce’s Ulysses, while the tale of Achilles in the Iliad has echoes in JRR Tolkien’s The Fall of Gondolin, while the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? owes much to the Odyssey.

A portrait of Homer, the presumed author of epic poems the 'Odyssey' and the 'Illiad'. (De Agostini/Getty Images)
A portrait of Homer, the presumed author of epic poems the ‘Odyssey’ and the ‘Illiad’. (De Agostini/Getty Images)



The ancient Greeks shared many tales of the supernatural and the ancient Greek papyri are a veritable handbook of potions and spells

We first encounter Greek magic in Homer’s Odyssey, the epic poem written in the eighth century BC (though it’s set much earlier). Here, the hero Odysseus meets the witchy Circe who wields a staff, or rabdos, and concocts a potion that changes Odysseus’ crew into pigs.

Elsewhere, Helen of Troy prescribes a beneficent, recreational pharmakon to the soldiers of her husband Menelaus and in the last book of the Odyssey, Homer describes the spirits of Achilles and Agamemnon in Hades. In the Iliad, Homer describes the ghost of Achilles’s comrade Patroclus and tells the story of how Hera, queen of the gods, acquires Aphrodite’s love amulet in order to seduce Zeus, her unfaithful husband.

These passages establish how magic and witchcraft were viewed in the late Greek bronze age, the era of around the 13th century BC. Over hundreds of years, audiences listened to these stories of magic and the occult, no doubt associating them with similar experiences in their own times and communities.

Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios in Greek mythology, transforms Odysseus’s companions into pigs in this wood engraving from the 19th century. (Getty Images)
Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios in Greek mythology, transforms Odysseus’s companions into pigs in this wood engraving from the 19th century. (Getty Images)

The poet Pindar adds to our knowledge of the supernatural beliefs in ancient Greece by telling how the dead were led to the kingdom of Hades and judged there. Another two fragments of his poems describe the paradise-like land of Elysium and the transmigration of souls (basically, reincarnation). Pindar also cannot resist including Medea in a scene in which Aphrodite, paradoxically, uses magic to help Jason win Medea’s heart. He also describes the skills of Asclepius, god of medicine and shows how blurred was the line between ‘conventional’ and magical medicine. Incantations are used alongside drugs, pharmaka are useful herbs or magical potions, and both were imbibed and used in amulets.

Generally, the ancient Greeks – like the Egyptians before them and the Romans after them – were very superstitious. The dark arts have been dabbled in for as long as religions have been practised, in all societies, and ancient Greece is no exception. Sixteen hundred or so defixiones or katadesies (curse tablets or binding spells) have been found. Predominantly a practice of the lower orders, the curses were often provoked by an unfortunate turn of events such as a commercial dispute, a law suit, or unrequited and spurned love: they gave vent to the curser’s vengeful anger, jealousy, malice and vindictiveness. Here is one example:

“I bind you, Theodotis, daughter of Eus, to the snake’s tail, the crocodile’s mouth, the ram’s horns, the asp’s poison, the cat’s whiskers, the god’s appendage, so that you may never be able to have sex with another man… nor do anything that brings you pleasure with another man, unless I alone, Ammonion, the son of Hermitaris, am that man… Make this erotic binding-spell work, so that Theodotis, may no longer be penetrated by a man other than me alone, Ammonion, the son of Hermitaris, dragged in slavery, driven crazy, taking to the air in search of Ammonion, the son of Hermitaris, and that she may rub her thigh on my thigh, her genitals to my genitals, for sex with me for the rest of her life.”



Women were thought to be ‘incomplete, deformed males’

Of the 60 treatises written by the 20 or so Hippocratic writers, 11 cover gynaecology. The Hippocratics believed that women’s bodies were comprised of flesh which was softer and more porous than that of men, an example being the female breast as the woman’s nourishment is converted into milk. This ‘porosity’ was believed to be caused by the absorption of moisture in the form of blood, released each month during the woman’s period and the concept of porosity was linked to the knowledge of women’s menstrual fluid, sexual lubricant, and other discharge.

A marble relief depicting either Ascelpius, the god of medicine, or Hippocrates, a physician in Ancient Greece, treating an unwell woman. (De Agostini/Getty Images)
A marble relief believed to depict either Ascelpius, the god of medicine, or Hippocrates, a physician in Ancient Greece, treating an unwell woman. (De Agostini/Getty Images)

Blood ‘clogging up the venous system’ in the breasts signified that the woman was going mad – a physiological ‘explanation’ for the age-old stereotype that women are naturally neurotic, erratic and unpredictable. Menstruation as a purging agent was, then, considered a good thing. The ancient Greeks believed that amenorrhœa (the absence of a menstrual period) caused all manner of physical and psychological illness; virgins were particularly susceptible, which explained their tendency to hang themselves or jump down wells to their deaths. In essence, the physiological differences between men and women supported the ancient Greek belief that women were physically and mentally inferior to men.

The philosopher Aristotle taught that men were more perfect than women. Because women were less able than men to produce the heat that was vital for generation of the species (due to the ‘debilitating’ effect of menstruation) women were ‘incomplete’ or ‘deformed males’.

In contrast to his Hippocratic contemporaries, Aristotle believed that menstruation was not a good thing. Aristotle championed the long-standing myth that the womb comprised two separate compartments, often used to explain the birth of twins: males were born from the right (hotter) chamber; females from the left, with all its ‘sinister’ implications. He rejected the Hippocratic belief that ‘hysteria’ in women was attributable to the movements of the womb and made tentative steps towards an understanding of the Fallopian tubes, largely unknown in antiquity.

Coin showing the head of Alexander III of Macedon, 356 – 323 BC, aka Alexander the Great. King of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon. From The Century Magazine, published 1887.



Thucydides (c460-c400 BC) was the father of ‘scientific history’

A major Athenian historian, political philosopher and general (strategos), Thucydides is famous for his History of the Peloponnesian War. It is a defining work of history which has led to his being called the father of ‘scientific history’ because of his rigorous research, reliance on eye-witness accounts, evidence-gathering and analysis of cause and effect. Unlike the work of fellow historian Herodotus, Thucydides’s history is devoid of interventions by the gods. He omits the arts, literature or the social circumstances in which the events take place, focusing instead on actual events, excluding what he may have seen as frivolous or irrelevant.

Thucydides’s Melian Dialogue is regarded as a seminal work of international relations theory which espouses political realism, while Pericles’ Funeral Oration is still widely studied in political theory, history, and classical studies. The oration formed the basis for Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address during the American Civil War. The funeral oration is one of many speeches in which the historian does not report verbatim but gives us the gist of what was said, or should have been said. Both feature in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides, a historian in Ancient Greece whose work 'History of the Peloponnesian War' was the first recorded political and moral analysis of a nation's war policies. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Thucydides, a historian in Ancient Greece whose work ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ was the first recorded political and moral analysis of a nation’s war policies. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)



Spartan women could enjoy status and power that was unheard of in other parts of ancient Greece

Thucydides said it all when he famously asserted of women: “The greatest glory is to be talked about among men as little as possible, whether in praise or blame.”

The status and rights of women may have varied, but by and large, we can draw some general conclusions. We know that in Delphi, Gortyn, Thessaly, Megara and Sparta, women were allowed to own land but, generally speaking, women had no legal or political status. With the coming of democracy, women – like slaves, metics (resident aliens, including freed slaves) and children – did not have the vote. Like slaves, they were simply part of the oikos, the household, under the control of the male kyrios. Until they married, women lived under the guardianship of their father or another male relative; on marriage, the husband assumed the role of the woman’s kyrios and would look after any legal affairs which involved her. Because their right to property was limited, Athenian women did not qualify as full citizens, as citizenship and civil and political rights were defined in relation to property. However, women could have some property rights through gifts, dowry or inheritance, although her kyrios still had the right to dispose of a woman’s property as he saw fit.

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Sparta, however, was another world; women played a vital role in keeping the Spartan war machine well-oiled and efficient. Generally, they enjoyed status, power, and respect that was unheard of in other parts of ancient Greece. Since Spartan men were fully occupied with military training, bonding in mess life and doing battle, it fell to women to run the farms and the home. It is estimated that by the fourth century BC, Spartan women actually owned between 35 and 40 per cent of all Spartan land and property, and that by the Hellenistic period (323 BC–31 BC), some of the wealthiest Spartans were women, controlling their own properties and looking after the properties of male kin who were posted away with the army.

Spartan women rarely married before the age of 20, unlike their Athenian counterparts. Whereas Athenian women wore clothes to entirely cover their bodies and were rarely allowed to go out of the house, the clothes of the Spartan women were much looser and more revealing. Spartan girls as well as boys received an education.

Why were Athenian women so suppressed? The usual answer is that this was a throwback to ancient patriarchal society. However, it is, ironically, more to do with democracy than anything else. Athenians were obsessed with the fear that a woman might commit adultery which would foster doubt regarding the paternity of her children and raise questions about inheritance; crucially if paternity could not be established, then the child could not be a citizen. Furthermore, adultery was thought to impair a woman’s chastity, and corrupt her mind.



The elephant was the first weapon of mass destruction

The Pyrrhic Wars (280-275 BC) were notable for the first deployments of elephants, or elephantries, by the Greeks against the Roman army.

The Indians were the first recorded to have used the elephant as an instrument of war where they make an appearance in the Sanskrit epics, and in later stories of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in the fourth century BC.

An engraving of Roman armies defeating elephant troops of Pyrrhus during the battle of Asculum. (Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
An engraving of Roman armies defeating elephant troops of Pyrrhus during the battle of Asculum. (Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Their use spread westwards to the Persians in their wars with Alexander the Great. The first confrontation came at the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, when the Persians deployed 15 elephants. Up against Porus, in the modern-day Punjabi region of Pakistan, Alexander faced up to 100 war elephants at the battle of the Hydaspes River. This was small fry compared to what the kings of the Nanda Empire (Maghada) and Gangaridai (present-day Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal) could throw against him: between 3,000 and 6,000 war elephants which effectively halted Alexander’s invasion of India.

Returning home, Alexander set up a unit of elephants to guard his palace at Babylon, and established the office of elephantarch to take command of his elephants. War elephants made their European debut in 318 BC, when Polyperchon, one of Alexander’s generals, besieged Megalopolis with the help of 60 elephants. Another ancient king, Pyrrhus, must be given credit for the introduction of the combat elephant to Italy, at the battle of Heraclea. Here, the elephants were of the Indian variety and were given the sobriquet ‘Lucanian oxen’ by the awe-struck Roman soldiers.

Paul Chrystal is the author of The Ancient Greeks in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing, 2016)


This article was first published in September 2017