The structures of ancient Greece that survive today are typically lavish stone temples and opulent theatres – sites that have been revered, protected and restored for millennia. But the homes of everyday ancient Greek citizens were markedly different from the era’s great public monuments.
Properties were typically made of mud or wood, they didn’t have running water and livestock were often reared on the grounds.
And the ancient Greeks didn’t always have distinct rooms for different functions – kitchens for cooking, bedrooms for sleeping in. Instead, rooms could shift purpose throughout the day: an area might be used to prepare food one minute and then as sleeping quarters the next.
Here’s an introduction to the houses of ancient Greece, from their different rooms and features to the types of furniture they contained.
Ancient Greek houses were typically made from mud bricks and wood. They would have to be rebuilt and repaired every year or so as the walls deteriorated. Depending on the region and the materials available, stone may have been used.
In poorer houses, windows were small, built without glass and set high in the façade. They were covered with wooden shutters.
Many ancient Greek houses were built around a central courtyard. In this outdoor area, women might cook, animals might be reared and religious shrines might have been built.
The rest of the property would depend on the family’s wealth, but would typically contain somewhere between 2 and 12 rooms or areas.
Some properties had 2 stories: women, children and perhaps also slaves, depending on the family’s wealth, would tend to live upstairs.
Property was a highly prized asset in ancient Greece and, in the city-states especially, land was in short supply. This meant that urban homes rarely grew into vast mansions.
In fact, many urban properties – rich or poor – would have been of a relatively similar size. The key difference between rich and poor properties was that a single wealthy family might occupy one home, while 2 or 3 poorer families and their livestock might all live together under one roof.
Spaces for men and women
Greek houses would typically contain an ‘andron’, or men’s room. This was a sort of lounge where men would host friends and associates and hold ‘symposia’, essentially dinner parties.
Ancient Greek women would tend to avoid this area of the house, remaining instead in the ‘gynaeceum’, or women’s room. These areas were often at the rear of the house or upstairs – away from the public.
In ancient Greece, men and women also tended to eat separately. Wealthy citizens might have the option of eating meat and fish at home, while the poor would more often eat porridge and bread.
Food could be prepared in the courtyard to avoid filling the house with smoke: properties rarely had chimneys and were instead fitted with thin slats in the roof to allow smoke and heat to slowly escape.
Space to work
A key facet of many ancient Greek houses was an area reserved for work. Rooms or sections of the property would be used by the family’s workers to ply their craft, whether that was making cheese, weaving cloth, repairing sandals or any other trade.
Larger, wealthier homes might have been attached to dedicated workshops or stores. But for the masses, work would often be done in the home, the courtyard or perhaps on the flat roof, if the property had one.
Ancient Greek homes rarely had bathrooms. Most properties didn’t have wells or water supplies, so women would fetch water from outside the home. Public latrines and chamber pots – typically emptied on the street – were used in lieu of domestic toilets.
Only the wealthiest citizens could bathe at home: domestic baths required the space to do so as well as slaves to fetch the water and prepare the bath. Most people instead visited public baths or washed in rivers and streams or with buckets of water.
Ancient Greek homes didn’t contain much furniture. Mats made of reeds or straw might line the floors, and homes might contain some wooden stools or tables. Beds were often made of grass or animal products such as feathers or wool.
Wealthier homes could contain mosaics or paintings, but generally, the ancient Greeks demonstrated their wealth through jewellery, lavish parties and opulent clothing more so than interior design.
While ancient Greece is typically associated with grand and ceremonial structures, urban properties from the period were comparatively more utilitarian: the homes of ancient Greece hosted families according to their means, often without pretension or pompousness.