Here Are 10 Horrible Realities You Would Face as a Citizen of Ancient Greece
Here Are 10 Horrible Realities You Would Face as a Citizen of Ancient Greece

Here Are 10 Horrible Realities You Would Face as a Citizen of Ancient Greece

D.G. Hewitt - March 21, 2018

Ancient Greece has become a byword for civilization as we know it. The people of the Hellenic world took care to nurture the mind as well as the body. This was the birthplace of modern philosophy, with the unexamined life deemed not worth living. The era also gave us breakthroughs in mathematics, medicine and ethics that remain relevant to this day. Oh, and Ancient Greece also gave the world the concept of democracy, even if at the same time it also built its society on the backs of slaves.

But life wasn’t all gymnasiums and symposiums in Ancient Greece. Life could be tough, especially for the lower social orders or for women. In fact, even if you were born into privilege, you still had to endure some truly horrible traditions and customs. From basic sanitation through to grooming and medical treatments, things looked very different to how they do today. Indeed, some of the things that went on in everyday life were nothing short of stomach-churning, especially when looked at from our cushy twenty-first century perspective. So brace yourself as you take a tour through the darker side of Ancient Greece:

Here Are 10 Horrible Realities You Would Face as a Citizen of Ancient Greece
Doctors in Ancient Greece would taste and smell the bodily fluids of their patients. UCL.

Doctors who did more harm than good

“Above all, do no harm.” So said the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. And it’s his Oath that new doctors pledge upon starting their careers in medicine. Thankfully, however, it’s only his promise to do their best for their patients that modern-day doctors copy. Indeed, if any doctor treated their patients like the physicians of Ancient Greece did, they would soon find themselves out of a job, and hit with an expensive lawsuit. Things back then were a lot different – and a lot more disgusting.

Quite simply, medicine in Ancient Greece was based around the idea that the human body was composed of a range of fluids. A good doctor was supposed to know each of these separate fluids, what they looked like and even what they tasted like. So, if you were feeling sick, a doctor would examine your vomit and even have a quick taste to make a diagnosis. Or how about an aching head? Well then you could expect a finger in the ear, a rummage around in there and then the doctor tasting your ear wax.

For a more general examination, a diligent doctor like Hippocrates would ask for a urine sample (so far, so normal) but then proceed to drink it in front of you. According to the man himself, the urine of a healthy person was supposed to taste just like fig juice. If it didn’t have that sweet but tart taste, well then you were definitely under the weather. So, as well as a more thorough examination of your other bodily fluids, you would also be sent to the nearest temple. After all, any illness was seen as a form of divine punishment, so the Gods needed to be appeased.

Unsurprisingly, treatments were as disgusting as these ancient methods of diagnostics. In most cases, a doctor would prescribe a session of blood-letting to drain the body of ‘bad blood’ – a practice that, to be fair to the Ancient Greeks, remained commonplace right up until the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, mule excrement mixed with wine was regarded as an effective all-round treatment for “woman’s troubles”, while women who suffered a miscarriage were covered in cow dung in a bid to prevent the misfortune from visiting them again.

But while their methods certainly might have been disgusting, were the doctors of Ancient Greece onto something? Written histories from the time often make mention of people living beyond the age of 100. Perhaps Hippocrates and his followers were smarter than we think.

Here Are 10 Horrible Realities You Would Face as a Citizen of Ancient Greece
Going to the toilet was a dirty and smelly business in Ancient Greece. Atlas Obscura.

Unsanitary toilet habits

The temples and other grand buildings of Ancient Greece may well have been impressive to look at. But how did they smell? Pretty terrible, most probably. For, while Greece certainly made some huge strides forward when it came to people doing their business, their toiletry habits would be considered really disgusting by today’s standards. And, of course, like everything in history, the less money or status you had, the worse the conditions you had to endure.

So, first the positive part: Before the Greeks came along, going to the toilet was a very simple affair, with no consideration given to hygiene or anything like that. However, taking their lead from the Minoans on the island of Crete, the Ancient Greeks started introducing flushed toilets and properly organised public latrines. These would have seats along a bench above flowing water connected to a large drainage system and have played a central role in daily life. What’s more, at the high point of the Hellenistic period, most middle-class homes had their own flushing toilets, with their waste taken away into the main sewer.

However, everything was not completely lovely. The vast majority of the people living in Ancient Greece were peasants or manual labourers. For them, a trip to the toilet just meant squatting in a field or outside the home. The suburbs of a city, not to mention Ancient Greek villages or smaller communities, would have been stinky and highly unhygienic. And even the rich didn’t have it all so good, especially not by today’s standards. Toilet paper had yet to be invented, so small, smooth pebbles were used to wipe. In the public latrines, collections of pebbles could be found at the entrance, and they were often reused many times over. Alternatively, the Greeks used a rag attached to a stick for cleaning up, though again, these were often passed around and shared.

According to accounts from the time, some people were as frugal in their use of toilet pebbles as some people are today about toilet paper. Apparently, three small stones should be enough for a normal trip to the bathroom. At the same time, however, not everyone was quite so frugal. In some cases, richer Greeks would use shards of pottery to wipe themselves with and may even have the names of their enemies etched on the ceramics for good measure.

Here Are 10 Horrible Realities You Would Face as a Citizen of Ancient Greece
The Ancient Greeks had many imaginative and cruel punishments reserved for their slaves. Wikimedia Commons.

“Figging” anyone?

Ancient Greece may well have become a byword for high civilization but its people could be as barbaric as any other, not least when it came to thinking up cruel and unusual punishments. And no punishments were more disgusting than those reserved for those individuals judged to have broken societal rules. Whether free or enslaved, cause upset or break the moral code of the time and you could expect to have something inserted where the sun doesn’t shine.

As we know, the Ancient Greeks, as well as the Romans, often treated their slaves no better – or sometimes even worse – than their animals. So, the practice of ‘gingering’ a stubborn horse was inevitably adapted to use on slaves. Without going into too much gory detail, an incompetent or disobedient slave girl could be punished by having a skinned piece of garlic inserted into her. This would cause an intense burning sensation, not to mention an intense feeling of humiliation, and could be repeated without the subject getting used to the feeling.

But again, such disgusting practices were not simply reserved for slave girls. Even men of good-standing could be subjected to punishments that can only be regarded as barbaric. Men found guilty of adultery were the most likely to be made to feel a mixture of shame and pain. Indeed, should one man learn that his wife had been with another, it was his right to punish him with radishes. And you can only imagine where the radishes were supposed to go…The practice even has a name. It’s known as ‘Rhapanidosis’, with the historian Aristophanes mentioning it as a means of punishing not just adultery but also other crimes and misdemeanours such as homosexuality and promiscuity.

This was far from the only cruel and unusual punishment dreamt up by the Ancient Greeks. Who can forget the Brazen Bull, a bronze hollow bull into which a man was inserted alive and a fire set under it? The screams of the man being roasted alive came out of the bull’s mouth to amuse the watching crowds. Or how about the practice of dousing a person’s toga in a flammable liquid and then setting them on fire? Or making a poisonous concoction and forcing them to drink it? Yep, the folk of the Hellenistic era certainly had a novel approach to crime and punishment.

Here Are 10 Horrible Realities You Would Face as a Citizen of Ancient Greece
The sweat of athletes was bottled and sold to the wealthy of Greek society. Greek Reporter.

Bathing in athletes’ sweat

Just as they are today, athletes and sporting superstars were seen as heroes and celebrities in Ancient Greek society. The best would have been household names; the men of Athens would want to be them with them. However, the Greeks took hero worship to a whole new disgusting level. Rather than collecting posters or autographs, they preferred something more intimate, and nothing was more intimate than the bodily fluids of their heroes.

However, this wasn’t some weird fetish. According to the prevailing beliefs of the time, the gloios produced by a sportsman or athlete had medicinal properties. So, what was in this curative mix? Well, it was mainly sweat. However, it also included the oils athletes covered themselves in before getting to work in the gymnasium. Once their workout was over, specially-employed gloios­-collectors would go around the changing rooms scraping the skin of the naked athletes. They would collect these scrapings and bottle it all up, ready to be taken to market.

The special medicine was marketed as a cure-all for general aches and pains. Quite simply, by rubbing gloios all over your own body, you could enjoy some of the youthful vigour of the young men it came from. While this may seem a preposterous belief to us today, the Ancient Greeks certainly believed in it. In fact, bottles of sweat were sold throughout the Ancient world and markets close to the best gymnasia would do a roaring trade, especially after public games.

For the athletes themselves, in the days before corporate sponsorship deals or TV money, selling sweat was a nice little earner. Well, that and selling their whole bodies to wealthy women (but that’s a different story altogether). At the same time, gyms themselves would cash in on their users’ bodily fluids and would often scrape their walls and floors for extra goodness. Indeed, there’s historical evidence of gyms inviting companies to bid for their bottles of sweat, a sure sign that this was a big market in Ancient Greece.

Here Are 10 Horrible Realities You Would Face as a Citizen of Ancient Greece
The skincare regime of Greek women was far from appealing. LGBT History Project.

Dung for healthy, youthful skin

The Ancient Greeks respected a clever mind. They were the founders of philosophy, after all. But they also loved physical beauty just as much, if not more so. As such, as well as spending plenty of time exercising naked in their gyms, they also invested a whole load of time and energy on their skin care, using a wide range of treatments to keep themselves looking young and pretty. And, of course, some of their were more effective or more disgusting than others.

To be fair, not all their skin care methods would make you retch. Some are still used today, in fact. The Greeks made good use of things that surrounded them. This included olives, with olive oil being used not just for cooking but for keeping skin looking bright and wrinkle-free too. Both women and men would also regularly exfoliate using sea salt, while it was also commonplace to use a whole range of flowers and herbs to nourish dry skin or even for cosmetic purposes. At the same time, women would use white lead or chalk to make their faces look paler and so more aristocratic. While most probably effective, the lead in particular was far from healthy and may well have caused fatal poisoning.

However, as well as being surrounded by olives, the Greeks were also surrounded by animals. And that meant animal dung everywhere. Far from being a nuisance, some vain folk saw this as an opportunity, Crocodile poo in particular was held up as an effective skin care treatment. Like their Roman counterparts, Hellenistic men and women would mix the dung up with mud and then spread it over their face. If they had the means and the money, they might also have a whole dung bath in order to feel truly rejuvenated.

Sometimes, things went too far. Consider the story of the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Afflicted by swollen skin, he decided the best course of action would be some dung therapy. He buried himself in warm dung and mud in order to treat his condition. However, he stayed in the pile too long and ended up overheating and dying!

Rudimentary dental care

Living well before the invention of modern toothbrushes, toothpaste, mouthwash or dental floss, the Greeks had to use their imagination when it came to keeping their teeth clean and healthy. As you can imagine, some methods were effective, others not so much. Similarly, while some ways of keeping your teeth clean in Ancient Athens may well appeal to us today, others are undoubtedly disgusting and best left in the past.

As is quite widely known, washing one’s mouth out with urine was quite common practice in the ancient world. In fact, health conscious individuals might do this on a daily basis. It was believed that the ammonia found in urine not only disinfected the mouth but also helped keep teeth pearly white. However, to their credit, the Greeks weren’t quite so mad about urine as the Romans were. The people of Rome would import human urine from Portugal and the market became so big that the emperor Nero famously levied a tax on all such imports.

Natural – and horrible – mouthwashes aside, surviving records from the time show the other ingenious ways the people of Ancient Greece tried to keep their teeth and gums clean. By far the most popular way was to use twigs as toothpicks, with this commonplace after every meal. A man or woman might also occasionally floss using horse hair before rising and gargling human urine for good measure. Unsurprisingly, such primitive methods were not always so effective. However, the Greeks took great pride in being able to endure pain and discomfort, so a trip to the dentist to have a tooth extracted was seen as a very last resort.

While we may well smile at some of the methods used by the Ancient Greeks and the Romans too, they often had better oral hygiene than people in the modern world. They ate very little sugar and there was no such thing as processed food back then, so cavities were rare. However, unprocessed food required a lot of chewing, meaning teeth got worn down over the years to the point that an old man is likely to have had just a few stumps remaining where his molars should have been.

Here Are 10 Horrible Realities You Would Face as a Citizen of Ancient Greece
In the Hellenic world, a monobrow was a good look for a lady. University of Tasmania.

Their strange relationship with body hair

As you can probably guess from looking at the statues and other works of art they left behind, the Ancient Greeks weren’t a fan of bodily hair. For them, the ideal body, especially for women, was smooth all over, and they spent a lot of time and effort trying to achieve this. There is, of course, some academic debate over whether hairlessness was the norm for the typical Greek man or woman or just for the upper classes (and so those people who would have been immortalized in statue form). But whoever went for a wax in Ancient Greece would have been in for a rough ride.

Since they didn’t have modern waxing solutions or even lady razors, the simplest way of achieving the beauty ideal was to simply pluck out individual hairs one by one – a painful, not to mention time consuming process. Fancy a swifter solution? Well, how about burning all your body hair off, as well also the custom in Ancient Greece. Failure to keep up such standards would have led to social disapproval. According to the customs of the time, only ‘uncivilized’ women had hair on their bodies. And if it’s one thing a Greek wouldn’t want to be seen as being it’s uncivilized.

Strangely enough, however, the ‘less is more’ rule didn’t seem to apply to the eyebrows. Indeed, a monobrow on a woman was seen as highly desirable and something to be prized and envied. Or, to be more specific, the Greeks liked eyebrows that almost met in the middle, but not quite. There are a number of surviving texts from the time that attest to this. Of course, not every woman of the time could cultivate such a blurred brow, so they looked for help. Fake eyebrows or clever make-up application usually did the trick, allowing them to fulfill societal norms of being smooth all over, except up between the eyes.

Unorthodox birth control

The Ancient Greeks may well have been the founders of modern medicine, but that doesn’t mean they were so clued-up about reproductive health. In fact, they were pretty much clueless, as the birth control methods of the time attest. While specific methods differed markedly, there was one common belief: that birth control was a woman’s responsibility, meaning the men of Greece were spared some truly bizarre, not to mention downright-disgusting, methods of staying baby-free.

The most harmless – albeit least useful – birth control method was that prescribed by renowned Athenian gynaecologist Soranus. While he mainly worked in Rome, his methods spread far and wide across the ancient world, including in his homeland. His biggest tip? After copulation, a woman “must hold her breath and draw herself away a little, so that the seed may not be hurled too deep into the cavity of the uterus. And getting up immediately and squatting down, she should induce sneezing and carefully wipe the vagina all round”. Quite.

As well sneezing after the deed had been done, the ladies of Greece could also take a number of more proactive steps in an effort to avoid conception. It was perceived wisdom that a smearing of old olive oil on the lady’s private parts could work as an effective birth control method. Or if there wasn’t any aging oil available, then a lady should apply honey or balsam tree juice before stepping into the bedchamber. Even wise old Aristotle recommended the ‘olive oil method’, though perhaps more as a way to deter would-be suitors than anything else.

One other popular means of birth control in Ancient Greece was as simple as it was ineffective. Pomegranates, so the wise men of the time declared, could help prevent unwanted conception. All a lady had to do was pick one from a tree, peel it and then grind the peel into a water solution, which was then to be applied ‘down below’. Oh, and this should be followed by a drink of honey water otherwise it just wouldn’t work…

Dubious dating habits

Apart from their love of urine, dung or sweat, nothing would quite disgust the modern-day observer quite like their attitude to sex and relationships. In many ways the Ancient Greeks were, it should be acknowledged, pretty conservative. A man of good standing was expected to marry a woman from a similar background and start a family. Infidelity was frowned upon, especially with non-slaves. However, when it comes to their approach to men dating younger boys, the Ancient Greek way would be considered highly disgusting, not to mention illegal, in today’s world.

In the Hellenistic world it was accepted, indeed expected, for a Greek man to take a younger boy as a lover. It was always up to the older man to do the pursuing and this is where the rooster comes in. A man, upon seeing a youngster who took his fancy, would present the object of his affection (or, if we’re being honest, the object of his lust) with a live rooster. In Greek society, this would have been seen as a gift that would be hard to turn down, and few young boys did. And so began the relationship.

It’s often pointed out that the relationship between man and boy would not be limited to the bedchamber alone. This is true to an extent. A man was expected to serve as a mentor or tutor to his younger lover, paying as much attention to his brain and soul as to his body. However, in almost every case, physical attraction trumped every other consideration. Greek men would be on the lookout for the best-looking youngsters, with bodies defined by the gym highly prized. In some cases, men would be openly boastful of their young lovers.

But, of course, such relationships couldn’t last. It was customary for the man to release his young companion as soon as the latter started to grow facial hair. Indeed, in a weird twist, dating a grown man was frowned upon, only young boys without facial hair were seen as acceptable companions. Once a relationship had come to its natural conclusion, the older man was, of course, free to pursue a new lover, while the younger man would soon be free to find a boy of his own. And so the tradition continued through the generations.

Itchy clothes and occasional baths

While it may not be quite so disgusting as having a doctor taste your vomit or smearing honey all over your body as a contraceptive, clothing in Ancient Greece was far from pleasant. Of course, the rich and privileged enjoyed a life of comfort in every sense, including in their wardrobes. Silks and linens abounded. Ordinary Greek citizens, however, wore clothes made purely of wool. As you can imagine, these got itchy and were hot and extremely uncomfortable in the sun. What’s more, if the wool didn’t itch you, then the lice or other bugs living in your cloak or other clothes definitely wold have.

But that’s OK, you can always have a nice refreshing bath, right? Think again! Contrary to popular perception, not every city or village in the ancient world had a public bath, and even if it did, they weren’t always open to everyone. For a period, in fact, public baths were positively frowned upon in Ancient Greek society, being seen as far too decadent for a virile man to enjoy. Even when they were in fashion, if you were from a lower class, the best you could expect would be scrubbing yourself with old, impure olive oil – what else? – or scraping the dirt off your body with a rough stick.

Moreover, while almost everyone would have had access to a wash bowl – known as a louterion – those of the lower classes were plain and unadorned compared to the ornate ones used by wealthier citizens. And, of course, the lower classes would be expected to share wash bowls, even sharing the water – tough luck if you had to wait until some slaves cleaned themselves after a hard day toiling under the Athenian sun!

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Ancient Dentistry”. The British Dental Association.

“Medicine in ancient Rome and Greece”. The Open University, January 2005.

“Horrible Histories: 40 horrible facts”. The Radio Times.

“Birth Control in Antiquity”. US National Library of Medicine, 2007.

“What was it like to live in an ancient Greek family?”. BBC Bitesize.

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