A day in the life of an ancient Athenian – Robert Garland

A day in the life of an ancient Athenian – Robert Garland


It’s 427 BCE and the worst internal
conflict ever to occur in the ancient Greek world
is in its fourth year. The Peloponnesian War is being fought between the city-states of Athens and
Sparta, as well as their allies. The Athenians can’t match the formidable
Spartan army on land. So they’ve abandoned the countryside and moved inside the walls surrounding
their city and port, now provisioned by a superior fleet
and extensive maritime empire. The cramped conditions have taken a toll and a recent plague wiped out
a third of the population. But city life goes on. Archias and Dexileia live
in the center of Athens. As a painter of high-class pottery, Archias is relatively well-off and takes
great interest in the city’s affairs. Dexileia, on the other hand, can’t
participate in politics or own property. The couple are grateful to the gods that
three of their four children, a son and two daughters, have survived past infancy. Many parents see daughters as a liability since they require dowries
to find husbands. But Archias is confident that his wealth will allow him to make good matches
for them without going bankrupt. Like many Athenians,
the family owns slaves. Originally from Thrace,
they were captured in war. Thratta does most of the housework
and helps raise the children. Philon is a paidagôgos, who supervises the son’s education,
teaching him reading and writing. Archias is up early because there’s
a meeting of the Ekklêsia, the assembly of citizens, taking place at dawn. Before setting out, he burns incense and pours a libation at the small shrine
in the courtyard on behalf of his entire household. Dexileia will remain at home all day,
teaching her daughters domestic skills. Later, she’ll retire to the inner
courtyard for some fresh air. When Archias arrives at the agora, the civic and commercial heart
of the city, he finds the square swarming
with his fellow citizens, native-born adult males who
have completed military training. Attached to the central monument is
a noticeboard with the meeting’s agenda. Today, there’s only one item
of discussion: what to do with the people of Mytilene, a city on the island of Lesbos where a revolt against Athenian rule
has just been put down. The meeting takes place on a hill west
of the acropolis known as the Pnyx. The word means “tightly packed,” and the crowd of 5,000 citizens
makes it clear why. The heralds purify the hill by sprinkling
its boundary with pig’s blood and call for order. As everyone sits on benches
facing the platform, the presiding officer opens the meeting
with the words: “Tis agoreuein bouleutai?” “Who wishes to address the assembly?” One by one, citizens speak, some advising
mercy, others bent on vengeance. A motion is proposed to execute
all the Mytileneans and enslave their women and children because they betrayed their Athenian
allies during a time of war. A majority raises their right hands
in favor. Once the meeting’s over, Archias heads
back to the agora to buy food and wine. Hundreds have gathered there
to discuss the results, many unhappy with the decision. When Archias returns home,
he tells Dexileia about the debate. She thinks that killing the innocent
as well as the guilty is harsh and counterproductive, and tells him as much. Around dusk, Archias goes to
a friend’s house for a symposium. The nine men drink wine and
discuss the meeting well into the night. Archias shares his wife’s opinion urging
mercy, and his friends eventually agree. Before dawn, something
unprecedented happens. Heralds circulate throughout Athens announcing the council
has called another meeting. The second debate is equally heated, but a new resolution,
to execute only the leaders of the revolt, narrowly passes. Yet there’s a problem – a ship with orders to carry out
the first resolution was dispatched the previous day. And so another ship quickly sets sail
to countermand the order – a race of democracy against time.

local_offerevent_note October 11, 2019

account_box Matthew Anderson


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