Daily and Religious Life in Classical Athens
I see and hear more than almost any other. I know more tabout politics than the polititions, more about philosophy than the philosophers. I know the ins and outs, the deepest, darkest secrets of Greece. And yet, I know nothing. Those who do.
not know me, those who think they know me, call me Agnes, the Chaste, the first in disbelief, the later in jest for how could one in my position maintain such a virtue? As for those who truly know me? There are none. I am a politician, a philosopher, an intellectual. I am all of these things and yet none of them. I am a courtesan but I am not a common prostitute. I am a heteara1, a companion. I manage my own affairs.
I am Agnes. This is just a part of my story...
A noise downstairs woke me, late morning sunlight streamed through the high window. Still half-asleep, I groaned, turning my back on the offending window, desperate to maintain the illusion of innocence which is brought by sleep for a few more minutes.
Just as I was almost asleep again, a quiet knock came on the door. I groaned.
'Come in!' I called.
My maid, Charis, entered. 'Mistress? You have an appointment with Arsenios is an hour.'
I swore, scampering out of bed, 'What are we doing today?' I asked as Charis handed me a basin of water and sponge to wash myself.
'Going to the torch race, then there is the pannychos2 in the evening.' She put aside the basin and began to help me into anembroidered peplos3. It was the sixth day of the Great Panathenaiec festival and we had been up for hours celebrating Athens victory the tribal contests the day before.
'Is there any breakfast?' I asked.
'Here, mistress.' Charis passed me a platter with bread soaked in wine and a wedge of cheese. I ate quickly.
'Where am I meeting him?' I asked Charis.
'He will meet you at his house. He'll send a litter for you soon.'
Arsenios' house was near the Agora, a stone place with a large courtyard and more rooms than were necessary. Being a heteara, I could afford my own house. It was situated in the Kerameikos4, near the Dipylon gate. It was bigger than most houses but I had to look after my students. They were mostly young Athenian girls who had been orphaned, like me. I took them in and educated them in literature, philosophy, music and art, but without the negatives of the job. Charis was one of my brightest pupils.
Charis quickly wound my hair into an elaborate bun, pinned up with an agate studded hair pin, a gift from one of my clients. She was just in time. As she pinned the last strand into place a knock came on the front door below.
'Coming!' I called, before hurtling down the stairs. I turned to Charis, 'Here,' I said, handing her a gold drachma5, 'Go take the rest of the day off.'
'Thank-you mistress!' she called as she closed the door behind me.
I climbed into the litter and we were off. The city was crowded with people of all ages and races. Every deme 6 in Attica was represented and visiting dignitaries and merchants from other Greek city-states had taken the opportunity for a holiday.
It was a full three-quarters of an hour before we reached the Agora. I disembarked from the litter and was greeted warmly by Arsenios. Arsenios was a large man. He had once been strong, though never handsome, but now the years had turned his muscle to fat and his skin was a greyish hue, laughter lines creasing his face. His name, meaning Virile, didn't suit him. He was well past the time he could have lived up to it. In my mind I called him Archimedes, 'master of thought', because his intelligence and ability to think deeply surpassed many. He could have been an Archon if he wanted, but he had no such ambitions. Arsenios was perfectly content with his trade business which dealt in expensive silks and jewels from the Far East.
'You are looking wonderful today.' He said
'Thank-you,' I replied graciously, 'You aren't looking to bad yourself.'
Arsenios chucked, 'As diplomatic as ever, I see.'
'How was your trip to Samos?' I asked.
'Well enough, I suppose, considering the circumstances. Prices have been good there because many merchants aren't willing to risk travelling there, still too many renegade troops prowling about. Besides, they don't have much money and they're getting desperate since the Battle of Mycale.'
'Was Xerxes still there or has he finally returned to Persia?'
'He himself had gone but some of his retinue was still there.' He smiled grimly, 'So, onto brighter topics, has anything interesting happened while I was away?'
'Akakios7, son of Alcaeus8, was killed in a brawl with Euclid9, son of Eusebios10.'
'Alcaeus, the chief Archon?'
'The very same. There has been a lot of unrest between Alcaeus and Eusebios lately, something to do with a ancient blood feud.'
'Some people just can't forget, can they?' sighed Arsenios
'No,' I agreed, 'they cannot.'
We talked on politics, philosophy, art and life in general for a pleasant few hours, that is, until hunger interrupted.
'Shall we return to my house for lunch?'
'Thank you, yes. I'm starting to feel a little peckish.'
We walked to Arsenios' house where we were met at the door by a young slave girl who looked at me with wide eyes.
'This is my friend, Agnes,' he told the child, 'May we pass?'
'Sorry, sir.' The girl muttered.
I followed Arsenios through the house, across the main courtyard and into a spacious room with three reclining couches and a low table between them which faced onto the courtyard.
'Where is Ligeia11?' I asked
'My wife is visiting friends outside the walls. The festivities are always too much for her.'
I nodded understandingly, a sorrowful expression upon my face as if it was a great pity Ligeia wasn't here. In reality, I was relieved. We had never really got along for obvious reasons.
The girl who had answered the door brought in a platter with cheese, bread and olives as well as some roasted lamb, saved only for special occasions.
Once lunch was over I returned to my own house to prepare for the evenings entertainment. Arsenios once again sent a litter for me but this time he came personally and we found a place high on the Acropolis hill so we could see the whole lampadedromia12 from Prometheus' altar outside the city walls to the altar of Athena on the Acropolis.
Turning to Arsenios I asked, 'Who is the favourite to win?'
'Andronikos' team.' Arsenios replied, 'Everyone always expects Athens to win.'
'I know better than to anger the gods.' Arsenios snapped
'Well, I'm betting on the Leontis13 team to win.' I told him coyly.
'How much are you willing to bet?' A gleam of interest lit his tired eyes.
'10 drachmas.' I told him, producing the coins from a purse on my belt.
'Pfft. Don't play me for a fool. Make it worth while.'
'Okay then, what about 100…gold.' I teased.
'You're on!' Arsenios enthused.
I laughed. If there was one thing that was dependable about Arsenios, it was his susceptibility to a bet. We watched the relay with interest. Finally it began to wind its way up the Acropolis, its path marked by the flames bobbing in the darkness. As it passed us we stood and joined the crowd flooding into the Acropolis. The procession came to a stop at the altar of Athena.
Priestesses and priests chanted as they led the sacrificial animals to the altar where they made libations.
'Come,' Arsenios said, tugging on my sleeve, 'Let us get a better view.'
I personally had no liking for the blood and gore but the religious sacrifices were one of Arsenois' few passions so I humoured him.
When we had a better view I asked, 'What are they doing?'
'They are applying olive oil to the beasts to make the offering more inviting to Athena and to thank her for her gift.'
'Then they will slit its throat so the blood away from the altar.' I asked, as if I didn't already know.
'Yes, but first we throw the barley seeds to show we are only spectators, to proclaim our innocence in the killing of the animal. Then they poor water on it's head so that it is purified and also because that makes it nod in agreement, otherwise it would be murder.' He replied
'I see, then what happens?' I enquired.
The High priestess will remove the entrails to see if the sacrifice is acceptable. Then, if it is, you know what happens next.' Arsenios smiled
'The feast.' I told him.
'Yes!' he exclaimed, like a teacher to his pupil, and rubbed his protruding gut, 'The feast! Cooked on an open fire so the gods may share in what we eat.'
'Then let's not keep them waiting!'
It was well past midnight before I once more collapsed into bed.
1. heteara-a high status prostitute, similar to the Japanese geisha, highly educated.
2. pannychos- the night sacrifice held on the sixth night of the Great Panathenea
3. peplos- a woven garment, the normal dress for women
4. Kerameikos- a district of Athens on either side of the Dipylon gates, traditional home of brothels etc.
5. drachma- greek currency
6. deme- the districts which Attica was divided into
7. Akakios- means 'evil'
8. Alcaeus- means 'strength'
9. Euclid-means 'glory of good'
10. Eusebios-means 'pious'
12. lampadedromia-the torch relay preceding the pannychos
13. Leontis- a deme of Attica