If you should find yourself out and about in Athens in the fourth century BCE, here are some things to be mindful of:
1. Dress Code and Grooming
One’s cloak should reach down to the calves. An ankle-length cloak is a sign of affectation, while a short cloak is the mark of a poor person, a penny-pincher, a pro-Spartan or a philosopher. The cloak should be thrown over the left shoulder, so that it hangs in folds, held in position by the left arm, leaving the right arm free. One should definitely wear undergarments. The right combination is thin undergarments, with a thick cloak, not the reverse. When sitting, the cloak should be pulled down below the knees.
Long hair is the sign of a rich young dandy, but hair cut too often, whitened teeth, and strong perfume are the signs of an oligarch or an arrogant man. Conversely, to smell of garlic, or strong herbs is boorish. As for tattooes – it is best not to have them, or at least, to cover them up. In Thrace, a tattoo is the mark of noble birth, but in Athens it is the mark of a runaway slave.
In ancient Athens, men do the shopping, not women. It is appropriate to be accompanied by a slave who will carry one’s purse and the shopping and walk behind at a distance. A respectable man does not carry his own shopping, or use the front pocket of his cloak as a shopping bag. In the market, one must be careful not to be seen outside the perfumer’s or the hairdresser’s shops for this is where loungers and gossips congregate. And one mustn’t associate with market-traders, riff-raff or people who have lost lawsuits. By all means, one can talk to the nut and fruit sellers, but not when the market is really busy, and it’s not fair to eat their produce while talking to them.
3. Meeting and greeting
When shaking hands, only the right hand is used, the left hand is kept inside the cloak. Double-handed clasping is considered over familiar and to embrace someone with both arms is excessive and obsequious. Only a boorish type talks at the top of his voice, wipes his nose with the back of his hand, or spits in public. Slandering others is bad form, particularly slandering one’s friends and relatives. To speak ill of the dead is unlawful.
4. The bathhouse
There are only four rules to remember in the Athenian bathhouse: bring your own oil flask (it must be fresh oil, not rancid); respect the bath-attendant (it is his job to douse you with water, not yours); don’t practice wrestling moves or wriggle around; and don’t sing.
5. Attending a symposium
If you are invited to dinner, it is important to remember that shoes are not normally worn indoors. Modest praise of the host and the host’s children and the house and the wine is appropriate. The place of honour is beside the host but only a man of petty ambition would insist on sitting next to the host. If you are minded to spit, you mustn’t spit across the table and hit the wine-waiter.
6. Hosting a symposium
If you are hosting the dinner, it pays to remember that a respectable host will never answer the door himself because that is his slave’s job. Make sure that there is enough food, especially meat and bread. A host must dine with his guests – only an arrogant man would ignore his guests and instruct one of his employees to look after them. It is important to mix the right amount of wine, to have the flute girls ready to go, and only to dance with those who are sufficiently intoxicated.
*This is a selection and summary of material I presented at the 2017 FAAIA Annual Fundraising Dinner.
Sources: J. Diggle (2004) Theophrastus: Characters, Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries 43, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Images: Watercolour sketches by Peter Connolly (sourced online).