Leisure and Festivals

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Leisure and Festivals


Rhythms of Life. The amount of leisure time, and the rhythms of daily life, varied tremendously according to location and class. Rich people in Athens and other large cities were not expected to work and would spend their days participating in politics, gossiping, training in the gumnasion (gymnasium), or perhaps engaging in intellectual pursuits. In Sparta, a strict military training regimen reduced the amount of leisure time for all classes. Everywhere and at all times working people and farmers had less leisure time, although this varied seasonally (especially for farmers) and during major civic festivals.

Sundials. Time was structured differently for the ancient Greeks than it is for the modern world. In a society with only poor means of illumination, the daylight hours were too valuable to waste: the habit of getting up at dawn was nearly universal. A further difference is that there were no accurate means of subdividing the day. Two time-telling devices were available: the sundial and the klepsudra, a clock that allowed water to drip from one container to another. Yet, these aids were limited since they could not provide accurate and consistent divisions of the entire day. The klepsudra was used to measure small amounts of time—in particular, to limit the amount of time given to speakers in courts. The sundial could measure the whole day, but with rather poor accuracy. Rather than using the location of the shadow on a dial, Greek sundials consisted of an upright pointer (the gnomon) which cast a shadow whose length varied throughout the day. An agreement to meet at a certain time might take the form of “Let’s meet when the shadow is ten feet long,” but this would only work if both people were using a sundial of the same length and, of course, if the weather was clear. Furthermore, the length of the shadow would vary according to season (longer in winter, when the sun is lower) so that the concept of a fixed division of the day (a sixty-minute hour or a sixty-second minute) never developed for the Greeks (or the Romans, who used more sophisticated sundials).

Schedules. Many events simply happened early. Since getting out of bed at dawn was standard practice, there was no particular reason not to begin the day’s activities then. Moreover, an invitation for dinner at sunset would be easy enough to interpret. Yet, most of the time life was lived with far less precision in regard to time than modern society is accustomed to: nothing could happen on a precise, tight schedule since there was almost no way to make such a schedule.

Calendar. The calendar as well had a significant influence on everyday life. There was no generally agreed upon calendar among the various Greek states: every state had its own, with different names for the months and even different dates for the New Year. Months were named after gods honored in them (Poseidon, for instance), or after festivals that occurred within them (Anthesterion, from the festival Anthesteria). Each month had 29 or 30 days, leaving a year of 354 or 355 days, which meant that an extra month (known as an intercalary month) had to be added about every third year to keep the calendar in line with the seasons. Years were usually reckoned according to the names of civic officials (for example, “in the archonship of Demetrios”), but could also be expressed in terms of Olympiads: that is, four-year periods dating from the first Olympian Games (ancient forerunners of our modern Olympics) in 776 b.c.e. Thus, someone might refer to “the second year of the fifty-first Olympiad” for the year 575 b.c.e., but this method did not become widespread until later.

Weekdays. There was nothing corresponding to the modern notion of the week: that is, no regular, recurring pattern of days, with some set aside for rest. Instead, there were religious festivals, scheduled throughout the year at irregular intervals, that gave working people a

break from their daily routine. There were perhaps sixty festival days in the Athenian calendar, and the activities that took place during festivals were some of the most pleasant, and important, of Greek life.

Celebrations. While certain religious occasions such as thusiai, or sacrifices, were quite solemn, others were carefree, lighthearted, and even raucous affairs. The large public festivals known as heortai were characterized by parades, games, abundant food and wine, music, athletic competitions, and dramatic performances. Modern analogues might include Fourth of July celebrations, St. Patrick’s Day parades, church picnics, the Olympic Games, and open-air dramatic festivals such as Shakespeare in the Park. Yet, not one of these contains all the elements of a large Greek festival. Although every Greek city had its own festivals, those of Athens are the best known. The most important Athenian festivals were the Panathenaia, the Anthesteria, the Thesmophoria, and the City Dionysia.

Panathenaia. The Panathenaia was an annual festival, dedicated to the city’s patron goddess Athena, and took place in the month of Hekatombaion (late summer, usually equivalent to August). It began with a pannukhis, or all-night festival, in which choruses of young men and women would feast, sing, and dance. On the following day the festival’s most spectacular event took place: a large procession, which is represented on the Parthenon frieze (now in the British Museum in London). Members of different groups of Athenian society (including resident foreigners) marched or rode on horseback through the city and up to the Acropolis. This procession was followed by sacrifices to Athena, and the roasting and public distribution of the meat. (Distribution was by lot, and the assertion that all citizens were entitled to equal shares was an important part of democratic ideology.) Every fourth year, the festival was expanded into a “Greater Panathenaia,” which included competitions in athletics and music, open to citizens of other Greek states. On these occasions, the Panathenaia rivaled the large Panhellenic athletic festivals such as the Olympian Games.

Anthesteria. The Anthesteria was dedicated to Dionysus, especially in his role as god of wine. It took place in the month named after it (Anthesterion), roughly corresponding to February. On the first day of the festival (Pithoigia, which literally means “jar-opening”), jars of new wine from the previous autumn’s harvest were taken to the sanctuary of Dionysus in the Marshes, opened, and consumed after libations were offered to the god. The second day (Khoes) was devoted to a sort of drinking contest: participants, including children and slaves, sat at tables and drank (in silence) khoes filled with wine. The khoes were large vessels, holding about five liters (over one gallon), and participating in one’s first Khoes festival was a sort of rite of passage for young people (not unlike a bar mitzvah or first communion). The third day involved offering pots full of seed and vegetable bran to the dead. The festival as a whole seems to have involved reversals of normal status and practices and was celebrated in most Greek cities that spoke the Ionian dialect.

Thesmophoria. The Thesmophoria was a women’s festival honoring Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, and was celebrated in all Greek cities. It took place in the autumn, before the time for the sowing of winter crops. Women set up camps outside the city walls and stayed there for three days. At some time well before the festival, pigs were slaughtered and thrown into pits; during the festival the rotted remains were brought up and placed on altars to Demeter and her daughter Korê, and then mixed with seed in order to ensure a good harvest. Men were excluded from the festival, and participants were supposed to keep the proceedings a secret. In fact, they did so quite well, since modern scholars have little evidence of what actually went on: it seems that the telling of obscene jokes was an element of the festival. Men’s curiosity about the proceedings is reflected in the 411 b.c.e. comedy by Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousai I (Women at the Thesmophoria), in which a man tries unsuccessfully to infiltrate the festival.

City Dionysia. The City Dionysia was another festival dedicated to Dionysus, taking place in the month of Elaphebolion (late March). This period was a slack time for agriculture, and the city was full of visitors from the surrounding countryside and from other parts of Greece. The festival began with a procession bringing an image of Dionysus to the theater built in his honor on the south slope of the Acropolis. The following day, a larger procession wound its way through the city, with the participants bearing various symbols of fertility including phalli and loaves of bread. Sacrifices, with public distribution of the meat, followed. The next four days were devoted to dramatic competitions, with each of the city’s ten tribes entering one men’s chorus and one boys’ chorus in the dithyramb (a dramatic choral performance which involved song and dance, but no separate actors). After the dithyramb, competitions in tragedy and comedy performances took place. Three tragedians would compete, each producing three tragedies and one satyr play; and five different comedians would each produce one play. Dramatic performances would be held in the open-air theater dedicated to Dionysus, and would last an entire day.

Sense of Community. What these festivals all have in common, besides their religious elements, is their celebration of community. All members of the community participated—women, slaves, metics, and children—and not just male citizens. Festivals provided the poor with a chance to eat and drink well at public expense. They could also serve as rites of initiation into the community for younger people and allow grown men to show off their power and prestige. For women, they provided a chance to get out of the house and to participate in civic life in ways not normally available to them. Evidence from Aristophanes suggests that the religious rites and festivals were among the most memorable and noteworthy moments in many women’s lives: old women in the Lysistrata (411 b.c.e.) reminisce about participating in a procession to Artemis and carrying sacred relics to honor Athena. Classicists know relatively little about the daily life of women: much of it must have taken place inside the house and been devoted to housework, weaving, and other crafts. Male sources, with misogyny that is partly serious and partly in jest, suggest that women spent their time in drinking, gossiping, and shopping for clothes and ornaments. The available information about festivals provides a partial corrective to this notion.


Richard Hamilton, Choes and Anthesteria: Athenian Iconography and Ritual (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991).

Herbert William Parke, Festivals of the Athenians (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977).

Arthur Wallace Pickard-Cambridge, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968).