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William Davis, A Day in Old Athens

 

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Page 9

The Barber Shops

 

    This habit of genteel idleness naturally develops various peculiar institutions. For example, the barber shops are almost club rooms. Few Hellenes at this time shave their beards,[8] but to go with unkempt whiskers and with too long hair is most disgraceful. The barber shops, booths, or little rooms let into the street walls of the houses, are therefore much frequented. The good tonsors have all the usual arts. They can dye gray hair brown or black; they can wave or curl their patrons' locks (and an artificially curled head is no disgrace to a man). Especially, they keep a good supply of strong perfumes; for many people will want a little scent on their hair each morning, even if they wish no other attention. But it is not an imposition to a barber to enter his shop, yet never move towards his low stool before the shining steel mirror. Anybody is welcome to hang around indefinitely, listening to the proprietor's endless flow of talk. He will pride himself on knowing every possible bit of news or rumor: Had the Council resolved on a new fleet-building program? Had the Tyrant of Syracuse's "four" the best chance in the chariot race in the next Olympic games? The garrulity of barbers is already proverbial.

    "How shall I cut your hair, sir?" once asked the court tonsure of King Archeläus of Macedon.

    "In silence," came the grim answer.

    But the proprietor will not do all the talking. Everybody in the little room will join. Wits will sharpen against wits; and if the company is of a grave and respectable sort, the conversation will grow brisk upon Plato's theory of the "reality of ideas," upon Euripides's interpretation of the relations of God to man, or upon the spiritual symbolism of Scopas's bas-reliefs at Halicarnassus.

    The barber shops by the Agora then are essential portions of Athenian social life. Later we shall see them supplemented by the Gymnasia;—but the Agora has detained us long enough. The din and crowds are lessening. People are beginning to stream homeward. It lacks a little of noon according to the "time-staff" (gnomon), a simple sun dial which stands near one of the porticoes, and we will now follow some Athenian gentleman towards his dwelling.

 

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