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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

William Davis, A Day in Old Athens


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The Athenian House and its Furnishings













Page 4

The Plan of a Greek House


    The plan of a Greek house naturally varies infinitely according to the size of the land plot, the size of the owner's family, his own taste, and wealth. It will usually be rectangular, with the narrower side toward the street; but this is not invariable. In the larger houses there will be two courts (aulæ), one behind the other, and each with its own circuit of dependent chambers. The court first entered will be the Andronitis (the Court of the Men), and may be even large enough to afford a considerable promenade for exercise. Around the whole of the open space run lines of simple columns, and above the opening swings an awning if the day is very hot. In the very center rises a small stone alter with a statue of Zeus the Protector (Zeus Herkeïos), where the father of the family will from time to time offer sacrifice, acting as the priest for the household. Probably already on the alter there has been laid a fresh garland; if not, the newcomers from the Agora have now fetched one.

    The Andronitis is the true living room of the house: here the master will receive his visitors, here the male slaves will work, and the women also busy themselves (promptly retiring, however, on the appearance of masculine strangers). The decoration is very plain: the walls are neatly tinted with some kind of wash; the floor is of simple plaster, or, in a humbler house, common earth pounded hard. Under the colonnade at all four sides open the various chambers, possibly twelve in all. They really are cells or compartments rather than rooms, small and usually lighted only by their doors. Some are used for storerooms, some for sleeping closets for the male slaves and for the grown-up sons of the house, if there are any. Dark, ill ventilated, and most scantily furnished, it is no wonder that the average Athenian loves the Agora better than his chamber.

    The front section of the house is now open to us, but it is time to penetrate farther. Directly behind the open court is a sizable chamber forming a passage to the inner house. This chamber is the Andron, the dining hall and probably the most pretentious room in the house. Here the guests will gather for the dinner party, and here in one corner smokes the family hearth, once the real fire for the whole household cooking, but now merely a symbol of the domestic worship. It is simply a little round alter sacred to Hestia, the hearth goddess,[6] and on its duly rekindled flame little "meat offerings and drink offerings" are cast at every meal, humble or elaborate.

    In the rear wall of the Andron facing the Andronitis is a solid door. We are privileged guests indeed if we pass it. Only the father, sons, or near male kinsmen of the family are allowed to go inside, for it leads into the Gynæconitis, the hall of the women. To thrust oneself into the Gynæconitis of even a fairly intimate friend is a studied insult at Athens, and sure to be resented by bodily chastisement, social ostracism, and a ruinous legal prosecution. The Gynæconitis is in short the Athenian's holy of holies. Their women are forbidden to participate in so much of public life that their own peculiar world is especially reserved to them. To invade this world is not bad breeding; it is social sacrilege.

    In the present house, the home of a well-to-do family, the Gynæconitis forms a second pillared court with adjacent rooms of substantially the same size and shape as the Andronitis. One of the rooms in the very rear is proclaimed by the clatter of pots and pans and the odor of a frying turbot to be the kitchen; others are obviously the sleeping closets of the slave women. On the side nearest to the front of the house, but opening itself upon this inner court, is at least one bed chamber of superior size. This is the Thalamos, the great bedroom of the master and mistress, and here are kept all the most costly furnishings and ornaments in the house. If there are grown-up unmarried daughters, they have another such bedroom (anti-thalamos) that is much larger than the cells of the slave girls. Another special room is set apart for the working of wool, although this chief occupation of the female part of the household is likely to be carried on in the open inner court itself, if the weather is fine. Here, around a little flower bed, slave girls are probably spinning and embroidering, young children playing or quarreling, and a tame quail is hopping about and watching for a crumb. There are in fact a great many people in a relatively small space; everything is busy, chattering, noisy, and confusing to an intruding stranger.


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