Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Home Life of the Ancient Greeks by Hugo Blümner

From cradle to grave in Athens and Sparta
Hugo Blümner was a German archaeologist who wrote several books on ancient Greece and Rome. His book The Home Life of the Ancient Greeks was published in English in 1895. It was first published in German in 1887 as Leben und Sitten der Griechen. The book is a synthesis of what was known in the late nineteenth century about the daily lives of ancient Greeks, not just the kings and warriors of renown but also the common folk and even slaves. Much of the book’s conclusions are drawn from extant texts and works of art left behind by the Greeks rather than from archaeological digs in which remains and artifacts are found in situ. For example, Blümner frequently refers to Homer’s descriptions of the archaic Greek world, as well as vase paintings and statues pictured in over 200 illustrations

The book opens with a very extensive chapter on clothing that really challenges the reader’s attention span with its charting of every fold, stitch, and pleat in the ancient Greek wardrobe. Next is a discussion of childbirth and childhood that covers not only how children were cared for but also how they amused themselves. After describing the kind of education Greek children of different classes would have received, Blümner then delves into marriage customs. This is followed by a dawn-to-bedtime study of daily life in a Greek household, paying close attention to the different activities practiced by men and women. A chapter on sickness and death explains the birth of the medical profession in Greece as well as burial customs. Succeeding chapters deliver copious details of the athletic, musical, and religious activities of the Greeks. A section on public festivals provides a vivid look at the Olympics and the Festival of Dionysus, among other events. Blümner’s very interesting chapter on Greek theatre does not go into the literary history of drama but rather describes how the plays were performed and the experience of the theatergoers. The book then delves into the lives of soldiers, farmers, and artisans before closing with a chapter on slaves, who greatly outnumbered the free population of ancient Greece.

Blümner admits that most of his book applies specifically to Athens and its vicinity, for that was the area of Greece on which most archaeological knowledge had been accumulated. On many subjects, however, he also provides specific information on Spartan life and customs, and on rarer occasions he discusses some of the outlying regions of Greece. Blümner also makes a distinction between the “heroic age” (the time of Homer’s works) and the “classic” period of Greek history, from about the sixth to the third century BC. He often discusses both eras, pointing out differences between the two.

A lot of archaeological digs have taken place over the past century, which no doubt have expanded upon our knowledge of ancient Greece, so there are bound to be some errors in accuracy and omissions of detail in Blümner’s work. For the non-archaeologist like myself, however, Blümner draws a sufficiently clear picture of the ancient Greek world to satisfy the curious general reader. Blümner’s writing, and its translation, were aimed at a nineteenth-century audience, so his prose often comes across as stilted and dry by today’s standards. For a more up-to-date, detailed, and user-friendly synthesis on the subject, I would recommend the Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece by Lesley and Roy Adkins, from Oxford University Press’s exceptional Handbook to Life series. Though it wasn’t always the most engaging text, I did learn much from The Home Life of the Ancient Greeks and found it a rewarding read.

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