How to Survive in Ancient Greece by Robert Garland
How to Survive in Ancient Greece (2020), by Robert Garland, is a lightly casual tour of the day to day existence in Classical Athens, specifically in the year 420 B.C. in the midst of what most consider the Golden Age of Classical Greece, a time when Athens and Sparta are at relative peace, Sophocles and Euripides are competing for the dramatic competitions, and Socrates is stirring up trouble. Were it not for the threat of plague, cholera, typhus; the constant odor of human waste, slavery, patriarchy, and class division, it’d be a wonderful time to be alive …
Garland opens up with a concise timeline of major events before and afterward, an explanation of why discussions of Classical “Greece” typically means Classical Athens, a brief dip into pertinent history (particularly the wars with Persia and Sparta), a description of the physicality of the city itself, and then some concise overviews of important aspects of Athenian life, such as the gods, slavery, commerce, etc.
Following the generalities are sections on Women and Family (relations between the genders, marriage, childbirth, child-rearing, etc.), Shopping, Homes, Food and Diet (what there is), Clothing (not a lot of options), Work (Athenians don’t care for it), Health (good luck), Relaxation and Entertainment (you’re out of luck, women, save for those fun times preparing corpses for burials), the Military, Politics and Law, Lives of the Rich, Poor, and Enslaved (hint: it’s better to be the first of those), and Religion. Garland then wraps up with some imagined monologues by individuals representing various societal niches, such as slave, a merchant, a mugging victim, and others.
As noted, this is a light and casual book; as Garland says in his intro, it isn’t a “conventional” work of history and a far cry from an academic tome. If you’ve read much Classical history, there will be little new to you, though a few nuggets will probably be so thanks to their specificity. For instance, I didn’t know or didn’t recall the nearly 200 sanctuaries of Asclepius (think health clinics) or some of the specifics re: crime and punishment. But for someone who hasn’t read much on the time period, someone who has a basic curiosity about how people lived back then, or for younger readers/students who have matured past the children’s book versions of these sorts of histories, How to Survive in Ancient Greece offers up a highly readable and informative on a basic level introduction to that life, one bolstered by a number of photographs and illustrations/maps.
As for the monologues at the end, though they are a little too slangy for my personal liking, they do bring some of the facts home a bit more intimately. I did wish Garland had provided a “For Further Reading” list at the end (he does offer up a glossary of important terms), but that’s a minor quibble. Recommended for the casually interested who aren’t looking for a lot of detail or analysis but more for a quick, maybe even cursory, outline of day to day existence.