Ancient Greece was the cradle of Western civilization. The Greeks gifted the world with the epic poetry of Homer, the philosophy of Plato and Socrates, and stately columned temples where they offered sacrifices to a pantheon of jealous gods.

But what was daily life like in ancient Greece? Michael Lovano, a history professor at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin and author of The World of Ancient Greece: A Daily Life Encyclopedia, says that it was remarkably like our own.

Here are nine everyday objects from ancient Greece that help forge a connection with people living nearly 3,000 years ago.

1. Protective Statues

The home was the center of ancient Greek life and protecting the home and its inhabitants required daily offerings and prayers to the gods. In addition to a small family altar in the courtyard, ancient Greeks placed special objects at the entrance to the home to “protect it from evil spirits or dangerous energies,” says Lovano.

One such object was called a herm, a small statue of Hermes (pictured at top), the god of travel. Upon leaving the house, family members would say a prayer to Hermes to protect them on their journey—even if it was only a short trip to the market—and offer a prayer of gratitude for returning home safely.

Statuette of Hekate, 2nd Century. Ancient Greek objects.
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A statuette of Hekate, 2nd Century.

Another popular talisman was a three-sided statue of Hekate (above), the goddess of witchcraft, which ancient Greeks placed outside their doorways to deflect any “evil eye energies” coming from the outside. Smaller protective figurines of Hekate made of wood could be carried around in the home or on journeys.

2. Wine-Mixing Bowl: Krater

The English word “crater” comes from a type of ancient Greek “punch bowl” called a krater. The krater was the centerpiece of the symposium, an Ancient Greek drinking party filled with wine, women and song.

The ancient Greeks thought that drinking undiluted wine was “vulgar” and led to drunkenness. That’s where the krater came in. Kraters were wide-rimmed bowls made of ceramic or bronze in which wine was mixed with water and then ladled out to the guests at the symposium.

The symposium played an important role in Athenian democracy, because they were places where citizens could gather informally to share ideas and engage in philosophical discussions. Many of Plato’s dialogues were set at a symposium.

Lovano says that every Greek household would have a krater for family gatherings and celebrations. The humblest were made of unadorned red ceramic, while wealthier families owned craters with elaborate depictions of the gods making merry.

3. Ceramic Storage Vessels: Amphorae and Pithoi

Vases and amphorae, ancient Greek items.
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Vases and amphorae at an archaeological site on the island of Santorini in the southern Aegean.

Ancient Greek and Roman shipwrecks have been recovered with thousands of ceramic storage containers on board. Ceramic vessels were used in nearly every aspect of ancient Greek life, for drinking, mixing, serving and transporting but especially for storing valuable foodstuffs like grain, milk, olive oil and wine.

The most common everyday ceramic storage vessel was the amphora, a two-handled container that also doubled as a measurement of volume. At the market, ancient Greeks might buy one amphora of honey or two amphoras of wine.

Back home, families used much larger containers called pithoi for long-term storage of essential staples like barley and olive oil. “They consumed grain everyday and they used olive oil for everything,” says Lovano. “They washed their hair with olive oil, cleaned their bodies with it, made soap with it, cooked with it, and used it as fuel for oil lamps.”

A pithos was large enough to fit one or two people inside, and would sometimes be partially buried in an interior room to keep the contents cool so they were less likely to spoil.

4. Clothing: the Peplos and Chiton

Ancient Greek clothing.
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King and dancer in a painting from the Tomb of the Triclinium, 5th Century, showing classic ancient Greek clothing, including peplos and chiton.

In ancient Greek Art and sculpture, nudity was the norm, but in everyday life people definitely wore clothes. All clothes in ancient Greece were variations on the same theme: a large piece of cloth—usually wool, but sometimes flax or cotton—that was layered, folded or pinned into a comfortable and fashionable shape.

“Most of the Greeks wore a chiton or what we would call a tunic,” says Lovano. “It’s essentially a long T-shirt that goes down to mid-thigh, and they would tie it around their waist with some kind of string or rope.” The chiton could serve as an undergarment for additional layers of clothing—like a cloak called a himation—or be worn by itself.

Women wore long tunics, but also a type of ankle-length dress called a peplos. A peplos was made from two pieces of fabric clasped or pinned together at the shoulders. Lovano says that archeologists routinely find these clasps, which range from simple bronze brooches to jewelry-quality pieces made from silver and gold.

5. Chariots

Chariot races were the most anticipated and celebrated events on the ancient Greek calendar. Held during seasonal festivals honoring the gods, and during the ancient Olympic games, chariot races were dangerous, high-speed competitions held at open-air race tracks called hippodromes.

Each two-wheeled chariot was pulled by a team of four horses, and as many as 10 chariots at a time competed for glory, slamming into each other as they navigated hairpin turns. 

Chariots arrived in Greece from the Ancient Near East via Egypt and Cyprus, and they were made from wood reinforced with bronze plating. The ancient Greeks used chariots primarily for racing, not warfare.

6. The Greek Shield: Aspis

If you were a hoplite soldier in the Greek army, your essential everyday weapon was a simple wooden shield called an aspis. This round shield was invented in the 8th century B.C. and spread like wildfire across the Mediterranean because of a game-changing innovation: the leather back of the shield had two grips, one to secure the elbow and a second one for the hand.

Ancient Greek shields weren’t made entirely of metal like “old trash can lids,” says Lovano. The aspis got its strength from a wooden core that was reinforced with plates of metal like bronze or iron. Some of the shields were inlaid with Gorgon’s heads and other scenes to intimidate the enemy.

7. In the Temple: The Tripod

Today we think of tripods as handy devices for holding up a camera, but tripods in ancient Greece played a very different and sacred role. Ancient Greeks believed that their fates were firmly in the hands of the gods, who needed to be pleased and appeased through offerings and sacrifices at their temples.

“The most prominent object inside a Greek temple was a tripod made of bronze or iron,” says Lovano. “The priest or priestess put a cauldron on the tripod, lit a fire under it, and then you placed your ritual offerings in the cauldron—maybe grain, animal flesh, oil or wine.”

Most tripods were everyday ritual objects, but the most famous tripod was at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, home of the Delphic oracle. Here, the tripod formed a high pedestal upon which the virgin priestess sat and interpreted divine messages from Apollo.

8. Knucklebones

two women playing knucklebones, Ancient Greece
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Painted terracotta statuette of two women playing knucklebones, circa 330 BC-300 BC, Italy, Campania.

The ancient Greeks loved sports, races and competitive games of all types, including board games and ball games, says Lovano, but one of the most popular Greek pastimes for young and old was a game called knucklebones or astragaloi.

“The Greeks started out using real knucklebones from animals they sacrificed, but later they played with artificial bones made from terracotta, bronze, ivory and even gold and silver,” says Lozano.

The simplest versions of knucklebones were played by children. One was similar to jax, where the player would toss five bones in the air and see how many they could catch on the back of their hand. In another version, kids tried to land as many bones in a small vase or hole in the ground. 

Greek women used the bones as a fortune-telling device, especially young unmarried women looking for love. A roll where all five bones landed in different positions was particularly auspicious and was called an “Aphrodite throw.” Men used knucklebones to gamble. Each side of the knucklebone had a numerical value like dice, but unlike dice, the number facing down was the one that counted.

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