Shocking Facts About Ancient Greece You May Not Have Known

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The Ancient Greeks are famous worldwide for their philosophy, inventions, understanding of math, science and medicine, incredible armies, and their early forms of democracy. There are many articles, books, TV specials and so on that go over the greatest deeds of the Ancient Greeks, but that isn’t what we are here to talk about today. In today’s article, we will be going over the strange, bizarre, absurd, and disgusting facts about the Ancient Greeks — the things you don’t hear hailed as much as their greater achievements… 

10. The Ancient Greeks Preferred A Sort Of “Blurred Unibrow” On Their Women 

Today, having a unibrow is considered to be among the highest tier of fashion “don’ts,” along with things like the fanny pack, and wearing sandals with socks. Many people will not only shave, but even painfully pluck their eyebrows today in order to avoid even the slightest appearance of one, and at least for women (unless you’re Frida Kahlo), there are a decent amount of looks that basically minimize the eyelashes as much as possible. 

However, fashion goes in and out of… well, fashion, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Back in the days of Ancient Greece, the men definitely preferred the eyebrows to be a little more connected than they tend to be now. We do want to clear up a misconception, though, as some people have heard about this and are under the impression that Greek men liked whole, uninterrupted unibrows on their women. As far as historians can tell, though, what they were attracted to was more of a blurred unibrow, where it wasn’t fully joined, but only partially, to the point you could notice the contrast up close, but perhaps not tell too well from a distance. 

9. A Ridiculous Amount Of Athenians Were Actually Enslaved By Full Citizens 

Today, ancient Athens is considered to be one of the earliest bastions of democracy, learning, and free thought, which is kind of surprising because a huge amount of the population at any given time were either enslaved, or didn’t have the rights of full citizens. For starters, only those who were actually born of Athens or families from Athens could ever be full citizens, which meant at any given time, there were a large number of nationals living in Athens, who had citizenship in other parts of Greece or elsewhere. These people were treated mostly with respect and could do business and live temporarily in Athens, but they had no real say in the Athenian system. 

And then in terms of slaves, the numbers are hard to pin down. Ancient Athens was around for quite some time, so it is likely these numbers fluctuated at different points, but some estimates put the numbers at about 150,000 citizens, 50,000 nationals, and roughly 100,000 slaves around the year 432 B.C. Of course, sometimes overall population numbers written down from ancient times are hard to prove, or believed to potentially be exaggerations by historians (we’re looking at you, Herodotus). However, while we may not know the actual numbers for sure, and they may have changed throughout history, it is clear that at least a significant minority was enslaved at any given time. 

8. Spartan Warriors Were Guided By Flutes And Sang War Hymns Before Battle

In modern times, the Spartans — despite being a relatively small population in a small space — are still infamous for their past deeds and known as being among the most manly warriors to ever walk the land. However, what many people may not think much about is how combat may have really looked so far back in the day. Nowadays we have radio communication, making communication vastly easier, but back in the old days, armies usually used some kind of music to give orders and keep people in proper lineup. 

And the Spartans were no exception to this rule, but most people who imagine them going to battle with music would probably imagine drums or some kind of tough sounding instrument, but this wasn’t the case. The favored musical instrument for giving instructions in battle for the Spartans was the flute, a musical instrument that many people now associate more with femininity. Also, the Spartans going to battle really was almost a holiday-like affair for them, so perhaps the music was a way of adding some extra levity. It is said that the Spartans’ training routine was so brutal that going to battle was actually kind of a break for them. 

7. The Olympic Torch Relay Did Not Originate In Ancient Greece

Today, the Olympic torch relay is considered a pretty much essential part of the Olympic Games, and most couldn’t imagine the games without it. It helps build up hype, and people like to stand along parade lines, watching the torch pass and cheering along the relay runners. However, the truth is that while the Ancient Greeks did employ a ritual fire, they did not do any kind of torch relay. Instead, the entire thing was dreamed up by Carl Diem, the organizer of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Now, Diem was not himself a member of the Nazi Party, but the Nazi Party was running the country, and Goebbels saw Diem’s idea as great propaganda. 

The idea was that the relay would show the games symbolically going from the ruins of Ancient Greece, all the way to modern Germany. This was an attractive idea to Hitler, as he admired the Ancient Greeks, and felt that the Germans — being the “proper” Aryan race — were the rightful heirs to the Ancient Greeks, and the place of respect, power, and influence that they once held in the world. While the Olympic torch relay has become synonymous with the games, it has not, as some in the Third Reich once hoped, made it synonymous with the glory of Germany, or the supposed Aryan race. 

6. Athens Famed Democracy Wasn’t Really Quite How Many People Envision It 

Today people like to think of Athens as the cradle of democracy, and while it was advanced for its time, it was hardly a fair system as most people didn’t actually have a say. For starters, at any given time the population of Athens had a lot of slaves (as we mentioned above), and those slaves couldn’t vote. While some sources say during the greatest age of Athens the slave population was about a third, some sources suggest that near the same time period (about the early 400s B.C.), the slave population was closer to almost 60%.

Considering non-resident foreigners and women, along with the aforementioned slaves, were unable to vote, this narrowed down the voting population even further. Also, you had to be over 18 to vote, which means some estimates suggest that the population of voting people was only about 40,000 citizens, which would suggest only 15% of the population could vote at any given time. Now, some sources do suggest the slave percentage was a lot lower, and historical records on the exact population numbers at any given time are mostly estimates, but the point is that the vote was limited to a very small demographic of the overall population at any given time. 


5. The Spartans Had A Slave Population Called Helots That They Hunted Every Year 

Something that is often glossed often when kids are being told the history of the Spartans is how they managed to take care of all their agricultural needs. With all the men being warriors and all the women doing homemaking, it does leave the question of how their farming and other basic labor needs were met. Well, the Spartan solution was a population of slaves they called the Helots, although some sources suggested they might have once been a group of Messenians who were conquered long ago. Regardless, in various sources they tend to outnumber the Spartans by different figures depending on the time period, but always by absurd margins. 

This left the Spartans in constant fear of a revolt — a fear that was realistic, as multiple revolts were attempted (and eventually successful). In order to strike fear in the hearts of the Helots and make it less likely for them to rebel, they would ritually have their newest and youngest warriors hunt the toughest and bravest Helots every Autumn. As we mentioned, the Helots eventually did manage to successfully revolt, showing that no matter how tough a group of warriors you are, when your slaves vastly outnumber you, you cannot control them forever. 

4. Ancient Greeks Diluted Their Wine, They Considered It Uncultured Not To 

Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans were known for their love of wine, and some people imagine that pretty much everyone was getting drunk on a regular basis — especially those with a lot of wealth or power. And while there is some truth to this in any time period (after all, rich people and poor people sometimes drink to excess), people may have a bit of a confused picture of the situation. The truth is that the Ancient Greeks believed in watering down their wine, usually with a ratio of at least three parts water to one part wine. In fact, they considered it rather barbaric and uncouth to go drinking wine without diluting it with water first. 

The Ancient Romans are said to have diluted it even further, despite how many think them to be super hedonistic as a culture, and would sometimes dilute it at 10-to-1 ratio, or even further. Some historians have pointed out that this is more like adding some wine to your water than water to your wine, and might have been an attempt to kill off bacteria and make a glass of water safer to drink, while still keeping your wits about you. 

3. Married Women Were Not Allowed To Watch The Naked Olympic Competitors

While many people like to think of the Ancient Greeks as a very sexually free culture (and there is some truth to this compared to today), like many cultures of the time period, one thing they were absolutely not okay with was adultery. And for this reason, situations that might give someone adulterous desires were something that the Ancient Greek authorities believed should be avoided. Now, this presented a bit of a problem when it came to the Olympic Games, as the men competed entirely in the nude. For this reason, married women were not allowed to watch, as they may get lustful desires for men who were not their husbands. 

This meant that they couldn’t even watch their husband compete if he happened to be in the games, because there might be other naked men she could see as well. While this emphasis is put on married women, married men, as we mentioned, could still compete in the games, and young, single women could see them compete, and potentially make advances toward them afterwards. The rule here has an expectation that the party most likely to commit adultery would be an unfaithful woman. 

2. Their Methods For Wiping After Defecation Were Almost Entirely Unpleasant

Most people have heard of the famed bathroom and plumbing systems of Ancient Rome, and the relatively advanced systems in cities like ancient Athens. And, in modern days, many people have also learned that the Roman sewer system, in particular, could actually be a bit of a horror show. However, what would probably alarm folks more than anything, when it came to the bathroom hygiene habits of the Romans and Greeks, was how they cleaned up afterward. 

Of course they didn’t have toilet paper back in those days, so instead they used a sponge on a stick. Before and after using it to wipe, the stick was either left in a channel of running water, or dunked in a bucket of water that was also mixed with salt and vinegar (try to enjoy those potato chips while reading that one!). The really gross part is that this stick was communal, meaning that in public bathrooms, you could be cleaning up with a sponge used by a lot of other people. However, people sometimes got inventive, and there wasn’t always a single, standard method. According to the theory of a French anthropologist named Phillippe Charlier, the Ancient Romans and Ancient Greeks may have sometimes used small, flat-ish stones (without too many rough edges) in order to clean up after defecation. We guess it still beats the three seashell method

1. Part Of Testing A Spartan Babies Strength Was Dunking It In Wine

The Spartans were known for being incredibly unforgiving to little ones, and for practicing one of the earliest and most shocking forms of eugenics. They were known for testing babies for any birth defects, weaknesses, or other abnormalities, and then literally tossing the baby out as garbage if they didn’t pass muster. However, before the baby was brought before a group of elders, he had to go through the wine test. 

The wine test is about as messed up as it sounds. They would bathe the newborn baby in wine, and then just wait and see what happened. If the baby convulsed and died, obviously it was too weak to be a proper Spartan warrior, and the now shamed father could throw out the baby, move on and try to make more badass progeny. If the baby didn’t convulse and die from being bathed in wine, he would be taken before a group of elders. These old men would then decide the newborn’s fate, looking it over for any sign of weakness, and decide whether it would have a harsh life growing up knowing nothing but pain and war, or whether it would be left on a mountainside to die. 


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