A – Classical Era

© Bob Denton, 2016
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© Bob Denton, 2016
Advance to A2 Romans   –   Advance to A3 Other civilizations
Forward to Middle Ages   –  Back to S S and S Foreword
Back to Unpublished writing


‘The glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome’
Edgar Allan Poe

The Three Ds considers the development of agriculture, the pre-cursors of civilization and looked at some of the early peoples who drove progress in water management, crop and cattle husbandry, communal living, arts and crafts, moral and legal systems and hygiene.

These building blocks were used in the Mediterranean region to create a quantum leap as the Classical Greeks (5thc to 4thc BCE) which then gave way to the Hellenistic Period (4thc to 2ndc BCE) and this was then interwoven and supplanted by the Roman Republic (5thc to 1stc BCE) and subsequently the Roman Empire (1stc BCE to 5thc CE).

These significant cultures and their rediscovery during the Renaissance (14thc to 17thc CE), have been so influential in many fields of human endeavour – and certainly that is true of water management, sewerage systems, bathing, toilets and hygiene.

Yet it did not start well for these ancients, in the third-century BCE Heraclides of Crete visited Athens and commented ‘The city is completely dry: it is poorly supplied with water, and, due to its age, its streets and neighbourhoods are poorly laid out. Most houses are simple, a few are comfortable.’

Unlike earlier civilisations the Greeks did not build their city-states beside rivers, partly because they preferred defensible positions but also because there were so few major rivers in their territories. Of course, avoiding rivers did remove the issues of floods and diseases like malaria. But this decision meant they had to become adept water managers and hydraulic engineers.

A1 – Greece

Ancient Greece

Greek civilization emerged in the eighth-century BCE following three centuries of its so-called ‘Dark Age’. Considered as a damaging period for the Greeks, hence ‘Dark’, but the word is also applied because its history remains quite vague. The eighth-century BCE was when the ‘Greeks’ overthrew Mycenaean hereditary rulers and structures, when Homer is said to have written his Iliad and Odyssey epics and when the first Olympic Games were held (776 BCE).

Phoenician script
Ancient Greek script

It was also during this period that the Greeks chose to drop the pre-existing Linear A script of the Minoans and dismiss the Linear B of the Mycenaeans and instead adopted their own version of the Phoenician alphabet.

Greece evolved into a collection of polises or city-states led by local oligarchies of land-owners. These were urban capitals built around an acropolis (hill), that controlled a rural region where its vital agriculture was grown and harvested.

With time these polises became religious centres with significant temples, often grouped on the acropolis, holding a calendar of festivals to bind its populace together. The urban and rural came together at an agora (market) where produce and artisanal goods were bought and sold. Around this public square, colonnaded covered walkways protected the populace from rain and sun, these were also where shops and offices were located. With time the rule of a polis led to the appointment of a king and a democratic government by the demos, the people. They routinely argued and warred with other polises in today’s Greece and further afield.

The area is not copiously supplied with water from continuous flow rivers, or lakes or rich springs, most had to be drawn from man-made wells. Solon (640-558 BCE) was an Athenian poet, stateman and lawmaker who is credited for having created the basis of democracy.

in 594 BCE Solon passed a law so that if there was an existing well located within a hippicon (710 metres) of your home you could use it. If you were more distant then you were obliged to find your own source, however if you dug down ten fathoms (18.3m) without success then you could draw a 20-litre hydria or six choae twice each day from your neighbour’s well. He believed it prudent to make provision against need, but not to advocate laziness. (Plutarch, Solon 23)

Greek mythology abounds with water references. Hydros was an original god of the primordial water, Poseidon was god of the sea, with his sea goddess Amphitrite, Eurybia was goddess of the mastery of the seas, Psamathe the goddess of sandy beaches, Oceanus a Titan god of all fresh-water, Nereus the god of the seas’ bounty of fish, Achelous was the senior river deity. We should not omit the naiads who were freshwater nymphs located by fountains, wells and springs (not rivers), oceanids the nymphs for ponds, lakes, rivers and seas. There were also water-referenced monsters, Sirens, Gorgons, Carcinus, Charybdis…

Early Greek homes were quite thin on possessions, the bedroom would have a wood and wicker bed, a simple chair and a small chest for valuables. Houses were lit by oil lamps, using animal fats and vegetable oils, and cooking was over coal in a brazier. The home would have large clay jars for storing their cereals, oil, tar, water and wine. Pine tar caulked their boats and ships and was often used to proof their clay jars, though this inevitably flavoured fluids. Greek pottery was produced in a wide variety of shapes. amphorae for wine, hydriai for water, kraters to mix wine and water…

Amphora – showing Achilles and Penthesilea
Hydria – showing queue for water
Bell krater – depicting games

Greece evolved as a civilization that believed in health and cleanliness. Their mythological goddess of good health, cleanliness and sanitation was Hygeia, intriguingly and appropriately she was the daughter of Asclepius the god of medicine. She had a number of sisters – Panacea, goddess of universal remedy and of recuperation; Aceso, the goddess of healing. The Greek word hygieine means sound, healthy or strong, it was later Greek thinkers that used the term hygiene to mean the art of health.


BRIEFER: The Greek god Asclepius appears to mirror the Egyptian god of medicine Imhotep, who founded their medical understanding and practices.

Those who did not speak Greek or following Greek customs were considered barbarian. Custom proposed that individuals must be washed at birth, when they married and at death – Athenians joked that some people, the Dardanians (aka Trojans) and Illyrians (Balkans) only ever washed on those three occasions in their lives.

The Greeks believed in four fundamental elements – air, earth, fire and water – and four principles – cold, hot, dry and wet. They believed the body had four humours – black and yellow bile, blood and phlegm and that it was an imbalance in these four fluids that caused sickness and disease.

To control these fluids and restore harmony there was an established regimen for diet, exercise, walking, sleeping, bathing, sex and morality. For diet the rebalancing required the individual to eat raw food or boil, grill or roast it to restore moistness, dryness, heat or cold. They also had the concept of a miasma, a foul air or atmosphere that brought disease, it meant literally a stain, an offence against the Gods.

6th century BCE

Ancient Greece really flourished from 510 BCE after the Spartans helped the Athenians to overthrow Hippias their king. These were not peaceful times, with fifty years of war against Persia. The most significant Greek city-states became Athens, Alexandria (Egypt) and Syracuse (Sicily) with Athens established leadership over the other Greek city-states. ‘Greeks’ drew upon developments of the earlier Minoan civilization on Crete and Cyprus.

Minoan water engineering

Their diet was not varied, they ate twice a day, the Ariston, a light lunch and the Deipnon, their main meal in the evening, of course liberally washed down with wine. The Greeks would have us believe that viticulture was commenced on Mount Nyasa by Dionysus, their god of revelry and wine. In fact, winemaking started in today’s Armenia and Georgia. It was the norm for diners lying on their couches during a meal to call for a chamber pot and urinate at the table.

Water was brought into the Greek cities via aqueducts but usually delivered only to public fountains, some affluent homes would have clay pipe supplies but these were exceptional. 

6th century BCE aqueduct on Samos island
Tunnel of Eupalinos or ‘Eighth wonder of the world’

The first major hydraulic project in Athens was constructed under the tyrant Peisistratos and his sons, who reigned from 546-527 BCE. Peisistratos was Hippocrates son. They created aqueducts to lead water from nearby mountains. The Pentelicus aqueduct was built in 510 BCE for 7.5 kms ( m) from the mountains to near the Acropolis. It had a 1.5m [4-5ft] diameter with air shafts every 40-50 metres.  The Hymettos aqueduct had two conduits and passed under the bed of the Ilissus river. These two fed a reservoir from which the water was led by underground channels and baked-clay pipes around the city. A third aqueduct from Mount Pares was reconstructed later so its original approach is less clear. These served private and public baths, the latter often situated adjacent to gymnasia.

Peisistratean aqueduct formed by terracotta piping, Athens
Image source: www.ancientwatertechnologies.com

Between 550 and 540 BCE an aqueduct, the Eupalinos tunnel (1040m long), was created on Samos island, connecting a spring to the settlement, It has the distinction of being the second known tunnel dug from both ends (the first was in the eight-century BCE at Jerusalem). This was notably the first to apply the Greek invention of geometry to do so.

Ancient Greek child seat/chamber pot
early 6th century BCE
Source: Ancient Agora Museum. Athens

In the 6th century BCE one solution to potty-training was this device that secured the child with a slot for its legs, a pot like this was discovered in the Athens Agora in the 1950s.

5th /4th century BCE

In the 5th century BCE the Athens population was only 30,000.

Athens in the 5th century BCE

Excavations at Athens and Olympus reveal that it was in the fifth-century BCE that the Greeks began to organise water supply systems using lead pipes, with drainage and sewerage systems to serve both baths and latrines.

Thirty years of war with their erstwhile ally, Sparta, led to a Greek defeat as the fourth-century BCE dawned, a renewed generation of conflict eventually led to Sparta’s defeat. This time it was Thebes that emerged dominant but by the middle of the 4th century BCE Macedonia overtook it to become the prominent force in the region.

Macedon’s Philip and his son Alexander gained power over the Greek city-states and expanded their control to create a large regional empire. The Greco-Macedonians dominated the Mediterranean until the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE.

Their conquests established Greek as the lingua franca across central Asia, Egypt, India and Persia. For two centuries this allowed them to enjoy valuable trade while Greek thinkers made massive strides in architecture, astronomy, geography, mathematics and philosophy.

Ancient GReek gymnasion

The Greeks were one of the earliest civilizations to focus its attention on diet, exercise and hygiene. The exercise regimen was in gymnasion or gymnastic schools, there is a great deal or prurient interest in the root word gymnos which means naked. It is suggested that exercise was performed while naked, an aesthetic appreciation of the body being encouraged.

Ancient Greek gymnasium work-out

The gymnasium was more than a fitness centre in keeping with the Greek holistic approach to mind and body. They were for men over 18 years old and used for exercise, communal bathing and it was where musical, scholarly and philosophical notions were expounded, a number had libraries too. Exercise had a purpose, skills were applied in competitions held during their festivals to gods and heroes.

However, Greek mythology regularly featured bathing in rivers and hot springs and for the lower classes this was still the norm. In early times bathing at a gymnasium involved a plunge in a cold basin of water. As gymnasia evolved they supplied basins and communal pools with heated water.

Understanding that being clean was good for health, Greeks would wash daily at home from a louterion or bowl set upon a pedestal. They did not wash in water but instead used olive oil, rubbing and other aromatic oils into their bodies to keep their skin soft. This meant washing became necessary to remove these oils. They washed with a lye oil and a mixture of ashes, fuller’s earth (an adsorbent clay) and nitrum (an alkali salt) and then the resultant mixture was scraped from the body with a strigil. The strigil was also used to bypass a wash, when it was used simply to scrape off dirt and sweat.

A pair of strigils with an oil flask
Image source: www.gridclub.com

Also in the 5th century BCE, Herodotus described a very special vapour (drug inducing) bath practised by the Scythians, nomads from today’s Ukraine, considered as barbarian. ‘The Scythians take some of this hempseed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives off such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed.’ Were they then the first to be noted for using cannabis?

Coin showing Scythian with cannabis

They invented a simple shower arrangement with an overhead cistern of water to wash off the oils when they had finished. An Athenian vase from the fourth-century BCE shows female athletes using a shower at a gymnasium. A second-century BCE gymnasium at Pergamon has been excavated to show it contained a series of these shower-baths.

Depiction of shower

Dating to 350 BCE the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was warmed by a hypocaust, hypo meaning under and caust meaning burnt. Heated air was circulated through flues laid in the floor, a similar process used by the later and better-known Roman systems.

Great Drain at Athens Agora

Many Greeks simply defecated in the streets as there were no latrines in Greek homes, or instead used chamber pots which they or a slave would empty in to a drain running down the centre of the street. This detritus would have to await a rainfall for the effluent to be washed away (see below Paris gutter water). In Athens the output of the open defecators and the dumped chamber pots’ contents built up in the streets until 400 BCE when a law forbade this. From thereafter a site was designated outside the city for the purpose.

Ceramic depiction of a chamber pot

Greeks used pessoi (pebbles) to wipe their backsides. These were often small ceramic or terracotta disks between 2 and 6 cms in size (0.7 to 2.4 inches). Much debate has taken place as to whether these were broken pieces of pottery or re-tasked game tokens, though the latter appears to be more about early erroneous museum attributions. Traditionally Greeks believed that three pessoi were sufficient to finish the jobbie. It doesn’t bear thinking about the havoc these pessoi would have caused with anal mucous – causing and irritating haemorrhoids!

Well-used Pessoi

Perhaps one thing that eased their discomfort was pessoi discovered with names scribed on them, assumed to be the name of ‘enemies’ offering the vicarious pleasure of scraping them through your faeces, rather than signifying ownership.

BRIEFER: The Greeks also used broken pieces of ceramics for voting on the issues of the day, for this application these were called ostraka. If the vote was on whether someone should be sent in to exile they would scratch the name of the person they wished to banish onto the shard. This is where the expression ‘to ostracise’ derives. Not being wasteful people, some ostraka would then later be recycled as pessoi.  

Ancient Egyptians too used shards of pottery as a readily available and cheap medium on which to scribe simple or ephemeral messages, prescriptions, receipts, students’ exercises and notes. There are Jewish and Christian texts from the Biblical period preserved on ostraca too.


What of ancient Greek women? Beauty was considered to be founded on a pale face, not difficult as many of them mostly stayed indoors. When they did leave the house they used an oil-waterproofed umbrella to ward off both rain and sun. On Greek pottery women were often depicted as having their faces painted white to depict their reality. They augmented this by darkening their eyebrows with soot from oil lamps. They painted lips, eyes and eyelashes with a variety of coloured dyes and also painted (beauty?) spots on their cheeks. They used plant extracts to colour their hair, and created a permanent hair dye. However, when they discovered it was toxic they switched to a formula made with leeches that had been fermented in a lead vessel for two months. THis was all well and good as long as you wanted to dye your hair black.

Both sexes wore perfumes blended from the leaves of flowers. Women kept their perfumes in an alabastron, an alabaster jar.  In 425 BCE a famous courtesan, Lais of Corinth, considered the most beautiful woman at the time of the Peloponessian Wars; became the richest courtesan of her period. She is reputed to have developed a special perfume using spring orange-blossom petals and ground up oyster shells. Perhaps it was her who started the belief that oysters are an aphrodisiac?

3rd century BCE

The Greek, Archimedes of Syracuse, was a mathematician, engineer, astronomer and inventor, considered by some as the leading scientist of the classical period, though the detail of this claim to fame is vague and contradictory. By some he is said to have developed the Archimedes Screw to raise water, something learned during his visit to Egypt in 250 BCE. Others suggest he was commissioned by King Hiero II of Syracuse to build an enormous naval warship which would carry 600 people, his ‘Screw’ required to remove bilge water.

Archimedes screw
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Whichever is correct or if it was in fact the Assyrians who developed it 350 years earlier, the device was essentially a tube in which a screw was rotated by a crank to raise water from a source to a channel or container. Archimedes certainly published a treatise entitled ‘On Spirals’ in 225 BCE.

Ctesibius of Alexandria (285-222 BCE) was probably the first head of the Library of Alexandria. He was another Greek mathematician and engineer whose inventions earned him the epithet ‘the father of pneumatics’. He worked with compressed air to develop a double piston pump that could raise water and went on to develop both the hydraulis, water organ, and a clepsydra or water clock. Some credit him with also developing the siphon that was later used with aqueducts and other systems. None of his writings have survived but they had been described by historians and other engineers.

Overshot and undershot waterwheels
Image source: www.norfolkmills.co.uk

The Greeks also claim to have first invented the water wheel. As described by Philo of Byzantium (280-220 BCE), they linked the wheel with toothed gears to create the first water mills. The waterwheel was usually operated by slaves or animals and they developed variants with undershot and overshot wheels. These principles were detailed in Philo’s Pneumatics published around 250 BCE.

It is Alexander the Great who is credited with popularising shaving among both Macedonians and Greeks, it is claimed he believed that a beard afforded an enemy the opportunity to grab on to something. He always went in to battle clean shaven, his men often shaved their heads for the same reason. Though it does not appear to be true that the term barbarian was applied to their enemies because they were not ‘barbered’, as the Greek word barbaros means ‘foreign, strange, ignorant’ to describe outsiders.

Iron novacila for shaving

They used an iron novacila for shaving, which became known by Greeks as the ‘Roman razor’. The finger-holes make it look more like a knuckle-duster on first sight. As we shall see, both Greeks and Romans scraped themselves to exfoliate.

2nd/1st century BCE

Greek prominence came to an end in 146 BCE when Rome conquered Greece, but their civilization lived on through its heavy inspiration of the Romans, and both of them by their impact many years later in the Renaissance (14th-17th centuries CE).

By the first-century BCE century Greek women were removing hair by using depilatory creams or with a pumice stone, hair was removed from legs by singeing them with a lamp.

In 50 BCE Andronicus of Cyrrhus, supervised the construction of a marble octagonal clocktower in the Athens agora. It was a combination of a 24-hour clepsydra water clock, a sundial and a wind vane. It displayed astrological dates, the seasons and indicators for the eight winds; the latter giving its alternative sobriquet, the ‘Tower of the Winds’. It was also termed as an Horologion, literally meaning ’hour teller’.

As communities grew the hazard of fire became a real issue. Heron of Alexandria updated Ctesibius’s earlier invention to create a double-action piston pump for a fire engine, its hose was able to combat outbreaks.

Greek medicine of the 1st century BCE was essentially a codification of good hygiene. This proposed that you pursued two main thrusts. First you should maintain your body with proper diet, exercise, adequate sleep and a healthy lifestyle. Then you should scourge your body of harmful waste by cleaning both internally and externally.

Galen of Pergamon

The philosopher and surgeon Galen of Pergamon developed many scientific disciplines spanning anatomy, physiology, pathology and pharmacology. Galen believed in the prevailing notion of four bodily humours that affected health and temperament. He shared the belief that ailments were about the balance/imbalance of four fluid humours – black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. This belief was surprisingly persistent as medical knowledge, being passed on to various other civilisations down the centuries.

Galen expanded the ‘rules’ of hygiene from two to four – these were defined as things to be administered, things to be done, things to be applied and things to be removed. The first two encompassed the original ‘tasks’. His third category urged regular bathing and cleansing of the body, followed by the rubbing in of oils and aromatic substances. His fourth advocated cleansing internally by disposing of waste matter and controlling toxins and the morbid humours. Galen’s works were translated into Arabic in the 8thc CE, his name being transliterated into ‘Jalinos’, and became influential in the Islamic world’s medical thinking.

Greek healing

Greek medicine soon expanded the list to six points – air; food and drink; exercise and rest; sleep and wakefulness; retention/evacuation of wastes; mind and emotional balance.  Regarding ‘air’ they recognised that your living conditions had a significant impact on health, they also recognised seasonal affects. Regarding ‘sleep’ they realised that inadequate hours of rest and sleep affected health. They also believed that a healthy mind required emotional management and appropriate and affectionate sex.

© Bob Denton, 2016
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