BMCR 2006.03.35

Ancient Greek Houses and Households: Chronological, Regional, and Social Diversity

, , Ancient Greek houses and households : chronological, regional, and social diversity. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. 1 online resource (x, 189 pages) : illustrations, maps.. ISBN 9780812204438 $55.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This collection of essays leads the study of Greek domestic life beyond the familiar Classical houses of Olynthos, Athens and Priene, by turning our attention to the lives of people on the margins — chronological, geographical or economic — of the Classical Greek world. The volume originated as a panel at the 102nd Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in San Diego in 2001, and like most conference proceedings its contents are rather a mixed bag, but in their different ways each of the eight papers is an interesting and worthwhile contribution to the subject.

After a short introduction by Nevett, sketching the history of scholarship on Greek houses, Franziska Lang’s paper looks backwards to the origins of the Classical house. Lang traces changes in house-form from the Early Iron Age to the Archaic period, identifying a shift from single-room to multi-room houses, and from a linear pattern of organisation to the radial pattern that developed into the Classical courtyard house. She argues that, despite the inevitable shortcomings of an approach based almost exclusively on ground plans, the changes in house-form must reflect major changes in the social, economic and symbolic spheres, though, in view of the theoretical and methodological problems involved in interpreting the fragmentary and scattered remains of Archaic houses, she is reluctant to expand upon the significance of these developments.

William Aylward presents several recently discovered Classical and Hellenistic houses at Neandria, Alexandria Troas and Ilion. These are a welcome addition to the body of surviving Greek housing, filling out the well-known material from Priene. Unfortunately, it is possible to reconstruct the plan of only two of the houses, at Neandria and Alexandria, and only one of these has been excavated (the other having been revealed by geophysical survey); the houses at Ilion are very fragmentary, consisting of little more than scraps of wall and floor. The discussion is inevitably rather inconclusive, and Aylward resorts to discussing the houses in relation to the normative typology of prostas and pastas, without questioning whether these categories are actually meaningful or useful (compare Nevett’s remarks in the introduction, p. 3).

Two papers examine the place of industry in the Greek household. Nicholas Cahill compares the organisation of domestic production at Olynthos and Sardis: summarising part of his recent book,1 he demonstrates that commercial production at Olynthos was on a small scale and fully integrated within both the town and the household, whereas at Sardis an Archaic structure near the city wall yielded evidence for a substantial glass workshop and equipment for cooking, eating and drinking on a much larger scale than would be expected in a ‘normal’ household; the presence of a collection of identical dishes distinguished only by incised marks is particularly intriguing. This suggests differences in the social setting of manufacture, but once again the fragmentary state of the building at Sardis and the lack of other excavated structures make generalisation difficult. Barbara Tsakirgis re-examines three well-known houses on the margins of the Athenian Agora, Houses C and D, the ‘House of Mikion and Menon’ and the ‘House of Simon’, which in the Classical period were occupied by a smith, a sculptor and a cobbler respectively. However, she points out that there are no specialised features in the layout of the houses to indicate the trades of their occupants; instead, spaces seem to have been designed to be flexible and adaptable. In Athens, as at Olynthos, there was no separation between residential and industrial activity.

Lisa Nevett draws attention to a group of Classical houses which are often overlooked, despite their relatively good state of preservation compared to the urban houses of Athens. Houses in the deme centres at Thorikos and Ano Voula (ancient Halai Aixonides) diverge in some respects from the ‘single entrance, courtyard house’ model that she has identified in her previous work,2 being more likely to have two entrances and interlinked suites of rooms. She suggests that this would have made it harder to control access to the house and movement around it, concerns which she relates to the seclusion of women; she proposes that moral standards in these smaller communities might have been enforced by informal social control rather than by architectural devices. She also considers the significance of the enigmatic towers found in both village and rural houses, suggesting that they were at least partly a means of displaying wealth and prestige; the book went to press too early for her to address the interpretation recently proposed by Sarah Morris and John Papadopoulos, who link towers to an intensification of agricultural and industrial slavery in the late Classical period.3

Manuel Fiedler examines several interesting and well-preserved houses of Archaic to Hellenistic date from recent excavations at Leukas, which follow a similar pattern of organisation to the ‘ Herdraum‘ houses at Kassope and other sites in north-west Greece, with the rooms centred around two circulation spaces at front and rear — in this case two courtyards rather than a court and a hearth-room. Careful excavation and detailed recording of finds allow him to trace the development of individual houses over a long period and to utilize the distribution of objects to get an impression of how the rooms were used. The analysis of the finds suggests that the large decorated rooms in the front part of the house may have been used for receiving visitors, while more mundane service activities took place in the less visible spaces opening off the rear court. Fiedler’s attributions of room function are perhaps rather too definite, in the light of recent studies which have called into question the appropriateness of trying to attribute specific functions to the mostly featureless spaces in Classical houses;4 likewise, it might have been better to avoid using labels like ‘ oikos‘ or ‘ thalamos‘, which in practice tell us very little about what the rooms were used for.

Monika Trümper’s contribution presents another instalment of her meticulous work on Delos, which is transforming our understanding of this important site.5 She shifts the focus away from the well-known houses with impressive architecture and rich decoration and instead seeks out the homes of the less wealthy Delians, tucked into cramped plots between and around the larger residences. She identifies a variety of small units which probably combined commercial and residential functions, ranging from single-room shops with basic accommodation for the proprietor upstairs, to small houses with a courtyard and a few rooms behind a shop fronting onto the street. Her comparison of the relationship between houses and shops at Delos and Pompeii is particularly illuminating: at Pompeii over half of the shops are attached to the largest, wealthiest houses, whereas at Delos shops are more likely to form part of modest houses, indicating a fundamental difference in the social basis of commerce in the two communities. Trümper shows how much there is still to learn from a site which was excavated a century or more ago using less than ideal methods of recovery and recording.

In the final chapter, Bradley Ault sets out in search of a still lower stratum of society, the poor and the homeless. Inevitably, as the poorest people leave the fewest material traces of their existence, there is little to find, and even after broadening the definition of ‘poor and homeless’ to include prostitutes and travellers, Ault is forced back to the literary evidence more than the other authors in the collection. He does, however, succeed in tentatively identifying a handful of possible synoikiai and brothels — and in reminding us of the existence of this most marginalised of all groups in Greek society.

Many of the houses discussed in these papers are fragmentary or isolated examples, but they all extend our evidence base in useful ways and will help to counterbalance the over-simplified picture of Greek housing that is conventionally derived from the better known and more extensively preserved sites; the volume represents a significant step towards a deeper and more nuanced understanding of Greek houses and households.


Franziska Lang, ‘Structural change in Archaic Greek housing’

William Aylward, ‘Security, synoikismos, and koinon as determinants for Troad housing in Classical and Hellenistic times’

Nicholas Cahill, ‘Household industry in Greece and Anatolia’

Barbara Tsakirgis, ‘Living and working around the Athenian Agora: a preliminary case study of three houses’

Lisa Nevett, ‘Between urban and rural: house-form and social relations in Attic villages and deme centers’

Manuel Fiedler, ‘Houses at Leukas in Acarnania: a case study in ancient household organization’

Monika Trümper, ‘Modest housing in late Hellenistic Delos’

Bradley Ault, ‘Housing the poor and the homeless in ancient Greece’.


1. N. D. Cahill, Household and City Organization at Olynthus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

2. L. C. Nevett, House and Society in the Ancient Greek World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

3. S. P. Morris and J. K. Papadopoulos, ‘Greek towers and slaves: an archaeology of exploitation’, AJA 109 (2004) 155-225.

4. E.g. Cahill ( supra n. 1) 84-193; L. Foxhall, ‘The running sands of time: archaeology and the short-term’, World Archaeology 31.3 Human Lifecycles, ed. R. Gilchrist, 2000: 484-98.

5. M. Trümper, Wohnen in Delos. Eine baugeschichtliche Untersuchung zum Wandel der Wohnkultur in hellenistischer Zeit. Internationale Archäologie 46. Rahden: Marie Leidorf, 1998.