How People Lived in the Time of Ulysses

by Andrew Lang

 

An Extract From: Tales of Troy, Ulysses the Sacker of Cities

 

When Ulysses was a young man he wished to marry a princess of his own rank.  Now there were at that time many kings in Greece, and you must be told how they lived.  Each king had his own little kingdom, with his chief town, walled with huge walls of enormous stone.  Many of these walls are still standing, though the grass has grown over the ruins of most of them, and in later years, men believed that those walls must have been built by giants, the stones are so enormous.  Each king had nobles under him, rich men, and all had their palaces, each with its courtyard, and its long hall, where the fire burned in the midst, and the King and Queen sat beside it on high thrones, between the four chief carved pillars that held up the roof.  The thrones were made of cedar wood and ivory, inlaid with gold, and there were many other chairs and small tables for guests, and the walls and doors were covered with bronze plates, and gold and silver, and sheets of blue glass.  Sometimes they were painted with pictures of bull hunts, and a few of these pictures may still be seen.  At night torches were lit, and placed in the hands of golden figures of boys, but all the smoke of fire and torches escaped by a hole in the roof, and made the ceiling black.  On the walls hung swords and spears and helmets and shields, which needed to be often cleaned from the stains of the smoke.  The minstrel or poet sat beside the King and Queen, and, after supper he struck his harp, and sang stories of old wars.  At night the King and Queen slept in their own place, and the women in their own rooms; the princesses had their chambers upstairs, and the young princes had each his room built separate in the courtyard.

There were bath rooms with polished baths, where guests were taken when they arrived dirty from a journey.  The guests lay at night on beds in the portico, for the climate was warm.  There were plenty of servants, who were usually slaves taken in war, but they were very kindly treated, and were friendly with their masters.  No coined money was used; people paid for things in cattle, or in weighed pieces of gold.  Rich men had plenty of gold cups, and gold-hilted swords, and bracelets, and brooches.  The kings were the leaders in war and judges in peace, and did sacrifices to the Gods, killing cattle and swine and sheep, on which they afterwards dined.

They dressed in a simple way, in a long smock of linen or silk, which fell almost to the feet, but was tucked up into a belt round the waist, and worn longer or shorter, as they happened to choose.  Where it needed fastening at the throat, golden brooches were used, beautifully made, with safety pins.  This garment was much like the plaid that the Highlanders used to wear, with its belt and brooches.  Over it the Greeks wore great cloaks of woollen cloth when the weather was cold, but these they did not use in battle.  They fastened their breastplates, in war, over their smocks, and had other armour covering the lower parts of the body, and leg armour called “greaves”; while the great shield which guarded the whole body from throat to ankles was carried by a broad belt slung round the neck.  The sword was worn in another belt, crossing the shield belt.  They had light shoes in peace, and higher and heavier boots in war, or for walking across country.

The women wore the smock, with more brooches and jewels than the men; and had head coverings, with veils, and mantles over all, and necklaces of gold and amber, earrings, and bracelets of gold or of bronze.  The colours of their dresses were various, chiefly white and purple; and, when in mourning, they wore very dark blue, not black.  All the armour, and the sword blades and spearheads were made, not of steel or iron, but of bronze, a mixture of copper and tin.  The shields were made of several thicknesses of leather, with a plating of bronze above; tools, such as axes and ploughshares, were either of iron or bronze; and so were the blades of knives and daggers.

To us the houses and way of living would have seemed very splendid, and also, in some ways, rather rough.  The palace floors, at least in the house of Ulysses, were littered with bones and feet of the oxen slain for food, but this happened when Ulysses had been long from home.  The floor of the hall in the house of Ulysses was not boarded with planks, or paved with stone: it was made of clay; for he was a poor king of small islands.  The cooking was coarse: a pig or sheep was killed, roasted and eaten immediately.  We never hear of boiling meat, and though people probably ate fish, we do not hear of their doing so, except when no meat could be procured.  Still some people must have liked them; for in the pictures that were painted or cut in precious stones in these times we see the half-naked fisherman walking home, carrying large fish.

The people were wonderful workers of gold and bronze.  Hundreds of their golden jewels have been found in their graves, but probably these were made and buried two or three centuries before the time of Ulysses.  The dagger blades had pictures of fights with lions, and of flowers, inlaid on them, in gold of various colours, and in silver; nothing so beautiful is made now.  There are figures of men hunting bulls on some of the gold cups, and these are wonderfully life-like.  The vases and pots of earthenware were painted in charming patterns: in short, it was a splendid world to live in.

The people believed in many Gods, male and female, under the chief God, Zeus.  The Gods were thought to be taller than men, and immortal, and to live in much the same way as men did, eating, drinking, and sleeping in glorious palaces.  Though they were supposed to reward good men, and to punish people who broke their oaths and were unkind to strangers, there were many stories told in which the Gods were fickle, cruel, selfish, and set very bad examples to men.  How far these stories were believed is not sure; it is certain that “all men felt a need of the Gods,” and thought that they were pleased by good actions and displeased by evil.  Yet, when a man felt that his behaviour had been bad, he often threw the blame on the Gods, and said that they had misled him, which really meant no more than that “he could not help it.”

There was a curious custom by which the princes bought wives from the fathers of the princesses, giving cattle and gold, and bronze and iron, but sometimes a prince got a wife as the reward for some very brave action.  A man would not give his daughter to a wooer whom she did not love, even if he offered the highest price, at least this must have been the general rule, for husbands and wives were very fond of each other, and of their children, and husbands always allowed their wives to rule the house, and give their advice on everything.  It was thought a very wicked thing for a woman to like another man better than her husband, and there were few such wives, but among them was the most beautiful woman who ever lived.