How People Lived in
the Time of Ulysses
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
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.