Wednesday, September 7, 2016

THE NOT-SO-PETTY CRIMINALS OF ANCIENT ATHENS

It seems that petty crime was no rare thing in Ancient Athens. There was even a section of the market area called ‘Thieves’ Market
 It may have been what we would call a flea market, where second-hand clothing and other goods are sold but one that also forms a channel for getting money for stolen goods. I bought a bicycle in one such in Dublin some years back, no questions asked. 

Of course, no bikes in ancient times, so what forms of theft were there?

You could be mugged, of course. If you weren’t carrying money or things you’d just bought in the market, they’d take your clothes and leave you to go home naked. 

They might even make you spit out any small change you had tucked away in your cheek (yes, that was normal in a time before the invention of pockets). 

On the longer routes to other towns and villages in Attica, these would be highway robbers or bandits.

If you went to the baths or the gym, as the wealthier men did frequently, you paid someone to keep an eye on your clothes, if you had sense, or a ‘cloakstripper’ would be rummaging them for any money or valuables you might have left with them. 

And, doubtless, if you carried your money in a purse or satchel on a strap over your shoulder, that could be grabbed and made off with by any number of street urchins. No use reporting it to the police – there weren’t any. 


The Scythian guards patrolled the central areas to keep order and might nab any blatant wrongdoer they spotted but, in the narrow lanes between market stalls, they couldn’t be everywhere. 

Law rested really on victims grabbing (arresting) the thief before he got away and taking him to the authorities. Not much hope of that if the mugger was threatening you in a deserted alley with a club or a knife and there were two of him. 

Mind you, if you came upon a burglar on your own property, you could take action even to killing him and be seen as justified – that’s if it’s at night: by day, you could only kill him if he resisted. Always, villains had to be caught in the act or such crimes were difficult to prove.

But, if wealthy houses had no ground floor windows and the street door was guarded by a porter with a dog, how did burglars gain access? 

Simple. They dug a hole through the wall. Either from a lane beside or from inside an adjoining house. In the main, houses were built of sunbaked mud bricks, so not too difficult to chisel away at them when folks are all out, say, at a big religious festival or maybe all asleep. 

Over the relatively low rooftops and down into a courtyard may have been another way in but not such an easy way out.

However, it wasn’t only the professional criminal that indulged in illegalities. The number of laws and inspectors relating to weights and measure, false coinage, and quality of foodstuffs gives a pretty good idea that such offences were rife. 


But there are always ways round these things, like two sets of weights, one for when the inspectors are around, the other when they’re not. 

You only have to look at the non-round shapes of coins that have been unearthed by archaeologists to realise how much clipping of the metal at the edges must have gone on even though value of a coin was determined by its weight. 
If a customer had doubts, there was a public slave stationed in the market place specifically to test coins and weights. 

What punishments did culprits face? Well, stallholders faced a fine but, as today, probably not high enough to be a real deterrent. It’s possible there was an equivalent of the medieval stocks and also a wooden device round the ankles that hobbled a culprit in the hope that the public ridicule that went with these would be enough to put people off. 

In the case of more serious theft, it was the death penalty. In Athens, that meant being shackled to a board somewhere outside the city gates and being left to starve to death. Pretty grim.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Thursday, July 21, 2016

CITY OF DIRTY TRICKS

For all its reputation for noble philosophical minds, ancient Athens has to have been tops at political dirty tricks.

Dredging up past misdemeanours of opponents and getting the word round, or even making them up in rumours difficult to deny.

Charging opponents with embezzlement or defaming the gods or of taking bribes and then hauling them into court – again, it didn’t have to be true as long as it stuck.

Speeches in the Assembly were a good method, but ran the risk of being accused yourself of misleading the people (which was a crime), but graffiti was anonymous, so were dirty jokes and satirical songs.

Mind you, it had a long history with the Greeks. One of their great heroes, Odysseus, was noted for trickery and respected for it.

The Trojan Horse was his idea and here he is tricking the Cyclops by hiding under a sheep.

They even had a god of cunning. That was Hermes, who was also patron of thieves,oratory, poetry, sports, invention and trade, boundaries and travellers.

He was also messenger of the gods and played his own first trick when he was a baby.


All Athenian houses had a bust of him at the front door which featured in the dirty trick that destroyed General Alcibiades when he was accused of having vandalized scores of them when drunk – almost certainly organised by rival politicians.

Top political trickster has to be Themistokles, who features in my novel "Death Comes by Amphora".

His most successful trick was getting a false message to the invading Persian Great King Xerxes that fooled him into sending his fleet into the worst possible place for a naval battle where the Greek navy, led by Themistokles, slaughtered them.

Then, years later, when the Athenians chucked him out, Themistokles somehow persuaded the next Great King to give him a princedom, though we don’t know what false promises he may have made to get it.

Whatever they were (like offering to lead a new Persian invasion), it seems the only way he could get out of keeping them was to commit suicide.

That's the story anyway.

In my novel, there are more cunning stunts that smack of Themistokles’ way of operating.

It looks as though Perikles learnt a lot from his example.

My novel "Death Comes by Amphora" is available on Amazon Kindle.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?


You’d think they hated women. Well, they didn’t trust them anyway. Or more like those wealthy Athenian men who ran things didn’t trust themselves. They didn’t trust themselves not to fall in love, or lust, or infatuation.

The evidence? Look at all those plays with their powerful female characters organizing a sex strike like Lysistrata, killing their husband like Clytemnestra, taking revenge on their husband by killing their children like Medea (above), or just disobeying orders and screwing things up like Antigone. All powerful, passionate women.

The men must have been scared of that, so they shut the women away and kept them uneducated, so that the women accepted it. Men (wealthy men anyway) didn’t marry till they were 30. Away fighting in wars before that and lots of brothels to let off steam, no chance of meeting citizen girls of their own age and falling in love.

When they did marry, it was to inexperienced girls of 14 – that way virginity was guaranteed - that’s gotta be my son not some other guy’s. It also meant more wives died in childbirth, unfortunately.

And then the wives were kept locked up in the house, allowed out only for funerals and a few religious festivals. The husband or slaves did the shopping.

The wife was there just for procreation and to bring up the kids. No real relationship.

To keep that danger at bay the husband went to dinner parties with male friends where slave girls offered entertainment and more or he kept a slave girl himself to entertain friends and keep himself amused. And there were always the brothels.

Generally, husband and wife slept on different floors of the house not just different rooms. Who could blame a teenage wife who responded to the blandishments of a handsome young fella met at a funeral?

What were they really afraid of? I think it was fear of losing control. Fear of acting irrationally, of excessive emotion that might lead them to do something they would regret. Rationality, thinking things through and acting on the conclusions, that is what we prize about our inheritance from ancient Greece. But it can’t have been much of a life for the women. Like Philia in my novel Death Come by Amphora which is available on Amazon kindle with this handsome new design.