Chapter III. The Agora and its Denizens.
18. The Leisured Class in Athens. - Evidently Athens, more than many later-day cities, draws clear lines between the workers and the "gentlemen of leisure." There is no distinction of dress between the numerous slaves and the humbler free workers and traders; but there is obvious distinction between the artisan of bent shoulders who shambles out of yonder pungent tannery, with his scant garments girded around him, and the graceful gentleman of easy gestures and flowing drapery who moves towards the Tholos. There is great POLITICAL democracy in Athens, but not so much SOCIAL democracy. "Leisure," i.e. exemption from every kind of sordid, money-getting, hard work, is counted the true essential for a respectable existence, and to live on the effort of others and to devote oneself to public service or to letters and philosophy is the open satisfaction or the private longing of every Athenian.
A great proportion of these, therefore, who frequent the Agora are not here on practical business, unless they have official duties at the government offices.[*] But in no city of any age has the gracious art of doing nothing been brought to such perfection. The Athenians are an intensely gregarious people. Everybody knows everybody else. Says an orator, "It is impossible for a man to be either a rascal or an honest man in this city without your all knowing it." Few men walk long alone; if they do keep their own company, they are frowned on as "misanthropes." The morning visit to the Agora "to tell or to hear some new thing"[+] will be followed by equally delightful idling and conversation later in the day at the Gymnasia, and later still, probably, at the dinner-party. Easy and unconventional are the personal greetings. A little shaking out of the mantle, an indescribable flourish with the hands. A free Greek will despise himself for "bowing," even to the Great King. To clasp hands implies exchanging a pledge, something for more than mere salutation.
Such is the usual greeting, using an expressive word which can mean equally well "hail!" and "farewell!"
[*]To serve the state in any official capacity (usually without any salary attached to the office) would give the highest satisfaction to any Greek. The desire for participation in public affairs might be described as a mania.
[+]Acts of the Apostles, 17:21.
19. Familiar Types around the Agora. - These animated, eager-faced men whose mantles fall in statuesque folds prefer obviously to walk under the Painted Porch, or the blue roof of heaven, while they evolve their philosophies, mature their political schemes, or organize the material for their orations and dramas, rather than to bend over desks within close offices. Around the Athenian Agora, a true type of this preference, and busy with this delightful idleness, half a century earlier could have been seen a droll figure with "indescribable nose, bald head, round body, eyes rolling and twinkling with good humor," scantily clad, - an incorrigible do-nothing, windbag, and hanger-on, a later century might assert, - yet history has given to him the name of Socrates.
Not all Athenians, of course, make such justifiable use of their idleness. There are plenty of young men parading around in long trailing robes, their hair oiled and curled most effeminately, their fingers glittering with jewels, - "ring-loaded, curly-locked coxcombs," Aristophanes, the comic poet, has called them, - and they are here only for silly display. Also there are many of their elders who have no philosophy or wit to justify their continuous talking; nevertheless, all considered, it must be admitted that the Athenian makes a use of their dearly loved "leisure," which men of a more pragmatic race will do well to consider as the fair equivalent of much frantic zeal for "business." Athenian "leisure" has already given the world Pericles, Thucydides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Socrates, and Plato, not to name such artists as Phidias, whose profession cannot exempt them from a certain manual occupation.
20. The Barber Shops. - This habit of genteel idleness naturally develops various peculiar institutions. For example, the barber shops are almost club rooms. Few Hellenes at this time shave their beards[*], but to go with unkempt whiskers and with too long hair is most disgraceful. The barber shops, booths, or little rooms let into the street walls of the houses, are therefore much frequented. The good tonsors have all the usual arts. They can dye gray hair brown or black; they can wave or curl their patrons' locks (and an artificially curled head is no disgrace to a man). Especially, they keep a good supply of strong perfumes; for many people will want a little scent on their hair each morning, even if they wish no other attention. But it is not an imposition to a barber to enter his shop, yet never move towards his low stool before the shining steel mirror. Anybody is welcome to hang around indefinitely, listening to the proprietor's endless flow of talk. He will pride himself on knowing every possible bit of news or rumor: Had the Council resolved on a new fleet-building program? Had the Tyrant of Syracuse's "four" the best chance in the chariot race in the next Olympic games? The garrulity of barbers is already proverbial.
[*] Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.) required his soldiers to be shaved (as giving less grasp for the enemy!), and the habit then spread generally through the whole Hellenic world.
"How shall I cut your hair, sir?" once asked the court tonsure of King Archelaus of Macedon.
"In silence," came the grim answer.