Loose women of ancient Athens

There were three kinds:

Street girls and girls working the brothels;
Flute girls who attended parties; and,
at the top their profession, the courtesans.

The girls at the bottom level had a very hard life. They walked the streets, just as such women do today, and for the same reason, for which they were known as walkers.

In Ancient Greek, the word walker is pornê. The plural is pornoi. Yes, our modern word pornography is derived from the word for a common hooker in Ancient Athens.

It was forbidden for the pornoi to speak with a man in public. Instead they wore sandals with FOLLOW ME carved backwards into the soles. The words would be imprinted into the dust as they walked, and a man could then walk behind the pornê without speaking to her. When she picked up a follower the pornê would lead her customer directly back to the brothel in which she worked.

The pornoi charged not by time, but by sexual position! Some positions were considered better than others and rates varied accordingly.

The flute girls by comparison were effectively paid party goers. Athenian men frequently held parties called symposia. The wives didn't get an invite, but the flute girls did. The order of events was: eat, drink a lot, and then party. Everyone together in the same room. These days we'd call it an orgy. Flute girls were actually accomplished entertainers on top of any other duties which might...er...arise. Flute girls were paid per event, and they were paid a whole lot more than the pornoi.

Yes, this is where we get the modern word symposium. If you're an academic reading this, next time you attend a symposium, you can keep in mind that you're just not doing it right.

The most famous flute girl ever is probably the one mentioned in Plato's Symposium. In that book, the men, fresh from an exhilirating day of watching tragedy at the theatre, decide they want to discuss the meaning of Love. So they toss out the one and only flute girl present because her music is disturbing their philosophic discussion. I'll bet it's the only time in history that ever happened. I've written a short story about what happened to her afterwards, which needs a little bit more work before I can send it somewhere.

I confess loose women tend to make regular appearances in my stories, because...er...let me see if I can think of a decent reason...er...because they had much more social freedom than respectable women. Yeah, that's it.

Which in fact they did. It was unheard of for a respectable married woman to wander about the way the working girls could.

At the top were the courtesans. They were much like the salon hostesses of the 17th and 18th centuries: highly educated, able to discuss any subject, quote poetry, play music, and in addition they were really good in bed. A courtesan was called a hetaera. In plural, hetaerae. Powerful men clamoured for an invite to their parties. Only the wealthy could afford them.

The most famous hetaera ever was Phryne, of whom I've written in the past.

The top hetaerae had celebrity status. The women who reached such dizzy heights adopted what were known as hetaera-names, much as a celebrity today might adopt a stage name to enhance their image. Often these were taken from the Muses or were fine sounding phrases. One common hetaera name for example was Euterpe, who not only was one of the Muses, but whose name means delightfully pleasing.

Here's an excerpt from The Pericles Commission. Nicolaos, our hero and a young man, has turned up to interview Euterpe the Hetaera...

The house slave sniffed at me when I knocked, as if I were too verminous to cross her threshold. The name Ephialtes got me as far as the public receiving room, where I had been left to linger long enough to have inspected every art piece in the room, and there were a lot of them. I had never before been in the salon of a hetaera. The murals were short on Homeric battle scenes but gratifyingly long on sporting nymphs, satyrs and priapic Gods. I peered at them closely, my nose almost pressed to the wall.

“Educational, aren’t they?”

I turned, startled, and crashed my knee against a nearby table. Trying not to swear, and clutching my knee, I saw framed in the doorway the most beautiful woman I have ever laid eyes on.

Euterpe had reddish brown hair that flowed down her lovely neck and over her shoulder to her breasts. She was wearing a dress that, even if it were not made of fabric I could see through, would have been considered scandalously immodest. As it was, she had my body’s full and immediate attention. The dress was tied in some way so that the material flowed with her skin. My mind ceased functioning since it was not required for the moment.

“Oh! Are you hurt?”

She knelt before me and touched my knee where I’d banged it. Waves of pleasure coursed up me.

Euterpe looked a little higher, and smiled. She stood, swayed to a couch and reclined, arching her back so that her nipples pressed out against the material and her legs were exposed.

“So, what may I do for you, young man?”

I collapsed back against the nearest couch, unable to speak and agonizingly aware how I must look to her.

Euterpe let me recover. She clapped her hands. A young woman appeared, whom I barely noticed.

“Would you bring me wine? And a carafe of cool water for our guest.”

The young woman reappeared with an exquisite thin pottery water cooler. I took it and thankfully let it rest in my lap, where it did me a lot of good...

What's your story about?

I had an interesting discussion the other night about the difference between a plot summary, and what a story's about. Being able to say what a story's about is the more important of the two, because anyone can repeat a plot, but it takes ability to understand what drives 90,000 words. It means not knowing what happens, but why it happens.

Often when people ask what a story's about, they hear in reply a blow-by-blow account of the plot; because plot is easy, but plot is the wrong answer.

To say what the story's about, describe what happens, but mention not more than one line of plot.

My only hints for doing it are to write a blurb that would fit on the back cover. Then think really hard about what's the core of the blurb. The one line of plot you're allowed is the crucial event, whatever it might be. I make no claims for expertise on this by the way, except that I've had to do it a few times. Eleven times, actually, only a few weeks ago.

Here's an example for Macbeth.

What happens:

Well, there are these three witches, and they meet a guy called Macbeth, and...Macbeth and his wife murder the King, and then...bubble bubble boil and trouble...and then there's a killing spree...then a ghost turns up at dinner...then they get attacked by walking trees...

Here's what the story is about:

A respected power couple of the Scottish nobility are so consumed by ambition, that they throw away their ethics to murder their King and sieze the throne. Their crime creates an imbalance in the world which drags themselves and all of Scotland into tragedy.

Feel free to disagree with my about, but even if you do it's clear this is not plot, or if it is, it's the very core with the emphasis on motivation and consequence.

My dear agent has threatened to manually strangle me if I ever dare give anyone advice on how to get published because, you know, I am famous for my skills at querying. However I will risk almost certain harm by pointing out that in a query it's probably better to say what your story's about, and not try to summarise the entire plot.

Dear Ms Reid,

The Cawdor Crisis is a paranormal political thriller set in mediaeval Scotland [yeah, like that's ever going to sell]. A respected power couple of the Scottish nobility are so consumed by ambition, that they throw away their ethics to murder their King and sieze the throne. Their crime creates an imbalance in the world which drags themselves and all of Scotland into tragedy.

...then carry on with the mechanical bits of the query...

Here's an exercise to try. Feel free to use the comments. If you're writing one, tell us what your book is about.

Mary Renault

I regularly refer in my posts to the historical author Mary Renault, usually in close association with adjectives such as brilliant, amazing, fantastic etc.

Mary Renault was the first person to write ancient Greek historical novels. If you don't count Homer, that is, and frankly, it's a toss up which of them is the better writer, especially since she's much more accessible to the modern reader. I don't always agree with the way she portrays some of the history, but there's no doubting the scholarship or the quality of the writing.

Renault began her Greek books in the 1950s and produced one every 3 or 4 years. But they're not a series. In each she picks an important period in Greek history and then writes an eyewitness account.

If you haven't read any of her books, please give one a go!

Our friend Robert Greaves sent me an email a short while ago with a link to a blog called The Toynbee convector. To my shame I'd never heard of it before; now that I have, I've added it to my list of must-read blogs. The current post has an embedded youtube video which is the beginning of a BBC documentary about Mary Renault. It reflects my own view so well that I'm linking it here too.

Thank you to Toynbee convector for finding that!

Why America is more like Athens than Rome

I've been having an interesting email conversation with Elizabeth Bowen, who's been lurking on this site for some time, I suspect, without ever making a comment. I'm going to out her (with permission) because she had some interesting things to say about why people learn Roman history more than Greek, the core of which is:
That prevalence -- at least, in the United States -- probably has a lot to do with the parallels between Rome and America. History teachers here (the ones who still bother to teach the classics) tend to drive home this point that the Romans were the Americans of antiquity. (Modest, I know.) So Rome is something people feel they can relate to, whereas Greece can seem a little more remote.
Here are my reasons why America is closer to Athens than Rome. Feel free to tell me how totally wrong I am! (In fact, I'm sort of looking forward to it.)
  1. America is a very strong democracy. Athens was a very strong full democracy. Rome wasn't. (Yes, they had elections, which did have some effect. But the Senate was essentially an oligarchy, and come the Roman Empire, any democratic pretense was gone.)

  2. Any modern democracy has a lot to learn from how the course of the democracy ran in Athens. It's hard to say the same of Rome. Fun though it might be to study the power politics, the correspondence just isn't there.

  3. Pax Romana was implemented by conquering and subsuming anyone who caused trouble. Pax Americana (such as it is) is implemented through economic dominance and diplomatic alliances. This is much closer to how Athens dominated its world. America+NATO is structurally most similar to Athens+Delian League.

  4. The geographic influence of Rome was vast. So also for America. Score one for the Romans. In fact, this is the only close similarity between the two. But also the one everyone notices.

  5. The Athenians were hyper-enthusiastic about their system of government and their culture. So too Americans! The Athenians usually liked to install democracies in any city they conquered (with a few notable exceptions). American behaviour is virtually the same. The Romans were sort of meh on the whole thing and simply imposed their own rule on the countries they captured and never left. (Yes I realize there are some sensitivities with current issues, but if you think back over the last 100 years, particularly around WW2, it's clear US policy is Athens-like, not Roman.)

  6. Athens was a hugely innovative and artistic culture. So too America. Rome was outstanding at implementing stuff, but innovative is not an adjective most people would apply.

  7. America has the most powerful navy in the world. Athens had the most powerful navy in the world. Romans loathed getting wet.
I therefore claim modern America has more lessons to learn from Athens than Rome.

Okay, your turn...

Checking facts, with a little help from my friends

Here's something I did to check my facts in The Pericles Commission: I cold called a professor of classical archaeology, one who specializes in 5th century Greece and Persia!

The basic idea should work for anyone. For anything from theoretical physics to the sex life of the lesser spotted boll weevil, there's an expert out there, and if you're very lucky, they'll be as kind as Professor Margaret Miller was to me.

Margaret not only answered my questions with the greatest patience and attention to detail, but she very kindly offered to read the entire ms. Which was generous beyond measure since she had her own academic book to write at the same time.

As she read, I lived in daily fear of an email saying something like, "Gary, you idiot, character X was definitely dead in 461BC." Or, "That building didn't exist then." Or, "Didn't you read Obscure Reference Z which proves your entire premise is wrong?"

Incredibly, I survived her check. (mostly)

Margaret did point out a number of errors and improvements, almost all of which involved clothes and furniture. You have Margaret to thank for the characters wearing correct clothing, and the description of Pericles' home office.

Any errors which remain in The Pericles Commission are all my fault, and I wish you joy of finding them.

An odd postscript to this: months later I was doing research for the second book, on relations between Athens and Persia, when I came across an interesting reference. I started to read. The book I’d found was very useful stuff. Wow! Who wrote this? I checked the cover, and it said, Athens and Persia in the Fifth Century BC, by Margaret Miller.

Thank you Margaret!

Yay for Rebecca Cantrell and A Trace of Smoke

Back in December, I listed my book picks of 2009. Top of the list, as one of my two standouts was this:

A Trace Of Smoke, Rebecca Cantrell

I am delighted to report that the winner of the Bruce Alexander award for best historical mystery of 2009 has gone to...Rebecca, for A Trace of Smoke!

What impresses me most about this book is it takes on such a tough subject: 1931 Berlin, the Nazis are on the rise, the heroine is a woman reporter, and the victim is a transsexual working a gay bar. You'd think this premise would be the kiss of death, but Rebecca handles it beautifully by matching her writing to the setting.

The writing style is rather stark, which reflects the reality of life then, and I have a personal theory that the writing reflects German in some sense, so that when you read, it's as if you're reading it in the original language. (It might help that I speak a little German, so I can see how if you threw some verbs to the end of the sentences, it could have a Germanic feel.)

The effect is to totally take you to the time and place.

Yay for Rebecca!

The Curse of the Alcmaeonidae

It sounds like the title of a really bad horror movie, but it was a for-real curse that happened in 632BC.

There was at that time in Athens a famous Olympic victor called Cylon. Like many famous people to this day, Cylon assumed that fame in one field guaranteed success in another. He should have consulted with a career advisor, because unfortunately his chosen new life plan was to make himself the Tyrant of Athens.

In his defence, it must be said that Cylon was probably encouraged by his father-in-law, who happened to be the tyrant of a city called Megara, just up the road. Sometimes it can be really tough for a guy to impress the wife's family.

It all went horribly pear-shaped when Cylon gathered together his friends and attempted an armed takeover. He seems to have assumed the common people of Athens would flock to his leadership when they saw what was happening. But when the fighting began, the people of Athens were notable by their absence, and Cylon and his followers had to retreat to the temple of Athena atop the Acropolis. (Not the Parthenon. The Parthenon would not be built for another 200 years.)

Then Cylon managed to escape, leaving his hapless friends trapped inside the temple, to face the consequences of his ambition. By the end of the day, Cylon had set a new record for total leadership FAIL.

Now everyone had a problem. As long as the coup plotters stayed inside the temple, they were safe, because all Greek temples had sanctuary. Anyone who harmed a person under the protection of Athena was looking at some serious trouble. (Cylon's friends were neither the first nor last to rely on temple sanctuary for protection; it was perfectly normal for pursued criminals to make a beeline for the nearest altar.)

Negotiations began between the coup plotters and the archons (city officials). The archons convinced the men to come out, in return for a fair trial. I can't imagine what fair trial the plotters thought would result in them surviving, but presumably they planned to argue it was all Cylon's fault.

There are different stories about what happened next. The most dramatic says the plotters emerged, tied to a rope which they'd fastened at the other end to the cult statue of Athena within the temple, to maintain their connection with the Goddess.

Another version says the archons swore before Athena that the plotters would have sanctuary while the law took its course. Either way, everyone agrees the men were under the protection of the Goddess when they emerged to go to the place of trial, which certainly would have been the adjoining rock of the Areopagus.

Among the archons was a man called Megacles, from the genos (family) Alcmaeonidae (ALC-MAY-ON-ID-AY). When the friends of Cylon were out in the open, the archon Megacles and all the men of his family fell upon them and killed them.

No one cared about the dead plotters, but the men of the Alcmaeonidae had just broken the sacred sanctuary, and that was a big deal. A very big deal.

Megacles claimed (in the rope version) that they'd seen the rope break, meaning Athena had repudiated her protection. But that weak excuse didn't wash.

At once a curse fell upon the family - in Greek, a miasma - and not just upon the men who committed the crime, but upon every member of the family. And not just those living, but every man, woman and child to be born into the family forever after.

This crime was so bad that the Alcmaeonidae were, in fact, eternally cursed.

To expiate the sacrilege, and to avoid a furious Athena from destroying her own city, Megacles and the Alcmaeonidae were expelled from Athens.

Then they dug up the remains of dead members of the family and threw them out too.

That's the way things stayed for 40 years, until Solon the Wise allowed the family to return, because Solon was a weak-kneed, bleeding heart, soft-on-crime wimp. Or so the dissenting Athenians thought as the accursed family walked back in the gates. Nevertheless Athens failed to be destroyed by the Alcmaeonid presence, and things settled down.

Now the Alcmaeonidae were destined to become a driving force behind democracy. Note that the crime for which they'd been cursed was the ruthless slaughter of would-be tyrants.

Eighty years later, a tyrant did manage to take Athens, and the Alcmaeonidae had a very uneasy relationship with him. The family head at the time - another Megacles - married his daughter to the tyrant, which kept the peace for a while, but eventually the Alcmaeonidae were instrumental in removing this tyranny too. Supporting freedom was obviously a family tradition.

Then an Alcmaeonid called Cleisthenes introduced the democratic reforms which led to full democracy 50 years later under Ephialtes. When Ephialtes died, he was replaced by Pericles, who was...you guessed it...an Alcmaeonid on his mother's side.

But it didn't matter how successful the Alcmaeonidae became; whenever a member of the family was put in charge of anything, someone was bound to ask, "But what of the curse?" Even the Spartans raised it when they were dealing with Pericles, 200 years after the crime.

It must be pointed out that the curse on the family was eternal. Which means their descendants living today, of which there must surely be some, are in fact, cursed.

Search and replace in Microsoft Word for uppercase, lowercase, and formatting

Someone asked in the post on advanced search in Word, how you could search for "APLOMB" and change it to "aplomb" or "Aplomb".

The trick is to use the Match Case checkbox, like so:

If when you open search/replace you can't see these advanced options, then click the More button.

This example will match every instance of APLOMB in uppercase. (Notice it says Match Case in the line labelled Options). It will change to AplomB with a capital A and B, because that's what I wrote in the replace box.

This will work with any combination of upper and lower in the Find box. The replacement text will appear exactly as you write it in the replace box.

A much more useless but fun thing you can do is use search & replace to change the formatting of words. Here's an example.

Do the search/replace as before, but when you get to the replace dialogue, click the Format button and select Font (or anything else you like, but I'm using Font in the example).

This gives you the font formatting dialogue box. The example below searches for and replaces the word APLOMB, but not does not change the letters. It changes the font to 26 point, bold italic, comic sans in bright pink. Because, basically, I'm very weird.

The Effects section is very interesting. See all the effects options with filled in checkboxes? That means whatever the formatting currently is, leave it alone. That's the default and it does nothing.

If you click an effect checkbox once, it becomes a tick. That means change the formatting of whatever matches the search to include that effect. I've clicked Outline, so any word that matches will become an outline, as you can see in the preview.

If you click an effect checkbox a second time it completely blanks, which means turn off whatever the effect is. In the example I unchecked the Hidden effect, which means if any matching text had been hidden then it would have been revealed.

When you click OK on the font dialogue, and then click Replace All on the replace dialogue, it will turn every instance of APLOMB in your document into this large, pink, outlined abomination.

You can set virtually any formatting you like, if you can find it under the Format button.

I've never found a single practical use for this feature, but there you are, in case you can think of one.

Dead at 60

One thing I've mentioned a few times in passing, is that the people of Ancient Greece were hungry. The population was constantly expanding, but growing food on the rocky ground was no easy matter. Personally, based on my reading, I don't think historians give this point enough emphasis. The necessity to put food in mouths drove some extraordinary customs which today we would consider very icky indeed.

Back in Archaic times, on the island of Keos, it was the custom for men when they turned 60 to kill themselves by drinking hemlock!

This appears to have been a novel means of population control. It was known as the Kean Law.

Here's a quote from Strabo:
It is reputed that there was once a law among the Keans, which appears to have ordered those who were over sixty years of age to drink hemlock, in order that the food might be sufficient for the rest. The law is mentioned by Menander, who wrote, “The law of the Keans is good, that he who is unable to live well should not live wretchedly.”
This comes from Strabo's Geography, section 10.5.6. I've quoted the Perseus edition, and reworked it a little to make it more readable.

Just how stressed and hungry does a population have to be, for something like this to become a custom?

This sort of ugliness inevitably devalues life in general. At some point which can't be dated, Athens invaded Keos. The locals were besieged and, not surprisingly, quickly ran out of food. Here's Strabo again on what happened next:
And it is said that once, when they were being besieged by the Athenians, the Keans voted, setting a definite age, that the oldest among them should be put to death, but the Athenians raised the siege.
The brilliant historical writer Mary Renault mentions this charming custom in The Praise Singer, which is about the life of the great poet Simonides. Simonides was born on Keos. Renault has the father of Simonides suffer a stroke. The father demands the cup of hemlock from his son.

The actual suicide appears to have been carried out at a community festival. The man to die would gird his head in flowers and, presumably, parade and say his farewells, before taking a cup of hemlock. (Hemlock grows naturally on Keos to this day.)

There's a fair chance that if this happened on Keos, then it occurred on other islands too. The law probably didn't need to apply to women, by the way, because the chances of a woman living to 60 were approximately zero. If somewhow a lady survived that long, I imagine the rule applied.

Things did improve. By Classical times compulsory suicide had disappeared everywhere. In fact in some places it came to be considered reprehensible. In Classical Athens a suicide was considered guilty of a crime against the state, because the dead man had deprived the state of a useful citizen. The dead citizen was "punished" by having his hand cut off and buried seperately. Plato has Socrates say at one point that a suicide is like a soldier deserting his post.

So, imagine you were a man on Keos, and 59 years old.

Why all the pushing and shoving?

Since I feel I don't have enough people hating on me, I thought I'd talk about something that Merry asked long ago: What's the origin of the conflict between the Greeks and their neighbours to the east?

This subject is really delicate, to put it mildly. So since I'm only talking about the origins, I'll stick to the ancient stuff and ignore all the modern incidents (of which there are enough to fill a book). This is also, quite obviously, Gary's interpretation of events.

It's not true, by the way, to say the conflict has been between only Turks and Greeks. The Greek world has been in conflict with almost every culture and people who've controlled the land which today we call Turkey. The west coast of Turkey, which is really the area of conflict, was known in those days as Asia Minor. I'm going to call it Asia Minor from now on.

The first record of conflict between the Greeks and people of Asia Minor is the Iliad, by a guy called Homer. Since that's the oldest book in the Western world, this has obviously been going on for some time.

The people of Troy have no genetic or cultural relationship to modern Turks, so whether the Trojan War counts as the origin of the current long-lasting conflict is doubtful. It would be hard to say Greeks and Turks hate each other today because Helen had it off with Paris 3,000 years ago. Also, after the Trojan War, things quietened down a lot. For a few hundred years there was nothing between the sides but the usual raids, pillaging, rape and murder which is the stuff of everyday life.

It didn't really get official again until a rather interesting incident in about 508BC. By this time the Persian Empire, which had its origin far to the east, had expanded until it controlled everything all the way to the coast of Asia Minor. In the same period the ever-growing Greek population had expanded and placed colony cities all up and down...you guessed it...the coast of Asia Minor.

The Greek cities of Asia Minor were therefore under Persian rule. Now, Greek culture is highly individualistic, but the Persians were simply stronger, the Greeks were nothing if not realists, and in any case Persian rule was relatively light. As long as the Persians didn't rip off too much in tribute, the situation was semi-stable.

Athens at this time had recently overthrown the last of the Tyrants, and there was a bitter power struggle between factions for control of the city, a struggle in which Sparta decided to lend a hand to put their own man in charge. The Spartans sent an army. No one had ever beaten the Spartans in battle.

When the Athenians heard a Spartan army was on the way, they at once sent an embassy to the Satrap at Sardis. A Satrap was the Persian term for the governor of a province, and the city of Sardis was at that time the effective capital of Asia Minor. The Satrap of Sardis was a guy called Artaphernes. A Satrap is a powerful man at the best of times, but this Artaphernes also happened to be the brother of the Great King.

The Athenians asked Artaphernes for protection against the Spartans. Artaphernes said that was fine, as long as the Athenians offered earth and water. To offer earth and water is Persian-Speak for submitting to the Great King, and thus become a client state of Persia.

The Athenian embassy said...yes. (!)

The desperate Athenians handed over earth and water on the spot. At that moment, Athens and all of Attica became a part of the Persian Empire.

The Athenian embassy returned to Athens, secure in the knowledge that Athens was safe from Sparta, only to discover the crisis with Sparta was over, and Athens no longer needed protection.


The ambassadors got into huge trouble for offering earth and water. Whether or not this was fair is not clear. Greek sources claim the ambassadors acted without authority, but then, they would say that, wouldn't they?

The Athenians decided to...er..."forget" that embarrassing little incident had ever happened. The Persians had better memories.

The Persian leadership, which had not really noticed the Greeks before, suddenly realised they had some irritating people on their western flank. What's more, in Persian culture, to lie was a terrible thing. Persian boys were taught only three things: to ride the horse, to shoot the bow, and to abjure the lie. The Athenian embassay had, in effect, lied in the face of the brother of the Great King.

It was all downhill from here. The Greek cities in Asia Minor revolted against the Persians, and the Athenians heavily supported the revolt, which ended with the Greeks getting their asses whipped.

The Persians decided to fix the problem by putting one of the old Tyrants back in control of Athens. That caused the Battle of Marathon, which ended with the Persians getting their asses whipped.

Artaphernes later sent ambassadors to Sparta, demanding earth and water. The Spartans tossed the ambassadors down a well, saying they'd find plenty of earth and water down there. Diplomacy in those days did tend to be robust.

The next Great King decided to do the job properly, with the Persian Wars.

And so it has gone on. If you're looking for the start of the long term conflict, I think the Athenian embassy to Artaphernes is it. There've been odd moments when one empire or another has controlled both sides of the Aegean Sea, such as the Roman and Byzantine, and at those times it's been quiet. There've also been periods when one side of the other has been too poor to make much trouble. But for those moments, there's been pushing and shoving ever since 508BC.

The ultimate issue is who gets control of Asia Minor. The natural balance of force lies along the coastline, so that the Greeks get all the islands and whoever's on the other side gets the Asian land. From time to time during history, one side or the other has been able to push across, but it always ends with a return to the natural border, which is what we more or less have today.

Pronouncing Ancient Greek

It's much easier to pronounce Ancient Greek words than it looks at first. The funny alphabet is a bit off-putting, but really, once you've got the idea, it's straightforward.

The exact soundings as you would have heard them on the streets of Classical Athens have been lost. Greek is a living language which evolved! There are different theories about the ancient pronounciation and (surprise!) they don't entirely agree with each other. Fortunately, none of us are likely to fall through a time vortex into the ancient past, so if we stuff it up, no one who matters will ever know.

There were a zillion different dialects of Ancient Greek. If you lived back then, you could probably have spotted someone's city the moment they opened their mouths. We're going to ignore all the dialects but one: Attic -- the dialect of Athens. Attic Greek is the language of Pericles and Socrates and Nicolaos and Diotima and Plato and Euripides and Sophocles.

Attic Greek became the trading language of the Mediterranean. As it spread, it evolved rapidly, and became known as koine. The koine dialect is hugely important to this day, because it just happens to be the language in which the Bible was written. It's also the ancestor of Modern Greek.

The sound variations between dialects are real, but not big enough to worry someone who only wants to read Ancient Greek words in a book. So I'll ignore them all and give you a single sound system which works.

My Ancient Greek is very limited, by the way, and there are people reading this blog who are practically fluent. If you are one of those clever people I sincerely hope you'll correct any errors in comments. I'd like to learn something too! So with that caveat, here goes...

Α, α




Β, β




Γ, γ




Δ, δ




Ε, ε




Ζ, ζ




Η, η




Θ, θ




Ι, ι


hit or ski

(take your choice)


Κ, κ


kit kat


Λ, λ




Μ, μ




Ν, ν




Ξ, ξ




Ο, ο




Π, π




Ρ, ρ




Σ, σ, ς




Τ, τ




Υ, υ




Φ, φ




Χ, χ




Ψ, ψ




Ω, ω


note or saw

(take your choice)


There were also these diphthongs (vowels which combined to form a single sound):

ai as in aisle
ei as in fate
oi as in oil (very important to me because it's used for plurals)
ay as in cow (recall the y transliteration makes an oo sound)
ey as in feud
oy as in soup

Notice there are two letters for the different o sounds, where we have one to handle both.

Also there are effectively three letters for our e & i sounds.

The ch of Greek is much like the ch of German. Which means try to say a k while clearing your throat. No sane English speaker wants to do this. You can get away with a kh.

The z, too, is like a German z, which is a tz or a dz sound. Take your pick.

There is no j sound at all. This means Janet is safe from me making her a character.

Loretta asked in the comments of a previous post how to pronounce Phaedo (the title of a book by Plato). That's a fantastic question, because it opens up a small can of worms. An awful lot of Greek stuff comes to us via the Romans. The Romans spoke Latin, obviously, but all educated Romans spoke Greek too. Koine, in fact. But they mangled Greek names just like the Greeks mangled Persian names. And many Greek texts come to us via Latin translations. Here is the name of Plato's book Phaedo, in Greek:


Try your newly acquired transliteration skills on this word. Notice anything odd?

That's right, the Romans dropped the final n. The "correct" transliteration is Phaidon, and since the ai is a diphthong as per above, the "correct" pronounciation is


The reality is, though, when you're reading a book you really should pronounce the funny words however you feel like. It's not like the historical Phaidon is going to sue you for mispronouncing his name, and it's far more important that you're comfortable. I put a character list at the start of my first book, in which I gave suggested pronounciations for the characters. I didn't even bother looking at my own transliteration chart when I wrote it; I just put in what I thought would be easiest for modern readers to say.

But! If you're looking for something that sounds "accurate". This chart will do the job.

Comment #1,000 has been made

The 1,000th reader comment has been made on this blog! That 1,000 does not include any of my own replies, only comments made by you, dear readers.

We've reached this milestone together - you, after all, wrote all the comments. To each and every one of you, friends and readers, thanks for being here.

I was quite sure comment #1,000 would come from one of the regular writers. In fact commenter 1,000 is first time visitor Judith Engracia, who recently began as an intern at certain literary agencies called FinePrint & Nancy Coffey. Welcome Judith!