20 Gross Practices From Ancient Greece That The History Books Thankfully Left Out

Historians tell us that the Ancient Greeks invented many key aspects of what we now call Western civilization. For example, they came up with the concept of democracy as well as the foundations of our modern legal process. In their day-to-day lives, however, the Greeks had some truly obnoxious habits that we definitely wouldn’t want to mimic today.

20. Bloodletting

Historians believe that bloodletting as a medical treatment was first employed by the Egyptians. And it seems that ancient Greek doctors were also keen proponents of this gruesome practice. The medic would cut a patient, allowing blood to drain from the body. Greek doctors held that a principal cause of illness was a surfeit of blood. As a result, draining some off was seen as a cure for a variety of conditions.

In some cases, instead of opening an artery the doctor would attach leeches to the body to diminish the amount of “bad” blood. A well-considered but entirely wrong-headed philosophy underpinned the practice of bloodletting. It’s believed that Hippocrates, who lived around 2,400 years ago, formulated the theory of the four humors: phlegm, yellow bile, black bile and blood. These four elements had to be kept in a proper balance for good health, hence bloodletting.

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19. Getting dirty in the bath

The Greeks, it seems, were keen bathers. From the 6th century B.C. their metropolises featured communal baths, often sited near a gymnasium. Indeed, bathing was seen as a social pursuit as well as a matter of hygiene. And the open-minded Greeks had no problem in stripping off to get in the bath, even in mixed-gender settings. But there was a flaw in their enthusiasm for cleanliness.

The problem was that many people shared these public baths in the cities. And that meant that when you entered the bath, you were doing so after countless others had already used the same water. So, whatever they’d cleaned off was now in the water you were immersed in. Hardly a pleasant thought, to say the least.

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18. Fish with a side of tapeworm eggs

There was a particular sauce loved by the Greeks, a passion that was later passed on to the Romans. This piquant condiment was called garum. Before you rush out to try and buy some, though, you might want to peruse the recipe. Garum was made with dried fish guts that had been fermented into what can only be described as a stinking mess.

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However much you might be repelled by the bouquet and flavor of garum – clearly an acquired taste – the sauce had another even more horrifying quality. For it seems that this noxious fish sauce was an ideal medium for the transmission of tapeworm eggs. And if you eat them, then the result is parasitic tapeworms in your guts. We’ll probably stick to tomato ketchup.

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17. The pain of hair

The women of ancient Greece banished unwanted hair not by shaving or waxing but by plucking. That’s tugging out every single hair individually, something you probably shouldn’t try at home. Perhaps weirder still, some women wore false eyebrows made from goat hair that had been dyed. How convincing these were is a moot point.

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But if you think women had it tough when it came to matters of grooming, it was perhaps even worse for the men. While it’s true that most Greek men sported beards, by tradition at times of mourning facial hair had to come off. Two beard removal methods seem to have been common. The first was to rip the hair off by the roots. The second was to burn it. Neither option appeals, it has to be said.

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16. Schooling the Spartan way

It was actually state law in Sparta, perhaps the most martial society in world history, that children must be outstandingly brave, methodical and merciless. For boys, this meant leaving home for boarding school at the age of seven. School was a time of insufficient food, remorseless military drill and just a basic nod to formal subjects such as arts or sciences. And it lasted until you were 30 years old.

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Spartan girls, on the other hand, had a somewhat easier time. At least they didn’t generally die during their schooling as boys sometimes did. However, the main thing that was drilled into girls was their future duty as wives and mothers. This was accomplished above all by lots of physical training. As a result, their bodies would be ready for the rigors of anesthetic-free childbirth.

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15. Discomfort in the bathroom

It seems that the Chinese began the use of paper in the bathroom as early as the 6th century. However, this aspect of modern civilization didn’t reach as far as Europe, or indeed Greece, for another thousand years or so. This meant that the ancient Greeks had to improvise after using the bathroom.

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And the solution they came up with to a lack of bathroom tissue appears eccentric to say the least. They used stones. Ouch. If stones had run out, they’d then turn to broken pieces of pottery, which sounds downright dangerous. Apparently, it was customary was to etch the name of an enemy on a ceramic shard before use. Sounds like a painful way of expressing contempt for an adversary.

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14. Naked at the gym

The Greeks are renowned for their love of physical exercise. They did, after all, found the Olympic Games back in 776 B.C. One of the central pillars of Greek culture was the gymnasium, where would-be athletes could go to work out just as they do today. But there’s one very important difference between an ancient Greek gym and a modern one.

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A clue to that difference lies in the very word gymnasium. Gymnos translates as “naked” in ancient Greek. And the gymnasium was where you exercised in the nude. Or at least men did – women were barred. So we’re probably unlikely ever to see a reintroduction of the ancient Greek-style nude gymnasium, even though the Olympic Games were revived in 1896.

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13. The rudest finger

In our culture, one of the rudest gestures you can make is to give someone the middle finger. But have you ever thought about what the origin of this ribald salute is? Well, it turns out that we probably have the ancient Greeks to thank for it. It seems that it was they who first made a fist with just the middle finger erect to express derision or anger as far back as the 4th century B.C.

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The precise meaning of the gesture to the ancient Greeks is in fact a matter of scholarly debate. One line of thought is that it denoted sticking said finger into a delicate part of a bird. And, strangely enough, even today we still say that when you give someone the single-fingered salute, you’re “flipping the bird.”

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12. Essence of athlete

We have our sporting heroes and for some fans, they are more than mere mortals, even worthy of worship. In fact, the very same thing seems to have been true for the ancient Greeks and their leading athletes. They were regarded almost as demi-gods. But the people of the Greek city states took their fandom one step further.

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For the ancient Greek sports fan, the ultimate collectors’ item wasn’t an item of memorabilia. What they craved more than anything was an athlete’s actual sweat. Indeed, ancient Greeks believed that consuming a sportsman’s perspiration had beneficial qualities. Usually the sweat would be mixed with the oil athletes anointed themselves in before competition. We’d have to say, that doesn’t make the practice seem any more appealing.

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11. Wine marinade for babies

The Greeks are famous for enjoying their wine. They even had a god, variously known as Bacchus or Dionysus, dedicated to wine drinking and carousing. The U.S. has strict laws about the age you can drink inebriating liquor. The French are more liberal, offering quite young children a little wine and water at meal times. But the Greeks apparently took things to a whole different level.

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Even the French would draw the line at mixing babies and wine. But not the ancient Greeks, or specifically the hardy Spartans. They in fact made a habit of dipping tiny infants into a bowl of wine. This custom, the Spartans believed, revealed whether or not a baby was hale and hearty. A frail baby, it was said, would perish in the wine bath. Harsh.

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10. Undead paranoia

You might feel that zombies are a relatively new part of the modern imaginary landscape in books, movies and TV shows. But not a bit of it – the Greeks were there thousands of years before us. Indeed, they held a deep-seated dread of the undead and thought that the deceased could return to haunt the living.

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According to Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver, writing in a 2015 issue of Popular Archaeology, “Greeks imagined scenarios in which reanimated corpses rose from their graves, prowled the streets and stalked unsuspecting victims.” This belief led to some macabre burial rites. In certain cases, large rocks or pieces of broken pottery would be placed atop the dead to prevent them from rising from the ground.

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9. A menu from hell

Lots of us relish modern-day Greek food, but we’d more than likely gag at some of the dishes the ancients enjoyed. How about the charmingly named spayed sow’s womb? Just boil up the pig’s body part with some vinegar and Parthian laser – a type of spice – and you’re good to go. Another favorite a couple of thousand years ago was a whole lamb’s head, roasted.

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But the Spartans probably take first prize for grim cuisine with their black broth. This evil-sounding soup was made with blood, salt, vinegar and boiled pork. Even other Greeks took a dim view of Spartan broth. According to author Joseph Cummins’ 2008 The War Chronicles: From Chariots to Flintlocks, when a visitor to Sparta sampled the broth, he reacted by saying, “Now I understand why the Spartans do not fear death!”

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8. Weapons of mass destruction

You might think that the use of chemical warfare is a relatively recent introduction to humanity’s long list of ways to kill each other. But, as with so many things, the ancient Greeks got in there early. For instance, an incident in 429 B.C. at Platea, a city allied to Athens, saw the Spartans using noxious fumes to force out their opponents.

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The Spartan warriors built a large bonfire, sprinkled sulfur onto it then lit the pile. The resulting clouds of poisonous sulfur dioxide beat the defenders of Platea back. That wasn’t the only such act by the Spartans during the Peloponnesian War, which they fought against the Athenians for more than a quarter of a century. When they attacked various settlements allied to Athens, the Spartans made a habit of polluting the water supply to gain the upper hand.

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7. Pour me some more breakfast (hic!)

The ancient Greeks gave a whole new meaning to the idea of a hearty breakfast. In general, they liked to eat bread baked with barley flour. The resulting loaves were rather tough, so they were best eaten if dunked into a liquid. Presumably the Greeks could have used milk, but they didn’t.

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Instead, the Greeks dunked their barley bread into wine, which must have made a jolly start to the day. Mind you, they didn’t stop imbibing after breakfast. Wine was also a staple of lunch. And once you’d already had wine for breakfast and lunch, why stop yourself at dinner? Yes, more wine was served with the evening meal. It’s a wonder they found time to launch Western civilization.

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6. Punishment for politicians

In our era there are many who have little time for politicians of whatever allegiance. But instead of just moaning about their leaders, the Athenians created a system for punishing them if they weren’t up to the mark. This scheme was called ostracism, and some might think it would be a good idea to introduce it in today’s world.

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Each year, the citizens of Athens could hold a vote to voice their opinion on their elected officials. The Athenians would scratch the name of a politician they were unhappy with on a fragment of broken pot. Whichever politician received the biggest pile of broken crockery would then be ostracized. That meant they’d be banished from the city for a whole decade.

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5. Brave doctors

Today, when we visit the doctor, there’s a wide range of high-tech tests on hand to diagnose illness. But none of that was available to the medics of ancient Greece. Instead, they had to depend on rather more basic physical signals to try and work out which particular ailment they were dealing with. And some of their methods hardly bear close inspection.

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A Greek doctor would likely start by taking a sample of your earwax. Then – don’t read on if you’re eating – the doc would actually taste your bodily product. Medical practice during the ancient Greek era depended on making a diagnosis through taste. It wasn’t just earwax medics would sample, either, but we’ll spare you further details.

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4. Weapons-grade sexism

It can’t have been a bundle of laughs during the time of ancient Greece if you happened to be female. The society’s view of women was about as unreconstructed as you can get. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Aristotle, who lived from 384 to 322 B.C., was “one of the greatest intellectual figures of Western history.”

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That may be so, but Aristotle’s attitudes to women were primitive to say the least. He actually believed that women were nothing more than malformed males who’d been damaged during their mother’s pregnancies. And Greek society as a whole pretty much went along with the idea that females were intrinsically inferior. They couldn’t be landowners or vote in elections, for example. Even more horrifying was that abandoning infant girls wasn’t uncommon.

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3. Crazy about crocs

Crocodiles seemed to have played a surprisingly large part in the culture of the ancient Greeks. And there were some decidedly odd views about the creatures. It was said, for instance, that if a crocodile bit you then walked into your house and urinated, death was a certainty. But it seems that the animals weren’t all bad in the Greek view.

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In fact, crocodiles had their part to play in ancient Greek medicine. Or at least their poop did. If you went to a Greek doctor complaining of facial scarring, he’d likely recommend treatment with crocodile dung. Simply mix the substance with water and smear the concoction on the scars for relief. How easy it was in ancient Greece to lay your hands on crocodile ordure is unknown.

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2. Eat your way to sporting victory

As we’ve seen, the Greeks were keen on sports. And like modern-day athletes, diet was in important part of their training programs. Their ideas of the best methods to eat your way to sporting success were rather different to ours, however. For example, Milon of Croton, a renowned wrestler in the 6th century B.C, had his own distinctive thoughts about diet.

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In 2004 National Geographic quoted the writing of Theodorus of Hierapolus in his work On Athletic Contests. According to Theodorus, “Milon of Croton used to eat 20 pounds of meat and as many of bread, and he drank three pitchers of wine. And at Olympia he put a four-year-old bull on his shoulders and carried it around the stadium; after which, he cut it up and ate it all alone in a single day.” Despite this diet, Milon, it should be noted, was a six-time Olympic champion.

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1. Weird weddings

Even today we still have plenty of traditions and even superstitions about the conduct of weddings. For instance, the groom isn’t supposed to see the bride in her wedding dress before the ceremony. But the ancient Greeks had much more elaborate rites of marriage. Indeed, their nuptial practices verged on the outright bizarre.

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Once again, we look to the Spartans for some peculiar behavior. Their idea of a wedding was for the groom to actually abduct the bride. The Greek writer Plutarch, born in 46 A.D., wrote about Spartan marriage traditions. According to him, the bride’s head would be shaved, she’d be dressed as a man and confined to a dark room. The groom would then kidnap her, and married life would commence.

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