From The Inns of Greece & Rome, and a history of Hospitality from the Dawn of Time to the Middle Ages, by W. C. Firebaugh, with an Introduction by Wallace Rice and Illustrations by Norman Lindsay, Chicago: Pascal Covici; 1928; pp. 27-36.




The Lydians established the first inns and taverns (?) — The Greeks of the Heroic Age knew not taverns nor inns, but practised the highest standards of hospitality — Lesches, places of gossip, preceding inns — Pausanias’s description of two casinos in Athens and Sparta.

Herodotus, who, as he is better understood, will be better appreciated, and who generally attempts to get to the root of a matter, would place the origin of inns among a people among whom he saw them and had experience with them for the first time, and he therefore attributes to the Lydians the establishment of the first inns and taverns. In those primitive times, however, the truth would be difficult to arrive at, if not utterly impossible, and we shall not contradict his statement; nevertheless, we doubt it, and we have many times asked ourselves why the Lydians and no other people should have conceived such an idea. It is true that they were jolly, light hearted, and passionately fond of amusement. Had that not been the case they would never have fallen so rapidly into a state of decadence after the conquest of Sardi by Cyrus, nor could they have taken so light a view of the captivity and humiliation of Croesus. And Polydore Virgil has defended his statement with a singular pleasantry and brilliance, on the ground that the thing is very natural. The Lydians, says he, invented games and they ought therefore to have been the first to conceive the idea of a tavern, and to open establishments, places, as he remarks, where games and gambling would always be held in great favor: “quippe tale opus in cauponis maxime semper fervet.” Larcher, the great French translator of Herodotus, is by no means agreeable to this. He does not accept 28 in that sense the word kapelos, employed by Herodotus, and he is caustically critical of the translators of Herodotus who have rendered that expression by the Latin term caupona. According to him, the term of Herodotus should be taken in the sense of retailer, retail tradesman, and thus does he everywhere render it. He cites a great number of passages where kapelos, in effect, is used in the sense in which he maintains it should be taken, notably a phrase in Plato where it is said that “all commerce between towns other than bartering is called kapelican,” but with all the evidence he has cited, there is still room for disagreement and an opinion to the contrary may be maintained without any great difficulty. Scholarly candor, however, compels us to admit that, notwithstanding the various Latin versions of Herodotus, and even the evidence of Polydore Virgil, the word kapelos can be taken in a double sense, i.e., cabaret keeper and merchant. And this legend upon a sign could only have been embarrassing to a stranger in a Greek town, if he was searching for an inn and not for a retailing establishment. The habit of cheating, which from the earliest times has been inherent in the two callings, would be a complicating factor in the affair, and to do justice to such a situation one should give still a third meaning to the term kapelos, i.e., that of pilfering or obtaining under false pretensions: and the verb kepeleuein is no less elastic in the meanings which it may convey, yet notwithstanding the various innuendoes which it conveys, in spite of the various shades of meaning which it takes on in different constructions, one well acquainted with the genius of the Greek tongue will unerringly arrive at the proper sense, and should the stranger seek a wine-shop he had but to ask where he could find an oinopoles; were he in search of lodgings, he asked the location of a panddokos or a katagogos, but notwithstanding all his care and precaution, he would find 29 himself in the presence of the kapelos whether he patronized the one or the other; and, in addition, he did well to be on his guard against deception which often presented itself in a guise as lovely as it was sweetly predacious. The Greeks of the Heroic age were unacquainted with the plagues which beset the ages in which inns and taverns flourished. At that time there was literally no such thing among them as professional hospitality, maintained for profit. Each and every stranger had the right of sanctuary and asylum; every wayfarer, as though under the protection of Zeus Xenios himself, was sure to find a host. After the feast, a libation in honor of the god of hospitality was poured upon the hospitable table, the protector of strangers was honored, and the guest was then on even terms with the host who entertained him. Pomp and pageantry made not the slightest difference in the quality of the welcome; a guest might arrive with a baggage train of mules and slaves, or he might come as unostentatiously as Orestes, in the Coephores, with a lean scrip, and leaning upon a staff; he was a stranger, and sanctuary was his by right. “At the voice of the stranger,” eloquently remarks Barthelemy, “all gates were opened, all his needs were met, and, as a still more beautiful tribute to the homage thus rendered to humanity, the host was not informed of the state and birth of a guest until after the latter had satisfied his necessities.”

One phase of hospitality there was, in the Heroic age, which placed it far above the standards practiced by the Hebrews, at least in the later ages of their history, and the only examples which can be cited to compare with this Greek standard are those of Abraham and Lot. To the Greek, it made not the slightest difference whether his guest was a Dorian or an Ionian, a Locrian, a Corcyrian, or an Attican, it made no difference whether he was even of Greek stock, he was entitled to food and shelter, and 30 also to protection while under his host’s roof. The Hebrew, in the later periods of his history, while always hospitable, confined his charity and entertainment to members of his own race, or to those closely allied to it. The unlimited scope of Hellene hospitality will be better understood after a thorough perusal of Homer. Let us then attempt a description of the age in which he is said to have lived, and perhaps we shall better understand the entertainment of Telemachus by Menelaus, which is the earliest and one of the finest examples of the hospitality with which we are concerned. We need but cast a glance at this cheerful, well contented, happy Homeric world to be convinced that there was anything but a lack of social amusement. At that time the cultus itself was a series of light hearted entertainments, beautified by dances, singing, and joyous barbecues and banquets. In addition to this, the council of the nobles, the court of the monarch, and the assembly of the people, were, to all practical purposes, as much social as political or commercial, and their debates, often acrimonious and generally entertaining, with their cutting and thrusting, were entertaining to the highest degree, and the innumerable special celebrations and religious fêtes in the houses of the king and the nobles added still more to the variety and richness of contemporary life. After the banquet, virile youth hastened to the palaestra to engage in athletic sports and match their strength and skill against one another in a physical competition beneficial to both body and character alike. From this custom the finest artistic sense of all time was evolved. The elders looked on and decided the issues in accordance with the merits of the contestants, and the Homeric age produced few weaklings, or, rather, few survived, which is not a left-handed compliment to later and supposedly better times. Then followed a wonderful old folk dance of lovely damsels and armed epheboi, such 31 as are sometimes seen on the finer pottery of the time, a dance which was symbolical of life itself, and Dryden, in one little line, has caught the very spirit of that dance:

“None but the brave deserve the fair!”

Black and white pen and ink drawing by Norman Lindsay, of a procession of a man carrying a large pot, followed by three men carrying a large tray with filled plates on it.  All are barefoot.


Happy times, in that fairy-tale age of pure gold, when man at his best was “knee deep in June,” when he led a healthy, vigorous life, uncontaminated at its source by a seething commercialism destined to devour itself and everything it touched; when Advertising, its crafty and specious spokesman, had not educated Appetite or tutored Desire. What Horace wrote as his conception of the ideal condition for man might be applied with equal propriety to that age:

“Who covets much will ever want,
     But happy he on whom the gods bestow
With sparing hand, enough, and grant
     Him health, and industry to keep him so.”

How do the majority of our social pleasures compare with these simple and healthy amusements? Are they as good, as constructive? Are they not too refined? Will not such a trend produce eventually a race of mollycoddles and cuddling moths if carried to its end? Let us note that in building the stadia at the various universities were are getting in tune with the ancient Greek ideal of robust health and the physical beauty which crowns it. And we shall have less of ennui, and of political indifference with which to reproach demagogues, as a result.

The first public institutions in Greece which can with any justice be compared with our inns and taverns, the so-called leschai, are, in all probability, a development arising at the close of the Hellenic age. In the age which followed they were adapted to the needs of the Ionic cities, and larger towns, especially Athens. They were also known to Doric Greece, but to a much less degree. 32 The first mention of these leschai is found in Homer in that passage of the Odyssey in which an empty-headed maidservant attempts to scold Odysseus, disguised in beggar’s rages, out of his own house:1

“Wretched guest” (Melantho, Penelope’s adopted ward, is speaking), “surely thou art some brain-struck man, seeing that thou dost not choose to go and sleep at a smithy, or at some PLACE OF COMMON RESORT, but here thou pratest much and boldly among many lords and hast no fear at heart. Verily, wine has got about thy wits, or perchance thou art always of this mind, and so thou dost babble idly. Art thou beside thyself for joy, because thou hast beaten the beggar Irus? Take heed lest a better man than Irus rise up presently against thee, to lay his mighty hands about thy head and bedabble thee in blood, and send thee hence from the house.”2

This is the only Homeric poem which contains such mention, and it is probable, as stated above, that the institution of public houses did not belong to the earlier Heroic age and the bard very likely carried an institution of his own time back into an earlier age. As regards the passage cited, Eustathius the scholiast informs us that lesches were buildings with open halls where people congregated for purposes of gossip and amusement.3 Hesiod also admonishes against habits of idleness which these lesches fostered.

Gossip, however, was not the only conversation heard in these places; more serious subjects were also discussed, and as the gymnasiums later became the lecturing places and haunt of philosophers and their neophytes, so also these earlier substitutes served a like purpose. The passage from Homer quoted above shows also that these lesches, in addition to their social usage, served as shelter 33 and sanctuary to the homeless and needy vagrants. As it was unusual for the Greeks to foster a public custom or an institution of a public nature without associating the same with their religion and folklore, so they had also for these institutions a patron: this was Apollo, who in this capacity was called Apollo Leschenarios. On this account we need not be surprised at reading of these lesches as being enumerated among the public buildings belonging to the different cities. The degree to which these gathering places were frequented, depended naturally upon the varying social character of the native customs and still more, upon their mode of living. Athens and Sparta will serve as striking examples of what is meant. According to Pausanias, there were two such casinos, as we will call them for want of a better word; one called the Krotanon or Club-room of the Crotonians, the other the Painted Club-room, and in another passage, Book 10, chap. 25, Frazer’s translation, he speaks of another such building at Delphi adorned with paintings by Polygnotus and dedicated by the Cnidians.

Called by the Delphians the Club-room (lesche, place of talk), because here they used of old to meet and talk over both mythological and more serious subjects. That there were many such places all over Greece is shown by Homer in the passage where Melantho rails at Ulysses:

And you will not go sleep in the smithy,
Nor yet in the club-room, but here you prate.

Plutarch has laid the scene of one of his dialogues (De Defectu Oraculorum) in this building. He says (chapter 6): “Advancing from the temple we reached the doors of the Cnidian club-house. So we entered and saw the friends of whom we were in search seated and awaiting us.” Pliny mentions the paintings of Polygnotus at Delphi, but seems to suppose that they were in a temple. 34 (Hist. Nat. XXXV, 59.) Of the two series of paintings in the club-house, the one which represented Troy after its capture seems to have been especially famous; it is mentioned by Philostratus (Vit. Apollon. VI, 11, 64) and by a scholiast on Plato (Gorgias, p. 448 b.). Lucian refers to the graceful eyebrows and rosy cheeks of Cassandra in this picture (Imagines, 7). In the time of Pausanias the pictures were already between four and five hundred years old, and they seemed to have survived for at least two centuries more, for they are mentioned with admiration by the rhetorician Themisteus, who lived in the fourth century of our era (Or. XXXIV, 11).

The scanty remains of the club-house which contained these famous paintings were excavated by the French in recent years. The club-house is situated, in accordance with the description of Pausanias, higher up the hill than the spring Cassotis, a few steps to the east of the theatre. It was built on a terrace, which is supported on the south by a high retaining wall. A marble slab in this wall bears this inscription:

                             WALL TO APOLLO”

Let it not be inferred that the other club-houses in Greece were constructed and adorned upon standards as beautiful as this, the most celebrated of them all, or the forerunners of Gil Blas and Casanova, when down on their luck, lodged habitually in sumptuous quarters such as these. The name Leschai must have undergone some changes in meaning between the Heroic age and that in which Pausanias wrote. The term was applied to any place in which people gathered to gossip or to talk seriously. The agora and its colonnades, the gymnasia, the 35 shops of the various artisans and tradesmen, especially the smiths whose shops were frequented in winter because they were warm, all came under this heading. In Sparta these club-rooms were the scene of the deliberations of the elders on the welfare of the state and it was to them that new-born children were brought, there to pass physical examination for the purpose of determining whether the child should be reared or exposed to die, vide, Plutarch, Lycurgus, 16, 25.

In Athens, on the contrary, there were no less than three hundred and sixty such club-rooms. This difference had its cause in the inherent and national character of the Spartans, which was not so volatile, not so sprightly and talkative as that of the Athenians and Corinthians. Nor must one also overlook the other features of their public and private life — features of such a nature as to make such institutions almost superfluous. As is well known, the Spartans lived their life entirely in common. With them individual initiative, except in the field, was discouraged, and in some cases punished; such ambitions were always looked upon with suspicion. From boyhood to old age, the Spartan underwent the discipline of mass action. He was a cog in the wheel of a well-oiled machine. He played, ate, fought, and slept in a common brotherly companionship. As a natural consequence, all classes, whatever their condition in life, and they were all relatively poor, felt no social urge for changed conditions and even discouraged the visits of Greeks from other parts of the country. The almost patriarchal state of society, with its military glamour, filled every need, social or physical. Sparta was never a commercial community nor was it adorned with magnificent edifices and temples. Nor were there any wonderful collections of art to attract outsiders. The stay of strangers in their city was rendered short and difficult by special legislation, and 36 the comparatively small number of aliens who succeeded in evading their immigration laws found adequate shelter and care in the homes of individual families, or, if they chanced to be official representatives of other states, they were cared for by royal arrangement, as the king always placed matters of this sort in the hands of designated individuals who were responsible to him and to the state.


 1  Book 18, 320 et sequitur;

 2  ibid.

 3  Butcher and Lang.