You may have seen other videos like this; this is the chanting that’s going on from rooftops in Iran each night as part of the protests since June 12. It reminds me of a notorious women’s festival in ancient Athens called the Adonia, celebrated on the roofs of houses. We have tantalizing but inconclusive evidence that at the Adonia of 415 bce, the women were particularly, and perhaps intentionally, disruptive with the ritual wailing “Woe for Adonis” from the rooftops all over Athens; in retrospect this was seen by some as a bad omen for the ill-fated Sicilian Expedition.  It’s been suggested that this was, in fact, a political protest against the coming war.

A roof is an interesting space: at once private (it’s your house) and public. During the day, protesters on the streets or in public squares in Iran are increasingly subject to arrest. But what exactly can the regime do to stop people from making noise from their own rooftops or balconies at night?

Anyway a couple of years ago I spent a happy afternoon trolling the wonderful Thesaurus Linguae Graecae for references to roofs in ancient Greek; I wrote up the results on my sabbatical blog. I’ll copy the whole thing below, as I still think it’s quite interesting!

I’ve been working on an interesting incident in 415 in the early summer when the women’s celebration of a festival called the Adonia was evidently particularly disruptive to male activities, and was (later?) seen as a bad omen for the Sicilian expedition. The Adonia is an interesting festival for a lot of reasons, but what I’m focused on at the moment is its setting: the rooftops of Athenian houses.

As far as I can discover, no other religious festival occurred on the roofs in Athens, although evidently in the Middle East this did happen, and this particular festival looks very much like an import. But it’s made me think about the roof of a house as a usable space. Many pictures showing reconstructions of Athenian houses give them pitched roofs, but it seems to me pretty clear from literary sources that in fact they must have been flat, because we hear about quite a lot of stuff going on up there. Last summer when it was very hot I remember hearing an interview with an Iraqi woman in Baghdad who talked about sleeping on the roof with her children, and it reminded me that my parents, who spent a couple of years in India, did the same thing in hot weather. Why wouldn’t the Greeks have done this as well? The upper floor of a house (where, at least in Lysias 1, the men usually slept) gets nastily hot in hot weather, but the roof would be much cooler. In fact, the ill-fated Elpenor in the Odyssey, having drunk too much and needing the cool air, goes to sleep on the roof of Circe’s house. (Not being too bright, when he’s roused in the morning by the sound of the men leaving he forgets to come down the ladder, falls off and kills himself.)

The only reference I can find to roof-sleeping in classical Athens is at the opening of Aristophanes’ Wasps, where the two slaves are supposed to be guarding the house lest the jury-addicted Philocleon escape. They point out their master Bdelycleon, who is sleeping on the roof. But this may be a special case to keep Philocleon from escaping through the chimney.

But in addition to sleeping, the roof seems to have made a good place to keep a look-out. Remember the way Aeschylus’ Agamemnon begins the watchman is up on the roof of the palace, looking out for the beacon fire that will tell him the Trojan war is over. OK, I realize that Aeschylus’ notion of a Mycenaean palace may not be identical to an Athenian house. But in Lysias’ speech Against Simon, we get another glimpse of the same kind of thing. The speaker claims that Simon plotted to abduct his young boy-friend Theodotus: “this man, observing immediately that Theodotus had arrived and was staying with Lysimachus,–who lived hard by the house that this man had rented–invited some of his friends to join him: they all had luncheon and drank, and they posted watchers on the roof so that, when the boy should come out, they might seize upon him.” Not only was it good for Simon’s nefarious plots; it made a good viewing-place for more festive occasions as well. In Aristophanes’ Acharnians, when the hero is about to celebrate his own private rural Dionysia, he tells his wife to go up and watch from the roof.

Finally, the rooftop activity I found the most references to was urban fighting. In lots of cities women and slaves, sometimes accompanied by weaker men, go up on the roofs and hurl tiles down at an invading enemy. Polyaenus (oh, the wonders of the TLG!) tells a great story about Pyrrhus, who was invited into Argos by a traitor but met fierce resistance: the men rushed to the agora in arms, and the women and slaves went up on the roofs. Pyrrhus himself was struck and killed by a roof tile hurled by an old woman!

It’s also clear that in the city the houses that shared walls also shared roofs. Demosthenes voices his indignation at Androtion, who actually broke into people’s houses to collect taxes from them: “What if a poor man, or a rich man for that matter who has spent much money and is naturally perhaps rather short of cash, should have to climb over the roof to a neighbor’s house or creep under bed, to avoid being caught and dragged off to jail, or should degrade himself in some other fashion, fit for slaves and not for freemen, and should be seen thus acting by his own wife, whom he espoused as a freeman and a citizen of our state?” Thus evidently you could sneak from one house to another across the rooftops, but it wasn’t something free male citizens liked to admit doing.

Now I don’t think you could do any of this stuff on a pitched roof, or at least not one that was pitched very steeply. So I’m thinking not only that they were flat, but that they represent a really interesting space in the city. If you’re up on the roof, are you in public? Or in private? The references I’ve told you about above clearly include both men and women up on the roofs, so the space doesn’t seem to be associated primarily with one gender or the other. It’s remarkable in a city like Athens to find an area that seems to be at once public and private, male and female. I wish I knew what else went on up there.

So back to the Adonia: here’s a festival that seems to go on through at least one day and night, where the women of Athens go up on their rooftops and make a lot of noise wailing for Adonis, the young lover of Aphrodite. Famously a character in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata tells about a man trying to make a proposal in the assembly while his wife is wailing “woe for Adonis!” drunkenly from her nearby roof. Thus (we assume) the festival went on through normal political activity rather than displacing it, as some festivals did. The women were up there, presumably visible from some vantage-points, noisily celebrating their festival through the day and (if other comic texts are credible) through the night. It must have been something like a woman’s block-party, if all the roofs in a single block were contiguous. Yet they never had to leave their houses to get there!