The Ancient Greeks
Culture is the way of life of a particular society or group of people, including patterns of thought, beliefs, behavior, customs, traditions, rituals, dress and language, as well as art, music and literature. (Webster’s New World Encyclopedia, 1992)
The earliest Greek civilization can be traced back to more than 4000 years when the ancient Greeks occupied and ruled countries that are today known as Bulgaria and Turkey and their empire spread over Europe as far as France in the east. They were pioneers in the Democratic System of Government, Science, Philosophy, Religion and Art and that is why Ancient Greece is also known as the ‘birthplace of Western Civilization’.
Source of Information:
We get to know about ancient cultures from objects dug up at archaeological sites that have been hidden under the earth for thousands of years. Pieces of pottery, buildings, metal objects of art and weapons have their own tale to tell. In the early 1990’s, when new subway tunnels were being dug under Athens, a large number of material remains from the past were found, including remains of houses, palaces, pottery, graves and shrines. These evidences gave the archaeologists an insight into the lives and times of Ancient Greeks.
The second and most important source of information was the historians who lived and recorded the events that occurred during that time. There were only a few historians in the time of Ancient Greece. Three major ancient historians were able to record the events during their time and include Herodotus, known as the ‘Father of History’ who traveled to many ancient historic sites at the time, Thucydides and Xenophon.
Ancient Greek Culture:
The Government System: Greece was made up of a number of independent states, also known as Polis, with Athens being the largest state and occupying 2500 square kilometers of territory. Most of these states were governed by groups of rich landowners also known as aristocrats. In 500 BC democracy was first introduced by an aristocrat, Cleisthenes.
Education: The main goal of education during this time was to educate the citizens in the arts of war and peace. Military training was compulsory for boys after the age of eighteen, but it was literature that was at the heart of their school education.
The People and their Traditions: The men ran the Government, looked after the fields, went sailing or hunting or spent their time in trade. Women had little or no freedom outside the house and were mostly confined indoors. They had slaves to help them out with their work. Children were tutored by slaves.
Clothing and Accessories: Men and women wore simple clothes, wearing linen during summers and wool during winters. They bought jewellery from the travelling peddler which included rings, hairpins and earrings. They used perfumes made from boiling flowers and herbs.
Music and Dance: Dance was an important part of the Greeks and they believed that it was good for their physical and mental health. Men and women did not dance together. There were more than 200 dances like comic dances, religious dances, war dances, dances for athletes and dances for weddings, funerals and celebrations. They were adept at playing a number of musical instruments like lyres, flutes and a lot of percussion instruments such as the tambourines, cymbals and castanets.
Storytelling: The Greeks were renowned storytellers. They wrote essentially on Greek Mythology, fables and stories which had a moral attached to it. Aesop was well renowned for his collection of fables called The Aesop’s Fables.
Ancient Greek Timeline:
The early Greek civilization can be traced to nearly 10000 BC or as far back as the Stone Age, when the people were nomadic in nature and their main occupation was hunting. They later settled down and became farmers. This was followed by a series of wars and invasions. Around 1100 BC, the Dorians invaded from the North and spread down the West Coast, which further led to the division of Greece from Tribal Units to small City states, each of which consisted of a city and the surrounding country side.
Greek contribution to the modern world:
The ancient Greeks have left an indelible footprint, for the coming generations in the fields of philosophy, art, architecture, math and science and mode of government. Listed below are some of ancient Greeks greatest contributions to the modern world.
The word Democracy is a Greek word which means ‘Government by the people’ and Greece is known as the cradle of democracy in the western world. The word Demos means power and Kratos means people. So literally it meant power of the people and it enabled people above the age of 20 years to have equal opportunities in taking part in governing the country. The citizens benefited by this system as it gave them a chance to broaden their minds, their cultural awareness and intellectual development.
Ancient Greece has played a crucial role in defining science in today’s world and has contributed a lot in the field of Medicine, Math, and Astronomy. The Pythagorean theorem in Geometry, invented by the Greek Philosopher and Mathematician, Pythagoras, the various inventions made by Archimedes in the field of Astronomy and Physics and the famous Hippocratic oath taken even today by doctors before they embark upon their medical career are a few of the achievements made by these great scientists that have been handed down to the modern world.
The ancient Greeks had an important influence on modern philosophy and modern science. Socrates, a classical Greek Philosopher is considered one of the founders of Western philosophy. Other renowned philosophers of that time were Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle’s works exist even today and include works on Physics, Metaphysics, Ethics and Politics.
Art and Architecture:
Greek art and architecture is also one of the major contributions to the modern world and has had a lasting influence as their styles have been copied or reproduced by great artists. The Greeks used different types of material for their sculpture and pottery such as stone, marble, and limestone and they depict the various Gods, Heroes, events, mythical creatures and give a fair insight into the culture of the ancient Greeks. Pieces of pottery found at excavation sites found thousands of years later have been of immense use to archaeologists to gain more knowledge about the ancient Greeks. The distinctive architecture, with its heavily decorated and sturdy columns, is a source of inspiration for a number of constructions even today. The Doric, Ionic and Corinthian styles showed dominance of Greek architecture over the rest of the world.
The Olympic Games is an important legacy handed down to us by the ancient Greeks. Held every four years, athletes came from all the regions of Greece to participate in these games which were held in the stadium of Olympia, in honor of their Greek God, Zeus. The Pentathlon was the most important where competitors took part in five events and at the end of the games the winners were presented garlands and crowned with a wreath of olives.
Some important archaeological sites of ancient Greece:
The most popular architectural site in Greece, Delphi is located 180 kilometers from Athens. Delphi was the site of the Delphic Oracle and is considered to be the major site for the worship of Apollo, the son of Zeus, and the guardian of the Oracle. The oracle of Delphi played a major influence in the decision making of the people of ancient Greece. The voice of the Delphic oracle belonged to a woman called the Pythia, who spoke on behalf of the Gods. (Pythias are virgins whose lives are dedicated to giving prophecies on behalf of the God Apollo.)The Pythias was generally consulted regarding decision making like where to build new colonies, when to launch an attack on an enemy. The importance of Delphi grew over the centuries with the functions of the oracle extending to athletic games, cultural events, theatre and Delphic festivals. The Pythian Games, the forerunner of the Olympics, was the most important event staged every four years in memory of Apollo’s slaying of the dragon, Python. Major temple complexes, a theatre, a stadium and ornate treasuries were commissioned to accommodate various cultural events.
The most important edifices unearthed at the site at Delphi include- the Temple of Apollo, the Ancient Theatre, the Stadium, and the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia. The archaeological museum at Delphi contains a vast collection of artifacts which were excavated at Delphi.
In the year 480 BC, the Athenians had begun a construction, presumably dedicated to the Goddess Athena, which was burned down by the Persians while still under construction. The Parthenon was constructed at the same spot by two famous architects of that era, Iktinos and Kallikrates during 447-432 BC, mainly to shelter the statue of Athena Parthenos, which was built of pure gold and ivory.
The Parthenon is a temple constructed in the Doric style of architecture with eight columns at the facade and seventeen columns at the flanks.
Important people of Ancient Greece:
Ancient Greek Civilization has produced a number of great personalities, including Philosophers, Playwrights, Poets, Historians, Scientists and Greek Leaders. Some of these famous people are listed below:
Socrates: (525 BC – 456 BC) Known as the Founder of Western Philosophy, he is the first Greek Philosopher.
Plato: (427 BC – 347 BC) Plato was the student of Socrates and penned many dialogues using Socrates as the major character. He founded the Academy in Athens.
Aristotle: (384 BC – 322 BC) A philosopher and scientist, Aristotle was the pupil of Plato and was interested in the Physical world. He was also the Mentor of Alexander the Great.
Aeschylus: (525 BC -456 BC) One of the great playwrights, he is known as the Father of Tragedy.
Sophocles: (496 BC – 406 BC) He was another famous playwright and is credited with winning many writing competitions.
Euripides: (480 BC – 406 BC) A famous playwright who wrote tragedies. He depicted women as strong characters and his slaves as intelligent.
Homer: (800 BC – 701 BC) Homer was the most famous Greek epic poet and the Iliad and The Odyssey are two of his famous epics.
Aesop: (620 BC – 560 BC) Aesop’s fables are taught to the young and impressionable minds even today. They are lively, have talking animals and have a moral behind each story.
Hesiod: (750 BC – 650 BC) He wrote a book called ‘Works and Days’, which gives us a clear insight into the daily life of the average Greeks. He also wrote on Greek Mythology.
Herodotus: (484 BC – 425 BC) Called the Father of History, he chronicled the Persian Wars.
Thucydides: (460 BC – 395BC) He wrote about the war between Athens and Sparta.
Archimedes: (287BC – 212 BC) He is the greatest Mathematician and scientist in history and has a number of discoveries in Math and Physics including many inventions.
Aristarchus: (310 BC – 230 BC) An Astronomer and Mathematician, Aristarchus was the first to put the sun at the centre of the universe rather than the earth.
Euclid: (325 BC – 265 BC) Father of Geometry, he wrote a book called Elements, which, most likely, is the most famous mathematical text book in history.
Hippocrates: (460 BC – 370 BC) Also called Father of Western Medicine, he devised the Hippocratic Oath which is taken by doctors the world over even today.
Pythagoras: (570 BC – 495 BC) Scientist and Philosopher, his Pythagorean Theory is still a major tool used in Geometry.
Alexander the Great: (356 BC – 323 BC) The greatest military commander history has ever produced; he expanded the Greek Empire to its greatest size without ever losing a single battle.
Cleisthenes: (Born around 570 BC) Known as The Father of Athenian Democracy, he helped reform the constitution and took democracy to the people of Athens.
Draco: (650 BC -600 BC) Famous for his Draconian rule, he is the pioneer in penal law and he made many offences punishable by death.
Solon (638 BC – 558 BC) He was the first statesman to have devised the foundation and ideas of the democratic system of society.
The immense contribution of Ancient Greece to our present day civilization, in the fields of Democracy, Philosophy, Science, Astronomy, Math and Physics has left us in awe. The works of its great thinkers are still being taught to us today in universities. This great civilization was way ahead of its time and its beauty and knowledge will live on for many centuries to come.