Slideshow image

Ancient Greek Culture and Civilization

Ancient Greek Culture was the birthplace of Western civilisation about 4000 years ago. Ancient Greece produced many magnificent achievements in areas of government, science, philosophy and the arts that still influence our lives.

Greece, and especially Athens, is the cradle of democracy in the western civilization. Athens owes the first penal and civil law code to Draco. An outstanding statesman and poet called Solon acted in Athens at the same time as Draco. In 594 BC he was elected the first archon – the highest state official who today could be compared to a prime minister. The difference between a prime minister and an archon lies in the fact that the latter was elected annually and had executive and judicial power, was in command of the army and performed priestly functions. The main Solon's credit was that he prepared basis for political changes in Athens. He divided citizens into four groups based on agricultural output, established the so-called Council of 400, the jury court, standardized the system of measures and weights and considerably increased rights of ekklesia – assembly of all citizens of Athens over 20. In 510 BC Cleisthenes introduced profound reforms which made democracy exist as a system of government for the first time in the world. In general reforms were to diminish the role of aristocracy, eliminate financial differences and mix the society.

Athenian democracy was established as a result of continuous reorganizations. The name comes from demos-people and kratos-power, so literally power of the people. Apart from many smaller changes, it was mainly based on the opportunity for all citizens over 20 to take part in governing the country. One of the main advantages of Athenian democracy was that the archon and his eight assistants were elected annually. It was possible to prolong the rule for the next term but in case of any abnormalities a quick change of government took place. The biggest advantage of democracy in polis was the general possibility of taking part in public life for all free citizens. Undoubtedly it helped the citizens of Athens to broaden their minds, their cultural awareness and, what was probably most important, to develop intellectually

Greece has importantly influenced the Western science in many ways. The Ancient Greeks especially contributed many things to the scientific world, from medicine to astronomy. The most famous ancient Greek scientists and their work are briefly described below.

Thales of Miletus (640-610 to ca 548-545 BC) had travelled widely in quest of knowledge, visiting Crete, Phoenicia, and Egypt. Ηe brought Phoenician navigational techniques into Miletus. Thales is also said to have tried to revise the calendar. He also brought Babylonian mathematical knowledge to Greece and used geometry to solve problems such as calculating the height of pyramids and the distance of ships from the shore. He studied astronomy in Babylonia, and after his return to Miletus gained great fame by predicting an eclipse of the sun (28.5.585 BC, Julian Calendar or 22.5.584 BC Gregorian Calendar Famous Eclipse). He was first noted as an inventor and an engineer. Thales was also interested in heavenly bodies. He is credited with the discovery of the electrical properties of amber (or “electron” from which also the name electricity was derived). According to Pausanias he was one of the Seven Sages of Greece.

Pythagoras (569 to 475 BC) was the Greek philosopher and mathematician. He studied astronomy, logistics and geometry and founded the mystic Pythagorean cult. The cult he founded was devoted to the study of numbers, which the Pythagoreans saw as concrete, material objects, and became for them the ultimate principle of all proportion, order, and harmony in the universe. Pythagoras also investigated the ratios of lengths corresponding to musical harmonies, and developed methods of geometric proof. In geometry the great discovery of Pythagoreans was the hypotenuse theorem or Pythagorean theorem. Pythagoreans were the first to consider the earth as a globe revolving with the other planets around a central fire and mathematicize the universe.

Democritus (460 BC - 370 BC) was a pre-Socratic Greek materialist philosopher, a student of Leucippus and co-originator of the belief that all matter is made up of various imperishable, indivisible elements which he called atoma or "indivisible units", from which we get the English word atom. Democritus agreed that everything which is must be eternal, but denied that "the void" can be equated with nothing. This makes him the first thinker on record to argue the existence of an entirely empty "void". He was also a pioneer of mathematics and geometry in particular. He was among the first to observe that a cone or pyramid has one-third the volume of a cylinder or prism respectively with the same base and height. He also proposed that the universe contains many worlds, some of them inhabited and conducted research on minerals and plants.

Euclid (323 BC–283 BC), also known as the "Father of Geometry", was a Greek mathematician of the Hellenistic period who was active in Alexandria, almost certainly during the reign of Ptolemy I. His Elements, a reorganized compilation of geometrical proofs including new proofs and a much earlier essay on the foundations of arithmetic, is the most successful textbook in the history of mathematics. In it, the principles of what is now called Euclidean geometry are deduced from a small set of axioms. Elements conclude with the construction of Plato's five regular solids. Euclidean space has no natural edge, and is thus infinite. Euclid also wrote works on perspective, conic sections, spherical geometry, and rigor. In his Optica, he noted that light travels in straight lines and described the law of reflection.

Archimedes of Syracuse (287 BC – 212 BC) was a Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer. He is regarded as one of the leading scientists in classical antiquity. Among his advances in physics are the foundations of hydrostatics       and the explanation of the principle of the lever. He is credited with designing innovative machines, including siege engines and the screw pump that bears his name. Archimedes is considered to be one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. He used the method of exhaustion to calculate the area under the arc of a parabola with the summation of an infinite series, and gave a remarkably accurate approximation of Pi. He also defined the spiral bearing his name, formulas for the volumes of surfaces of revolution and an ingenious system for expressing very large numbers. Archimedes had proved that the sphere has two thirds of the volume and surface area of the cylinder (including the bases of the latter), and regarded this as the greatest of his mathematical achievements.

Ancient Greek philosophy focused on the role of reason and inquiry. It had an important influence on modern philosophy, as well as modern science. The influence  from ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophers was expanded to medieval Muslim philosophers and scientists, to the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, to the modern natural sciences and technology.

Socrates was a classical Greek philosopher. Considered one of the founders of Western philosophy, he strongly influenced Plato, and Aristotle. He made his most important contribution to Western thought through his method of inquiry. He is principally renowned for his contribution to the field of ethics, Socrates also lends his name to the concepts of Socratic irony and the Socratic Method. Socrates also made important and lasting contributions to the fields of epistemology and logic, and the influence of his ideas and approach, remains strong in providing a foundation for much western philosophy which followed.

Plato has the reputation of one of the most influential philosophers in Western thought. He wrote several dozen philosophical dialogues —arguments in the form of conversations— and a few letters. Though the early dialogues deal mainly with methods of acquiring knowledge, and most of the last ones with justice and practical ethics, his most famous works expressed a synoptic view of ethics, metaphysics, reason, knowledge, and human life. One can view Plato, with qualification, as an idealist and a rationalist.

Aristotle placed much more value on knowledge gained from the senses, and would correspondingly better earn the modern label of empiricist. Thus Aristotle set the stage for what would eventually develop into the scientific method centuries later. The works of Aristotle that still exist today appear in treatise form. The most important include Physics, Metaphysics, (Nicomachean) Ethics, Politics, De Anima (On the Soul), Poetics, and many others. Aristotle was a great thinker and philosopher, and his philosophy was crucial in governing intellectual thought in the Western world. His views and approaches dominated early Western science for almost 2000 years. As well as philosophy, Aristotle was a formidable inventor, and is credited with many significant inventions and observations.

The art of ancient Greece has exercised an enormous influence on the culture of many countries from ancient times until the present. There are three scholarly distinctions of Greek art that correspond roughly with historical periods of the same names. These are the Archaic (700 - 480 BC), the Classical (480 - 323 BC) and the Hellenistic (323 – 31 BC) periods. The main physical categories of Greek art are sculpture, pottery, coin design and architecture.

The Greeks used many different types of materials in their sculptures including stone, marble and limestone as these were abundant in Greece. Other materials such as clay were also used but due to their brittle nature very few have survived. Greek sculptures are very important as the vast majority of them tell us a story about Gods, Heroes, Events, Mythical Creatures and Greek culture in general. Examples of Greek sculpture that survive and receive worldwide recognition are: the Parthenon Marbles, Agamemnon's Death Mask, stone statues of humans, such as the limestone Kouros (male) and Kore (female) statues (c.590 BC), Discobolos (The Discus Thrower) by Myron, the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

The Ancient Greeks made pottery for everyday use, not for display; the trophies won at games, such as the Panathenaic Amphorae (wine decanters), are the exception. Most surviving pottery consists of drinking vessels such as amphorae, kraters (bowls for mixing wine and water), hydria (water jars), libation bowls, jugs and cups. Painted funeral urns have also been found. Miniatures were also produced in large numbers, mainly for use as offerings at temples.

Coins were mostly small disk-shaped lumps of gold, silver, or bronze, stamped with a geometric designs, symbols -to indicate its city of origin or the god they were sacred to-, and portraits –of gods or heroes.

Ancient Greek architects strove for the precision and excellence of workmanship that are the hallmarks of Greek art in general. The formulas they invented as early as the sixth century B.C. have influenced the architecture of the past two millennia.

Although the ancient Greeks erected buildings of many types, the Greek Temple best exemplifies the aims and methods of Greek architecture. The two principal orders in Archaic and Classical Greek temples architecture are the Doric and the Ionic.A third order of Greek architecture, known as the Corinthian, mostly common in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Representative temple of the Doric order is Parthenon, of the Ionic order is Erechtheum and of the Corinthian order is the temple of Zeus, all these temples sited in Athens.

The Greek Theater was a central place of formal gatherings in ancient Greece. Every Greek town had a theater. These were used for both public meetings as well as dramatic performances. These performances originated as religious ceremonies; they went on to assume their Classical status as the highest form of Greek culture by the 6th century BC. The theatre was usually set in a hillside outside the town, and had rows of tiered seating set in a semi-circle around the central performance area, the orchestra. Behind the orchestra was a low building called the skene, which served as a store-room, a dressing-room, and also as a backdrop to the action taking place in the orchestra. A number of Greek theatres survive almost intact, the best known being at the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus.

The architectural typology of the modern stadium derives from the classical prototype of the Greek Stadium. The Greek Stadium was the open space where footraces and other athletic contests took place in ancient Greece. The stadiums were usually U-shaped, the curve being opposite to the starting point. The courses were generally 600 Greek feet long (1 stadium), although the length varied according to local variations of the measuring unit. Natural slopes where used where possible to support the seats. The best known ancient Greek stadium is Kallimarmaron (Panathinaikon Stadium), sited in Athens. 

Olympic Games
According to historical records, the first ancient Olympic Games can be traced back to 776 BC. They were dedicated to the Olympian gods and were staged on the ancient plains of Olympia, in the western part of the Peloponnese. They continued for nearly 12 centuries, until Emperor Theodosius decreed in 393 A.D. that all such “pagan cults” be banned.

The Olympic Games were closely linked to the religious festivals of the cult of Zeus, but were not an integral part of a rite. Indeed, they had a secular character and aimed to show the physical qualities and evolution of the performances accomplished by young people, as well as encouraging good relations between the cities of Greece. According to specialists, the Olympic Games owed their purity and importance to religion.

The ancient Olympic Games included the following events: pentathlon, running, jumping, discus throw, wrestling, boxing, pankration and equestrian events.

All free male Greek citizens were entitled to participate in the ancient Olympic Games, regardless of their social status. Married women were not allowed to participate in, or to watch, the ancient Olympic Games. However, unmarried women could attend the competition.

The Olympic victor received his first awards immediately after the competition. Following the announcement of the winner's name by the herald, a Hellanodikis (Greek judge) would place a palm branch in his hands, while the spectators cheered and threw flowers to him. Red ribbons were tied on his head and hands as a mark of victory. The official award ceremony would take place on the last day of the Games, at the elevated vestibule of the temple of Zeus. In a loud voice, the herald would announce the name of the Olympic winner, his father's name, and his homeland. Then, the Hellanodikis placed the sacred olive tree wreath, or kotinos, on the winner's head .

In 1859 Evangelos Zappas, a wealthy Greek philanthropist, sponsored the first modern international Olympic Games that were held in an Athens city square, with athletes from two countries: Greece and the Ottoman Empire. In June 23, 1894 Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and it was decided that the first IOC Olympic Games would take place in 1896 in Athens, as they did.

Copyright 2010 | Athens University of Economics and Business