Ancient Greece

Background

Few cultures enchant the contemporary mind like the ancient Greeks, with their visionary political organization, larger-than-life philosophers, and compelling mythologies—plus, they gave us the Olympics.

Though only a unified empire for a decade under Alexander the Great, the ancient Greeks left lasting cultural influence throughout the modern world (watch 101).

Timeline

From 1,200 to 600 BCE, hundreds of Greek tribes rose out of a dark age ushered in by the collapse of an earlier warrior culture, the Mycenaeans (the inspiration for Homer's tales of the Trojan War).

By 600 BCE, the classical era of ancient Greece began, marked by the ascendance of Athens and Sparta as the cultural and political centers of the peninsula.

Greek culture spread beyond the eastern Mediterranean under the northern Macedonians, Philip and his son Alexander, as the younger son's armies conquered Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Persia in the mid-fourth century BCE.

Geography

Historians attribute the enduring independence of Greek city-states to its unique geography of mountainous terrain and myriad coast-laden peninsulas, where connected cultures remained fairly isolated.

Ubiquitous access to the sea shaped the Greeks into natural seafarers who would set up trading posts around the Mediterranean, from northern Libya to the shores of the Black Sea (watch animated map).

Classical Greece

Under Athenian dominance, the Greeks saw a flourishing of the arts, symbolized by the majestic Parthenon atop the city's acropolis, commissioned by statesman Pericles in the mid-fifth century BCE (watch tour).

Amid normalized slavery, Athens' 100,000 citizens (free people) had the leisure time for debate. Among them was Plato, whose philosophical dialogues featured the penetrating discussions of itinerant philosopher Socrates (see bio) on the nature of justice, knowledge, and more.

Herodotus, called by some the "father of history," is credited with writing one of the first consciously historical narratives, while some of the greatest works of tragedy stem from this period, including Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex." Learn how Greece influenced the world here.

World's First Democracy

Athens established one of the first pure democracies in the world, where each citizen participated in debate, elections, and votes on policy (watch a day in the life of an Athenian).

Plato famously condemned democracy as a collective tyranny—partly because Socrates was condemned to death by a majority vote—a reputational stain democracy didn't shake until modernity.

The Legacy of the Greeks

The Hellenistic era (323 to 30 BCE) saw Greeks establish cities far beyond Greece proper, including the scholarly Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, and Kandahar in modern Afghanistan.

When the Romans conquered much of Greece in the mid-second century BCE, they adopted many Greek ways, including its architecture, literature, and pantheon. Greek became the dominant language of the empire's eastern half, and Julius Caesar styled himself after Alexander the Great.

The United States' founding generation drew core ideas from Greek democracy and Roman republicanism to form the basis of American governance in the Constitution (see influences).

Video Gallery

A collection of videos about Ancient Greece

Dive Deeper

Relevant articles, podcasts, videos, and more from around the internet — curated and summarized by our team

Open link on nationalgeographic.co.uk

Astronomer Hipparchus created accurate maps of the night sky way ahead of his time, with coordinates sometimes within a single degree of modern values. Hipparchus founded a new theory of star motion, modeling the sky as a celestial sphere with coordinates similar to latitude and longitude, concepts only recently created in Hipparchus' time. Dive into his discoveries in this article, which also includes an illustrated guide on how to navigate the night sky.

Open link on artefacts-berlin.de

It turns out the Greek's had automatic doors, thanks to a genius idea from Heron of Alexandria. The doors opened when a fire was lit in front of the temple, causing heat and pressure to build in a nearby vessel that would force its contents into a higher secondary vessel. This secondary vessel would lower, pulling the doors open. When the fire extinguished, the pressure and liquid in the vessel would reverse course, closing the temple doors.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Greek origins of the Olympics

Ancient athletes race on foot in this pottery illustration.
Open link on metmuseum.org

For nearly a millennium, the ancient Greeks gathered every four years to participate in or watch sports, from footraces to a type of mixed-martial art known as pankration, which had very few rules. These events, in some cases known as the Olympics, provided the basis for the modern event, which began in 1896 in Athens. Browse ancient artifacts depicting the Olympics held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Open link on thoughtco.com

Did the Trojan War really happen? The great eighth-century BCE poet Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" portray a great warrior culture based in large palaces around the Aegean Sea in the Mediterranean. Historians and archaeologists have long believed Homer's stories were based on the Mycenaean civilization, which flourished several centuries before his time. See what archaeologists know about what life would have been like for Achilles and Odysseus here.

Open link on youtube.com

What did the musicians of ancient Greece sound like? Watch this 15-minute video to see how this university professor reconstructs melodies from thousands of years ago. Greek poetry was usually created with the intention that the words would be sung along with music. Evidence and reconstructions of ancient melodies and instruments mean researchers and musicians of today can play music whose final notes have long since faded.

Open link on wondersandmarvels.com

What should you name the mystical, multi-headed dog that's suddenly taken residence in your home? This article explores the world of hounds (and hound names) in ancient Greece. Xenophon, a historian from ancient Greece, proposed that the best dog names were limited to one or two syllables and referenced important qualities, like courage or speed. Some ideas: Aura, which means Breeze, or Korax, a raven.

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