Cultural pioneers: the ancient greeks

Wise thinkers and wise Philosophers, the world of the gods of Olympus, the Acropolis in Athens. If you were to list everything that comes to mind about ancient Greece, it would be quite a long list. After all, the ancient Greeks had a great influence on later cultures, including our own. What was special about the Greek culture, in which areas it has influenced us and what made the life of the Greeks?

Cultural pioneers: the ancient greeks

Remains of the temple of Poseidon on the Greek peninsula of Attica (Source: Photographer: Bildpixel | Pixelio.de)

Actually it is a generalization, if one speaks nowadays of "the old Greeks" speaks. Because they didn’t all live in one big country like it is the case today for example in countries like France or Germany, but in many small countries. The center of each country was the so-called "polis" – that was a kind of city-state.

One could compare the city-states of that time with the German cities of Bremen and Hamburg, which are not only simple cities but also federal states at the same time. These city-states often had disputes with each other, and wars were not infrequently fought. But they also had a lot in common, because they spoke the same language, used the same script and prayed to the same gods.

Democracy as an "invention of the Greeks

Cultural pioneers: the ancient greeks

The picture shows the famous Acropolis of Athens. (source: Wikipedia)

In the beginning, all the city-states of the Greeks still had kings, so there was a monarchy (which is the rule of one individual). But gradually democracy prevailed in all kingdoms except Sparta and its allies. The word "democracy means as much as "rule of the people".

In our country, it is taken for granted that women and men have the right to vote. In ancient Greece, only all free men consulted on the important matters of the state. slaves and women were not allowed to have a say. Concerning politics, the ancient Greeks had a rather narrow idea of who belonged to the people and who didn’t. However, this does not change the fact that the state system of democracy was an invention of the ancient Greeks, which has continued to develop until today and has prevailed in many countries of the world.

Great philosophers, thinkers and poets

Cultural pioneers: the ancient greeks

The famous Greek philosopher Plato (left) with his student Aristotle (Source: Wikipedia)

But democracy is far from the only invention for which the ancient Greeks are famous and which still resonates today. The Greeks were, for example, the pioneers of theater and of course the founders of the Olympic Games, which were held to honor the Greek gods. Many Greeks recorded their thoughts and accomplishments in writing and were therefore able to have a great influence on later cultures. For example, the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, whose name is still known to every math student today.

On the thoughts and teachings of the eminent philosopher Socrates (469-399 v. Chr.) and his student Plato (ca. 428-348 v. Chr.) many later philosophies are based on, they are discussed today as they were then. The famous philosopher Aristotle, who lived from 384 to 328 B.C., was a student of Plato. He came to Athens, the center of philosophy at the time, at the age of 17 and entered Plato’s Academy. Aristotle significantly influenced not only philosophy, but many other scientific disciplines such as logic, ethics, poetry, physics, or political science. And also the great works of Homer, the "first poet of the Occident", are still read and admired.

The Greek alphabet

Cultural pioneers: the ancient greeks

Bust of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (Source: Wikipedia)

Also important and influential was the writing of the Greeks. It was actually the first script that could be written as it was spoken, because each sound corresponded to its own letter. There were letters for vowels (today A, E, I, O, U) as well as for consonants (for example B, R, S, T and so on). It was therefore possible to learn and use writing in the same way as we can learn and use our writing today.

Other peoples took the Greek script as a model, such as the Romans. They changed the letters, but the principle remained the same – until today, because we still use the Roman letters. In science, for example in mathematics, Greek letters are still often used today.

Men and women in Greece

Cultural pioneers: the ancient greeks

The ancient Greeks believed in many different gods and goddesses. Image: the "hunting goddess Diana (source: Wikipedia)

Of course, not every Greek was an influential scientist or philosopher. Most people in Greece were "simple people", who went about their daily lives. They lived in marriages, which were often not made out of love, but as an agreement between two families. Greek women usually married at a very early age, as early as 13 to 15 years old. Men were usually older, between 20 and 30 years of age.

The father of a girl had to provide a dowry when she married, that is, money or other goods with the help of which she was to be provided for. The dowry was administered by the later husband. It was therefore very burdensome for a family to have several daughters, because the dowry of each daughter had to be provided for. In general, most parents preferred to have one or more sons.

Everyday life of the ancient Greeks

Cultural pioneers: the ancient greeks

A replica of the grove of Olympia: This is how it is said to have looked before the Romans destroyed everything. (Source: Wikipedia)

Most Greeks lived in simple wooden houses. This is also the reason why there is nothing left today of the houses of that time. Some of the mighty temples, however, have survived – at least in remnants – to this day, although they have already been built over 2.000 years old. The Greek temples were built of solid stone and can therefore still be admired today – for example the famous Acropolis in Athens.

The diet in ancient Greece was generally quite meager – after all, many foods were not known in Europe at all. Rice, corn, potatoes, tomatoes – none of these things existed in ancient Greece. Most Greeks ate bread or porridge made from barley and wheat, beans or lentils, and fruits and dairy products. The wealthy Greeks could afford to eat meat, fish or vegetables regularly.

The gods of Olympus

Cultural pioneers: the ancient greeks

Aphrodite is the goddess of love and beauty (picture by Botticelli). (Source: Wikipedia)

For the ancient Greeks, their religion was very important. Every season and every life was divided into festivals, cults and rites. The importance of religion to the Greeks can be seen in the fact that even wars were interrupted for certain festivals or rites. The religion of the Greeks was in several respects quite different from today’s world religions. The biggest difference is that among the Greeks there were several gods, each with their own jurisdiction. Dionysus was for example the god of wine, Artemis the goddess of hunting. The goddess Hestia protected the fire in the house, Ares was the god of war.

Another difference between the Greek religion and today’s world religions is the idea that the gods repeatedly come to earth in their human form and interfere in the affairs of mortals. Often they are also attributed human characteristics and behaviors among themselves – such as jealousy, love, anger and revenge. Many of the Greek gods are still known to us today from legends: Zeus, the father of the gods, with his jealous wife Hera, the beautiful Aphrodite – the goddess of love and beauty – and her husband Hephaistos, or Hermes, the messenger of the gods. There are countless legends about the origin and descent of the individual gods, their connections with each other and their many adventures. They have survived the ages and are still widely read today.

Adventurous Greek Heroic Legends

Cultural pioneers: the ancient greeks

Depiction of Theseus fighting the dreaded Minotaur (by etienne-Jules Ramey, 1826) (source: Wikipedia)

Not only the legends of the gods from ancient Greece are famous, but also the legends of the great Greek heroes. Many authors and filmmakers are still inspired by the exciting, adventurous and often dark heroic myths, and most people are familiar with the most famous heroes.

One of the most famous legends is the story of the Labyrinth in Crete, where the hero Theseus slays the terrible Minotaur – a creature with a human body and the head of a bull – and thus saves the beautiful princess Ariadne. Also the hero Achilles is still known today. According to the legend, he was the son of a mortal and the sea nymph Thetis, who did not want to accept that her son was mortal. She immersed him in the river Styx, which separated the underworld from the upper world, and thus made him invulnerable. Only in the place where Thetis held him, he remained vulnerable. That is why today we speak of the Achilles’ heel when we mean the (only) weakness of a human being.

Conquests of Alexander the Great and rise to power of Rome

Cultural pioneers: the ancient greeks

Greek culture dominated Syria, Egypt, and Macedonia after Alexander the Great’s conquests. (Source: Wikipedia)

Due to the conquests of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), then king of Macedonia, Athens lost its important position. In the age of the so-called "Hellenism Greek culture was dominant in the three great Hellenistic empires of Egypt, Syria and Macedonia.

However, the kingdoms were later conquered by the Romans, who took the leading role since about 50 BC. In the late antiquity the Latin language and the Roman culture were dominant. What is decisive, however, is that Rome, too, had previously been a province of Greek culture – this had therefore had a decisive influence on Roman culture. As influential as the Greek culture was on future cultures, it is hard to imagine how our life would look like today, if the ancient Greeks had not existed.

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