From our favourite books to summer sporting events, ancient Greece has influenced the world around us in countless ways
Greedy gods, epic heroes and quirky philosophers…it may all sound like ancient history, but we owe a lot to the Greeks! From the media we consume to the way we run our country, much of the modern world is built on the legacy of ancient Greece. Here are just a few things that would look a little different if the Greeks hadn’t been around.
Among many other things, the ancient Greeks sure knew how to tell a story! Epic poems, plays, myths, they had it all, and many of them live on today.
One of the oldest literature styles is epic poetry, and the oldest surviving epic poems are The Iliad and The Odyssey, both written by Homer around 800 BC. Ancient Greek stories are ripe for reimagining, and The Iliad has spawned countless modern retellings, such as Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles (a love story between Achilles and Patroclus which won the 2012 Women’s Prize for Fiction) and Pat Barker’s somewhat darker The Silence of the Girls, which retells The Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, Achilles’ slaves. The Odyssey hasn’t been forgotten, either—James Joyce’s Ulysses transplants Homer’s epic into 1900s Dublin. Meanwhile in The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood tells The Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope.
"Ancient Greek stories are ripe for reimagining"
Many other beloved modern titles draw from ancient Greek stories. The 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction was also a retelling: Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which reimagines Sophocles’ Antigone as it might have looked in a family of British Muslims. Like Sophocles’ tragedy, Shamsie is concerned with what it means to be a citizen, although in her updated version this is explored in conjunction with racism and Islamophobia.
Greek mythology has also influenced many modern works. Beloved young adult series Percy Jackson places the Greek gods in the 21st century, and Madeline Miller revisited Greek myths with her 2018 novel Circe.
No wonder Sophocles’ play Antigone was interested in the nature of citizenship and civil disobedience: ancient Greece created the world’s first known democracy, after all. It did look a little different then, though.
Democracy is often attributed to the ancient Greek city of Athens, where it developed in around the 6th century BC, but there is evidence that democracy had already existed in other Greek city-states since the 4th century BC. However, Athens was the only city-state that left sufficient historical evidence to allow for speculation on the nature of Greek democracy.
Citizens would gather on a hill called the Pnyx where they would engage in direct democracy. Speakers would make speeches for and against a position and then citizens would vote yes or no, generally by a show of hands. Officials would judge the outcome by sight. (Slightly problematic on a darker evening!)
The ancient Greeks may have invented democracy, but it arguably needed some perfecting. While all citizens could take part in democracy, citizens did not include women, children or enslaved people. Unsurprising, but no less disappointing!
Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. Need I say more? Western philosophy pretty much originated in ancient Greece. Of course, people were thinking before that, but there wasn’t a name for all that thinking. The word philosophy actually comes from the ancient Greek words philos (love) and sophia (wisdom). It came to refer to a systematic study of fundamental questions concerning existence, knowledge, reason and all that fun stuff you like to think about in the shower.
"Greek philosophers asked questions about how people should act and what the nature of reality is"
There are other philosophical traditions including Persian, Indian and Chinese which have their own roots, but Western philosophy originated in the 6th century BC with the Presocratics (from pre-Socrates) who tried to explain the cosmos.
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle followed them in quick succession, asking questions about how people should act and what the nature of reality is. Obviously in the intervening couple of thousand years there has been much thinking and many philosophical developments, but most Western philosophical movements can be traced back to the ancient Greeks.
The first Summer Olympic Games as we know them today took place in 1896 in Athens, Greece, but they actually date back a little further. The first ancient Olympics were held in 776 BC in Olympia in southern Greece, and then took place every four years until at least 393 AD.
The risk of death was a little higher in those days: while today we tend to tune in for swimming, track and gymnastics, ancient Greeks enjoyed a sport called “pankration”, a boxing-wrestling hybrid where the only rules were no biting and no gouging. It was said to have been invented by Theseus, who used this combination of boxing and wrestling to defeat the mythical Minotaur. You can imagine how brutal the sport responsible for killing a man with the head of a bull would look! According to Paul Christesen, professor of ancient Greek history at Dartmouth College, USA, it definitely resulted in a few deaths.
In their earliest formation the Olympics were a religious festival honouring the Greek gods. And if you think the games are popular now, you should have seen them back then! When the Persians invaded in the summer of 480 BC, the Greeks had trouble putting together an army to defend themselves because so many people wanted to go to the Olympics.
Medicine already existed in Babylon, China, India and Egypt, but ancient Greece certainly played a key role in the development of modern medicine.
Perhaps one of the most well-known figures of ancient Greece is Hippocrates. A Greek physician born around 460 BC, he is often referred to as the “father of medicine” and is the namesake of the Hippocratic oath, an oath of ethics historically taken by physicians.
"Ancient Greece played a key role in the development of modern medicine"
He is often credited with developing the use of prognosis and the systematic categorisation of diseases with categories such as acute, chronic, endemic and epidemic. He was also the first documented chest surgeon—although doctors have updated their techniques since the days of draining chest wall abscesses with lead pipes!
So, with all this talk of how often people think about the Roman Empire, maybe you should be thinking about ancient Greece instead!
Cover image: The Apotheosis of Homer, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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