Greek Contributions to Western 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.

Democracy          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

SciencesGreece 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. Healso 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.

PhilosophyAncient 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.

ArtThe 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.
ArchitectureAncient 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 GamesAccording 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.

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