The Influence of Ancient Greek Civilization on the Modern World

Categories: Greece

The Ancient Greeks, among whom we count most of our greatest philosophers, artists, and playwrights, have certainly contributed to our culture; but how, exactly? Great works of art, yes; but would our lives have been any different if they had never existed? The Ancient Greeks, whose (recorded) golden age dated from approximately 1500 to 400 BC, controlled most of the area surrounding the Mediterranean Basin. It was divided into city-states, including Corinth, Athens, Argos, Sparta, and Megara. Athens is famous for its many philosophers (such as Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato), andwas the first to become a democracy.

It was the most powerful city-state, excepting, perhaps, Sparta, whose warlike tendencies are still remembered today.Under the Macedonian king Alexander the Great, the Greeks at last defeated the Persian Empire (who had been its enemy for almost all of its history) and conquered their territory. Rome took control of Greece in 146 BC, heralding the end of the Greek Empire. Nevertheless, even at the height of the Roman Empire, the greatest philosophers and artists were from Greece.

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This brings me back to the influence of Greece on the modern day, specifically in science.

As Greece was polytheistic, Greeks believed in many gods, and anything resembling science was condemned; therefore, many Greek philosophers, the Greek equivalent of scientists, lived tragic lives—killed for their unbelief.The most famous Greek philosophers (Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato) were Athenians, but there were many earlier philosophers who weren’t Athenian, usually referred to as “natural philosophers” or “pre-socratics”, because they mostly wondered about nature.

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Some thought that everything was made from a single basic substance—water, or air, or fire. Another thought it was another material, not anything as commonplace as the above, that didn’t exist in the natural world. Empedocles thought that there were 4 basic substances, because how could air or water alone become a butterfly? But perhaps if you mix air, earth, fire, and water in the right amounts, you could make anything. Yet another philosopher, Democritus, thought that everything was made up of tiny blocks, which he called “atoms”, literally “uncuttable” (when we started calling atoms “atoms”, we must not have known that they could be broken down even further). He thought that they were like Lego blocks: they had “hooks” and “barbs” that could attach to other atoms and join them together to create things. They were all different shapes and sizes, but they were all ‘eternal and immutable’.

After about 450 BC, Athens became the cultural center of the Greek world, and became democratic. At this time, philosophers became more interested in social philosophy, such as ethics.Socrates, the first Athenian philosopher, spent his time talking to people in the marketplace, trying to convince them of philosophical truths. He rarely succeeded in convincing them, even though his arguments were superior. Later, he was convicted of “undermining state religion and corrupting young people” and chose to die rather than give up his philosophy or be exiled from Athens. Plato was one of Socrates’ pupils. Most of what we know about Socrates is due to him, because Socrates never wrote anything down. Plato wrote some Dialogues which supposedly took place between Socrates and other people, but whether these dialogues really took place or not is unknown. Also, Plato seems to have mingled some of his own philosophy into Socrates’, so what we think of as Socrates may really have been “Platocrates”. In any case, Plato thought that behind everything, there is an “idea” of that thing. So there is an “idea” of a horse that exists in a world of ideas, along with the ideal pig, and cow, and blade of grass. But all these things are perfect, and all things are modeled from them, like gingerbread men from a mold. He also thought that the real world is like a shadow of the world of ideas. He also thought that women were just as capable of reason as men.

Another Athenian philosopher was Aristotle. He studied at Plato’s Academy, but had a completely different philosophy. He categorized all living things into set sections (which is really just what some modern biologists have done) and thought that minerals were the lowest level of being (not being alive), plants were just above as they were alive but couldn’t feel, animals were on the next level as they could move around, and humans were on top as they possessed the superior power of thought. God, or the “first mover”, was on the very top. You are a living creature, more specifically an animal, more specifically a vertebrate, more specifically a mammal, more specifically a human, more specifically a male or female human. However, Aristotle’s views on women were not so modern: he thought women were incomplete men, and that children inherited only their father’s characteristics. So, various Greek philosophers have thought of many of the things that make up our science. And, although the details might be incorrect, some of their ideas were correct. Or at least, what we think is correct, because maybe at some point in the future, people will be researching the Ancient North Americans, and will wonder at how we actually thought that the Earth was a sphere, and the Sun was a big ball of burning gas, and that the world was made up of atoms, and many other things that are (as they all know) completely ridiculous.

To revert to my topic: Empedocles thought that the world was made up of multiple substances, although we now know it to be made up of even more; Democritus realized that the world was made up of tiny blocks that make up the world around us, although their nature and shape are maybe different; Plato and Socrates taught by asking questions and figured out a lot about ethics, contributing much to Western Civilization; and Aristotle categorized everything similarly to the way we currently categorize the world, although we now may not place humans so far above animals, and we do not add in God at all. Another subject in which the Greeks have influenced us in the extreme is Math.

The Greeks were extremely advanced in the above mentioned subject, knowing much that was not re-discovered until the Renaissance, and which is now a base for most of what we know today. Some of the most advanced mathematicians of Ancient Greece were: Eratosthenes, who realized not just that the Earth is round, but exactly what its circumference is (and with remarkable accuracy); he was also the first to calculate the tilt of the Earth's axis; and he may have correctly calculated the distance from the Earth to the Sun and we think invented the leap day; he created the first map of the world. Thales, who calculated the height of a pyramid by measuring the length of its shadow at the exact moment that his shadow was equal to his height; he was also a pre-socratic philosopher. Euclid, who deduced the theorems of what is now called Euclidean geometry. He is often referred to as the “founder of geometry” or the “father of geometry”; his book Elements has been influential in the extreme in the field of mathematics, being the main math textbook (especially for geometry) from its publication in 1482 until the late 19th century. So, even more so than in Science, the Greeks were extremely advanced and knew much of what we know today. They knew that the Earth was round, and that it orbited the Sun and how its axis worked; they knew about the Pythagorean Theorem, Euclidean Geometry, and Pi; they were, in other words, more advanced then any of the mathematicians of the Middle Ages.

Another influential component of Ancient Greece was Astronomy. The Greeks were again advanced in Astronomy, knowing that the Earth orbits the sun. Hipparchus was a greek astronomerA non-scientific area in which Greece was quite advanced was Democracy. Athens had a “direct democracy”, meaning that the citizens voted directly on important points; however, there were elected magistrates who had a little more power. Most of the other city-states that adopted democracy followed Athens’ lead. (Sparta, however, had two monarchs that could be dethroned by the people if they so wished). In Athens, all citizens—i.e., all adult males whose fathers had been Athenian citizens, which was no more 30 percent of the adult population— assembled on the Pnyx hill, and voted on important points such as deciding who was in charge of military and financial magistracies; organising food supplies, initiating legislation and political trials; deciding whether or not to send envoys, sign treaties, raise funds, or spend funds; and debating military matters. This meant that all citizens were much more involved in politics then we are in the modern day. The assembly, or ecclesia, also sometimes decides to exile a too-powerful politician from Athens (such as Hipparchus, Megacles, Kallixenos, Xanthippus, or Aristides), using a process called “ostracism”.

Hence, in fact, all that we currently have of the Athenian Democracy is the name. The idea is, perhaps, the same in its essentials, but we have been quite a bit more influenced by the Roman Republic than by the Greek Empire in that way, at least. The Greeks can be credited with the thought that the people could decide for themselves what to do by voting, at least, but election is a whole different thing. Speaking of democracy, the term “democracy” may seem rather at odds with the two other types of government, “monarchy” and “oligarchy”. Why wasn’t it “demarchy”? Well, in fact, “demarchy” referred to a mayoralty, or its Ancient Greek equivalent. So, although “demarchy” might have made more sense, it was already taken, so “democracy” (from Greek “dēmos”, meaning “people”, and “kratia”, meaning “power” or “rule”) began to be used by the Athenians for their system of government. A tiny fraction of our words that came from Greek are: spartan, obviously, derived from the city-state and meaning not very richly furnished; laconic, (from the word for the area surrounding Sparta) and meaning with few words; less obviously, attic, (after the countryside surrounding Athens); ethnic, (from the Greek word for “heathen”, “ethnikos”); politics, (from “politikos”, which is in turn from “politēs”, meaning citizen, which is from “polis”, meaning city); aristocracy, (from Greek “aristokratia”, from “aristos” meaning “best” and “kratia”, meaning “power”); oligarchy, (from “oligarkhēs”, which is from “oligoi”, meaning “few” and “arkhein”, meaning “to rule”) meaning a small group of people in control; monarchy, (from “monos”, meaning “alone”, and “arkhein”, to rule); lesbian, (from the island of Lesbos, home of the poetess Sappho, who expressed affection for women in her poetry).

So not only our politics and science have been deeply influenced by the Ancient Greeks, but our language has too. Tens of thousands of English words come from Greek words, although only 5% of the words the average English speaker would know are of greek origin; however, it is possible to give entire speeches using only English words of Greek origin, excluding articles and prepositions (those speeches are perhaps not the easiest to understand, though), such as “Kyrie, I eulogize the archons of the Panethnic Numismatic Thesaurus and the Ecumenical Trapeza for the orthodoxy of their axioms, methods and policies, although there is an episode of cacophony of the Trapeza with Hellas. With enthusiasm we dialogue and synagonize at the synods of our didymous organizations in which polymorphous economic ideas and dogmas are analyzed and synthesized. Our critical problems such as the numismatic plethora generate some agony and melancholy. This phenomenon is characteristic of our epoch. But, to my thesis, we have the dynamism to program therapeutic practices as a prophylaxis from chaos and catastrophe. In parallel, a Panethnic unhypocritical economic synergy and harmonization in a democratic climate is basic. I apologize for my eccentric monologue. I emphasize my eucharistia to you, Kyrie to the eugenic and generous American Ethnos and to the organizers and protagonists of his Amphictyony and the gastronomic symposia,” given by Prof. Xenophon Zolotas (a Greek economist and an interim non-party Prime Minister of Greece) in 1957.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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The Influence of Ancient Greek Civilization on the Modern World. (2024, Feb 03). Retrieved from

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