11 Greek Influences and Contributions to Today's Society
What Is Greek Influence?
The culture of Greece was evolved over thousands of years, and is widely considered to be the cradle of modern Western culture. This is because political systems and procedures such as democracy, trial by jury and lawful equality originated there.
Aside from these important Greek-derived features of Western civilization, ancient Grecian thinkers and architects laid the intellectual foundations of many fields of study. Whether it be astrology, mathematics, biology, engineering, medicine or linguistics, nearly all of the information we take for granted today was first discovered by the ancient Greeks.
As if all of this wasn't enough, when it comes to the realm of art–including literature, music, architecture, design and the performing arts–the Greeks established many of the standards by which identify beauty and creative value.
In short, if you live in the West, you are more like an ancient Grecian than you may realize. This article hopes to highlight some of the many throughly-Grecian contributions we experience and benefit from everyday.
The following is a list of Greek inventions and discoveries that have had profound impacts on Western culture and society.
Greek Contributions to Western Civilization
- The Alphabet
- The Library
- The Olympics
- Science and Mathematics
- The Lighthouse
- Standardized Medicine
- Trial by Jury
- The Theater
Continue reading for more on each of these contributions by ancient Greece.
According to Merriam-Webster, a democracy is a government by the people "in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections."
The ancient Greeks created the world’s first democracy. Athens started out with a monarchy and then advanced to an oligarchy until it finally reached a democracy. The democratic government consisted of 6,000 assembly members, all of whom were adult male citizens. The assembly voted on issues throughout Athens. In order for a law to pass, the number of votes needed to be a majority. But in order to banish or exile someone, all 6,000 votes were needed.
Today, at least in the United States, we use a democratic system. But instead of a direct democracy, we have a representative democracy in which the citizens democratically vote on who should make the decisions in the country. This is different than ancient Greece's direct democracy wherein citizens voted on the decision rather than choosing people to make the decision.
2. The Alphabet
Derived from the earlier Phoenician alphabet, the greek alphabet was the first alphabet in the western sense of the word, featuring distinct letters for vowels and consonants. It was developed after the Dark Ages and consisted of 24 letters, ordered from alpha to omega.
Believe it or not, the word "alphabet" originates from the first 2 letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha and beta. Today many letters of our modern alphabet originate from the Greek alphabet, including letters such as A, B, E, and O. The Greek originally had a single form of each letter, but created upper case and lower case versions of the letters later.
3. The Library
The first library in the world, the library of Alexandria, was actually built in Egypt. During during this time Egypt was under Greek control after submitting to Alexander’s rule. The Macedonians started spreading the Greek way of life to all of the conquered lands, including Egypt. After Alexander’s death, there was a power struggle and the Kingdom of Egypt came under the rule of Alexander’s general, Ptolemy.
Ptolemy ordered the construction of a library which would contain over 700,000 scrolls of work. There was also a rule that all ships passing through the Alexandrian harbor had to declare if they had any works of science or philosophy. If they did, the work was copied and placed in the library, and the original copy would be returned to the captain. Because of this accumulation of knowledge, many great discoveries took place in the library. For example, Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth and drew up plans for steam power. Today we have many libraries all over the world with billions of works of literature, but the first library in the world was the library of Alexandria.
4. The Olympics
The Olympic Games started in ancient Greece, specifically in the city of Olympia. The participants were the city-states of Ancient Greece and its colonies. The Olympic Games were held every four years in honor of Zeus, the king god. The prizes for winning were fame and glory. Statues of the winners were erected and sometimes the winners' faces were even put on coins. Today we still celebrate the Olympic Games and continue some of the old traditions, such as the olive leaf crowns, the lighting of the flame, and the opening and closing celebrations.
Greece also held other games such as the Ptythian Games, which were held in honor of Apollo, the sun god, and the Isthmian Games, which were held in honor of Poseidon, the sea god.
What Are the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games?
Inspired by the Olympics of ancient Greece, the Olympic Games as we know them were the brainchild of Baron Pierre de Coubertin.
The Olympics of ancient Greece lasted from the 8th century BCE to the 4th century BCE before dying out. Coubertin, seeing an opportunity to bring the world together through sport, revived the Olympics by founding the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on June 23, 1894, and the modern Olympic Games were born.
The first games put on by the IOC were held in Athens during the summer of 1896. The 1896 Summer Olympics brought together 14 nations and 241 athletes who competed in 43 events.
What Is the Meaning of the Olympic Rings?
The symbol of the rings, which are interlocked and colored yellow, black, green and red with a white background, were designed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1912. The colors of the rings along with the white background were intended to represent the five participating continents: Africa, Asia, America, Oceania and Europe. They also composed the colors of the flags of all the participating countries at the time. Upon releasing the design, Coubertin said:
"The six colors [including the flag's white background] combined in this way reproduce the colors of every country without exception. The blue and yellow of Sweden, the blue and white of Greece, the tricolor flags of France, England, the United States, Germany, Belgium, Italy and Hungary, and the yellow and red of Spain are included, as are the innovative flags of Brazil and Australia, and those of ancient Japan and modern China. This, truly, is an international emblem."
What Does the Olympic Flame Symbolize?
Another common symbol of the Olympic Games is the flame. The tradition of the torch relay and lighting of the Olympic flame to start the games began with the Berlin Games in 1936. The flame symbolizes beginning of the Olympic Games. The idea came from ancient Greece, where a sacred fire was kept burning throughout the celebration of the ancient Olympics on the altar of the sanctuary of Hestia.
5. Science and Mathematics
Along with being the birthplace of many great mathematicians, Greece was also the mother country of many famous scientists.
What Greek Thinkers Influenced Science and Mathematics?
This mathematician was the first to calculate the circumference of the Earth. He did this by comparing the altitudes of the mid-day sun at two different locations. Eratosthenes also calculated the tilt of the Earth's axis, and eventually became the chief librarian of the Library of Alexandria.
This astronomer and mathematician was the first to create a model with a sun at the center of the known universe with the Earth revolving around it. He also placed the planets of the solar system around the sun in the right order, and thought stars to be other bodies like the sun. Nicolaus Copernicus attributed the heliocentric theory to Aristarchus.
Archimedes is generally considered the greatest mathematician of antiquity and of all time. He anticipated modern calculus, geometrical theorems, and learned to calculate the area geometric shapes, including the circle and sphere. Some of Archimedes other achievements include coming up with an accurate approximation of pi and designing effective levers and pulleys. One of his famous quotes was, "Give me a lever long enough and I will move the Earth!"
Hipparchus is generally known as the greatest astronomer of antiquity. He developed the first models depicting the movement of the sun and the moon, and may have been the first to predict solar eclipses.
One of the most common examples of Greek architecture in the modern world is the column or pillar. The most famous example of Greek architecture is the Parthenon, a grand building with pillars located in Athens. Today, pillars are used in many public buildings such as churches and libraries. There are also pillars in many buildings in Washington D.C., including the White House.
What Inspired Greek Architecture?
The ancient Greeks being an extremely religious people, many of the architectural structures erected in Greece were designed with the gods in mind. The Parthenon and the Erechtheum are two examples of great and thoroughly Greek structures. Some characteristics of Greek design are precision, adornment, largess and synergy. Each aspect and characteristic of Greek architecture was designed to compliment and relate to one another. Because each Greek structure was inspired by the story and unique abilities of a specific god, there is irony in the fact that most buildings that mimic Greek style in the modern world are secular, government centers.
What Are the Three Orders of Classical Greek Architecture?
An order of architecture is any of several styles of classical architecture defined by the particular type of column of entablature they use as a basic unit. The three orders of classical Greek architecture are Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.
Originating on the mainland and western Greece, the Doric order is the simplest of the orders and is characterized by short, faceted columns with unembellished, round capitals (tops) and no base. The columns are the smallest of the orders and are channelled with 20 flutes.
Originating in eastern Greece, the ionic order is characterized by long and slender fluted pillars with a large base and two opposing scrolls built into the capital. The scrolls are often engraved with an egg-and-dart motif, and the pillars feature four more flutes than doric columns.
Considered the most elegant of the three orders, the Corinthian order features ornate fluted columns and capitals studded with two rows of acanthus leaves and four scrolls. The shaft of the Corinthian column has 24 flutes. The oldest known building designed in the Corinthian order is the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, which was constructed from 335 to 334 BCE.
Many of us still read Greek myths today. Others read Greek myths without knowing it, the godly characters being replaced by humans. Some of the most famous myths include the tales of Peruses, Theseus, and, of course, Heracles. The Greeks often used these myths to explain things that science couldn't prove, but today, we mostly enjoy the Greek myths for entertainment purposes.
Greek mythology has pervaded nearly every form of popular culture imaginable. Many Greek myths have been adapted into modern novels, movies, TV shows, video games and even brands. Some well-known instances of Greek mythology in pop culture are:
- Disney’s Hercules
- The bestselling novel Percy Jackson and the Olympians
- The God of War video game franchise
- The TV show Battlestar Galactica
- Mary Shelley's Gothic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus
- The brand Nike (Nike was the Greek goddess of victory)
- The use of the term "Achilles' heel" to describe a weak spot
8. The Lighthouse
Like the first library, the first lighthouse in the world was located in the Greek-controlled Egyptian kingdom of Alexandria. The structure was called the Lighthouse of Alexandria, or the Pharos of Alexandria. Taller than the Statue of Liberty, it was the second tallest structure of its day (only the Great Pyramid of Giza was taller than it).
The lighthouse had three layers:
- A square-shaped base
- An octagonal mid section
- A round beacon on top
The lighthouse could be seen by fire at night, and by the smoke of the fire by day. Sadly, the lighthouse was destroyed by earthquakes, but it set the model for all future lighthouses.
9. Standardized Medicine
While medicine had been practiced in Babylon, China, India and Egypt, the Greeks were the first to create a standardized system of medicine including medical diagnosis, prognosis, and medical ethics. The manner in which the medical practice is carried out today, in terms of diagnosis and sometimes of treatment, is very similar to that of the ancient Greeks. These ancient advancements in medicine were largely instituted by Hippocrates, who is often called the "father of medicine."
What Did Hippocrates Invent?
Aside from theories and ethics about how physicians should practice medicine, Hippocrates also made direct contributions to the application of medicine. He taught that all ailments had natural causes in a time when people believed that illnesses were punishments from the gods. Some of Hippocrates' contributions include:
A Hippocratic Oath is a historical sworn statement by physicians in which they swear by the names of a number of healing gods to uphold specific ethical standards. These include principles such as medical confidentiality and non-maleficence. Below is a excerpt from the full text of the Hippocratic Oath, which remains a rite of passage for some medical graduates.
"I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. Similarly I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion. But I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art. I will not use the knife, not even, verily, on sufferers from stone, but I will give place to such as are craftsmen therein."
Diagnosis of Medical Conditions
Hippocrates was the first medical practitioner to categorize illnesses as acute, chronic, endemic, and epidemic. He was also the first to introduce terms such as exacerbation, relapse, resolution, crisis, paroxysm, peak and convalescence.
When it came to broken bones, hemorrhoids or other ailments, Hippocrates and his followers came up with advanced treatments that would reduce pain and speed up recovery. He employed the use of cautery and excision to treat hemorrhoids, and in some cases these methods are still used today.
10. Trial by Jury
The democratic people of ancient Greece, specifically Athens, were the first to employ trial by jury as we know it today. Jurors were required to be male citizens of Athens, and a mechanism by the name of dikastaí ensured that no person could select jurors for their own trial.
Normal cases would summon a jury of up to 500 jurors. For more serious cases, like those involving death, up to 1,501 jurors could be summoned. With so many jurors, the unanimity rule employed in today's courts could not work, so the verdicts of the courts of ancient Athens were reached by majority. Jurors were compensated one day's wages for sitting in court.
How Does Trial by Jury Work?
A trial by jury today works much the same as it did in the time of ancient Greece. After hearing the final arguments of the defendant or their legal representative, the jury–which consists of 12 citizens in the United States–leaves the courtroom and enters deliberation. In most states the jury begins by electing a foreperson or presiding juror. The presiding juror facilitates the discussion and often delivers the verdict. The bailiff serves as the intermediary between the judge and the jury, and also ensures that no one communicates with the jury during deliberation.
In nearly all cases, the jury must come to a unanimous decision of either guilty or not guilty. If the jury cannot come to a unanimous decision by the end of the day, the jurors may be sequestered, which is to be given room and board and cutoff from any outside influence such as other people, television or newspapers. However, most of the time, the court will allow jurors to return to their homes at night before returning the next day to resume deliberation.
If the jurors cannot agree on a verdict in a reasonable amount of time the result is called a hung jury, which leads to a mistrial. In the event of a mistrial, the case is not decided and must be tried again at a later date and before a new jury.
What Determines a Jury Trial?
Not every case is tried before a jury. Many states have a threshold that the alleged damages must meet in order for a plaintiff to have the right to request a jury. On average, the "amount in controversy" must be at least $50,000.
When the damages meet this threshold, the plaintiff has the right to request a jury but is not required to. If the plaintiff does not request a jury, the case may proceed to trial before the judge, or the defense may request a trial by jury.
A jury trail is determined by many factors, including:
- Background of the plaintiff
- Background of the defense
- Philosophical and political background of the judge
- Demographics of the jurisdiction in which the case is pending
- Evidence and witnesses
11. The Theater
If you've ever gone to a concert, play or movie, you've benefited from one of the ancient Greeks' most obvious contributions to the modern world: the theater.
The word "theater" is derived from the Greek word "theatron," meaning the seating section of outdoor arenas where people watched plays. The first western theater originated in Athens, and was, like many other ancient Greek theaters, a semi-circular structure cut into a hillside that was capable of seating 10,000 to 20,000 people.
The standard Greek theater consisted of three parts: a dancing floor, dressing room and scene-building area. The acoustics of the theater were one of its most important features, allowing the words of the exclusively male actors to be heard by everyone within. The ancient Greeks loved plays and each town had its own performing company which would compete against that of neighboring towns.
When Did "Theater" Begin?
Beside creating the physical structure of a theater, the ancient Greeks also created "theater," the art form which employs actors, stage setting and sometimes music to create a story–usually a comedy, tragedy or satyr play–in the 6th century BCE. The first playwrights (as we use the word today) originated in Greece with men like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. These men deserve the credit for theater as we know it, and have had no small impact on the methods by which storytellers throughout the ages have chosen to deliver their narratives.
Which Greek influence do you think has the biggest impact on our lives today?
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