When we think of ancient societies, we often think about all the things they didn’t have: Phones, cars, electricity, running water, etc. For this reason, it’s easy to think these civilizations weren’t all that “advanced.”
But that’s a misleading term, for we’re comparing them to modern times. So, we need to look at things differently. And when we do, we can see that the Greeks were far ahead of their time, mainly due to their large population of writers, scientists, and mathematicians.
These individuals thought up things that were totally foreign at the time but that are now integral to our daily lives. So, who are you calling ancient?!
Homer (8th Century BC)
We don’t know much about Homer, for he lived in a time when ancient Greek society was just beginning to develop. But we do know what he did: he wrote the Odyssey and the Iliad.
These two epic poems tell the stories of the Trojan Wars, a likely fictitious (though possibly based on real events) series of conflict that occured between Sparta and Troy in the second millennia BC.
These stories introduced us to characters such as Helen of Troy, a woman so beautiful she could start a war just with her eyes, Achilles, a nearly invincible warrior whose only weakness was his heel, and Odysseus, whose reason and logic led to victory over Troy.
Homer’s poems are still required readings in many schools today, largely because their messages and techniques are still relevant. And they have also had an influence on modern language. Our Achilles heel is our biggest weakness, and we still refer to something deceptive as a Trojan Horse.
But they also impacted Greece at the time. When they were written, there was no common Greek culture. These stories helped to create a common myth, bringing Greek cities closer together and setting the stage for its most prosperous age in the ancient era.
Sophocles (496 BC – 406 BC)
Another poet but also a playwright, Sophocles was prolifically productive during his lifetime. He wrote more than 120 plays, all of which were tragedies. Only a few have survived, such as Oedipus the King, Electra, and Antigone. But his influence remains.
As far as we know, he was the first playwright to use more than two characters in a play. It seems like a simple innovation, but it changed theater forever.
Euripides (480 BC – 406 BC)
Another highly-productive writer of tragedies, Euripedes is known for works such as Alcestis, Medea, and Helen. But perhaps his biggest contribution to Greek culture was his decision to include strong women and wise slaves in his plays.
Doing this was a direct criticism of Greek society, and points to the culture of dissent that was encouraged by the many Greek philosophers who lived during this time. In fact, Ancient Greece was one of the few places where an artist could make such bold statements without (too much) fear of repercussion.
Of course, the extent of this freedom depended heavily on who was in power. For example, Socrates did not enjoy the same freedom as he was sentenced to death for what he taught. But perhaps Euripedes was more subtle? He went on to write more than 90 plays and lived to be almost 80.
Aristophanes (446 BC – 386 BC)
The third of the famous trio of Greek playwrights is Aristophanes. But unlike Euripedes and Sophocles, he wrote comedies. It seems he’d had enough of all that tragedy.
In addition to serving as models for comic plays, the world of Aristophanes also provides us with a detailed description of what life was like in Athens during the 4th and 5th centuries BC.
Herodotus (484 BC – 425 BC)
Not all writers write poems and plays. Some like to write about what’s actually happening in the real world. But this actually wasn’t the case during most of ancient history. It wasn’t until a man named Herodotus came along and wrote The Histories that this changed.
Recognizing the historical significance of the wars between the Greek city-states and Persia, Herodotus set out to document the conflict. He traveled to battle scenes, interviewed leaders, and wrote about the underlying causes of the conflict. In doing this, he wrote the first historical text of all time, earning him the nickname “The Father of History.”
Much of what Herodotus wrote in The Histories has since been identified as an exaggeration. For example, he claimed the Persians had an army that numbered in the millions, but most modern historians doubt this would have been possible. They estimate the size of the army to be closer to a few hundred thousand.
Despite these inconsistencies, historians do think Herodotus got the basic story right. And we know what we know about this period in history thanks to Herodotus. So if he embellished a few things here and there, who really cares?
Later on, a man named Thucydides chose to follow in Herodotus’ footsteps and document the Peloponnesian War, a conflict between Athens and Sparta. Together, these two men started a tradition of writing down historical events that still exists today.
Euclid (4th century BC)
There aren’t many sources left behind that tell us who Euclid was and how he lived. But thanks to his work The Elements we now have mathematics. In this book, Euclid laid out some basic postulates and prepositions, and proved them true using logic, that are the foundation for the entire field of math.
There’s even a specific type of geometry named after him: Euclidean geometry.
It’s believed he did a lot of this work at the Great Library in Alexandria, evidence that this building did in fact help turn the city into a global center for learning and innovation.
Archimedes (287 BC – 212 BC)
Another mathematician, but also an engineer and inventor, Archimedes introduced us to concepts that are still around today.
For example, he figured out that a body in water is pushed upward by a force equal to the weight of the amount of water it displaces. This is known as Archimedes Principle, and it is how we now know how to make boats and other things float.
When he reached this conclusion, he supposedly yelled “Eureka!” meaning “I have found it.” To this day, when someone makes a discovery, it’s not uncommon to hear them shout this word.
In addition to his principle, Archimedes also invented a type of hydraulic screw that can move water from a lower level to a higher level, a device that is still in use today. Effectively, by turning the screw, you can capture water and carry it up, an innovation with far reaching implications.
So, all in all, it’s safe to say that Archimedes, also educated in Alexandria, was a pretty big deal.
A Robust Culture
The existence of such characters is a clear reminder of the richness of Greek culture at the time. Thanks to leaders who emphasized education, as well as institutions such as the Great Library at Alexandria, learning was always encouraged. This led to not only great works of literature but also groundbreaking mathematical and scientific discoveries.
Together, these contributions have helped cement the ancient Greeks as true innovators and important players in the development of world culture and modern society.
Written by Matthew Jones