Why Do We Care About Ancient Greece?
It’s impossible to talk about ancient history without talking about Greece. Alongside Egypt, Rome, Persia, and China, the civilization of the ancient Greeks was one of the most successful and influential of all time.
But what was so special about ancient Greece? What did they do that others didn’t to earn themselves this unique standing in history?
Well, a lot, it turns out. The Greeks were far ahead of their times in terms of learning, bringing new ideas to the world for its overall improvement. And they also played a key role in the formation of modern nations and governments.
All this in just a few hundred years. Not bad, Greece. Not bad.
Let’s take a look at some of the key reasons why we should all care so much about ancient Greece.
Math and Science
In our modern society, it’s easy to look back on ancient civilizations and label them as “less sophisticated” or “less advanced.” But doing this removes the context from which these societies existed, which degrades their accomplishments.
With the ancient Greeks, however, it’s hard to diminish their influence on modern society in the areas of math, science, and philosophy. In fact, the foundations of all three fields are found in ancient Greece.
Modern geometry, for example, is based on the theorems and ideas of Euclid and Pythagoras. Archimedes experimented with floating objects, developing his theorem and also inventing his screw. Plus, countless other Greek thinkers worked to try and answer questions never before asked.
For example, the ancient Greeks were very concerned with understanding the origin of life, and explaining it using science.
They even tried to understand the planets from a scientific perspective, something never before done in the ancient world. Up until then, most were content labeling these celestial bodies as parts of the heavens.
Beyond math and science, the ancient Greeks made tremendous contributions to philosophy. The three most famous philosophers from the time — Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle — remain highly relevant today. Most of their ideas are still part of modern high school and college curriculums
However, while the specific accomplishments of the Greeks speak for themselves, their true contribution is much more significant. What we mean is that the ancient Greeks were the first civilization to truly embrace learning as a pillar of their culture.
Philosophers had devout followings, and the people of Athens regularly participated in heated, academic debates. Being smart was fashionable in ancient Greece. It could also earn you quite a bit of power and influence.
Later, when Alexander the Great established Greek dominance across most of western Asia and North Africa, he built the Great Library of Alexandria. This turned the city into a center for learning, attracting people from all over the world to study and share ideas.
Up until this point in history, no other society had paid so much attention to learning. But by doing so, the Greeks not only made themselves more powerful, they also solidified their place in history.
Today, democracy is considered the gold standard of governments. When institutions such as the United Nations study the effectiveness of a government, they look to see how democratic it is.
Although not perfect, democracy is held to be the most ideal form of government. It best provides for a plurality of voices. But it is also the best check against extreme corruption and authoritarianism.
So, then, where did the world get such an idea?
Why ancient Greece, of course.
Specifically, from Athens. During the 6th century BC, a number of Athenian rulers implemented reforms designed to take power away from the ruling aristocracy and give it back to the “regular people.”
This didn’t include everyone; you still had to own property and be a man. But it expanded the base of political power to a much larger group than any other civilization before it.
Throughout its history, Athens grew to love its democracy. And it fought wars to try and spread it, and also to protect other democracies throughout the land.
The Commitment to Democracy
War and basic human corruption threatened Athenian democracy from time to time. But in the end, Athenian democracy always survived. Such perseverance has turned the city into a symbol of hope for the effectiveness of democracy.
It’s worth noting, though, that not all cities in ancient Greece were democracies. Sparta was an oligarchy and Thebes was ruled by a king. And Athens eventually lost its democratic government when it fell to Rome.
However, fast forward to the 18th century, during the times of the American and French Revolutions, and Athenian influence is still visible. Many of the thinkers of this time hoped to overthrow monarchies they perceived as corrupt and tyrannical and replace them with democracies similar to that from ancient Athens.
Although Athenian democracy has evolved over the years and our modern versions look different than the original, Athens provided the blueprint and can very much be seen as the birthplace of modern government.
Influence on Rome
History does not happen in a bubble. An event occurs because of a series of events that happened before it. And it will go on to create a whole new sequence that will take place after.
So, while ancient Greece was influential in its own right, its influence on its successor, Rome, has helped it form the legacy it has today.
Perhaps the biggest influence Greece had on Rome was its language. When Rome conquered Greece, in c. 150 BC, Greek kingdoms stretched throughout Egypt and most of western Asia.
Therefore, to control these lands, the Romans had to speak Greek. In fact, the need was so dire that Greek became an official language of the empire. Even in the streets of Rome, Greek was used to communicate.
The Greeks also helped pave the way for the Roman bureaucracy. After the death of Alexander the Great, his empire was divided into four kingdoms. Then, when Rome came, it more or less moved into these kingdoms and just replaced who was at the top.
Doing this made establishing the Roman bureaucracy that much more efficient, allowing it to tighten control on the region and grow its own influence.
The Romans were also heavily influenced by Greek scholars, incorporating many of their ideas into their own philosophies.
In the end, while the Romans went on to reshape Europe and the world, it’s impossible to imagine them doing so successfully without the Greek language and political structures already in place during their rise to power.
While these five reasons are enough to want to care deeply about ancient Greece, there is so much more. The Greek language has provided the roots for so many languages, including English, and Greek art remains as compelling today as it was in ancient times.
While we can focus on a few things the Greeks brought to the world, the reality is that it’s impossible to fully describe their influence. Nearly every aspect of the modern world is likely influenced by the Greeks in at least some way.
So, why should we care about ancient Greece? Well, because if it weren’t for them, it’s hard to imagine being in the world we are today.
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Pablo Velarde Diaz-Pache