The Ancient Greeks: Influencing our world

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By Rhona Dick — independent educational consultant

From language to literature and politics to philosophy, the Ancient Greeks have shaped much of how we communicate, think and behave today

Who were the Ancient Greeks and why do we learn about them? When we think of Greece, we think of a country towards the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, made up of mainland territories and thousands of islands, popular with tourists. However, the Ancient Greek culture expanded into other lands bordering the Mediterranean and this ensured the spread of their ideas far beyond the original boundaries. It is important that we emphasise to children not only when the Ancient Greeks flourished and relate this to other periods in history, but also where they settled, so that they do not labour under the misconception that the territory of the Ancient Greeks was constrained by modern frontiers.

There can be little doubt that the Ancient Greek civilisation has had a profound effect upon the development of much of the rest of the western world. A quick look through an etymological dictionary shows the extent to which our own language has been influenced and enriched by Greek, particularly the vocabularies of maths and science. Many of the subjects we study in school or beyond, have names that are derived from Greek words. Greek civilisation gave us the golden ratio, much used by artists (otherwise known as Golden Section or Divine Proportion, a special mathematical relationship) and the classical style of architecture owes a lot to the buildings of the Ancient Greeks. We also inherited the word ‘democracy’ and its concept from Athens, although Athens was not truly democratic in the modern sense, as not all men, and no women, were allowed to vote.

Essential facts

  • Greece is quite a mountainous country meaning arable farming was restricted to the plains and the few river valleys. Sheep and goats grazed on the hillsides and provided dairy produce, wool and skins. The Ancient Greeks didn’t eat much meat.
  • The climate is hot and dry and this added to the problems of providing enough food for the growing population.
  • The people of Ancient Greece organised themselves into small independent and autonomous poleis or city-states. These were not just cities, but also the smaller communities and individual farms in the surrounding countryside.
  • The Greek word for a citizen is polites, from which we get the words politics, cosmopolitan and metropolitan.
  • Some of the main city-states were Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Argos and Corinth.
  • Each city-state had its own laws, currency and government, although everyone spoke Greek.
  • All Greeks worshipped the same gods, but different city-states would choose one or more gods as special protectors.
  • City-states were governed by aristocrats who were probably large landowners.
  • Travel between city-states could be difficult because of the terrain. Sometimes it was easier to go by sea than by land.
  • Many city-states were built near the coast and established trade with other places, eventually expanding the civilisation to the coastal areas of the Sea of Marmara, the Black Sea, modern Turkey, Cyprus, Sicily, southern Italy, Corsica, the south coast of France, north-eastern Spain, Egypt and Libya.
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