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Classical Greek culture

Overview

  • The Greeks made important contributions to philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine.
  • Literature and theatre was an important aspect of Greek culture and influenced modern drama.
  • The Greeks were known for their sophisticated sculpture and architecture.
  • Greek culture influenced the Roman Empire and many other civilizations, and it continues to influence modern cultures today.

Philosophy and science

Building on the discoveries and knowledge of civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia, among others, the Ancient Greeks developed a sophisticated philosophical and scientific culture. One of the key points of Ancient Greek philosophy was the role of reason and inquiry. It emphasized logic and championed the idea of impartial, rational observation of the natural world.
The Greeks made major contributions to math and science. We owe our basic ideas about geometry and the concept of mathematical proofs to ancient Greek mathematicians such as Pythagoras, Euclid, and Archimedes. Some of the first astronomical models were developed by Ancient Greeks trying to describe planetary movement, the Earth’s axis, and the heliocentric system—a model that places the Sun at the center of the solar system. Hippocrates, another ancient Greek, is the most famous physician in antiquity. He established a medical school, wrote many medical treatises, and is— because of his systematic and empirical investigation of diseases and remedies—credited with being the founder of modern medicine. The Hippocratic oath, a medical standard for doctors, is named after him.
Greek philosophical culture is exemplified in the dialogues of Plato, who turned the questioning style of Socrates into written form. Aristotle, Plato's student, wrote about topics as varied as biology and drama.
Why did Greek philosophers value logic so highly?
Picture of the painting School of Athens by Raphael.
School of Athens by Raphael. Image credit: Wikimedia

Art, literature, and theatre

Literature and theatre, which were very intertwined, were important in ancient Greek society. Greek theatre began in the sixth century BCE in Athens with the performance of tragedy plays at religious festivals. These, in turn, inspired the genre of Greek comedy plays.
These two types of Greek drama became hugely popular, and performances spread around the Mediterranean and influenced Hellenistic and Roman theatre. The works of playwrights like Sophocles and Aristophanes formed the foundation upon which all modern theatre is based. In fact, while it may seem like dialogue was always a part of literature, it was rare before a playwright named Aeschylus introduced the idea of characters interacting with dialogue. Other theatrical devices, like irony, were exemplified in works like Sophocles’ Oedipus the King.
In addition to written forms of theater and literature, oral traditions were important, especially in early Greek history. It wasn’t until around 670 BCE that Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and Odyssey, were compiled into text form.
Greek art, particularly sculpture and architecture, was also incredibly influential on other societies. Greek sculpture from 800 to 300 BCE took inspiration from Egyptian and Near Eastern monumental art and, over centuries, evolved into a uniquely Greek vision of the art form.
Greek artists reached a peak of excellence which captured the human form in a way never before seen and much copied. Greek sculptors were particularly concerned with proportion, poise, and the idealized perfection of the human body; their figures in stone and bronze have become some of the most recognizable pieces of art ever produced by any civilization.
This statue of Eirene, peace, bearing Plutus, wealth is a Roman copy of a Greek votive statue by Kephisodotos which stood on the agora in Athens, Wealth ca. 370 BCE.
This statue of Eirene, peace, bearing Plutus, wealth is a Roman copy of a Greek votive statue by Kephisodotos which stood on the agora in Athens, Wealth ca. 370 BCE. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Greek architects provided some of the finest and most distinctive buildings in the entire Ancient World and some of their structures— including temples, theatres, and stadia—would become staple features of towns and cities from antiquity onwards.
In addition, the Greek concern with simplicity, proportion, perspective, and harmony in their buildings would go on to greatly influence architects in the Roman world and provide the foundation for the classical architectural orders which would dominate the western world from the Renaissance to the present day.

The legacy of Greek culture

The civilization of ancient Greece was immensely influential in many spheres: language, politics, educational systems, philosophy, science, and the arts. It had major effects on the Roman Empire which ultimately ruled it. As Horace put it, "Captive Greece took captive her fierce conqueror and instilled her arts in rustic Latium."
Via the Roman Empire, Greek culture came to be foundational to Western culture in general. The Byzantine Empire inherited Classical Greek culture directly, without Latin intermediation, and the preservation of classical Greek learning in medieval Byzantine tradition exerted strong influence on the Slavs and later on the Islamic Golden Age and the Western European Renaissance. A modern revival of Classical Greek learning took place in the Neoclassicism movement in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe and the Americas.
Can you think of modern-day art, architecture, or theater that may have been influenced by Greek culture?

Want to join the conversation?

  • male robot hal style avatar for user Reto
    Where did their knowledge about astronomy and planetary movements come from? I think I once read that astronomic theory was already present in ancient Mesopotamia. Did the Greeks build on that knowledge?
    What tools did the Greeks use to observe the starlit sky?
    (47 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Elliott Fischbach
      Great Question! Honestly most of what we know about Greek astronomy before the 4th century is based on Aristotle (and it's not much!). We know that Greece's neighbors used astronomy for harvest seasons, rituals and reading omens (Egypt & Babylon) the Greeks believed the earth was spherical due to Pythagoras, the Greeks also tried to rationalize the night sky in a strictly scientific sense rather than a supernatural one.

      After the 4th century the Greeks believed that the earth was the center of the universe (geocentric), they did not have scientific proof, but rather based this upon observations of the night sky (Plato & Aristotle), this was generally accepted as true, but there were some Greek astronomers who believed the sun was the center. Aristarchus believed in heliocentric theory and also stated that distant stars were suns as well.

      As for tools, this website provides amazing insight on all types of instruments the ancient Greeks used to explore the night sky!
      http://kotsanas.com/gb/cat.php?category=13

      I hope this helped!
      (63 votes)
  • leaf blue style avatar for user Anna  Russell
    Was there any women philosophers?
    (13 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user XavierMann05
    Why do so many of the Greek statues lack arms I was first led to the idea that they fell of but looking closer I realized the cut is straight
    (3 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user wateredgarden7
    What was Mediterranean society like before they take in the greek roman culture?
    (4 votes)
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  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Thomas Lancaster
    How much was their culture influenced by their Gods?
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Mia Zamudio
    How did they know what they knew about astrology?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Yair122
    what were ancient greek wars and warriors like
    (3 votes)
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  • female robot ada style avatar for user Jennifer
    From the section on Philosophy and Science, which Greek developed the Heliocentric theory?
    (1 vote)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user chinmaybho4151
      The correct answer is Aristarkhos of Samos (c. 310 – c. 230 BC). He wrote a book upon the subject, but it was lost over time, and since other famous Greek scholars didn't use that idea, geocentrism stuck until Nicolaus Copernicus, who actually attributed his theory to Aristarkhos.
      (7 votes)
  • mr pants green style avatar for user Toledo, Jose
    What impact did Greek mythology have on later civilizations?
    (3 votes)
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    • duskpin seedling style avatar for user lilflute3
      Their mythology actually influenced a lot of other cultures mythology. A lot of the stories in Greek mythology evolved into other stories (specifically Rome) with the same meaning and situations, just with different names so people could lay claim to the stories.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Maddy Latuszek
    In the legacy of Greek Culture part of this discussion it's said that Greek Culture influenced many different empires like the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, and I've heard from other sources that it influence the middle east in some ways. My question is why did they have so much influence on so many empires? What was so special about them that so many different places liked and wanted to incorporate into their own culture?
    (2 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Samson Mathias
      The reason the Greeks had influence is 2 reasons.One Greece settled in places touching the Mediterranean sea and one of the places was in Italy. Their settlement their was close to the Latins ( the Italian peoples that found Rome and the Roman Empire and spoke Latin, no surprise there). The Latins liked the Greek culture for some reason and incorporated it into their own culture. And the Latins kept that Greek influence all the way to the end of the Roman Empire. And when the Western side fell the Eastern side or the Byzantine Empire because it was influenced by the Romans became influenced by the Greeks because the Greeks influenced the Romans. In the Middle East, Alexander the Great empire spread Greek culture there when he conquered Persia and it spread.In a process called Cultural Diffusion
      (7 votes)