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?
Partially adapted from "Ancient Greeks." World Heritage Encyclopedia.
Partially adapted from. "Greek Architecture." Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2013.
Partially adapted from "Greek Sculpture." Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2013.
Partially adapted from "Greek Theater." Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2016.
Partially adapted from "Hippocrates." Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2016.
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