The Art and Culture Of Ancient Greece
and how they have changed the world
The ancient Greeks have left an indelible mark on Western culture. Their writing, mythology, art, architecture and science are still studied today, more than 2,000 years after the peak of Greek civilization.
In many ways, the ancient world was a darker place before the advent of Greek thought. The pre-Socratic thinkers brought logical rules to natural philosophy, while Archimedes’ lever principle led to innovations in technology.
To understand how their influence still resonates today, let’s take a brief look at what made the Greeks special, and how their ideas and inventions continue to impact us all.
The Greeks believed in the power of rational thought.
The pre-Socratics shifted the focus from mythos (traditional stories and customs) to logos (clearly reasoned argument), urging their followers to rely on observation, hypothesis, and deduction. As a result, they helped to popularize the scientific method 2,000 years before the Scientific Revolution. Their emphasis on reason also led to the development of logic and critical thinking, intellectual tools that we still use today.
The ancient philosophers also argued that knowledge is power, which is why they were so eager to share their ideas with the world. The invention of papyrus (a paper-like substance) and the rise of the Library of Alexandria facilitated the spread of knowledge across the Mediterranean.
Greek myths taught us to question authority.
While mythos often led to stagnation, logos was an essential catalyst for progress. The Greeks debated the merits of their government, philosophy, and even art. This led to an environment where ideas were constantly challenged and refined.
The Greek love of debate was also evident in their literature. The Iliad and The Odyssey, for example, feature heroes who defy authority and question the status quo. This questioning of authority is what makes the Greek myths so timeless. They featured gods, heroes, and monsters that were flawed and human-like. These stories forced readers to question why they believed what they did, and to empathize with characters who had different beliefs than they did.
Indeed, these myths even questioned themselves. They feature characters who write down the events of their lives, which invites readers to wonder if Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are the true versions of these myths.
The Greeks built beautiful buildings and infrastructure.
The Greek love of aesthetics is still visible today. Indeed, the architectural legacies of the ancient Greeks are among the most impressive in history. The Acropolis of Athens, the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, and the Odeion of Herodes Atticus in Athens are just a few of the exquisite structures that still stand today.
Although the Romans would go on to build more buildings and structures, the ancient Greeks’ architectural legacy was impressive. The Greeks’ interest in aesthetics was reflected in their use of geometry. They drew up plans for buildings, monuments, and even city streets using geometric shapes like squares and triangles. Geometry also informed their approach to architecture. They used columns and beams to create load-bearing structures — the first application of mathematics in architecture.
Greek engineering changed how we approach math and science.
The Greeks were avid mathematicians, with many of their inventions and discoveries still in use today. Geometry (the study of shapes, sizes, and relationships) was used to create new architectural plans and designs. It was also applied to science, where it facilitated the understanding of natural phenomena, from the tides to the motion of the planets in the solar system. The Greeks also used algebra (the application of math to solve problems) for such diverse purposes as to calculate the length of a fish’s head, and to predict the length of a pregnancy.
When it came to science, the ancient Greeks' ideas about the world, that it is composed of basic substances like water, earth, and fire, influenced the West for centuries. The Greeks’ discovery of the planet Venus was the first instance of astrophysics (the study of stars and the universe).
The Greeks left us a rich legacy of art - especially sculpture.
The ancient Greeks were renowned for their sculptures. Indeed, we still rely on the term 'Classical' (a style of sculpture that emerged in Greece during the 5th century BC) to describe works that imitate the art and ideals of Ancient Greece. They created some of the most famous examples of Western art.
Sculpture was the Greeks’ most famous artistic achievement. Sculptors like Myron and Phidias were famous for creating lifelike sculptures in bronze. Greek artists also explored themes of realism in their work. Greek vase paintings often depicted scenes from daily life—like dining, dancing or weaving.
The Greeks also produced examples of architectural art, like the famous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. The temple was a complex structure with many different rooms and uses.
The ancient Greeks made a lasting impact on the world. Their love of rational thought, architecture, and art are still visible today. Indeed, their focus on reason and debate led to the spread of knowledge and the invention of the scientific method.
This cultural shift has shaped the world we inhabit today. We use logic and mathematics to explain the world around us, and we create artistic works that imitate the aesthetics of the ancient Greeks. We still benefit from the legacy of the ancient Greeks, even though they are long gone.