[Revised fairly thoroughly 3/24/09]

Greek Achievements


    In my first lecture, made the generalization that history is most wonderful, most exciting, most fascinating of all subjects.  All periods/all peoples interesting.  But for me at least, most interesting field of all, Ancient Greece--and there is almost nothing at all I would rather study.  Now I've probably told all of you a story about how I came to be a history professor (my sister Marta telling me I had "the most beautiful voice for putting people to sleep.") 

    Actually, while that happened, that's not the whole story.  All my life, Greeks had a special fascination for me.  It started in elementary school, when I fell in love with Greek mythology (played at being Hector and Achilles).  While I was in junior high, my dad introduced me to the works of Plato, and I fell in love with Greek philosophy.  As an undergraduate, I was a theater major: and fell in love with Greek drama.  I taught h.s. drama and English for several years, and didn't spend much time with the Greek literature.  And then one day I picked up Herodotus' history of the Persian Wars--and I was in love all over again.  I knew that, if I possibly could, I wanted to study this stuff for the rest of my life, to understand how human beings could create such absolutely incredible works--works that are, in my opinion at least, the finest achievements of the human mind.

    But its not just in literature the Greeks excelled. They produced some of the world's greatest art, the first true science, and some of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen.  In fact, of all the ancient peoples, it was the Greeks who contributed the most to subsequent civilization in virtually every field of human endeavor.  What's all the more amazing is that the Greek were able to do all these things despite the fact that they were constantly at war--or maybe because they were constantly at war.

Generalization: Greeks made more important contributions to sub. civilization than any other ancient people.


 1.  Art (Pathenon, sculptures of Phidias, etc., source of inspiration for Roman and all sorts of sub. art)

The Greeks excelled in sculpture.  Their works are impressive for their handling of human anatomy, and details like hair and clothing.  They are also impressive for their handling of motion (cf. "Discobolos), and for capturing a wide range of human emotions and moods.  Some sculptures are comic, others very serious. The Greeks sculptors could inspire patriotism and the love of liberty--and some of the subtleties of individual personality and character.  Greek scupture inspired the Romans and (indirectly) the great sculptors of the Renaissance.  One tribute to how much one could learn from such works came from Rodin, one of the finest sculptors of the 19th century.  Asked his impression of a group of Greek sculptures he had not seen before, he simply said, "If only I could start over."

Also impressive: Greek architecture. The buildings on the Athenian acropolis are a great example.  The Greeks figured out things like making a column bulge in just the right way so that it that it would *appear* more symetrical.  The Greeks did a fine job creating buildings that would blend with the natural environment and take advantage of that environment.  Greek theaters, for instance, took advantage of natural acoustic features to create theaters where actors could be heard loud and clear by all the thousands in attendance.  Elements of Greek architecture have been copied again and again from Roman times onward--and we still see many elements of Greek architecture in at least some of our public buildings today.

 2.  Sports (Olympic games)

The Greeks also are important for the contribution to sports.  We compete in "gymnasiums" and "stadiums" today--names that both come from Greek.  There are lots of other echoes of the Greeks in our sports tradition of today. Some of our track and field events (e.g., the javelin and the discus) come out of Greek tradition.  Events like the Marathon and the Decathalon have Greek names, though they weren't specific Greek events. Perhaps the best example of Greek influence on our sports tradition: the Olympic games. [See the link here]

 3.  History (first and some of greatest historians, including HERODOTUS, Thucydides, and Xenophon)

The Greeks give us the first true historical works, and it was a Greek (Herodotus) that first used the term "history" for what we call history today.  Not only did the Greeks give us our first historical works, they also give us some of  our greatest.

Herodotus' history of the Persian wars is impressive for all sorts of reasons.  First of all, it is impressive because it moves beyond the mere chronicling of events (something that had been done before) and attempts to explain why certain events happen and what those events means: what lesssons we can learn from history.  Herodotus talks about the various forces that affect human lives, noting the forces we can change and those we cannot.  He also is impressive for his broad view of the historians task.  He talks, not just about wars and battles, but about religion, family relationships, etc.  Herodotus might be considered, not just the father of history, but the father of cultural anthropology as well.  Herodotus attitude toward other cultures is an important example of what Western civilization gets from the Greeks.  Rather than viewing other cultures as "wrong" when they did things differently than the Greeks, Herodotus sees much to admire and imitate in other cultures.  But Herodotus is no cultural relativist: he sees that other cultures can be negative examples as well.

And particular this is so when one looks at Herodotus' central theme: freedom.  A central theme of Herodotus' book is the value of living in a free society (even though it means sacrifice) rather than living under despotism no matter how well-organized and prosperous a society run by a despot might seem.  Herodotus book is one of the sources of the Western love of freedom.

Equally important, the work of another Greek historian, Thucydides.  Thucydides account of the Peloponnesian War (the 27 year war between Athens and Sparta) is perhaps an even more important work for those who love freedom.  Thucydes shows us what can go wrong in even the most admirable of democracies, showing us how, during the long years of warfare, Athens begins to give in to a "might makes right" philosophy that destroys much of value it that society. 

4 . Political science

Not only do the Greeks give us our first history, they give us also our first political science, the systematic study of human government.  When one studies political science today, one constantly uses Greek terms (monarchy, democracy, etc.). Why?  Because the Greeks were the first to study the various forms of human government and to identify the strengths and weakness of each.

Not only do the Greeks give us our first political science, they give us some of our finest political science.  Plato, for instance, give us our first great political utopia, his dialogue "The Republic."  This book sets out to answer the question, "What is justice?"  After several hundred pages, the question remains partly unanswered, but we have a much better understanding of what a just society might look like. 

Aristotle also made important contributions to political science.  His "Politics" examines the constitutions of many different Greek city-states [Note, by the way, that  "constitution" means the way a government is constructed.  None of these states had written constitutions.]  Aristotle classifies the various kinds of governments he finds and looks at the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Aristotle's Politics and Plato's Republic are still much read in political science/political philosophy classes today, another good example of the lasting influence of the Greeks.

5.   Poetry

In poetery too, the Greek had a lasting influence.  When we analyze poetry today, we use Greek words (iamb, dactyl, trochee, etc.).  Why?  Because the Greeks were the first to systematically analyze poetry.  Here too Aristotle is a key figure.  His "Poetics" is as influential in literary criticism as his "Politics" is in political science.

Not only did the Greeks give us better tools for anayzing poetry, they give us some of our finest poets.  Among the greatest and most influential of epic poems are the two great poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey.  The Odyssey is still much read in high school and college classes today, and the Homeric heroes are still portrayed in our movies.  But Homer not only told exciting stories, he dealt with universal human themes.  The Iliad, for instance, explores the theme of anger, and the destruction effect of hanging on to our anger.  One sees the influence of Homer on many, many subequent writers--from Virgil and his Aeneid in the Roman World to James Joyce and his Ulysses in the 20th century.

The Greeks also excelled at lyric poetry.  One example: SAPPHO.  Sappho's poems were meant to be sung, and she apparently was the first person to use what we call the mixolydian mode.  She may also have invented the plectrum, the pick.  Unfortunately, most of her works have disappeared, but some of the finest poets in the Roman world (e.g., Catullus) immitated her work, and as a result, Sappho's indirect influence has been tremendous: many, many of the West's finest poets immitated the Roman poets who were immitating Sappho.

 6.   Mathematics

Math is another area in which the Greeks made important contributions.  You are all familiar with the Pythagorean theorum, and the Greek reverence for numbers that starts with Pythagoras is certainly an important contribution of the Greeks.

Even more important, the Greek geometer, Euclid.  Euclid's Elements was the main geometry textbook of the west for hundreds of years, and it remained the basis for all good geometry texts right up through the 1970's.  What Euclid did was to take five fundamental axioms.  From these axioms, he devises a series of more an more complex proofs.

Now what's important here is *not* the practical application of geometry.  What's important is the systematic, rigorous thinking process one must go through in coming up with these proofs.  The study of Euclid taught generation after generation to think clearly and logically: and it is a pity that the current geometry texts have drifted away from this.

7.   Science

The Greeks also made important contributions to the sciences.  Biology, Physics, Physiology, Zoology: all Greek names, because the Greeks were the first to systematically explore these areas.  Thales, the first Greek philosopher, also is the father of physics, asking a fundamental question: what are all things made of?  The Greeks explored the question, coming up with promising answers.  Ultimately, Greeks like Aristotle believed that the world was made up of four fundamental elements. Other Greeks added the idea that these elements in their turn were made up of invisible, indivisable particles they called atoms.  Now we have a lot more elements than the Greek four, and we believe the atom can be divided into evern more fundamental particles, but note that the Greeks are certainly on the right track.

Aristotle made important contributions to taxonomy and to botany and zoology in general.  He also came up with a very impressive theory of physics: a theory that turned out to be wrong , but extermely influential!  For 2000 years, most educated people accepted that theory (errors and all) as fact.

Other Greek scientists included Eratosthenes (a man who tried to calculate the circumference of the earth--and missed in his estimate by only about 1%!) and Aristarchus of Samos, who advocated the "Copernican" theory 2000 years before Copernicus.

Perhaps most impressive of all was Archimedes [See the link here.]