History of Culture in Ancient Greece
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Our digital history of culture in ancient Greece focuses on its profound and pervasive influence on ancient Rome, which then perpetuated aspects of it throughout early Western civilization. Classical Greece is the cradle of Western culture and democracy, rooted in Greek beliefs in popular government, jury trial, and legal equality for Greek male citizens (foreign residents, slaves and women did not vote). Also, the ancient Greeks systematized rational and scientific thinking to create the sciences of biology, geometry, history, and physics, and to take philosophy to its greatest heights with Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates.
Specifically, ancient Greek philosophy focused on the role of reason and inquiry. In these ways, it had an important influence on modern philosophy, as well as modern science. In fact, there are clear unbroken lines of influence that lead from ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophers to medieval Muslim philosophers and Islamic scientists, to the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, and to the secular sciences of the modern day.
What’s more, the Greeks created lasting literary forms that built on the epic poetry of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and the lyric poetry of Sappho. Herodotus wrote history, and Greek playwrights created rich genres of drama, tragedy and comedy. In their idealization of order and proportion, the Greeks perfected a standard of beauty that robustly influenced Western art.
The earliest Greek literature was poetry and it was composed for performance rather than private consumption. The earliest Greek poet known is Homer, although he was certainly part of an existing tradition of oral poetry. Though it was developed around the same time that the Greeks developed writing, Homer’s poetry would have been composed orally. But the first poet to certainly compose their work in writing was Archilochus, a lyric poet from the mid-seventh century BC. Afterwards, tragedy developed around the end of the Archaic period, taking elements from pre-existing genres of late archaic poetry. Then, towards the beginning of the classical period, comedy began to develop. The earliest date associated with the genre is 486 BC, when a competition for comedy became an official event at the City Dionysia in Athens, though the first preserved ancient comedy is Aristophanes’ Acharnians, produced in 425.
The art of ancient Greece had an enormous influence on the culture of many countries, from ancient times to the present day, particularly in the areas of sculpture and architecture. In the West, the art of the Roman Empire was largely derived from Greek models. And in the East, Alexander the Great’s conquests initiated several centuries of exchange between Greek, Central Asian and Indian cultures. This resulted in Greco-Buddhist art, with ramifications as far as Japan. Following the Renaissance in Europe, the humanist aesthetic and the high technical standards of Greek art inspired generations of European artists. Well into the 19th century, the classical tradition derived from Greece dominated the art of the western world.
Ancient Greek mathematics contributed many important developments to the field of mathematics, including the basic rules of geometry, the idea of formal mathematical proof, and discoveries in number theory, mathematical analysis, applied mathematics, and approached close to establishing integral calculus. The discoveries of several Greek mathematicians, including Pythagoras, Euclid, and Archimedes, are still used in mathematical teaching today.
The Greeks developed astronomy, which they treated as a branch of mathematics, to a highly sophisticated level. With that, the first geometrical, three-dimensional models to explain the apparent motion of the planets were developed in the 4th century BC by Eudoxus of Cnidus and Callippus of Cyzicus. At about the same time, their younger contemporary Heraclides Ponticus proposed that the Earth rotates around its axis.
Then, in the 3rd century BC, Aristarchus of Samos became the first to suggest a heliocentric system. Archimedes in his treatise “The Sand Reckoner” revives Aristarchus’ hypothesis that “the fixed stars and the Sun remain unmoved, while the Earth revolves about the Sun on the circumference of a circle”. Otherwise, only fragmentary descriptions of Aristarchus’ idea survive. Eratosthenes, using the angles of shadows created at widely separated regions, estimated the circumference of the Earth with great accuracy. Soon afterwards, Hipparchus of Nicea made a number of contributions, including the first measurement of precession and the compilation of the first star catalog in which he proposed the modern system of apparent magnitudes.
The Antikythera mechanism, a device for calculating the movements of planets, dates from about 80 BC and was the first ancestor of the astronomical computer. It was discovered in an ancient shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera, between Kythera and Crete. This became famous for its use of a differential gear, previously believed to have been invented in the 16th century, and the miniaturization and complexity of its parts, comparable to a clock made in the 18th century. The original mechanism is displayed in the Bronze collection of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, accompanied by a replica.
The ancient Greeks also made important discoveries in the medical field. Hippocrates was a physician of the Classical period, and is considered one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine. He is referred to as the “father of medicine” in recognition of his lasting contributions to the field as the founder of the Hippocratic school of medicine. This intellectual school revolutionized medicine in ancient Greece, establishing it as a discipline distinct from other fields that it had traditionally been associated with (notably theurgy and philosophy), thus making medicine a profession.
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Architecture: Columns • Sources: Egypt • Macedonia • Thrace | Athletics: Olympic Games • Panathenaic Games • Panhellenic Games • Pythian Games | Dance | Drama: Athenian Drama • Comedy • Tragedy | Language: Greek • Writing • Alphabet • Writing Materials • Texts • Music • Vases: Black-Figure Style • Geometric Style • Sculpture: Achermos Of Chios • Materials • Statuary
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