How far has Greek culture spread?

How far has Greek culture spread? Scott Richardson, Senior Editor at World Book Encyclopedia, talks about the spread of Greek culture, and discusses Ancient Greece and Ancient Greek civilization.




Ancient Greece had a warm, dry climate. Summers were hot, and winter temperatures seldom dropped below freezing. Annual rainfall on the mainland ranged from as much as 50 inches (130 centimeters) on the west coast to less than 20 inches (50 centimeters) on the east.


Ancient Greece lacked adequate farmland, rainfall, and water for irrigation, and so crop production was limited. The mountains provided huge amounts of limestone and marble for building construction and clay for making bricks and pottery. But Greece had few other mineral deposits. Timber was plentiful at first. However, it became increasingly scarce as the people cut down many trees without replanting the forests.


The shortages of food and natural resources forced the ancient Greeks to depend on overseas trade for needed goods. The poor conditions at home also led many Greeks to found overseas colonies and trading posts. In this way, the Greek world expanded along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea and came to include southern Italy and the island of Sicily.


The people. Greek civilization began to develop about 2000 B.C. At that time, people from somewhere to the north arrived in Greece and established small farming villages. The people of each community in time developed their own customs and dialect. The two main groups of Greek peoples were the Dorians and Ionians.


By the 700's B.C., the Greek world consisted of many small, independent city-states. Within each city-state, the Greeks distinguished between citizens and noncitizens. Only citizens could own land and take part in government. Noncitizens consisted of women, slaves, and serfs. Unlike slaves, serfs were not considered personal property. As a result of trade, many city-states also had a large noncitizen population made up of Greeks from other city-states and of foreigners.


Life of the people


Family life. The husband headed the household in ancient Greece and was responsible for its members. The wife ran the household and raised the children. In prosperous families, the wife supervised slaves, who looked after the children and did most of the work. Women also spun thread and wove cloth, even in wealthy families. A woman was under the legal control of her father before she married. After marriage, she was under the legal control of her husband.


Greek parents usually arranged their children's marriage. Most girls married in their midteens, but many men married around age 30. When a girl married, she received her share of the family's money or property as adowry(gift). Her husband controlled the dowry but had to return it if they divorced. Normally, the dowry would pass on to her children.


Education. In general, only the children of citizens received an education in ancient Greece. Very few girls attended school, but some others learned to read at home. Most children also learned a few practical skills from their parents or from slaves. City-states differed in the kind of education they valued.


In Athens, teachers operated separate schools for general studies, music, and physical education. The general schools taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. At music school, students learned to sing and to play the flutelikeaulos or the small, harplike lyre. The physical education activities included running, jumping, and wrestling. Older boys learned to handle such weapons as the spear and sword.


Education in Sparta differed greatly from education in Athens. The Spartans wanted to build a tough, warlike people, and considered reading and writing much less important than military training. At the age of 7, boys were sent to military camps, where they learned to accept severe discipline and to endure harsh conditions. Even girls engaged in physical competition, which shocked most Greeks outside Sparta.


Higher education in ancient Greece consisted of the study of law, medicine, philosophy, or rhetoric (public speaking). In the 300's B.C., the Greek philosopher Plato founded a school in Athens known as the Academy. Plato's most brilliant pupil, Aristotle, later founded a similar school in Athens, the Lyceum.


Food, clothing, and shelter. The Greek diet was based on such grains as wheat and barley, which were used to make bread, cakes, and porridge. The Greeks also ate a variety of fruits and vegetables. Their chief sources of protein were eggs, poultry, and fish. The Greeks used olive oil, and they sweetened food with honey. After animal sacrifices, they enjoyed roasted pork, beef, lamb, and goat.


Greek men and women wore a belted garment of linen or wool. Most men's garments hung to the knees. A woman's garment fell to the ankles. In cold weather, Greeks draped a cloak over their shoulders and arms. Sandals were the chief footwear.


Greece's mild climate enabled the people to carry on many activities outdoors, and so most houses were small and simple. Most poor families lived in one- or two-room houses built of sun-dried bricks with floors of hard-packed earth. Wealthy Greeks lived in larger, more comfortable houses built around a courtyard. The houses had separate rooms for cooking, eating, and sleeping. Stones or tiles covered the floors.


Religion. The Greeks believed that certain deities (gods and goddesses) watched over them and directed daily events. Families tried to please household deities with offerings and ceremonies. Each city-state honored one or more deities as protectors of the community and held annual festivals in their honor.


The Greeks believed that their deities could foretell the future. People flocked to shrines called oracles to consult priests and priestesses. Deities supposedly spoke through the priests and priestesses to answer questions and reveal the future. The most important oracle was at Delphi. Sick people visited shrines dedicated to Asclepius, the god of healing, in hope of being cured.


Greek deities resembled human beings, except for their immortality and superhuman powers. For example, they showed such emotions as love, jealousy, and anger. The chief deities lived on Mount Olympus and were known as Olympians. Zeus and his wife, Hera, ruled over Olympus. Other Olympians included Aphrodite, goddess of love; Apollo, god of music and light; Ares, god of war; and Athena, goddess of wisdom.


Recreation. Greek men enjoyed talking with friends in the agora or at drinking parties, called symposiums, in their homes. Greek men also liked sports, and they exercised and swam at public sports facilities. Greek women were permitted little entertainment outside the home, except for religious festivals. Children had dolls, balls, tops, and other toys. They also played various dice and board games.


Large crowds gathered for religious festivals in ancient Greece. At these festivals, athletes competed in such events as wrestling, boxing, foot and chariot races, jumping, and javelin throwing. Religious festivals also included feasts, colorful processions, and performances of plays. Several religious festivals brought together people from throughout the Greek world. The Olympic Games, the most famous of these festivals, were held every four years in honor of Zeus. Victory in the games was the highest honor an athlete could achieve.


Work of the people


Farming. Most ancient Greeks lived by farming or herding. Most farmers worked alone or with the help of a few slaves. The entire family helped with planting and harvesting. Farmers raised pigs, grew wheat and barley, and tended olive groves and vineyards. Sheep and goats grazed on poorer land. The Greeks produced a surplus of olive oil, wine, and wool, which they exported.


Manufacturing. The ancient Greeks manufactured all products by hand. Many craftsmen worked alone. There were also factories with 20 to more than 100 workers, many of them slaves. These workers specialized in the different skills needed to make such goods as pottery, armor, and clothing. Individual city-states became known for certain products. For example, Athens was famous for its decorated pottery, Megara for woolen garments, and Corinth for jewelry and metal goods.


Trade. Greek merchants sold surplus goods abroad in exchange for slaves and such products as grain, timber, and metals. The Greeks' major trading partners included Egypt; Sicily; and Scythia, a region near the Black Sea. In each city-state, inspectors made sure that merchants used proper weights and measures, charged fair prices, paid taxes, and observed restrictions on the import and export of certain goods.


Transportation and communication. The rugged terrain made travel difficult on the Greek mainland. Runners carried most messages. Few roads were good enough for travel on horseback. Wagons or pack animals hauled goods short distances. Sea travel was far more important than land travel, in spite of the dangers of piracy and shipwreck. Merchant ships sailed along the mainland coast, among the islands, and overseas.


Philosophy, science, and the arts


Philosophy originated in ancient Greece during the 500's B.C. The word philosophy comes from two Greek words meaning love of wisdom. Many of the questions that were asked by Greek philosophers would today be considered subjects of scientific inquiry. The earliest philosophers speculated about the underlying substance of the universe and how the universe operated. Later philosophers investigated the nature of knowledge and reality and sought to define such notions as good and evil.


Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are considered the most important Greek philosophers. Socrates taught by carefully questioning his listeners to expose the weaknesses of their ideas and arguments. Plato explored such subjects as beauty, justice, and good government. Aristotle summed up the achievements of Greek philosophy and science. His authority on many topics remained unquestioned for more than 1,000 years.


Most people in ancient Greece were suspicious of philosophers and their theories. They continued to believe in traditional values and traditional religion. In 399 B.C., an Athenian jury sentenced Socrates to death , charging him with corrupting young men and not believing in the gods of the city.


Science. Greek scientists, like Greek philosophers, believed in an orderly universe, which operated according to laws that people could discover. They based many of their theories on logic and mathematics. They also made careful observations of nature and, at times, conducted experiments. But Greek scientists rarely tried to solve practical problems, and so their discoveries had little influence on technology and everyday life.


The ancient Greeks were pioneers in medicine, physics, biology, and mathematics. Some of their conclusions anticipated findings of modern science. In the 400's B.C., Democritus said all things consisted of atoms, tiny bits of matter that cannot be divided. In the 200's B.C., Aristarchus of Samos first stated that the earth revolved around the sun. But most Greek thinkers argued that the sun, stars, and planets moved around a stationary earth.


The arts. Greek architects, sculptors, and painters made important contributions to the arts. They strove to achieve an ideal of beauty based on harmonious proportions. The most influential architectural works were temples. A Greek temple consisted of an arrangement of columns around a long, inner chamber. The Greeks developed three influential styles for columns—the simple Doric, the graceful Ionic, and the ornate Corinthian. The best-known temples were built on the Acropolis in Athens during the 400's B.C.


Greek sculptors portrayed figures of gods, goddesses, and human beings. Over the centuries, their works became increasingly lifelike and showed figures in more active poses. The most famous Greek sculptors were Phidias, Praxiteles, Lysippus, and Myron.


Few Greek paintings have survived. Our knowledge of Greek painting comes mainly from paintings on pottery, Greek writings, and copies made by the ancient Romans. The pottery paintings and Roman copies portray scenes from mythology and daily life.


Music often accompanied plays and poetry recitals in ancient Greece, and musicians performed at festivals and private parties. The music of the Greeks relied chiefly on melody and rhythm. Harmony was unknown to the Greeks.


Ancient Greek writers introduced many important literary forms, including lyric and epic poetry, tragic and comic drama, and history.


The city-state took shape in ancient Greece by the 700's B.C. Most citizens of a city-state claimed a common ancestry, spoke the same Greek dialect, and followed the same customs and religious practices.


A small group of wealthy men governed most city-states of ancient Greece. This form of government, in which a few powerful people rule, is called an oligarchy. During the 500's B.C., some city-states began to move toward democracy. They granted all citizens the right to vote on government policies, hold political office, and serve on a jury. However, many poor citizens could not afford the time from making a living to participate in democratic government. However, women and slaves had no political rights, even in the democracies.


Athens became the most successful democracy of ancient Greece during the 400's B.C. Every male Athenian citizen had the right to vote in an assembly that passed laws and determined government policies. The voters also elected Athenian generals. Each year, the citizens drew lots to select a council of 500 men. This council ran the day-to-day business of government and prepared the bills that the assembly debated and voted on. Jurors were also chosen by lot.


Some wealthy Athenians disliked their system of government. They felt that the poor dominated the government and took advantage of the rich. Most Athenians, however, cherished their democracy.


Sparta was the most powerful oligarchy in ancient Greece. Citizens made up only about 10 percent of the population. Most people were serfs who farmed the land. Two kings, who inherited their thrones, headed the army. Sparta was governed by 5 officials, called ephors, and the gerousia, a council made up of 28 elders and the kings. Citizens elected ephors to one-year terms and members of the gerousia to life terms. Sparta had a citizen assembly. But citizens could not propose issues for debate in the assembly.


Military forces. Among the Greek city-states, only Sparta had a standing army. Most city-states trained young men in the art of warfare and required all able-bodied male citizens to take up arms in time of war. Athens had the largest navy, which included hundreds of large warships, each powered by 170 oarsmen.


A battle formation known as a phalanx dominated Greek warfare from the 600's to the 300's B.C. To form a phalanx, armed foot soldiers lined up in a loose formation, usually eight rows deep. On the battlefield, two opposing phalanxes marched toward each other. Then, the soldiers fought with spears and swords until one side broke and ran.




Beginnings. The first major civilization in the region of Greece arose on Crete, an island in the Aegean Sea, about 3000 B.C. It is known as the Minoan culture after King Minos, the legendary ruler of Crete. The Minoans were expert sailors, and they grew wealthy from trade. The remains of luxurious palaces provide evidence of the Minoans' prosperity and building skills. The Minoans had a system of writing. Scholars do not know what language they spoke, except that it was not Greek.


The development of Greek civilization began about 2000 B.C., when small farming villages were set up by people who came to Greece from somewhere to the north. By about 1600 B.C., they had built fortified towns, each centered on a palace, in the major valleys. The culture that developed on the mainland is called Mycenaean after the large and powerful town of Mycenae in the Peloponnesus, the southern part of the mainland.


The Minoans dominated the Aegean world until about 1450 B.C., when the Mycenaeans took control of the region. The Mycenaeans adopted features of the Minoan culture. For example, they adapted the Minoan writing system to the Greek language The form of writing they developed is known as Linear B. In Linear B, each syllable had a separate sign. Some scholars believe Mycenae won a war against Troy, in Asia Minor (now Turkey), in about 1200 B.C. This war inspired many major works of classical literature.


Mycenae and most other settlements in the Peloponnesus were destroyed shortly after 1200 B.C. Historians do not know why Mycenae fell. Soon afterward, the Dorians from northern Greece moved into the region. Many Mycenaeans fled to Asia Minor. Greece entered a period known as the Dark Age, which lasted until about 800 B.C. During this time, people again lived in isolated villages. Knowledge of writing was lost. Memories of past glories were kept alive in songs and oral poetry. The Greeks began to write again after 800 B.C. Their alphabet was based on that of the Phoenicians. Some of their oral poetry was then composed into two great epics, theIliad and the Odyssey, which are attributed to the poet Homer.


The development of the Greek city-state began during the Dark Age. At times, neighboring city-states joined to form a larger state. However, most city-states tried to keep their independence at any cost. At first, kings ruled the city-states, with advice from wealthy nobles. But by approximately 750 B.C., the nobles in most city-states had overthrown the kings and become rulers. The nobility owned the best land and controlled the community.


Meanwhile, ancient Greece faced the problem of too many people and too little farmland. As a result, neighboring city-states often fought over borderlands. Some city-states grew at the expense of others. For example, Sparta became powerful by conquering neighboring peoples. Many of the conquered peoples had to work the land for their Spartan masters.


The land shortage forced numerous Greeks to leave their city-states. From the 700's to the 500's B.C., Greek colonists founded new city-states along the shores of the Mediterranean and Black seas. The largest settlements developed in southern Italy and Sicily, which became known as Magna Graecia (Great Greece).


Most Greek farmers worked small plots and had to borrow money to survive between harvests. In times of poor harvests, farmers could not repay their loans. They then lost their land and were forced into slavery. Other groups were also discontent. For example, merchants and manufacturers wanted a greater voice in government. But the nobility refused to share any power.


New forms of government. The growing unrest brought tyrants to power in many Greek city-states as a result of revolutions. The Greeks used the term tyrant to describe a leader who seized total power by force. Many tyrants achieved some of the goals of their followers. For example, they distributed farmland to the landless and put people to work on large public building projects. But eventually tyrants grew more concerned with keeping their power than with serving the people.


Most tyrants were soon replaced by an oligarchy in which a few wealthy citizens, rather than the nobility, ran the government. However, a number of city-states moved toward democratic government. In 594 B.C., Athenians gave a statesman named Solon authority to reform the laws. Solon ended the practice of enslaving debtors. He divided citizens into classes by wealth and defined the rights and duties of each class. He also drew up a code of law. Shortly after Solon left office, civil war broke out. In 560 B.C., a tyrant seized power.


In 508 B.C., another Athenian statesman, Cleisthenes, proposed a constitution that made Athens a democracy. Cleisthenes extended voting rights in the assembly to all free adult men. He created a council of 500 members, which was open to any citizen. His reforms thus gave every citizen a chance to serve in the government.


The Persian wars. During the 500's B.C., the Persian Empire expanded rapidly and conquered the Greek city-states in Asia Minor. From 499 to 494 B.C., these city-states rebelled against their Persian rulers. King Darius I of Persia crushed the revolt and sent his army to punish Athens, which had aided the rebels. The Athenian army was outnumbered by the Persians, but it defeated the Persian army at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.


In 480 B.C., King Xerxes I, the son of Darius, led a massive Persian invasion of Greece. Many of the Greek city-states united under Sparta's leadership to fight the invaders. The Persians overwhelmed a tiny Greek force at Thermopylae, north of Athens, and went on to take Athens. The Greek navy followed a plan of the Athenian statesman Themistocles and withdrew to the Bay of Salamis. There, it thoroughly defeated the Persians and sank about half their fleet. Xerxes returned to Persia with many of his troops. The Greeks defeated the remaining Persian forces in 479 B.C.


The Greeks regarded their victory over the Persians as their finest hour. It showed what they could do when they set aside their differences and united.


The rivalry between Athens and Sparta. The cooperation achieved by the Greek city-states during the Persian wars did not last long. In 477 B.C., Athens organized an alliance called the Delian League. It consisted mainly of city-states in Asia Minor and on Aegean islands. Sparta led the Peloponnesian League, an alliance of city-states in the Peloponnesus. Athens was the strongest naval power in ancient Greece, and Sparta was the strongest land-based power. The two rivals struggled for dominance of the Greek world during the middle and late 400's B.C.


During the 400's B.C., Athens reached its height of power and prosperity and was the center of culture in the Greek world. Pericles was the leading Athenian statesman from 461 to 429 B.C. Many remarkable literary and artistic accomplishments took place in Athens during this period. For example, the Greek dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote many of their masterpieces. The leading Greek architects and sculptors built the Parthenon on the Acropolis.


In 431 B.C., the Peloponnesian War broke out. This ruinous war between Athens and Sparta lasted until 404 B.C. and left Athens exhausted. In 430 B.C., a severe plague struck Athens. It killed about a third of the people, including Pericles. Athens lacked able leaders during the rest of the war and finally surrendered.


Sparta dominated the Greek world only a short time. Fighting among the city-states resumed, and Thebes defeated Sparta in 371 B.C. The quality of life declined as a result of the continuing warfare. Economic conditions worsened, and violent clashes between rich and poor became frequent. People grew less public-spirited and more self-centered. The city-states lost their vitality.


Macedonia, a kingdom north of Greece, was becoming stronger as Greece grew weaker. In 353 B.C., Philip II, king of Macedonia, set out to conquer all of Greece. The independence of the separate Greek city-states ended in 338 B.C., when Macedonia defeated the Greeks in the Battle of Chaeronea. Philip planned to lead a Greek and Macedonian army against Persia. But he was killed by a Macedonian in 336 B.C.


The Hellenistic Age. Alexander the Great, Philip's son, succeeded his father at the age of 20. In 334 B.C., Alexander carried out Philip's plan to invade Persia. In a brilliant campaign, Alexander conquered the entire Persian Empire in less than 10 years. His empire extended from Greece to India. Alexander's bloody conquests furthered the spread of Greek ideas and the Greek way of life to Egypt and the Near East. Alexander died in 323 B.C. His generals divided his large empire into successor states, with Greece remaining under Macedonian control.


The period of Greek history following Alexander's death is known as the Hellenistic Age. The period lasted until 146 B.C. in Greece, when the Romans took control of Greece. During that time, Greek culture continued to influence the lands Alexander had conquered, and Eastern ideas reached Greece. Greece suffered from frequent warfare and widespread destruction during the 200's B.C. The city-states formed two associations to fight for independence. But Macedonian kings kept control of Greece, and the two associations fought each other.


Roman rule. Through conquests, Rome had become one of the most powerful countries in the western Mediterranean by the 200's B.C. The Romans then began to expand in the east. In the 140's B.C., they took control of Greece and Macedonia. Under Roman rule, the Greek city-states had no important military or political role. But trade, agriculture, industry, and intellectual activities flourished. The Romans borrowed the art, religion, philosophy, and way of life of the ancient Greeks, and they spread Greek culture throughout their empire.


The Roman Empire was divided in A.D. 395, and Greece became part of the East Roman Empire. The West Roman Empire collapsed in A.D. 476. The East Roman Empire survived as the Byzantine Empire until 1453, when it fell to the Ottoman Empire. Greek was the official language of the Byzantine Empire, and Greek culture formed the basis of Byzantine institutions.


The Greek heritage. The ancient Greeks laid the foundations of Western civilization. Modern democracies owe a debt to Greek beliefs in government by the people, trial by jury, and equality under the law. The ancient Greeks pioneered in many fields that rely on systematic thought, including biology, geometry, history, philosophy, and physics. They introduced such important literary forms as epic and lyric poetry, history, tragedy, and comedy. In their pursuit of order and proportion, the Greeks created an ideal of beauty that strongly influenced Western art.


Learning about ancient Greece


The writings of the ancient Greeks provide much of our information about the Greek world. For example, Herodotus described the clash of cultures that led to the wars between the Greeks and the Persians. Thucydides wrote a brilliant analysis of the Peloponnesian War. Aristotle's writings summarized and analyzed much of the knowledge of his time. Greek poets and playwrights expressed the attitudes and beliefs of the ancient Greeks.


The remains of Greek settlements and shrines also add to our knowledge of ancient Greece. Archaeologists study buildings and such objects as pottery, tools, and weapons to learn about trade and colonization, technology, art, and everyday life in ancient Greece.


In the 1870's, German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann conducted the first major excavation of the buried city of Troy. Before then many people doubted that Troy, made famous in the Iliad and the Odyssey, had existed. Schliemann also made major discoveries at Mycenae. In the early 1900's, Sir Arthur Evans, a British archaeologist, located the palace at Knossos on Crete. He thus established the existence of Minoan civilization. These discoveries spurred further excavations.


Find out more about Greek culture and traditions around the world by World Book's Ancient Greeks.




Peter Krentz, Ph.D., W. R. Grey Professor of History, Davidson College.


This article is from The World Book Encyclopedia.


Last update: May 18 2012

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