May 1 lecture notes: Greek Civilization
These lecture topics contain some content from the Introduction and Chapter 1 of our textbook, A Brief
History of Ancient Greece by Sarah Pomeroy.
1) Overview: our modern legacy from the ancient Greeks
In class discussion, some students aptly identified the following as modern-day inheritances from ancient
Greece. The list is not exhaustive but just offers examples.
• Democracy (Greek demokratia, “power of the people”), a system of government where the mass of citizens
have the last word in government, typically by voting. Modern democracies like Canada, France, etc., with
their populations in the multimillions, obviously represent systems that are much developed from the original,
simpler democracies of ancient Greek city-states like Athens (peak population: about 200,000, including
• Mathematics (Greek mathematikē, simply “knowledge” or “learning”), the study of numbers. Today this
study represents arguably the most permanent contribution of ancient Greek thought. Although older
peoples, in Near East—the Babylonians and Egyptians, for example—had pioneered the study of numbers,
the Greeks further developed and organized this into a system of provable theorems, to be inherited by the
West. For example, the Greeks discovered the notion of a square number, and they created the whole
discipline of geometry. (The word geometria means “land survey” in Greek.)
• Astronomy (Greek astronomia, literally the “arrangement of the stars”), the study of the heavenly bodies.
Not to be confused with astrology—which too existed among the ancient Greeks and which tried to predict
the future through the stars—astronomy was a science, which the Greeks developed by building on
knowledge from the Near East. Greek astronomy involved (a) cataloguing and observing the stars and
planets and (b) constructing geometric models to try to explain their movements in the sky. With no
telescopes, the Greeks could identify five planets (Greek planētai, “wanderers”) aside from Earth. The Greeks
assumed that the heavens rotated around Earth, and ancient Greek astronomy eventually reached a false
perfection by creating a geocentric model that seemed to explain all heavenly movements apparent to the
naked eye. The Greek false geocentric model was so persuasive that it remained in force right through
Antiquity and the Middle Ages, until ousted by the heliocentric model of Copernicus in 1543 A.D.
• Certain styles of grand public architecture, which the Greeks used for their temples of the gods, have come
down to us, partly via the ancient Roman legacy. Today we often use “Greco-Roman” or “classical”
architecture for our important public buildings like legislatures, museums, libraries, university buildings, and
banks. Among hundreds of modern examples is Tabaret Hall at the University of Ottawa. The style conveys
authority, quality, dignity, venerability, etc. It says, “Trust us.”
• The study of public speaking, also known as oratory or rhetoric (Greek rhētorikē), was a byproduct of ancient
Greek government, particularly democracy. In a democracy, public speaking offered the chance to persuade
your fellow citizens or fellow councillors to vote a certain way in governmental decision-making. Famous
leaders like Pericles at Athens (circa 440 B.C.) were strong public speakers. The Greek philosopher Aristotle
wrote an admired book on rhetoric, which survives today.
• Philosophy (Greek philosophia, “love of wisdom” or “love of essential knowledge”), a study-discipline that
searches for truth or reality outside of science. A purely Greek invention, philosophy first arose in Greek
cities of what is now western Turkey, in the early 500s B.C. Originally it was a way to try to explain the world
without reference to the gods of traditional Greek religion. In its earliest form, philosophy overlapped with
what we would call “science”.
• Medical knowledge in the ancient world was enlarged by Greek doctor-writers such as Hippocrates (400s
B.C.)—sometimes considered to be the father of Western medicine—and Galen (100s A.D.). Medicine for
the Greeks meant mainly diagnosis and primitive treatments involving diet, bandaging, etc.: Surgery was
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performed, but was usually fatal for the patient. Today, newly accredited doctors swear a “Hippocratic Oath”
to uphold their profession’s ideals.
• The notion of a literary “canon”: a body of inherited literature that forms a permanent “reading list” for
students. Also related is the concept of a library, which is a building (or more than one) and an organizational
system that houses and maintains these writings in a permanent collection. The ancient Greek word for
“library” was bibliothekē (literally, a “book storage”), origin of the modern French word bibliothèque. The most
famous library of the ancient Greek world was at Alexandria in Egypt in the 200s B.C. and later.
• Our whole notion of higher education—that is, university. In the early 300s B.C., the thinkers Plato and
Aristotle each founded at Athens a school where suitable, wealthy, young-adult, male citizens could
supplement their basic education by studying certain specialist disciplines, like philosophy, meant to help
mould them for future leadership of the city.
2) The terms “Stone Age”, “Bronze Age”, and “Iron Age”
• Textbook pp. xix–xx (timeline chart) and pp. 17–19
These modern scholarly terms refer to the remnants of ancient tools: That is, they refer to the most
distinctive material left behind by humans in those respective eras. From the Stone Age, we would find
hammer heads and axe heads (etc.) made from shaped stone—perhaps granite for the hammer, sharpened
flint or obsidian for the axe, etc.
In later eras, a hammer head and axe head would be made from bronze, a metal. Later yet, they would be
made of iron, a different metal. Each material—stone, bronze, iron—denotes a different stage of technology,
a different era.
During the Iron Age (which in Greece began around 1050 B.C.), stone and bronze still had their uses, but the
emergence of iron is used by modern scholars to signify a new stage in development.
Of course, the handles of the axes and hammers would presumably have been made of wood. But the wood
disappears from decay over centuries, leaving only the stone or metal part.
Because terms like “Bronze Age” refer to local material remnants, the start-dates for these eras will vary from
place to place. For example, the Iron Age begins in Mesopotamia around 1200 B.C., in Greece around 1050
B.C., and in Italy around 900 B.C.—those being the approximate dates when the new technology of iron
working arrived on its spread westward. Our course-study will emphasize Greece-related dates, obviously.
Neolithic Age: textbook page 17. About 7000–3000 B.C. The name means “New Stone Age”, this being
the last era of the Stone Age. It saw the invention (7000 B.C.) and spread of agriculture, the use of pottery,
and a general shift from nomadic to settled habitation. Animals like sheep and cattle become domesticated
for the farm. The wheel is invented, around 4500 B.C. The plow is invented, by about 4000 B.C. Soon
thereafter, the skill of metallurgy commences, with copper (a metal) being melted and shaped to make beads
Neolithic archaeological sites in modern Greece and Turkey have yielded so-called “goddess figurines”: small,
fired-clay, human statuettes, predominantly (but not all) of females, many showing exaggerated renderings of
the breasts, buttocks, and genitalia. The statuettes’ exact meanings or uses are unclear to us, but they may
have involved a reverence for female fertility and generative power: Thus they may perhaps betoken the
beginnings of some kind of religious worship.
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Bronze Age: textbook pp. 17–38. About 3000–1200 B.C. The Bronze Age saw progress and organization
across the whole Middle East and eastern Mediterranean. There emerged, in sequence, about five highly
organized, centralized civilizations—
- the Sumerians and Akkadians of Mesopotamia
- the Egyptian Old Kingdom
- the Minoan Civilization of Crete
- the Hittite kingdom of Asia Minor
- the Mycenaean Civilization of mainland Greece—the earliest Greek civilization, about 1600–1200
The Greeks’ Mycenaean era falls entirely within the larger era of the Bronze Age. The Mycenaeans’ downfall,
around 1200 B.C., corresponds to the end of the Bronze Age.
bronze: an alloy of copper and tin, at a ratio about 9:1. Bronze is hard metal but (advantageously) will melt
to a liquid at the relatively accessible temperature of 950 degrees C, which ancient charcoal furnaces could
attain. Molten bronze can be poured into a mould or cast, to cool to hardness in that shape. Thus, molten
bronze can be intricately shaped, or be spread flat into sheets to produce armour or panelling, etc. In terms
of product, bronze represents a huge advance over Neolithic worked stone or copper: Copper itself is too
soft for wide use in tools, but after you add tin to molten copper, the resultant bronze is much harder than
the copper alone would be.
Also, from our course viewpoint, bronze working = a clear sign of long-range trade, in order to acquire
the needed copper and tin.
Copper was found in the eastern Mediterranean. For example, some copper was mined near Athens. The
island of Cyprus (Greek Kupros) was so well known for copper deposits that its name actually is the source of
our English word “copper”. But tin doesn’t exist naturally in the eastern Mediterranean; tin had to be
imported from far—which required that the buyer have wealth and organization and participate in a long-
range trade network.
Tin came from mines in what are now England, Spain, Iran, and Afghanistan. Early on, tin sources also
existed nearer by, in Asia Minor and Italy, but these seem to have dried up eventually.
3) The land of Greece
• Textbook pp. 8–11; the inside-front-cover map of Greece and the Aegean Sea; the p. 101 Peloponnese map
The traditional land of Greece (corresponding roughly to the modern nation) amounts to a jagged,
mountainous, irregular peninsula, sticking southward into the northeast Mediterranean. The coastline, with
all its zigzag indentations, reaches 2,000 miles in length. The mountains, a southern extension of the Balkan
chain, run generally northwest-to-southeast. The mountains continue southeastward under water, to
constitute the Aegean Sea islands that were (and are) a part of Greece: The islands are actually mountaintops.
For ancient peoples, these islands provided “stepping stones” across the sea: south to the large island of Crete
and east to the coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Both those places would be Greek habitations during
The southernmost part of mainland Greece looks a bit like a jagged diamond, with three little peninsulas at
the bottom, sticking southward. This jagged diamond is called the Peloponnese or Peloponnesus (“island of
Pelops”). The Peloponnese actually is a peninsula, attached to the rest of the mainland by the skinny
northeastern isthmus near Corinth. The Peloponnese would be the heartland of Greece in the Bronze Age,
and in the 500s–300s B.C. would remain important under leadership of the militant city of Sparta.
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Greece’s mountainous terrain had several important effects on its history. For one, the mountains reduce the
amount of good farmland to only about 20 percent of the total area—concentrated mainly in five or six fertile
plains—with another 10 percent of adequate hillside farmland.
Thus, in ancient Greece, only a limited number of spots could support a large settlement or city: In order to
become a major city, you probably had to win control of a farming plain. Where two cities shared a plain,
they might go to war over full possession. We’ll discuss examples in future lessons.
This bitter competition for farmland contributed to one major downfall of ancient Greek civilization
generally: the insane tendency of the Greek cities to war against each other, Greek against Greek.
Some notable plains include—
- in the Peloponnese: the plain of Argos (or plain of Mycenae), the centre of earliest Greek history
- in the Peloponnese: the plains of Laconia and Messenia, which both would eventually be controlled
by Sparta. The Messenian plain, receiving ample rainfall, was the most fertile of ancient Greece
- in central Greece: the plain of Boeotia (pronounced “bee-O-sha” ), controlled by the city of Thebes
- in central Greece: the plain of Eleusis (or plain of Thriasia or plain of Attica), controlled by Athens
- in central Greece: the plain of Lelanton, on the large inshore island of Euboea (pronounced “yoo-
BEE-a”). Two cities, Chalcis and Eretria, would fight a famous war over the plain, around 700 B.C.
Chalcis would win.
The mountains tend to divide Greece internally and promote a sense of locality (not a sense of unity). In
combination with certain ethnic-linguistic differences among the Greeks—and with competition for food
potentially adding a divisive force—these mountain-geography divisions would help create the “patchwork”
Greece of the ancient city-states. In ancient Greece, if you as an Athenian went to visit the city of Corinth
(for example), you virtually would be in a foreign country. Although you would speak the same language as
the Corinthians, you would not be a Corinthian citizen and would have no civil rights in Corinth. Athens and
Corinth were considered to be separate states or nations, and the same for most other Greek city-states.
Never would there be a united Greece so long as Greece remained free. Only under conquest, first by the
Macedonians (338 B.C.), then by the Romans (146 B.C.), would ancient Greece become unified.
By the same token, the mountains would make Greece difficult to invade and occupy. In 480 B.C., a Persian
army invading from the northeast was channelled through mountain passes that shrank to a bottleneck at the
narrow pass of Thermopylae in central Greece. There a small Greek force was able to hold them, temporarily
but famously. Mountain passes and (at sea) narrow straits between land formations would play crucial roles
in ancient Greek war and defense.
The mountain slopes in ancient times held forests of oak, beech, fir, pine: timber to build houses and ships.
In Greek religion, the untamed mountains would be the haunt of supernatural beings. Certain mountains,
like the massive Mt. Olympus in the northeast or Mt. Parnassus above Delphi, would be considered the
homes of the gods. The Greeks also believed that mountains and other wilderness places were animated by
local demigoddesses called numphai (“nymphs”).
The mountains of Greece tend to limestone. In some places, the limestone has evolved to its compressed
form: marble. Quarried typically in the hills and mountains, limestone and marble provide superb building
materials—whether used in whole chunks or cut into sheets as handsome facing-materials over brickwork etc.
Marble—which can be easily shaped by carving and can take a beautiful polish—is used also for sculpture,
including statues. The availability of such material helped supply the Greek artistic miracle.
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One effect of natural limestone is the existence of caves (often associated with running water that has
carved-out the cave over time). Caves played a modest role in ancient Greek life in historical times, often as
religious sanctuaries. Like mountains, caves were associated with the gods and nymphs. For example, the
god Zeus was said to have been born in a certain cave on the island of Crete. And at the southern tip of the
Peloponnese, at Taenarum (textbook map, p. 101), a network of caves was believed to be an actual entrance
to the Underworld.
Another effect of limestone is loss of rainwater in the mountains. Limestone is porous, allowing rainwater
to descend vertically from the surface—perhaps to be captured farther underground in aquifers, perhaps not.
For this reason, rain or spring thaw in the Greek mountains does not produce huge water run-offs, and for
this reason, lakes and rivers are scarce in Greece and the rivers are small. Obviously this reduced one
important potential source of water, adding pressure on humans to find sustenance.
Furthermore, Greece receives not much rain to begin with, especially on the eastern side of the country: The
central mountains block the wet weather coming from the west, and so the rainclouds tend to empty on the
western side. Athens, in the east, sees only about 15 inches of rain a year; Corfu in the northwest may get
three times that much.
By comparison, about 3.5 inches of rain fell on Ottawa just on May 1–5 of this year.
In Greece, rain comes in winter mainly. The mountains receive snow, but on the plains the Greek winter
resembles a rainy mid April in Ottawa: The weather is chilly for humans but nutritive for crops. Then,
summer is ferociously hot and dry. Summer, not winter, is the barren season in Greece.
The main crops of ancient Greece were barley, wheat, grapes, olives, legumes (that is, beans and peas), and
fruit including pear, fig, and pomegranate. Flax was grown to supply linen (a material that’s like cotton).
Barley and wheat are two different types of grain. Barley—less tasty than wheat but easier to grow—was
favoured by Greek farmers. Most (not all) crops had to be able to survive the Greek summer.
Textbook pp. 10–11. The essential trio of grain, olives, and grapes is known as the Mediterranean Triad—
the staple produce of the ancient Mediterranean. Grapes and olives grow through the summer and are
harvested in autumn. As well as for food, grapes went into making wine, and olives into olive oil: two
products essential to the ancient Greek economy and society. Olive oil had uses as cooking oil, as a
flammable fuel for lamps, and as a