It is difficult not to overstate the influence of ancient Greece on the development of Western Civilization. Many ancient Greek contributions have persisted virtually unchanged into the modern era, while fields as diverse as politics, literature and architecture would be virtually unrecognizable without the Greek influence. The poet Percy Shelley stated, “We are all Greeks,” a fitting tribute to the people whose culture spread from the Mediterranean to shape the course of history.
The ancient Greeks forged a strong legacy in politics, most notable through the invention of democracy. Instituted in 507 BC, the Greek demokratia had three branches, and membership stood open to male citizens over the age of 18. One of the branches, the dikasteria, consisted of popular courts that tried disputes. Citizens were randomly selected on a daily basis to sit on the courts, which established the notion of the jury trial.
The Olympics, the massive international sports competition that serves as one of ancient Greece’s most visible legacies, dates from 776 BC. Named for Olympia, the site of the original games, the ancient Greek Olympics persisted for almost 1,200 years. The modern marathon also stands as a legacy of Greek athletic achievement. This endurance race takes its name and distance from a pseudo-legendary event in which a runner carried word of the Greek’s victory at the Battle of Marathon.
The notion of public literacy remains an often-overlooked legacy of the Ancient Greeks. The Ancient Greek invention of an alphabet made this possible, as phonetic letters made literacy accessible to anyone capable of learning the sounds of oral vocabulary. Previous advanced societies, which relied on Semitic languages, entrusted literacy mainly to the priestly classes. This alphabetic legacy is made clear through the use of the first two Greek letters, alpha and beta, in the formation of the word “alphabet.”
Legacy in the Arts
Ancient Greek theater had an immeasurable effect on the development of Western literature. The continued revival of ancient Greek compositions, in addition to the notion of literary forms such as tragedy, comedy and satire, make this legacy apparent. The legacy of architecture as an art form, rather than merely a utilitarian science, exists largely in thanks to Greek achievements like the Parthenon. The affect of the ancient Greek’s achievement in sculpture is apparent in later artists' employment of classical proportions. The rediscovery of Greek sculpture throughout the 16th and 17th centuries inspired Renaissance artists in their own depictions of the human form.
The Academic Legacy
Ancient Greek intellectuals formulated the concepts that underlie practically the entire spectrum of academic study. The reason for this lies with the rediscovery and translation of ancient Greek texts at the end of the Middle Ages, which resulted in the Renaissance’s explosion of learning and the creation of the world’s first university curriculum. Writers such as the historian Herodotus, the philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and the mathematicians and scientists Euclid and Archimedes, were among the first to establish canonical standards in their fields, and their writings continue to serve as foundation texts.
- Canadian Museum of History: Greek Legacies
- The History Channel: Ancient Greek Democracy
- Olympic.org: Ancient Olympic Games
- Runner's World: The Real Story of the Marathon
- Communication in History; The Greek Legacy
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Architecture in Ancient Greece
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Rediscovery of Classical Antiquity
- Texas A&M University: Department of Mathematics -- The Origins of Greek Mathematics