We explain what Greek civilization is, how it originated and its forms of government. Also, what are its characteristics, religion, art and more.
What is the Greek civilization?
Greek civilization developed in the extreme northeast of the Mediterranean Sea (current territories of Greece and Turkey), and on various islands such as Crete, Cyprus, Rhodes, and Sicily ( Italy ). Around the year 2100 BC the Achaeans, a people with a warrior tradition, invaded and subdued the Cretans, a native people of the island. Thus began to develop the Minoan civilization (the first European civilization to settle on the island of Crete).
Later the Achaeans expanded throughout the peninsula until they reached southern Italy and the western coast of Asia Minor. These two regions formed Magna Grecia, called by the Greeks Hellas or Ellada ( hence the name “Hellenes” for the inhabitants of the region).
Greek civilization was noted for its great development of architecture and for a great philosophical legacy with thinkers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. His contributions influenced the Roman Empire and, later, in various regions of the world, including Western culture (which adopted the Greek democratic structure).
Greek civilization was made up of small villages that evolved into polis (city-states). Among the most important polis, Athens and Sparta stood out. Each had its own legislation and internal organization, until the democratic system of government emerged . In addition, several of the city-states had one activity in common: the Panhellenic Games (which gave rise to the Olympic Games , which evolved into the ones we know today).
Origin of Greek civilization
The geography of Greece significantly influenced the development of civilization. Possessed few natural resources , although they had access to abundant water sea which was a major source of wealth.
The mountains covering 80% of ancient Greece and a few rivers crossing the rocky landscape, so were insufficient for the development of agriculture. These characteristics of the terrain forced the ancient Greeks to colonize several neighboring islands, becoming skilled sailors and traders.
When civilization occupied the region of Magna Graecia, they settled in permanent settlements (which later formed the polis ) and lived mainly from fishing and trade . In northern Greece , the land was suitable for agriculture which allowed the development of several Hellenic peoples.
Forms of government in Greece
There were several systems of government during the Greek civilization, such as:
- The monarchy: It was the government that had as its central figure a king who received the throne through family inheritance (which affirmed that power had been granted to him by a divinity who assigned such privilege to the entire lineage).
- The aristocracy: It was the political system suggested by Plato and Aristotle, which upheld the appointment of outstanding individuals for their intellectual wisdom and high virtue, in order to occupy government positions. However, those who used to have access to knowledge and other privileges were still the nobility and the well-to-do classes.
- The oligarchy: It was the type of government that concentrated power in a select group of individuals, generally of the same social class . It used to be an aristocratic system with the difference that it perpetuated by blood lineage instead of appointing the most suitable person (according to their ethical qualities), which is why some consider this system as a “distorted aristocracy”.
- Tyranny: It was the type of government that had as a figure an individual who took power by force and through unconstitutional means, overthrowing the previous government (for having popular or military support). The leader stood out for assuming absolute power and repressing any opposition.
- Democracy: It was the modality exercised, first, in Athens when overthrowing a tyrant government (during the second half of the 6th century BC), for which a radical reform was proposed to prevent the aristocracy from regaining power. The Athenians founded the world’s first democracy through a citizens’ assemblyin which the people were given some participation in government decisions (but, in this case, only male citizens).
Religion of greek civilization
Greek religion was polytheistic, that is, it was based on the worship of multiple deities that even represented abstract ideas such as justice , ethics and wisdom.
These deities were ruled under a supreme god named Zeus , “father of the gods,” and the priests cared for the cults, but they did not constitute a clergy or a church . Zeus ruled the Olympian gods who constantly intervened in everyday life, among them the following stand out:
- Athena: Goddess of peace
- Aphrodite: Goddess of love and beauty
- Ares: God of War
- Apollo: God of art and sport
- Dionisio: God of wine
- Hephaestus: God of fire
- Persephone: Goddess of the underworld
- Poseidon: God of the sea
Greek religion is not the same as Greek mythology (which implies traditional tales), even though they are related. In both literature and art , the gods were represented with human bodies and characters, as good and bad beings, who had children, who fought in battles, and who appeared in the tales of Greek mythology. They were worshiped by the people in sacred temples established in the main communities , through ceremonies led by priests.
Since the medicine of Greek civilization, illness was considered a divine punishment , and healing a gift from the gods. Beginning in the 5th century BC, theories were developed that attempted to understand the material causes of disease, as well as the spiritual justifications.
Doctors studied the human body , the connection between cause and effect of certain symptoms related to diseases, and tried various treatments. The main contribution was the belief that the patient could control his health based on his diet , which contrasted with the fatalistic and spiritual mentality of previous times.
The physician Hippocrates was the founder of the medical school whose general concept was based on the therapeutic approach and the healing power of nature. This doctrine held that the body naturally contains the intrinsic power to heal itself. Hippocratic therapy focused, then, on facilitating this natural process.
Art in Greece
The art of Greek civilization has even influenced Western culture . Its development is divided into different periods that are differentiated by the materials and the way in which they were handled. In the beginning they made objects, utensils and small sculptures worked in wood . Then, they manipulated the marble and, later, they stood out for the evolution of the techniques with which they worked both materials .
The realistic representation of human figures and the influence of mythology, for the representation of the gods, are characteristics of Greek art. In the architecture they incorporated majestic ornamental details. However, most of the buildings and sculptures have not survived because of wars, looting and earthquakes. A few temples such as the Parthenon and the Temple of Hephaestus, in Athens, allow us to appreciate the magnitude of their buildings.
Greek mythology is a set of stories, myths and legends in which the Greeks tried to explain the origin of the world and expose part of the culture of ancient Greece. In the stories they represented the gods of Olympus, heroes , rituals and aspects of political and social life.
An example is “The myth of the birth of Athena”, the goddess of wisdom , science , justice and war. Legend has it that the supreme god Zeus impregnated an ocean nymph named Metis. Soon after, Zeus received a prophetic message announcing that he would have sons more powerful than him and that they could overthrow him.
To avoid that, Zeus decided to swallow the nymph Metis and prevent her child from being born . However, the pregnancy continued its course inside the god Zeus, without his knowing it.
Finally, Zeus began to suffer severe headaches and asked the god Hephaestus to remove from his head what was causing him such annoyance. Once the head of Zeus had been opened with an ax, Athena came out fully formed, adult and wearing soldier’s armor.
Philosophical thought in Greece
Along with sculpture and architecture , philosophical thought was another of the great contributions of this civilization and consisted of thinking based on reason, man and the knowledge of the universe . The stage began to develop in the 6th century BC until 30 BC and was divided into 4 stages:
- Cosmological period: Stage that was based on rational thought or logos . Thales of Miletus is the representative of this period and is considered by Aristotle as the first philosopher.
- Anthropological period: Stage in which the contribution of Socrates stood out , who considered knowledge as something more than a simple accumulation of information. Socrates is known for his power of oratory. They will focus on ethics, politics , norms, laws, and society.
- Methodological period: Stage with great representatives, such as Socrates, Plato (disciple of Socrates) and Aristotle (disciple of Plato). They were the thinkers who established the greatest philosophical tradition in history.
- Hellenistic period: Stage that stood out for its concern about ethical issues. He changed the concept of “man” to “civic animal”, because only in the polis , man could be fully realized. The philosophy is conceived as a unitary knowledge between logic, physics and ethics. Numerous schools of thought emerge.
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- “Ancient Greek medicine” on World History encyclopedia .
- “Introduction to ancient Greek art” on Khan Academy.