EDITORIAL FEATURE

7 Things the Ancient Greeks Gave Us

Ancient Greek inventions that have stood the test of time

The Ancient Greeks practically invented Western culture. So many aspects of our modern lives are owed to things first created over 2,000 years ago; just take a look at the items below to see what ideas our ancient Hellenic friends thought up that are still important to us today.

The ruins of the ancient Greek city-state, Corinth (From the collection of CyArk)

1. Western Philosophy

Socrates. Plato. Aristotle. These men are household names for a reason: they were all ancient Greeks who created systems of thoughts and reasoning that still largely govern the way we think today.

Head of Aristotle (From the collection of Kunsthistoriches Museum Wien)

Their ideas were the foundations for Classical Greek philosophy, exploring humankind's capacity for reasoning and quest for truth. This, in short, was the discipline that was later adopted by the Roman Empire, then made its way into modern western culture. They may not have given us all the answers, but they did give us all the questions.

The School of Athens by Raphael (From the collection of Touring Club Italiano)

2. Olympics

The Olympic games first began on the island of “Pelops” in the western Peloponnese in 776 BCE. The games were begun as a tribute to the Olympian gods but were banned by Emperor Theodosius in 393 CE as part of a decree against “pagan cults.”

Olympic Games, 1896; preparation for the 100-meter race (From the collection of Benaki Museum of Greek Civilization)

The Games were resurrected by the International Olympic Committee over 120 years ago, when, on April 6, 1896, athletes from 14 different countries came together, once again in Greece, to celebrate the amazing legacy of sportsmanship the ancient Greeks bequeathed to us. Though the first Olympics featured only a single event — a marathon — there are now Games in both winter and summer, alternating every two years, with over 300 events in the modern Summer Games.

Albertville 1992, winner’s medal, gold (From the collection of The Olympic Museum)

3. Marathon

Like the Olympics, the Marathon is another modern sporting event with its roots in ancient Greece (although the marathon is clearly more pervasive and frequent). The story goes that the very first marathon actually ended in tragedy, when, in 490 BCE, the Greek runner Pheidippides ran 25 miles from the plains of Marathon, in Greece, to Athens, to deliver the news that the Greeks had defeated the Persians in battle. After reaching his destination, he then promptly dropped dead after uttering the single word “Niki!,” or “Victory”.

Emil Zatopek (C) running in marathon at 1952 Olympics (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

These days, marathon-running rarely results in death, but the victory and glory remain.

Summer Olympics 1972 (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

4. Alarm Clock

If you hate waking up early for work as much as the next person, you probably won’t really want to thank the ancient Greeks for this invention—if you even knew they were the ones who invented.

Alarm clock, ca. 2000 (From the collection of The Strong National Museum of Play)

Remember those ancient philosophers? Well, apparently, Plato can be credited with inventing the first alarm clock: a funnel/siphon system that whistled like a tea kettle, created to wake up his sleepy-headed students. But it is the Greek mathematician and engineer, Ctesibus, who perfected the idea, modifying a water clock so that pebbles dropped on a gong at regular intervals. These laid the groundwork for the little device we all love to hate.

1850, Engraving of reproduction of water-clock "The Clepsydra" invented by Clesibius of Alexandria ca. 250 BC. (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

5. Umbrellas

Though the word umbrella has its roots in the Latin “umbra,” which simply means “shade,” we actually have the Greeks to thank for this handy little invention that keeps us out of the rain and sun. There is archaeological evidence suggesting both the Chinese and the Egyptians played a role in perfecting the parasol (technically, the word “parasol” denotes protection from the sun, while the word “umbrella” has typically been reserved for the thing that keeps you dry), but the Greeks once again seem to be the first, with depictions on the Parthenon and elsewhere of Greeks with umbrellas dating back to 4th century BCE.

Marble frieze slab from the Nereid Monument -390/-380 (From the collection of British Museum)

Early Greek umbrellas were made from bone, wood, and plant leaves, so just be glad you’re carrying around a lightweight plastic one the next time it rains. Today, umbrellas are a million-dollar industry.

6. Cartography (Maps)

If, by this point in the list, you’re asking yourself, “where would we be without the ancient Greeks?” in the case of cartography, the answer is “extremely lost.” Though the idea of marking one’s location on paper or stone seems pretty simple, it turns out the Greeks beat most people to the punch when it came to map-making as well. Anaximander (born around 610 BCE) is mentioned in the works of Aristotle as being the earliest cartographer to put pen to “papyrus” (Egyptian paper) to make a map of the world.

Map of the World (From the collection of Kobe City Museum)

Today, we may have GPS on our smartphones, but it all began with old Anaximander.

Hellenic Peninsula: Greece, Albania, Bosnia and Bulgaria, by Stefano Bonsignori, 1585 (From the collection of Palazzo Vecchio Museum)

7. Western Theater (Drama)

Like Philosophy, we have the Greeks to thank for the great tradition of dramatic theater with which they’ve graced our stages. Though dramatic traditions pre-date the Greeks, modern theater as we know it can be traced back to the dramatic genres that emerged in the ancient city-state of Athens. Early actors would wear masks and perform alone, and eventually with a chorus to entertain audiences. These actors would take on the roles of other characters or concepts, rather than speak as themselves. One of the first people to perform on stage in this manner was Thespis of Icaria, hence the modern term ‘thespian’.

Terra-cotta figurine of Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy, contemplating theatrical mask (From the collection of Life Photo Collection)

The earliest examples of dramatic performance grew out of the singing of ancient hymns to celebrate the raucous god of wine and partying, Dionysus. Then, in the 6th century BCE, a man named Thespis jumped up on a wooden cart and began reciting poetry to a shocked audience of onlookers. And, thus, the world’s first “thespian” was born, and theater became close to what we know today.

Bacchai (2002) (From the collection of National Theatre)
Words by Andrew Mulvania
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