Ancient Greece Facts
Modern civilization owes just as much to Ancient Greece as it does to Ancient Rome. From Ancient Greece, we inherited democracy, drama, classical art, and many other things we might sometimes take for granted. However, one of the most important features of Greek culture that has affected Western Civilization is undeniably and undoubtedly, their philosophy. Many, many other lists of Ancient Greece facts can also confirm this.
The Greeks believed the human mind was capable of understanding everything. They were so into philosophy, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, three of the most famous philosophers in the world came from Greece. Not only that, many ideas about government emerged in Ancient Greece, too. In fact, Greek statesman Pericles, in his Funeral Oration to the Athenians around 430 B.C., talks about a democratic government. In his speech, he talked about a powerful type of government where its most distinguished citizens have the power to make their political decisions. Does that not sound like democracy?
Most buildings in Washington DC, the US capital, also have Greek characteristics. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, for example, was modeled after the famed Greek building the Parthenon. Many specific aspects of this and other Greek structures have definitely had a significant impact on Western Civilization.
Learn more about this glorious ancestor of modern civilization with these 50 Ancient Greece Facts.
- At its height, Ancient Greece had a population of around 10 million people.
- Historians estimate that at the dawn of its civilization, Ancient Greece only had a population of around 800,000 people.
- On average, Ancient Greece had a population of about 7.5 million people.
- Slaves accounted for up to 80% of Athens’ population alone during Ancient Greece.
- On average, slaves made a third of Ancient Greece’s population.
- Ancient Greece first arose during 8th century BC.
- The Greeks founded many colonies between the 8th and 6th centuries BC.
- Democracy first developed in Athens during 6th century BC.
- The Greeks fought against the Persian Empire during early 5th century BC.
- Athens rose to dominance during mid to late-5th century BC.
- Sparta and its allies ended Athenian dominance during the Peloponnesian War.
- Macedonia rose to dominance during early 4th century BC.
- Greeks fought as part of Alexander the Great’s army during his campaigns of conquest.
- They then regained their independence after Alexander the Great’s death.
- The Romans conquered Greece between 2nd and 1st century BC.
- Ancient Greece based its alphabet on the Phoenician alphabet.
- Athens had the biggest fleet out of Ancient Greece’s city-states, with up to 200 ships manned by around 34,000 sailors.
- A Greek mathematician, Eratosthenes, proved the Earth’s spherical nature without needing to sail around it.
- The Ancient Greeks called their land Hellas, and their people the Hellenes.
- Greek culture would endure past the Roman Era, through the Islamic and Medieval periods, to the Renaissance.
The Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations existed before Ancient Greece.
Here’s an interesting twist of Ancient Greece Facts. The Minoans came from the island of Crete, and dominated the Aegean for over 2,000 years, from 3000 BC to 1450 BC. They had a peaceful civilization, the Minoans, who were mostly traders, sailed as far away as Egypt. Ironically, we know almost nothing about them, as their alphabet remains a mystery to archaeologists today. Their modern name comes from King Minos, the King of Crete, from the legend of the labyrinth and the minotaur.
They may also have inspired the legend of Atlantis, after the nearby island of Thera, a modern-day Santorini, destroyed itself in a volcanic eruption in 1600 BC. This eruption weakened the Minoans and left them vulnerable to Mycenaean conquest.
The Mycenaeans came from Southern Greece, and centered around the city of Mycenae. They had a warlike civilization and frequently fought against the Hittites in Anatolia, modern Turkey. One of their campaigns against the Hittites might even have inspired the legend of Troy.
However, their warlike ways ultimately caused their population to drop, and to exhaust their economy. From 1450 BC to 1100 BC, they dominated the Aegean for barely 300 years, and fell before the Dorian Migration from Northern Greece. This marked the beginning of the Greek Dark Age.
Epic poetry dominated Greek literature during their dark age.
Archaeologists see this as a reaction to the loss of writing during the Greek Dark Age. Oral traditions became a way for the Greeks to retain their cultural legacy, while also serving to teach traditional values. Great poets of this genre include Hesiod, as well as the most famous Greek poet of them all, Homer. Homer, in particular, earned his place in history with his great work, The Iliad and the Odyssey.
The Iliad especially stands out as a storified version of a historical record, characteristic of Greek epic poetry in the dark age. What started out as a war of conquest by the Mycenaeans against the Hittites became a struggle between good and evil, dominated by larger-than-life figures with divine influences behind the scenes. At the same time, the heroes of the story become embodiments of ideal Greek virtues, aimed at inspiring the young of Homer’s generation.
Ancient Greece divided itself into different city-states.
The Greek city-states rose during the Greek Dark Age and stood in contrast to the united Mycenaean and Minoan kingdoms before their time. Archaeologists and historians see their rise as a reaction to the circumstances of the time. Those include the chaotic atmosphere of the dark age in general, and Greece’s own geography.
In particular, the country’s mountainous geography make it difficult for large numbers of people to travel and communicate with each other. This worked hand in hand with the cultural fragmentation that resulted from both the Mycenaean collapse and the Dorian Migration. The Greeks divided themselves into tribal groups which based their identity around their home regions, which led to the rise of city-states.
Surprisingly, despite the rise of tribalism, the Greeks still saw themselves as one. The fact that they all shared the same language, myths, and religion, helped preserve their cultural identity despite their overall fragmentation into tribes and city-states.
Aristocrats replaced kings as Ancient Greece left its dark age behind.
Historians still aren’t sure what caused the political shift, only that as the dark age came to an end, most Greek kings found themselves overthrown. In their place, power passed to rich landowners, the aristocrats, who dominated the politics of their home cities. Some exceptions existed, of course. For example, in the Thessaly region of Northern Greece, kings continued to rule until the time of the Persian Wars.
The concepts of draconian and solons came from Athens at this time.
Both concepts developed from the political instability that came with the rise of the aristocracy. Growing prosperity, and ironically, social inequality that came with the end of the dark age also contributed to the political instability. Rich merchants wanted a say in public affairs, while the poor lashed out at what they saw as uncaring masters.
This eventually led the Archon Draco to introduce an especially harsh code of laws in 621 BC. Even minor crimes like petty theft became punishable by death, or even slavery. This led to the modern concept of draconian, meaning unreasonably harsh laws.
Draco believed that all crimes, regardless of severity, should have equal punishment, and that this would lead to a peaceful and stable society. He thought wrong, with Athens remaining unstable, until the rise of Solon in 594 BC.
Solon reformed the law, making it more humane, while also improving the situation of the lower classes. This finally stabilized Athens, with Solon’s name gaining a place in history as a title for lawmakers in general.
Greeks also traveled across the Mediterranean Sea during this time.
Greek colonization started back during their dark age, caused by instability, poverty, and even overpopulation in Greece. The first Greek colonies arose on the islands of the Eastern Aegean, and then the Asian coast of the Aegean Sea. Colonization continued even with the end of the dark age, with Greeks moving east to found cities inland.
Other Greeks sailed north, through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits, into the Black Sea. This led them to found colonies in the Crimea, in modern-day Ukraine, which became major exporters of grain to Greece. Other Greeks sailed West, where they founded colonies in Sicily and Southern Italy. One of those, Syracuse, remains a major Italian city today.
Tyrants also rose to power from power struggles at this time.
Here’s a strange, but true, example of Ancient Greece Facts. Today, whenever we hear the word tyrant we automatically start imagining the terrible dictators of the 20th century, like Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin.
However, in Ancient Greece, a tyrant simply referred to someone who seized power by force. And many of them did prove cruel rulers who cared only for power, inspiring the modern definition. Other tyrants, though, used their power responsibly, improving the situation of their people, and making their cities stronger.
The Athenian tyrant Peisistratos proves to be an example of this, ruling over the city from 561 BC to 527 BC. In that time, he introduced large-scale land reform, redistributed wealth, and generally improved both the lifestyle of the common Athenian as well as the Athenian economy as a whole.
He also set the stage for the rise of democracy, by breaking the power of the aristocracy. After his sons proved to be weak successors, the Athenian people overthrew them. And with the aristocracy too weak to retake power, the Athenian Assembly instead took over the city’s government.
Sparta had a unique government among the Greek city-states.
For one thing, they retained their ancient dual monarchy, with two kings sharing power between them. This never went away, even after the rest of Greece had overthrown their kings, and would only end with the Roman Conquest. In addition to the kings, Sparta also had a council of elders, made up of 28 men, all aged 60 and above.
Another five judges also oversaw all legal matters in the city. This led to a division of power in Sparta, with the kings jointly having command over the Spartan Army. In contrast, the elders and judges held responsibility for the city’s civilian affairs.
The Battle of Marathon’s aftermath inspired the modern marathon.
In 490 BC, King Darius the Great of Persia sent a fleet across the Aegean Sea to land an army on Greece. The Athenians met them at Marathon, using the local geography to make up for their smaller numbers. This eventually forced the Persians to retreat.
Legend then claims the Athenians sent a runner ahead of the army to bring news of the victory back to the city. The man ran all the way back to Athens, a distance of 40 kilometers, in a single day, only to immediately die from exhaustion. Historians dismiss this story, but they do see it as inspired by messages sent by the Athenians to other Greek cities to bring warnings of the Persian invasion. The Greeks would later commemorate the victory with the marathon event of the Olympic Games.
The Spartans’ last stand at Thermopylae became legendary.
Even after the Battle of Marathon, the Persians refused to give up on conquering Greece. King Xerxes I led an invasion in 480 BC, with the Greeks meeting them at the mountain pass of Thermopylae. Led by King Leonidas of Sparta, 7,000 Greek soldiers managed to hold back up to 150,000 Persian soldiers for two days.
However, a Greek traitor named Ephialtes sold out to the Persians, showing them a way around Thermopylae. To avoid letting the Greek Army be trapped, Leonidas ordered most of his men to retreat. However, the king stayed behind with 1,000 men and fought to the death to buy time for the rest of the Greeks to retreat.
The Persian victory allowed them to occupy Northern and Central Greece, but Leonidas’ last stand made him a legend even in his day. That legend endured even to modern times, with films like 300 immortalizing the Spartans’ heroism at Thermopylae.
Athens became the dominant naval power in Greece during the Persian Wars.
Athens first expanded its fleet after the Battle of Marathon, with the expectation that the Persians would try to invade Greece again in the future. The discovery of rich silver mines near Athens helped the city’s naval plans, as it provided more funds than originally expected. Then during the Persian Wars, the Athenians defeated the Persian Fleet at Salamis, which actually forced King Xerxes to retreat from Central Greece.
At the end of those same wars, they destroyed the Persian Fleet at its homeport in Mycale in Anatolia. All this made Athens the most powerful naval power in Greece, which it used to dominate the Aegean Sea. Over the following decades, they used their powerful navy to support anti-Persian revolt in Egypt and to push Athenian agendas in other Greek cities.
Drama flourished during the Golden Age that followed the Persian Wars.
Greek poets first formalized what we now consider the theatrical genre, and the concepts of tragedy and comedy at this time. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides dominated the stage when it came to tragedy. They formalized tragedy as stories of great men with big ambition, only to fall because of their own flaws, most especially pride and arrogance.
To that end, they took old and traditional myths and rewrote them for the theater, such as the story of Oedipus, the hero who accidentally killed his father and married his mother.
In contrast, comedy took its inspiration from real-life issues, usually politics. Writers such as Aristophanes deliberately exaggerated said issues on the stage, making them appear laughably ridiculous. In this way, they drew public attention to the issue and presented them in a way to inspire action.
Athens made many enemies in the decades after the Persian Wars.
Sparta especially resented Athens’ power, partly seeing the Athenians as monopolizing credit for winning the Persian Wars. Jealousy also existed for Athens’ dominant position in Greece, something shared by other major Greek cities, like Corinth and Thebes. They also resented what they saw as Athens pushing its agenda at their expense. In particular, the Athenians developed a policy of forcing other Greek cities to adopt democracy. This eventually led to the Peloponnesian War from 431 to 405 BC.
The Athenians avoided fighting Sparta and its allies on land, instead focusing on winning the war at sea. This eventually led to the disastrous Sicilian campaign, when Athens tried to take control of Sicily. and ended with the destruction of a large part of their fleet. Eventually, with financial assistance from Persia, the Spartans built a fleet of their own, defeating Athens and ending its dominance over Greece.
The great Greek philosophers emerged from the ashes of the Peloponnesian War.
Socrates developed the Socratic method and what would become the foundation of Western ethics. His frequent attacks on traditional Greek religion eventually led to his trial for impiety. Socrates stood by his position, which led the court to force him to commit suicide.
Socrates’ suicide influenced his greatest student, Plato, who pioneered the study of metaphysics. He also dabbled in political science, with his great work, the Republic, describing his ideal society ruled by philosopher-kings. This became the first study in a totalitarian government, and the birth of the concept of social engineering.
In contrast to his teacher Plato, Aristotle had more practical interests. In particular, Aristotle invented the scientific method and formalized the study of logic. He also took Socrates’ ethics and taught his students how to apply them in reality. His fame became so great that King Philip of Macedon eventually hired Aristotle to tutor his son, Alexander the Great.
Macedonia took advantage of Greece’s weakness after the Peloponnesian War.
Greece never truly recovered from the losses of the Peloponnesian War, coming out of it with a much reduced population. It also broke the unity of the Greek city-states, with the former allies of Sparta and Thebes fighting each other to exhaustion after Athens’ defeat. This allowed King Philip III of Macedon to dominate the region, starting by bringing Northern Greece under Macedonian control.
It forced Athens and Thebes to ally with each other, but at the Battle of Chaeronea, the Macedonians, led by Philip and his son Alexander, defeated them. Philip then planned to go to war with the Persians, only to get assassinated at his daughter’s wedding. The mastermind behind the king’s assassination would go down as one of history’s greatest mysteries. Suspects include Alexander himself, his mother Queen Olympias, the Athenians, as well as the Persians. In the end, though, Alexander succeeded his father.
Alexander the Great led Greeks all the way across Asia to as far away as India.
The Greeks at first refused to follow Alexander, dismissing him as a boy-king without his father to protect him. Thebes led the resistance, only for Alexander to defeat their army, before destroying the city as punishment for their revolt. He did, however, spare the temples, and the house of the famous poet Pindar.
Terrified, but seeing Alexander as capable of mercy, the Greeks submitted, sending 10,000 men along with Alexander’s 30,000 Macedonian troops on his campaigns. Those 10,000 men fought in all of Alexander’s major battles, and also joined the Macedonians in their famous mutiny in India. Together, they forced Alexander to give up on his Indian ambitions and to start marching for home.
Greece itself became a backwater in the Hellenistic Age.
In the wake of Alexander’s conquests, Greek and Asian cultures merged to create something entirely new. Greek became the language of diplomacy, the elite, and intellectuals in the Eastern Mediterranean during this time. Greek styles in art and architecture spread all the way south to Egypt, and as far east as India. Modern historians see this in the realistic sculptures of India’s Mauryan Empire.
In Greece itself, a taste for luxury developed in Greek society, where once people preferred to live modestly. Architecture grew more ornate, and Greeks no longer confined themselves to traditional myths and religion. However, the center of power no longer belonged to the old cities of Greece. Alexandria in Egypt became where a new generation of Greek philosophers and scientists would make their place in Egypt. And in the west, the rising Roman Republic would soon dominate the entire Mediterranean.
Greek culture remained distinct in Roman times.
So much so, that Greeks in Roman times remarked that Greece remade its conqueror in its own image. Roman elites spoke in Greek among themselves and made many works of literature in Greek. Greek teachers found themselves in high demand for young Romans, and Roman art and architecture found themselves borrowing heavily from the Greeks.
This eventually led to a revolt by Roman intellectuals in the reign of Emperor Augustus, to make Romans take more pride in their own cultural legacy. They succeeded only in part, with Rome’s eastern provinces remaining distinctly Greek. Following the Roman Empire’s division between east and west in the 4th Century AD, the Eastern Roman Empire finally shed its Latin facade. It remained openly Greek in culture until its final end in 1453, and the Fall of Constantinople.
Ancient Greece struggled with agriculture.
Greece’s mountainous terrain made for average at best farming ground, so much so that Greeks avoided growing wheat. Instead, they grew barley, which they found easier to grow and produce more grain, if less nutritious than wheat. However, Greece’s soil proved very suitable for olive trees, plantations of which became the main source of wealth for Greek landowners. Grapes also grew well in Greece, which the Greeks used to make wine, exporting them to countries as far away as Egypt.
Ancient Greece had a very patriarchal society.
For the most part, only men had political rights in Ancient Greece, with women literally kept out of sight. Even in their own homes, women had to avoid guests unless explicitly invited to come out by their husbands or fathers. When they went outside, they had to dress modestly, with women who dressed revealingly often compared to prostitutes.
Fathers also typically married their daughters off as young as 12, after which their husbands had full authority over them. Women also had no right to inherit from their fathers, with even women with no brothers instead having their husbands inherit in their place. That said, women had complete responsibility at home, and for raising young children.
Sparta proved the exception to Greece’s patriarchal society.
For starters, Spartan women actually enjoyed equal rights to men in their city’s society. While Spartan women could not become warriors, they had the expectation of matching Spartan men when it came to physical fitness. Spartan women had no stigma for dressing revealingly, in fact, Spartans openly appreciated their women showing off their bodies.
Spartan women could own property unlike other Greek women, and while monogamy remained the rule, no stigma existed against extramarital relationships. In fact, it became a great honor for a Spartan woman to have children with as many men as she chose.
Married men with no children similarly received public and social honors for supporting their wives when they had children with other men. Sparta also forbade child marriages and even set the minimum age for women to marry at 20. This gave the city the lowest infant and childbirth mortality rate in Ancient Greece.
The Greeks placed a high value on education.
Ironically, no public schools existed in Greece, outside of Sparta, which again, proved an exception. Both boys and girls went to separate barracks at the age of 7, where both learned to read, write, count, and do arithmetic. Boys also received training to become warriors, while girls received education in dancing, music, and poetry. This again made Spartan women some of the most privileged and educated in Ancient Greece.
In other city-states, families typically had an educated slave to teach their children. Both boys and girls learned to read, write, and do math, but girls typically received no further education. Older boys from rich families went to private schools, where they learned music and literature. They also received an education in athletics, to keep them fit for when their city called them up as citizen-soldiers.
The Greeks developed science and math to an advanced level.
They developed number theory, mathematical analysis, and even came close to formalizing what would eventually become integral calculus. Mathematicians like Archimedes, Euclid, and Pythagoras also developed the main principles of the classical geometry we use today.
They also went beyond the theory to application, with Archimedes going down in history for his inventions. Some of them remain in use today, such as Archimedes’ Screw, or as we most commonly know it, a ship’s propeller.
They also studied astronomy.
Two Greeks, Eudoxus and Callipus, used their observations of the sky to make the first 3D models of the solar system in 4th century BC. Furthermore, Heraclides Ponticus used a similar method to conclude that the Earth rotated around its axis, giving us the day-night cycle. In 3rd century BC, Aristarchus first hypothesized that the Earth and other planets orbited the Sun, instead of them orbiting the Earth. Centuries later, Archimedes continued Aristarchus’ own studies and supported them with his own findings.
The Ancient Greeks may have made the first computer in history.
Specifically, the Antikythera Mechanism was discovered on the island of the same name and dating back to 80 BC. Its mechanisms include differential gears, something Europe would not see reinvented until the 18th century, and built to standards comparable to those of the 18th century.
Scientists studying its functions have since concluded that the Greeks used the mechanism to calculate the movements of the planets. This allowed them to predict their positions in the night sky at varying times, and could also have predicted eclipses. Scientists have even replicated the machine, and while inaccurate, compared to modern astronomical computers, it proved the Greeks’ mastery of the field. Today, one of those replicas sits next to the original mechanism in Athens’ National Archaeological Museum.
Hippocrates became the most famous Greek doctor in history.
So much so, that we still call him the Father of Medicine today, and medical professionals around the world still swear the Hippocratic Oath. In that oath, they swear to do everything they can to help a patient, and to never deliberately do them harm.
Hippocrates pioneered the use of clinical observation, and of prognosis as a guide to treating disease. His methods for treating hemorrhoids, such as surgical excision and cauterization, remain in use today. He also invented the rectal speculum and may have pioneered an early form of endoscopy. Hippocrates also became the first person to prescribe a good diet and plenty of exercises to ensure good health.
Greek art evolved over the centuries.
Greek art, in particular, started out with a very geometric and stylized appearance in the dark age. This made it stand out in comparison to the very realistic and lifelike work of the classical period. After the dark age, Greek art entered what historians called the archaic period, which lasted until the end of the Persian Wars.
Greek art in this period became more lifelike, but remained stiff and formal, like those of Ancient Egypt. With the beginning of the classical period after the Persian Wars, Greek art finally produced what we normally expect to see, lifelike and realistic figures frozen mid-action.
The Greeks had many different gods.
Of those, 12 became the most important. They’re the Olympians, and they remain well-known today, thanks to popular culture. Zeus led them as the King of the Gods, and as the god of thunder and the sky.
He also had a wife, Hera, who had power over marriages and the family. Zeus had two brothers, Poseidon, the sea god, and Hades the god of the dead. Ares stood as the god of war, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and the twins Apollo and Artemis as the god and goddess of the Sun and Moon, respectively.
Demeter became the goddess of the harvest, and the seasons, while Aphrodite ruled over love. Hermes became the messenger of the gods, while Zeus and Hera’s son Hephaestus, ruled over the forge and craftsmanship.
Animal sacrifice made up the core of Greek worship.
Sheep made up the most common sacrifice, but the Greeks also sacrificed other animals, too. Those included goats, pigs, and poultry, with bulls as the least common, but also the most prestigious kind of animal sacrifice.
Sacrifices took place at an altar outside a temple, with some altars not even having a temple nearby at all. The Greeks would butcher the animal on the spot, and then burn its blood, bones, and internal organs. The meat would then get distributed among the people present. That people would get the most valuable parts of the sacrifice instead of the god also has a mythical element.
Specifically, the Titan Prometheus tricked Zeus when the latter decided who would get which parts of the sacrifice. The Titan put the meat inside the stomach, and the bones inside fat, with Zeus choosing the latter only to realize his mistake too late.
The Olympic Games had religious elements.
The games even took their names from where the Greeks held them, at Olympia, near Mount Olympus, traditionally the home of the gods. In fact, the games existed as a festival in honor of the gods, with the athletes performing in their honor.
Before and after each game, priests would hold sacrifices to all the gods, and more sacrifices would take place over the course of the games. The games proved so important that only the Persian Wars, a foreign invasion, caused an interruption in their 4-year cycle. During the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans tried to continue fighting, but the priests forced them to accept temporary truces in honor of the games.