Remembering Ancient Greece's Contributions

Roundup: Talking About History

Troy Lennon, in the Courier Mail (Queensland, Australia) June 22 2004:

When people think of Greece they often think of the ancient civilisation that built the Parthenon, created many of the sciences and established the original Olympic Games. There are many reminders of the age when Greece was possibly the most advanced civilisation on Earth. It was at the height of Ancient Greek civilisation that we saw some of the first serious attempts to understand science and the world without reference to magic or gods. The Ancient Greeks made some major contributions to modern society, many of which have spread to the entire world.


The word democracy was coined by the ancient Greeks from the words demos, meaning people, and kratos, meaning rule. Even though forms of shared power had existed in many forms before, particularly in small farming communities, it was the Greek city states that recognised people - as long as they were not slaves or women - as citizens and gave them the right to vote on how the state was run. This was possible mostly because their populations rarely exceeded 10,000 people (although some estimates say some had as many as 60,000) and slaves and women were excluded. The relatively small numbers allowed voting and tallying the votes to take place quickly.

Even though the exclusions limited the number of people who actually had a say to as little as a third of the population, it was still a more open system than that of the tyrants who had previously ruled Greece.

This form of politics originated at Athens, which held assemblies every nine days that citizens were allowed to attend. These meetings were organised by a committee elected by all citizens. Those present could take part in debates and vote on laws and decisions to be made by a government chosen by the elected committee. This assembly also elected leaders of the military. They voted by a show of hands, which meant that voters could be intimidated by more powerful personalities in the assembly. They could also vote to send a citizen into exile, which was done by scratching the name into a broken piece of pottery (many of which still survive).

Despite the fact there were so many people eligible to take part, many citizens lived too far away to attend each assembly. In Athens, 6000 people had to attend for decisions to be valid. Of those, only a handful of the most influential and powerful men would speak.

Ancient Greek democracy lasted only briefly but it inspired later systems.

Scientists and Philosophers

Some of the greatest minds of all time were born in ancient Greece or were strongly influenced by great Greek thinkers. While some, like the Athenian Socrates (circa 470-399BC), were born in the great Greek city states and took part in some important events in Greek history, others like Thales of Mitylene (circa 624-545BC) came from outposts of the Greek empire but were greatly influenced by the Greek intellectual climate and in turn influenced others.

Although he produced no written works, Socrates is credited with developing important philosophical concepts, including the process of inductive reasoning. He would conduct discourses with others, drawing them out on a particular subject and then destroying their argument through logic. His student, Plato, would further develop his ideas and, in turn, influence the Macedonian-born Aristotle, whose ideas on logical reasoning owed much to Socrates.

Thales made the first recorded attempts to understand the elements without reference to gods or mythical powers. Even though some of these ideas were wrong, he started others on the quest to find the right answers. Thales also made observations of the skies and believed that heavenly objects followed physical rules that could be determined through mathematics.

Thales was a great influence on Pythagoras, from whom we inherited many of our basic geometrical and mathematical concepts and principles and ideas of rational philosophy.

Archimedes (circa 290-211 BC), although born in Syracuse in what is now Sicily, was ostensibly a Greek thinker. He made some of the most profound discoveries in the fields of mathematics, physics and engineering. These included knowledge about the displacement of water and the upward force of water (Archimedes' Principle). He is also credited with many inventions, including the Archimedes Screw, an ingeniously simple pump that uses a screw mechanism....

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