Greek culture – Information, history, contributions and characteristics

We explain everything about the Greek culture, its contributions to civilization. We analyze the history, geographical location, and its relationship with Roman culture.

acropolis greek culture
The influence of Greek culture in the western world prevails to this day.

Greek culture

The culture of Ancient Greece, also known as  Classical Greece, is frequently associated with the term “the cradle of Western Civilization.” It was one of the most influential and important cultures in Mediterranean basin in antiquity. The center was the ancient city-state of Athens.

Much of the old culture survives today. In fact, it has strongly influenced many aspects of the Western culture: the creativity, politics, language, arts, philosophy, science and educational systems. Today’s prominence does not root only from the wealth of thought and the expansionist nature of the Greeks, but also from their later conquest and assimilation by the Roman Empire in the second century BC.

Anyone who has researched the vast Greek mythology or has taken a look at the fundamental thinkers that influenced humanity for millenias, such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, can get a pretty good idea of ​​what Greek culture means in today’s world.

The Classical Greek culture was practically prohibited and silenced during the 1500 years of the Middle Ages dominated by Christianity, and branded as pagan. However, much of it survived in the Byzantine Empire (or Eastern Roman Empire), up until the Ottoman conquest. In fact, it made a glorious comeback in the West occurred during the European Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries.

History of Greek Culture

Before the beginning of Greek culture, there was the Mycenaean civilization that emerged south of the Balkans at the end of the Bronze Age (16th century BC). This earlier, nevertheless important civilization dismantled in the 12th century BC,  just before the Dark Ages that preceded the Dorian invasion, when Hercules’ descendants took hold of the Peloponnesus Peninsula.

The so-called Hellenic Greece began in the 8th century BC, as a consequence of the “Return of the Heracleidae”, as a heritage to a great extent of the Mycenaean creativity, religion and language. The event that marks its formal beginning is the celebration of the first Olympic Games in 776 BC.

The history of Ancient Greece is usually divided into the following periods:

  • Archaic period (750-500 BC) left its mark through the sculptures endowed with the famous “archaic smile”. It extended from the end of the Dark Ages to the defeat of the last tyrant of Athens (Hippias, son of Pisistratus), and the establishment of Athenian democracy in 510 BC.
  • Classic period (500-323 BC) is when the culture flourishes and reaches the epitome, once with the construction of great temples, and when the great literary works have seen the light of the day.
  • Hellenistic period (323-146 BC) marks the moment when the Greek culture spreads across the Mediterranean, Africa and Asia, starting with the dominance of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). It ends up with the defeat of the weakened Greece by the Roman troops.
  • Roman Greece (146 BC-330 AD) is when Greece was a domininion of the Roman Empire, until the city of Byzantium (today’s Istanbul), capital of the Greek province of Thrace, was named the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire by Constantine I and baptized as the “New Rome” or Constantinople.
  • Late Antiquity (330-529 AD) marks the end of the wealthy Greek culture, silenced by the 529 edict of Emperor Justinian I. The edict stated that any religion other than Christianity is forbidden and the prestigious Academy of Athens, founded by Plato in 387 BC, was closed.

The history of the genuine Greek Classical culture concluded during the Roman invasion of 146 AD, after the Battle of Corinth.

Location of Greek culture

greek culture empire alexander the greatGreek culture was born on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and knows its largest spread during the dominance of the Macedonian Empire.

The culture of Ancient Greece arose south of the Balkans, in the eastern Mediterranean. In its heyday it took root throughout the Greek peninsula, between the Ionian Sea and the Aegean Sea, expanding northward and towards the coasts of present-day North Macedonia and Bulgaria, as well as the opposite coasts of present-day Turkey, the southern, and eastern Italy.

Greek civilization parented a number of towns along the European Mediterranean coast, in the current territory of Spain (like Empúries), and France (Massalia, or today’s Marseille), as well as on the coast of modern Egypt (Heliopolis, an actual suburb of today’s Cairo).

During the Hellenistic period, under the leadership of the conqueror Alexander the Great, the Greeks from the Macedonian Empire expended to cover the territories of present-day Turkey, Egypt, parts of Libya, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Armenia and ancient Mesopotamia.

At the time of greatest expansion of the empire, it covered the former Persian Empire, which included current territories of Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Characteristics of Greek culture

Ancient greek culture was an eminently maritime culture, given its location in the heart of the Mediterranean, with a strong commercial and expansive nature.  From a socio-political perspective, Greece culture was organized in city-states, called “polis”. The most famous of them were Athens, Sparta, Corinth and Thebes.

The territory where the Greek culture developed included mainland Greece, insular Greece and Asiatic Greece. Greek was spoken in all their cities and encouraged philosophy, arts, politics and war strategies. Despite the obvious political fragmentation, the Greeks were aware of being a singular people.

Greeks embraced a polytheistic religion, of a vast and complex ingenuity. Hundreds of major and minor Greeks deities are known today, all gathered in the Olympic pantheon. They were led by Zeus, father and god of the heavens, along with his brothers, Poseidon, god of the seas, and Hades, god of the Underworld, and his sisters, Hera, Demeter and Hestia.

Slavery was a known practice in Greek cities, despite inventing the earliest form of democracy. Being birth in old Greek families did not really represent any particular benefit in the polis. The slaves were mainly captives taken during the wars, even citizens who broke the laws.

Unlike other slave systems, slaves were not treated in a subhuman way, but formed a lower class in Greek society. They were at the service of their masters but they obtained payment for their work (gifts) and were able to raise a family in relative freedom.

Slaves of the state were also frequent, turned into public servants or caretakers of temples. The slaves freed by their masters did not become citizens, but formed together with foreigners part of the Metics: free residents without the right to political participation.

Contributions of Greek culture

greek culture theater artMany ancient architectural works still standing today come from the Greek culture.

The contributions of Ancient Greece are not negligible, and cover a huge amount of areas. We will list some of the most relevant below:

  • The invention of direct democracy, specifically in Athens, although we are talking about a male-only democracy for Athenians of legal age (excluding women, slaves and Metics).
  • Creation of the Olympic Games (and celebration continues for centuries) the sports festivities in honor of the Olympian gods that brought an “Olympic peace” between all Greek cities.
  • The formal invention of philosophy, a word coined by Pythagoras in the 6th century BC, and practiced by some of the world’s best thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle or Democritus. Many of them ventured into what today we call science or mathematics, leaving behind valuable concepts such as the atomic theory (Democritus), various mathematical theorems (Thales of Miletus, Pythagoras, etc.), medicine (Hippocrates), the theory of the four humors (Empedocles), etc.
  • Excellent and varied artistic traditions, of which literature stands out. Their creations were loaded with mythological content borrowed from the religious texts. They have cultivated poetry, with the great author Homer (famous for the Iliad and the Odyssey), Aesop (author of numerous fables), Aristophanes (author of comedies) or the great Greek dramatugists and tragedians, like Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides. Other popular personalities were Herodotus, a geographer and historian, or Hesiod, a poet and a philosopher.
  • The vast and important Greek mythology, where we can link together the founding stories of the world and the gods (cosmogony and theogony), the myths about the rise to power of the Olympians by defeating the Titans, the heroic myths and a huge set of symbols, stories and characters.

Greek and Roman culture

Greek and Roman cultures ended very similar and almost indissoluble. When the Romans conquered the Greeks, fascinated by the robust culture they found, they began to assimilate it as their own.

They only limited themselves to changing the names of everything to Latin, but respecting a huge percentage of the original content of the Hellenic culture. Thus was born the Greco-Roman culture, in which Zeus had a counterpart called Jupiter, Aphrodite was Venus, Ares happened to be Mars, Athena was Minerva etc.