The culture of Greece has evolved over thousands of years, with its beginnings in the Mycenaean and Minoan Civilizations, continuing most notably into Classical Greece, the Hellenistic Period, through the influence of the Roman Empire and its Greek Eastern successor the Byzantine Empire. The Ottoman Empire too had a significant influence on Greek culture, but the Greek War of Independence is credited with revitalizing Greece and giving birth to a single entity of its multi-faceted culture throughout the ages.
The gods of the ancient Greek religion as well as the mythical heroes and events of the ancient Greek epics (The Odyssey and The Iliad) and other pieces of art and literature from the time make up what is nowadays colloquially referred to as Greek mythology. Apart from serving a religious function, the mythology of the ancient Greek world also served a cosmological role as it was meant to try and explain how the world was formed and operated.
The principal gods of the ancient Greek religion were the dodekatheon, or the Twelve Gods, who lived on the top of Mount Olympus. The most important of all ancient Greek gods was Zeus, the king of the gods, who was married to Hera, who was also Zeus’ sister. The other Greek gods that made up the Twelve Olympians were Demeter, Hades, Ares, Poseidon, Athena, Dionysus, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Hephaestus and Hermes. Apart from these twelve gods, Greeks also had a variety of other mystical beliefs, such as nymphs and other magical creatures.
Philosophy, science and mathematics
The Greek world is widely regarded as having given birth to scientific thought by means of observation, thought, and development of a theory without the intervention of a supernatural force. Thales, Anaximander and Democritus were amongst those contributing significantly to the establishment of this tradition. It is also, and perhaps more commonly in the western imagination, identified with the dawn of Western Philosophy, as well as a mapping out of the Natural Sciences. Greek developments of mathematics continued well up until the decline of the Byzantine Empire. In the modern era Greeks continue to contribute to the fields of Science, Mathematics and Philosophy.
The tradition of philosophy in Ancient Greece accompanied its literary development. Greek learning had a profound influence on Western and Middle Eastern civilizations. The works of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek philosophers profoundly influenced Classical thought, the Islamic Golden Age, and the Renaissance.
In medicine, doctors still refer to the Hippocratic oath, instituted by Hippocrates, regarded as foremost in laying the foundations of medicine as a science. Galen built on Hippocrates’ theory of the four humours, and his writings became the foundation of medicine in Europe and the Middle East for centuries. The physicians Herophilos and Paulus Aegineta were pioneers in the study of anatomy, while Pedanius Dioscorides wrote an extensive treatise on the practice of pharmacology.
The period of Classical Greece (from 800BC until the rise of Macedon, a Greek state in the north) is that most often associated with Greek advances in science. Thales of Miletus is regarded by many as the father of science; he was the first of the ancient philosophers to seek to explain the physical world in terms of natural rather than supernatural causes. Pythagoras was a mathematician often described as the “father of numbers”; it is believed that he had the pioneering insight into the numerical ratios that determine the musical scale, and the Pythagorean theorem is commonly attributed to him. Diophantus of Alexandria, in turn, was the “father of algebra”. Many parts of modern geometry are based on the work of Euclid, while Eratosthenes was one of the first scientific geographers, calculating the circumference of the earth and conceiving the first maps based on scientific principles.
The Hellenistic period, following Alexander’s conquests, continued and built upon this knowledge. Hipparchus is considered the pre-eminent astronomical observer of the ancient world, and was probably the first to develop an accurate method for the prediction of solar eclipse, while Aristarchus of Samos was the first known astronomer to propose a heliocentric model of the solar system, though the geocentric model of Ptolemy was more commonly accepted until the seventeenth century. Ptolemy also contributed substantially to cartography and to the science of optics. For his part Archimedes was the first to calculate the value of π and a geometric series, and also the earliest known mathematical physicist discovering the law of buoyancy, as well as conceiving the irrigation device known as Archimedes’ screw.
The Byzantine period remained largely a period of preservation in terms of classical Greco-Roman texts; there were, however, significant advances made in the fields of medicine and historical scholarship. Theological philosophy also remained an area of study, and there was, while not matching the achievements of preceding ages, a certain increase in the professionalism of study of these subjects, epitomized by the founding of the University of Constantinople.
Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, the architects of the famous Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, also contributed towards mathematical theories concerning architectural form, and the perceived mathematical harmony needed to create a multi-domed structure. These ideas were to prove a heavy influence on the Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in his creation of the Blue Mosque, also in Constantinople. Tralles in particular produced several treatises on the Natural Sciences, as well as his other forays into mathematics such as Conic Sections.
The gradual migration of Greeks from Byzantium to the Italian city states following the decline of the Byzantine Empire, and the texts they brought with them combined with the academic positions they held, was a major factor in lighting the first sparks of the Italian Renaissance.
Greeks continue to contribute to science and technology in the modern world. John Argyris, a Greek mathematician and engineer, is responsible for the invention of finite element analysis and the direct stiffness method, relative to physics. Mathematician Constantin Carathéodory worked in the fields of real analysis, the calculus of variations, and measure theory in the early 20th century, and went on to assist Albert Einstein in the mathematical part of his theory of relativity. Biologist Fotis Kafatos pioneers in the field of molecular cloning and genomics; Dimitris Nanopoulos is a noted theoretical physicist, having made significant contributions to the fields of particle physics and cosmology. In medicine, Georgios Papanikolaou contributed heavily to the development of cancer screening with his Pap smear. The Greek car designer Alec Issigonis created the iconic Mini automobile, while the computer scientist Michael Dertouzos was amongst the pioneers of the internet. Nicolas Negroponte chairman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab is one of the founders of the program One Laptop Per Child, a non-profit organisation aiming to extend Internet access in developing countries.
At the beginning of Greek literature stand the two monumental works of Homer: the Iliad and the Odyssey. Though dates of composition vary, these works were fixed around 800 BC or after. In the classical period many of the genres of western literature became more prominent. Lyrical poetry, odes, pastorals, elegies, epigrams, dramatic presentations of comedy and tragedy, historiography, rhetorical treatises, philosophical dialectics, and philosophical treatises all arose in this period.The two major lyrical poets were Sappho and Pindar. The Classical era also saw the dawn of drama. Of the hundreds of tragedies written and performed during the classical age, only a limited number of plays by three authors have survived: those of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The surviving plays by Aristophanes are also a treasure trove of comic presentation, while Herodotus and Thucydides are two of the most influential historians in this period. The greatest prose achievement of the 4th century was in philosophy with the works of the three great philosophers.
Byzantine literature refers to literature of the Byzantine Empire written in Atticizing, Medieval and early Modern Greek, and it is the expression of the intellectual life of the Byzantine Greeks during the Christian Middle Ages.
Modern Greek literature refers to literature written in common Modern Greek, emerging from late Byzantine times in the 11th century AD. The Cretan Renaissance poem Erotokritos is undoubtedly the masterpiece of this period of Greek literature. It is a verse romance written around 1600 by Vitsentzos Kornaros (1553–1613). Later, during the period of Greek enlightenment (Diafotismos), writers such as Adamantios Korais and Rigas Feraios will prepare with their works the Greek Revolution (1821–1830).
Contemporary Greek literature is representated by many writers, poets and novelists: Dionysios Solomos, Andreas Kalvos, Angelos Sikelianos, Emmanuel Rhoides, Kostis Palamas, Penelope Delta, Yannis Ritsos, Alexandros Papadiamantis, Nikos Kazantzakis, Andreas Embeirikos, Kostas Karyotakis, Gregorios Xenopoulos, Constantine P. Cavafy, Demetrius Vikelas, while George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
While the new technique of polyphony was developing in the West, the Eastern Orthodox Church resisted any type of change. Therefore, Byzantine music remained monophonic and without any form of instrumental accompaniment. As a result, and despite certain attempts by certain Greek chanters (such as Manouel Gazis, Ioannis Plousiadinos or the Cypriot Ieronimos o Tragodistis) Byzantine music was deprived of elements of which in the West encouraged an unimpeded development of art. However, the isolation of Byzantium after 1453, which kept music away from polyphony, along with centuries of continuous culture, enabled monophonic music to develop to the greatest heights of perfection. Byzantium presented the monophonic Byzantine chant; a melodic treasury of inestimable value for its rhythmical variety and expressive power.
Along with the Byzantine chant, the Greek people also cultivated the Greek folk song which is divided into two cycles, the akritic and klephtic. The akritic was created between the 9th and 10th centuries A.D. and expressed the life and struggles of the akrites (frontier guards) of the Byzantine empire, the most well known being the stories associated with Digenes Akritas. The klephtic cycle came into being between the late Byzantine period and the start of the Greek War of Independence struggle in 1821. The klephtic cycle, together with historical songs, paraloghes (narrative song or ballad), love songs, wedding songs, songs of exile and dirges express the life of the Greeks. There is a unity between the Greek people’s struggles for freedom, their joys and sorrow and attitudes towards love and death.
The Second World War, German occupation of Greece and the Greek Civil War decisively influenced the Greek folk song. After the first World War, the trend towards urban living focused on Athens where popular musicians congregated and, in 1928, founded their own professional society: the Athens and Piraeus Musicians Society. Until the early years of this century, musical tradition was preserved in the villages where there was little contact with the outside world. The events and social changes of the 20th century changed Greek folk song. Once the seat of folk song was the village, now the reverse applies. The commercialised folk song spreads in all directions to the remotest villages. The authentic songs and dances have been replaced by the stylised modern “folk songs” written by contemporary musicians which they write new lyrics to authentic folk tunes, changing them enough to ensure copyright protection.
Ancient Greeks believed that dancing was invented by the gods and therefore associated it with religious ceremony. They believed that the gods offered this gift to select mortals only, who in turn taught dancing to their fellow-men.
Periodic evidence in ancient texts indicates that dance was held in high regard, in particular for its educational qualities. Dance, along with writing, music, and physical exercise, was fundamental to the commenced in a circle and ended with the dancers facing one another. When not dancing in a circle the dancers held their hands high or waved them to left and right. They held cymbals (very like the zilia of today) or a kerchief in their hands, and their movements were emphasized by their long sleeves. As they danced, they sang, either set songs or extemporized ones, sometimes in unison, sometimes in refrain, repeating the verse sung by the lead dancer. The onlookers joined in, clapping the rhythm or singing. Professional singers, often the musicians themselves, composed lyrics to suit the occasion.
Byzantine instruments included the guitar, single, double or multiple flute, sistrum, timpani (drum), psaltirio, Sirigs, lyre, cymbals, keras and kanonaki.
Popular dances of this period included the Syrtos, Geranos, Mantilia, Saximos, Pyrichios and Kordakas. Some of these dances have their origins in the ancient period and are still enacted in some form today.
Greece is one of the few places in Europe where the day-to-day role of folk dance is sustained. Rather than functioning as a museum piece preserved only for performances and special events, it is a vivid expression of everyday life. Occasions for dance are usually weddings, family celebrations, and paneyeria (Patron Saints’ name days). Dance has its place in ceremonial customs that are still preserved in Greek villages, such as dancing the bride during a wedding and dancing the trousseau of the bride during the wedding preparations. The carnival and Easter offer more opportunities for family gatherings and dancing. Greek taverns providing live entertainment often include folk dances in their program.
Regional characteristics have developed over the years because of variances in climatic conditions, land morphology, and people’s social lives. In later years, wars, international pacts and consequent movement of populations, and even movements of civil servants around the country, intermingled traditions. People learned new dances, adapted them to their environment, and included them in their feasts. Kalamatianos and Tsamikos are considered Pan-Hellenic dances and are danced all over the world in diaspora communities. Others have also crossed boundaries and are known beyond the regions where they originated. These include the Karagouna from Thessaly, the Pentozalis from Crete, the Zonaradikos from Thrace, the Tik from Pontos, and the Balos from the Aegean Islands.
The arts of ancient Greece have exercised an enormous influence on the culture of many countries, particularly in the areas of sculpture and architecture. In the West, the art of the Roman Empire was largely derived from Greek models. In the East, Alexander the Great’s conquests initiated several centuries of exchange between Greek, Central Asian and Indian cultures, resulting in Greco-Buddhist art, with ramifications as far as Japan. Following the Renaissance in Europe, the humanist aesthetic and the high technical standards of Greek art inspired generations of European artists. Well into the 19th century, the classical tradition derived from Greece dominated the art of the western world.
The art of Ancient Greece is usually divided stylistically into four periods: the Geometric, Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic. The Geometric age is usually dated from about 1000 BC, although in reality little is known about art in Greece during the preceding 200 years (traditionally known as the Greek Dark Ages), the period of the 7th century BC witnessed the slow development of the Archaic style as exemplified by the black-figure style of vase painting. The onset of the Persian Wars (480 BC to 448 BC) is usually taken as the dividing line between the Archaic and the Classical periods, and the reign of Alexander the Great (336 BC to 323 BC) is taken as separating the Classical from the Hellenistic periods.
Ancient Greek architecture is best known from its temples, many of which are found throughout the region, mostly as ruins but many substantially intact. The second important type of building that survives all over the Hellenic world is the open-air theatre, with the earliest dating from around 350 BC. Other architectural forms that are still in evidence are the processional gateway (propylon), the public square (agora) surrounded by storied colonnade (stoa), the town council building (bouleuterion), the public monument, the monumental tomb (mausoleum) and the stadium.
Ancient Greek architecture is distinguished by its highly formalised characteristics, both of structure and decoration. This is particularly so in the case of temples where each building appears to have been conceived as a sculptural entity within the landscape, most often raised on high ground so that the elegance of its proportions and the effects of light on its surfaces might be viewed from all angles. Nikolaus Pevsner refers to “the plastic shape of the temple…..placed before us with a physical presence more intense, more alive than that of any later building”.
The formal vocabulary of Ancient Greek architecture, in particular the division of architectural style into three defined orders: the Doric Order, the Ionic Order and the Corinthian Order, was to have profound effect on Western architecture of later periods. The architecture of Ancient Rome grew out of that of Greece and maintained its influence in Italy unbroken until the present day. From the Renaissance, revivals of Classicism have kept alive not only the precise forms and ordered details of Greek architecture, but also its concept of architectural beauty based on balance and proportion. The successive styles of Neoclassical architecture and Greek Revival architecture followed and adapted Ancient Greek styles closely.