Introduction to Ancient Greece (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.1)

Greece is a small peninsula in the southeastern part of Europe. In spite of the small size of their country, the people of Greece have had a huge effect on the world. Many of the ideas that began in Greece have spread all over the world. These ideas continue to be important today.

The Greeks highly valued their independence. More than perhaps anything else, the Greeks wanted to be free. They did not want to be ruled by other nations nor did they allow even their own leaders to gain too much power. Rather than having one big government for all of Greece, each Greek city-state, or polis, was independent. The government of each city-state was different, but what all of them had in common was that they were not ruled by just one man. Instead, all of the citizens were expected to participate in government.

In addition to valuing liberty and citizenship, the Greeks also emphasized the use of reason to solve problems. Reason is the ability of the human mind to think, understand, and form judgments. The Greeks believed that it was important to use reason, rather than to merely rely on tradition or authority, to understand things and to make decisions.

Because the Greeks valued liberty and reason so much, they developed a culture that allowed people to have the freedom to pursue their own interests. The result is that Greek culture flourished. The Greeks were the first to do many things.

The first historians, for example, were the Greek writers Herodotus and Thucydides. Herodotus wrote the first book of history. He wrote about many things, but focused especially on the Greco-Persian Wars. Thucydides wrote a book about the Peloponnesian War. We will be studying both wars in this unit and we will have an opportunity to read a little of what each of these historians wrote.

The first scientists were also from ancient Greece. Thales of Miletus is usually considered to be the first scientist. Thales is most famous for being able to predict a solar eclipse on May 28, 585 BC. Another Greek scientist was Hippocrates, who is often called “the father of medicine.” In addition to his medical research, Hippocrates also wrote an oath for doctors to promise to do their jobs well. The Hippocratic Oath is still taken by doctors today. The ideas of the Greek mathematicians Pythagoras and Euclid are also among the earliest and most important ideas in the development of science.

Ancient Greek writers like Homer, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Euripides wrote some of the earliest and most important poems and plays. Homer is best known for his two epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. Many later authors used the ideas, characters, and events of Homer’s poems for their own. There is hardly a poet who has not been influenced by Homer. Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Euripides wrote great plays that are still presented on stages today and whose plots continue to influence many writers. Even the words “drama”, “comedy”, “tragedy”, and “poetry” all come from the Greeks.

The Greeks are probably most famous as the inventors of philosophy. Philosophy is a Greek word that means “love of wisdom”. The ancient Greek philosophers wanted to understand things like how nature works, what it means to live a good human life, and how to make a good society. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are the most famous and important of these early philosophers. We will learn about all three of them later in this unit.

The Greeks were able to produce all of these original and important ideas because of the importance they placed on liberty and on reason. They believed it was very important to be able to use your own abilities to make important decisions for yourself and be able to share your ideas with others. As a result, the Greeks became one of the most important nations in all of history.


Review Question

  1. In a paragraph, identify one aspect of the heritage we have received from the Greeks that you think is important and discuss why it is important.


Vocabulary Words 

Citizenship – the rights, privileges, and duties of a member of a society

Liberty – the state of being free from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views.

Polis – the Greek word for a city-state

Reason – the ability of the human mind to think, understand, and form judgments


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