Our contemporary world is inescapably Greek. Whether in a word like “pandemic,” a Freudian state of mind like the “Oedipus complex,” or a replica of the Parthenon in a Chinese theme park, ancient Greek culture shapes the contours of our lives. But how did ancient Greece spread its influence so far and wide? And how has this influence changed us?
Here’s an A-Z guide to just a small amount of what the Greeks did for us – some with evident, and some with surprising relevance to us today.
To learn more, read What the Greeks Did for Us by Tony Spawforth, an enjoyable, accessible exploration of the legacy of ancient Greece today, across our daily lives and all forms of popular culture.
The Greeks picked out their architecture in strong primary colours, against a contrasting mass of white or cream reserved for the body of the building.
Lord Elgin, the Scottish peer, wanted to improve British taste, to educate people, artists and architects in particular. He and his agents exploited the political mood of deference to Britain at that time among the Ottoman rulers of Greece. The marbles in the British Museum display his eventual haul. The legality of Elgin’s actions is disputed; the Romans, conquerors of Greece, could have justified their actions as the right of victors in warfare: seizing booty. Modern debates about the rights and wrongs of ‘cultural appropriation’ were not for them.
Cleopatra’s ethnic heritage was a mix of Macedonian Greek and possibly African. Of royal lineage, she became a queen thanks to heredity. Cleopatra shows the capacity – given the chance – of a woman in the ancient world to exercise power within the cultural constraints of the time: to be a heroine even. In modern feminist terms, however, she was not only shaped, but ultimately undone by the patriarchy.
The linkage of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ by the ancient Athenians remains available for use in the public language of today’s leading western democracy.
Greek writings have quite a bit to say about Egyptian cultural influence on the ancient Greeks in fields such as law-making, mathematics, philosophy, religion and astrology.
Why did Freud hit on the legend of Oedipus in the first place? If his aim was to find a story or legend to act as a metaphor for his theory about a psychological complex, why did he turn to the ancient Greeks? The short answer is that Freud and the Greeks ‘had history’.
In the atmosphere of freer inquiry which the Renaissance had helped to create, intellectuals ended up by jettisoning much of the ancient Greek view of the world that had come down through the Middle Ages. Among these intellectuals was Galileo, an Italian mathematician and philosopher.
Plato’s writings in the fourth century bc suggest a revolutionary – for the time – tenet of Hippocrates. Medicine should take account of ‘the nature of the whole’ in understanding the human body and its ailments.
Hector, Penelope, Achilles and Eleni (or Helen) are all Greek-derived names of characters in the two oldest European poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. According to ancient tradition, the poet of both was a blind Greek man called Homer.
John The Theologian
On the Greek island of Patmos in the eastern Aegean, down below in the port, by the shore, a faded sign in Modern Greek optimistically identifies a short stretch of ancient wall enclosed by a railing as a ‘Fragment of the baptistery of the Evangelist John the Theologian, ad95’. The cave is where this Christian divine is traditionally held to have received his supposed visions of the end of the world, composed into the last book of the New Testament.
A chief genre of ancient Greek drama – one which has also enjoyed an after-life after rediscovery in more recent times – is what the ancient Greeks called kōmōidia, or comic plays.
The ‘Storytelling Statues’ are selected statues in Larnaca, Cyprus’ public places which you come across while strolling around the town. Each is equipped with a QR code, which you can scan to your smart mobile device. This ‘receives a phone call “from” the statue, which then recounts its own, unique story about its connection to Larnaca.
The ancient Greeks created a huge store of popular tales (‘myths’) about their earlier times and about their gods. This was a story world with all the force behind it of a religious system.
Generally speaking, too little is known today about how the ancient Greeks used older thinking and discoveries from the civilisations of the Near East and fed them into their own studies. For example, did Archimedes in Egypt discover a device introduced in the Nile valley?
The modern Olympics are the most globally high-profile manifestation of ‘what the Greeks did for us’. In ancient times, the Olympic Games were the most famous and the most glorious of the hundreds of Greek athletic festivals which Greek communities organised on a recurring basis.
No one seems to know who was the first to coin ‘pandemic’ in English, back in the 1600s, by replacing the old ending of the original Greek word (pandēmia) with a new one which itself ultimately goes back to Ancient Greek.
Qoppa was a letter in early forms of the Greek alphabet, but was eventually dropped prior to the classical period, in favour of the letter kappa.
In the 100s bc the ancient Romans conquered the ancient Greeks. In the process, they too fell under the spell of Greek culture, older and far more advanced and sophisticated than their own. Over the centuries that the vast Roman empire endured, its peoples mixed up the two cultures, Roman and Greek. They became in some ways almost inseparable.
Shakespeare has Hamlet complain: ‘What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba / That he should weep for her?’. For the Elizabethan dramatists, fascinated by the powerful female characters of the Greek tragedies, the best-known and most popular Greek tragic figure of the time – Queen Hecuba of Troy – became a ‘symbol of grief’.
Ancient Greek drama has now gone global. In the final twenty years or so of the twentieth century, ‘acclaimed productions’ of fifth-century bc Greek tragedies were mounted in Japan, India and Africa.
United States of America
American politicians are in the habit of marking modern Greece’s Independence Day (25 March) with expressions of gratitude to the ancient Greeks for having invented democracy.
Venice by the 1400s has been called the Silicon Valley of printing. One of its pioneer printers – his name was Aldus Manutius – was the first to devise Greek type.
Window of the World
The Parthenon crops up in theme park called Window of the World, on China’s mainland, just next to Hong Kong.
King of Persia, Xerxes I is most well known for his invasion of Greece in 480 BC, ending in the defeat of Persia despite an estimated 600,000-strong army.
The goddess Hebe, the daughter of Zeus and Hera, is sometimes thought of as the goddess of Youth and Spring – her name can be translated as ‘Youth’.
Zeus was not just a figure in tall tales. His publicly sponsored temple at Olympia in southern Greece was one of the holiest places in the ancient Mediterranean.
About the book
In What the Greeks Did for Us, Tony Spawforth explores our classical heritage, wherever it’s to be found. Paying attention to the huge breadth and variety of Hellenic influence, this book paints an essential portrait of the ancient world’s living legacy – considering to whom it matters, and why.
‘What most clearly pins [Spawforth’s] book to the 2020s is its moral and political frame of reference…The book’s real story is not what the Greeks have done for us but what we have done to the Greeks.’
Emma Park, Literary Review
‘Vast and complex and fascinating….[Spawforth] can’t hide his own enthusiasm for the Greek legacy.’
Jason Goodwin, Country Life
‘A perfectly pitched cry for continuing recognition – and reassessment – of ancient Greek culture. Spawforth has shown that ancient Greece is, indeed, still topical. But he has also shown that it is timeless.’
Debbie Kilroy, Get History
About the author
Tony Spawforth is emeritus professor of ancient history at Newcastle University. As well as leading cultural tours in Greece, he has presented eight documentaries for the BBC and has published thirteen books, including The Story of Greece and Rome.