The Recurring Relevance of Classical Greece
a photoessay by Bobby Andrews, B.A.
I daresay the Ancient Greeks are our own progenitors - yours and mine alike. To know who you are it is important to know where you have been, or at least where you come from. Today's cultural and political sphere is based on thousands of years of ideological and technological advancements that are hidden from plain view. With a glimpse into ancient greece the average person gets many 'a-ha' moments. A sense of depth and connectivity to others. It is well worth your time to inject into your mental faculty a space for the time stretching back to ancient greece. Relevant because of its major advancements in all spheres, and the slight blueprint time has graciously preserved in ruins, and lore. Certainly our origins stretch much further back than ancient greece and its pre-history, but this was the beginning of a modern and civilized world - aberrations aside. Within the following page you will find a photographic journal that demonstrates, hopefully accurately, major archaeological and artifact remains of ancient greece, and it's pre-historical period. I hope you can feel a kinship with our progenitors, and let that inspire you.
Classical Greece: Context and Relevance
If you question whether the ancient greeks, or any human civilization, is connected to you then consider the following chart. The grey box spatially represents in time the key dates numbered #9-#23 below. The main contention is that ancient Athens isn't so ancient. Every human being alive today is closely intertwined in a very short period of major technological and political advancement that our ancient Greek forebears clearly experienced.
If that doesn't convince you of our connectivity then consider that everyone alive today likely "shares a common ancestor between 2,000 and 5,000 years ago". Yes everyone. ( 1 )
- Evidence of at least 18 species of humans stretches back approximately 6 million years,
- Modern humans are the last surviving human species (homo sapiens), and we have shared earth with at least 3 other human species in the past,
- 2.6 million years ago - humans use small stone flakes as tools,
- 1.9 million years ago - our human relatives (homo erectus) are fully bipedal (upright),
- 1.7 million years ago - stone is used to make large axes,
- 790,000 years ago - humans begin controlling fire and cooking food,
- 500,000 years ago - hunting large animals with spears begins,
- 400,000 years ago - earliest known human shelter is constructed,
- 100,000 years ago - major advancements in tool materials (ivory, bone, antler); jewelry is worn for identity; burials of the dead begin,
- 80,000 years ago - homo sapiens migrate from Africa into Asia,
- 74,000 years ago - humans are nearly extinct due to extreme climate fluctuations; only 10,000 adults of reproductive age in existence,
- 60,000 years ago - humans begin painting and creating figurines,
- 50,000 years ago - homo sapiens migrate into Australia,
- 40,000 years ago - homo sapiens migrate into Europe and share territory with Neanderthals,
- 28,000 years ago - human species Neanderthal goes extinct,
- 15,000 years ago - humans migrate into the Americas,
- 12,000 years ago - a revolution in Agriculture begins as humans learn to domesticate animals and grow their own food leading to the establishment of villages, specialized crafts, and an increase in population,
- 10,000 years ago - Cows are domesticated and the first cities are founded in modern day Turkey and Jericho,
- 5,600 years ago - Horses are domesticated,
- 3,400 years ago - Athens is founded,
- 3,100 years ago - Xi'an is founded,
- 2,700 years ago - Rome is founded,
- 2,014 years ago - Christ founds Christianity
The above dates are provided by the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and I recommend visiting there website to view a great visual of the human family tree. Click here, (2).
Ancient Greek Pre-history
The traditional date for establishing the beginning of ancient Greek civilization is the first olympic games in 776 BC. Yet, more historians date the founding of ancient Greece closer to 1000 BC when the Mycenaen civilization mysteriously collapsed shortly after the Battle of Troy (approximately 1100 BC). Two great civilizations preceded the ancient greeks - the Mycenaens (1600 - 1100 BC), and the the Minoans (2700 - 1450 BC) - and both greatly contributed to the Greek character. In particular the Mycenaens who helped establish the 12 Olympian Gods of ancient Greece in the era known as the Heroic Age - names of heros like Perseus, Theseus, Achilles, Hector, and Hercules were well known in ancient Greece and contributed to the identity of being a Greek - captured in vivid poetry by the great, and blind, poet Homer. Homer played a major role in ancient Greece by taking a traditional oral story of Troy and placing it into a written language - an invention of identity.
The traditional date for ancient Greece is from the first Olympic Games (776 BC) until the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC). Yet, many historians today extend the dating from the fall of the Mycenaen Civilization (1000 BC) until the institutional rooting of Christianity (approximately 200 AD). That aside, it is the 200 year period of classical greece (510 BC- 323 AD) when this civilization hit its peak and made its mark as one of the humanity's greatest. During the period it was the various city-states that dominated ancient greek political and cultural identity.
Architecture - Building for scale
The architecture left behind by the ancient greeks leaves one with a hair raising impression. The size and symmetry of the temples, theatres, and other public buildings are greatly celebrated and live up to their reputation. Today many ruins are spread across the Aegean, in relatively good condition, that exemplify the three main orders of greek architecture: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The influence of these buildings extends beyond the ancient greek period due to renewed discovery and interest in classicism, particularly during the renaissance (14c - 17c AD).
The Greek Language
One of the most important contributions made by the ancient greeks was the establishment of a written language. The Mycenaen and Minoan civilizations had written symbols for administrative purposes (linear B, and linear A respectively) but it was the founding of an ancient greek alphabet and it's ability to expand on phonetics that revolutionized communication. Nearly all words of Latin languages (english, french, spanish) have an etymological origin in Greek. From the work of Homer (ancient greek), to Lucretius (latin), to Dante (Italian), to Shakespeare (English), to your child's grammar class the written language has followed us.
The Gods, and Mythology
There are several disadvantages to a modern mind trying to understand the Gods of ancient Greece. Most difficult is that our own conceptions of monotheistic religious Gods (ie. Judaism, Christianity, Islam) are highly misleading. The mythological stories we have of the Greek Gods are often amusing to the modern mind because they show the Gods as a fighting family more than a divine source of all that is good - a Judeo-Christian view. I'll defer to a nice explanation on the nature of the Greek Gods by John Gaskin, a professor of naturalistic philosophy at Trinity College Dublin. Here he explains to us the ancient Greek conception of their Gods by saying what they are not.
Trade, Commerce, and Craft
The Aegean has proved to be an important hub for human history, and trade has been rampant there between extremely different groups of people for millenia. The ancient Greeks were well established throughout the region and trading their wares with distinct civilizations in Egypt, Asia-Minor, Etrusca, Cyprus, and others. Traded goods included agricultural products, pottery, wine, precious metals, and textiles. The movement of goods, and people, meant the movement of ideas and ancient Greece absorbed much of the regions influences.
Fusion: Modern Greece and Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece slowly lost its place as the major power center in the Aegean after the death of Alexander and that demise has been rough on the fate of these ancient citie-states. Historically there have been multiple states controlling the fate of Ancient Greece and its main cities like Athens: Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans. Amazingly the ancient ruins have survived in relatively good shape despite the destruction from looting, war, natural disasters and ideological differences like Christian Emperor Theodosius who destroyed the temple of Zeus at Olympia to rid of the old religion and make way for Christianity. Increased attention from the international community over the last 150 years has led to a higher likelihood of investigating and preserving key historical artifacts for posterity.
Ancient Athens is a particularly important center and it is quite clear from all the tourism and orderly excavations that it will be in good hands going forward. On the surface, at least, it appears Athens of old will have a place in Athens of new.