Eras and Their Highlights
What are the hallmarks of classical Greek civilization?
The classical Greeks, who called themselves the Hellenes and their land Hellas, influenced western civilization more than any other people. Their contributions to every field of endeavor remain with us today, more than 2,000 years later.
Greek thought shaped science, medicine, philosophy, art, literature, architecture and engineering, mathematics, music, drama, language, and politics. The classical Greeks believed in individual freedom, reasoning, and truth, and that everything should be done in moderation. They also held that people should find time for both work and play and should balance the life of the mind with the exercise of the body.
The knowledge that became the Greek legacy had its beginnings in the settlements established in Asia Minor (the peninsula between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and which today is occupied by Turkey) after the Dorians invaded the Greek mainland. The Phoenician alphabet, an early alphabet developed by Semitic peoples in the ancient maritime country of Phoenicia (present-day western Syria and Lebanon), was acquired by the Greeks, who adapted it to their language. They began using it to record Greek poet Homer’s (c. 850-? B.C.) oral epics (Iliad and Odyssey) and the works of other Greek poets and historians.
Among the great Greek philosophers are Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Greek literature includes the epic poetry of Homer as well as the passionate love poems of Sappho. The Greeks gave humankind the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, which continue to be studied by students today, along with the comedies of Aristophanes and Menander. The classical Greeks loved to speak, and oratory is considered by some to be their highest form of prose. Orators known to the modern world are Antiphon, Lysias, Isocrates, and Demosthenes.
Herodotus, called the “father of history,” left the modern world with an account of the Persian Wars (500–449 B.C.), a conflict between the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire. The Greeks also gave humankind the “father of medicine” in physician Hippocrates, who taught that doctors should use reason to determine the cause of illness and should study the patient’s appearance, behavior, and lifestyle to diagnose and treat. (The “Hippocratic Oath,” versions of which are still sworn by medical students graduating today, is attributed to Hippocrates.) Greek scientists include Thales and Pythagoras; scientist-philosophers include Leucippus and Democritus. And of course, the Greeks gave modern culture the Olympic Games.