Greek Civilization Encapsulated

~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~

      To the extent that "Western Civilization" can be said to have an origin, it is the Ancient Greeks that have claim to it. Whereas the history of the Roman Empire is a chronology of its generals and emperors, the history of the Greeks is, with the exception of Alexander and his legacy in Egypt, one of philosophers, scientists, artists, and thinkers. Unlike the Romans unified under a central government, the Greeks were united by a common culture, and organized their largely democratic government on individual cities, or city-states, the most famous of which were Athens and Sparta.

      Much of what strikes us as remarkably "advanced" in the Roman civilization (culture, sculpture, architecture) existed much earlier in the Greek; the Romans recognized the greatness of what came before them as Greek and improved on it, with the exception of philosophy, literature, and science. In a city like Ephesus, you may tell that which is Roman architecture from Greek by the use of mortar by the Romans. The Greeks recognized a "family" of Gods headed by Zeus, and the Romans would adopt much of it, assigning their own names, such as Jupiter for Zeus, or Venus for Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty.

      The greatest living legacy of the Greeks is their philosophy, of which Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are the most known. Socrates taught Plato, Plato taught Aristotle, and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered the "known world" in 333 BC, employing infantry fighting in tight formations (the hoplite phalanx) wearing body armor, helmets, short swords and long spears. (Again, the Romans would see that, and raise.) With clever tactics they could defeat much larger armies such as those of the Persians. Greeks were also proficient on the sea, both as traders, colonizers, and as a fighting navy.

      The Greek civilization begins with the Minoans on the island of Crete before 3000 BC, about which time they discovered how to make bronze. Though centrally placed in the Mediterannean and surrounded by potential enemies, they did not build walled cities, but rather a navy, which allowed them to prevent anyone they wished from landing there. By about 1450 BC, mainland Greeks centered about Mycenae (my-SCENE-ee), had learned about bronze and eclipsed the creativity of the Minoans. Later, these mainlanders fought against another civilization (in what is modern Turkey) called the Trojans (circa 1200 BC).

      In 490 BC the world's greatest military power, Persia, under Darius, arrived to conquer Greece. They were met and defeated by a small band of Athenians on the plains of Marathon . The Persians tried again in 480 under Xerxes, were slowed at Thermopylae by a tiny band of Spartans, then defeated soundly by an Athenian fleet at Salamis. Had the Persians won, their culture would have been the basis of European culture ever after. From this point Athens entered its "Golden Age" of artistic and intellectual prominence, also known as the "Age of Pericles". The other city states, fearing Athenian hegemony, began the Peloponnesian wars, and Athens fell in 404. A weakened Greece was no match for Alexander when he began conquering the world from his home in Macedonia in 334, making Greek culture the culture of the world. Upon his death in 323 BC, Greek influence would weaken everywhere (but not disappear: Greek as a language remained strong), succumbing to the emerging Romans in 197 BC.

      An irony was the ultimate triumph of a Greek colony, Byzantium, when the Roman ruler, Constantine, made it his capital. The Byzantine Empire which emerged would represent the second great period of Greek history, lasting for more than a thousand years, ending in 1453 AD with defeat by the Ottoman Turks.

      In addition to those mentioned above, other Greeks who have placed their names in the history books include: Aeschylus, Archimedes, Demosthenes, Diogenes, Euclid, Herotodus, Homer, Hippocrates, Ptolemy, Pythagoras, and Sophocles. Of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, five of them were Greek.

That's as short as I can make it.

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