Ancient Greeks

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The Ancient Greeks have influenced the modern world and modern values in a plethora of ways, spanning many different cultural spheres. The mathematician, Euclid, for instance, proved that all right angles are equal, while Pythagoras established Pythagoras’ theorem and Archimedes proved his theory involving parabolic segments. All of these mathematical works and ideas are still studied in schools up to this day. Meanwhile, the philosophical teachings of Socrates were extremely impacting on Plato and, later, Aristotle. The writings of these men ultimately became the foundational texts for all of western philosophy. Simultaneously, they also bore a huge impact on the ideas behind modern, western educational systems. The Olympic games, furthermore, mark yet another Greek tradition which has firmly established itself as a significant aspect of the modern cultural landscape. These few examples convey the wide and varied nature of the Ancient Greek influence on the modern world. Due to the fact that this influence is so great, it is impossible to focus on every facet and as such, this paper will explore two significant examples; the placement of which is very different cultural realms conveys the breadth of Ancient Greek influence on modern culture. Firstly, there is a theatre, an art form invented by the Ancient Greeks. This paper will first explore the history and principles of Greek theater and then how it came to influence modern culture so greatly, chiefly through the various Greek influences that rolled on throughout the ages, which, in turn, prompted further important traditions. From there, another staple of Greek culture will be explored – democracy. Again, the ideas in which Athenian democracy is rooted shall be considered. Following that, this paper will go on to consider how deeply Athenian democracy impacted American and French philosophers in the 17th and18th centuries. These philosophers, of course, in turn, were important players in their country’s revolutions and in the establishment of the modern political systems we are a part of today.

Ancient Greeks have significantly influenced almost every aspect of modern writing. They produced highly skilled writers who invented many of the stylistic devices and tricks that we still use today and who showed the extent to which they could be manipulated for artistic and rhetorical purposes; devices such as analogy, pathos, anaphora. As Gilbert Highet states, there is a continuous, successive line from the Greeks, to “the Renaissance stylists to such modern orators as Abraham Lincoln, who used, with great effect, dozens of naturalized Greco-Latin rhetorical devices” (20). The Greeks also developed an astonishing number of literary forms and genres, which were ultimately accepted into many cultures and languages. Again, in Highet’s words there was “tragedy in England, France, and Spain; comedy in Italy, England, and France; epic in Italy, England, and Portugal; lyric and pastoral in Italy, France, England, Spain, and Germany; satire in Italy, France, and England; essays and philosophical treatises throughout western Europe; oratory throughout western Europe” (20). This quote delineates how great an impact the Greeks bore upon all writing in the modern world. Before exploring how the impact specifically of Greek theatre shall further convey this, let us first consider the history of Greek drama.

The Greeks invented theatre. Indeed the English words drama, comedy, tragedy, character, episode, scene, chorus, and theatre all have Ancient Greek roots. It is not clear exactly when the theatre was first established as its own art form. However, modern academics tend to agree that it likely occurred in the sixth century BC in the north-eastern Peloponnese (Sommerstein 2). Also likely, theatre developed out of established traditions whereby people would dress up in costume, dance and sing, possibly for ritualistic purposes. Moreover, epic poetry was a major contributor to the development of theatre, specifically the tradition of the recitation of epic poetry, usually the Iliad or Odyssey; “the solo reciters of epic, the rhapsodes, specialized in enthralling their audience and moving them to strong emotions – apprehension, compassion, sorrow” (Taplin 16). Significantly, tragedy would ultimately adopt many epic themes, such as suffering and divine-mortal relations. However, although influenced by epic poetry, there were decided breaks with epic traditions that led to the development of theatre. For one thing, while epic is written in only one meter, drama employs many, partially influenced by contemporary choral songs sung on various occasions, such as weddings. Likewise, the establishment of a chorus is a decidedly dramatic invention. Finally, one can follow the movement away from poetic recitation and into drama by considering that “at first there was, allegedly, only one actor [on stage], but by the time of the earliest surviving tragedy there are two, and before the death of Aeschylus, three” (Taplin 18).

Greek drama reached its golden age in the 5th century BC, when the likes of Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and Aristophanes composed there, still famous, works. These plays were performed within the framework of religious ritual at Dionysiac festivals, such as the Lenaea and, the most famous festival of all, the City Dionysia. This latter event was a giant theatre competition in Athens where the three theatrical genres of the time were presented: each of the three tragedians presented three tragedies and a satyr-drama, while the five comedians presented one comedy each.

The impact of this Greek invention on modern culture is varied. Firstly, the Greeks invented theatre and it is because of them that the medium exists to this day. However also, for instance, the genres that the Greeks invented. Greek tragedies are varied in their subject-matter, however, ‘almost all … tell stories of suffering, of mental and physical anguish, of the waste of life and prosperity’ (Taplin 21). The “tragedy” is still alive and well in modern dramas (take Tennessee Williams, for example) and deals with a very similar subject matter. Likewise, early on, Greek comedy was equal parts bawdy, politically subversive, slapstick and sophisticated. These features continue to exist in modern comedies. New Comedy, meanwhile, which developed in the 200s BC, produced plays “set in the ‘real world’, and they played out the earth-bound confusions among the households of the … bourgeoisie … [They bore such stock characters as] angry old men … ingenious slaves … tarts with hearts of gold, … pseudo-scientific doctors” (Taplin 43). Certainly, there is no doubt that the “dysfunctional family” comedy, filled with many an eccentric stock-character, has endured the ages, from Molière to Modern Family.

Several indirect offshoots of Greek theatre further mark how significantly this Greek invention sustains its influence over modern culture. For instance, in sixteenth-century Italy, Claudio Monteverdi and the Camerata Fiorentina group incorrectly believed that the whole of a Greek tragedy was sung against music when originally performed in the ancient world. In an attempt to resurrect this tradition, they, “by one of the sublimest errors in the history of human culture, created opera’ (Sommerstein 4). Still a major facet of contemporary culture, opera conveys a significant influence of Greek theatre. Likewise, modern film and television convey the same idea; these mediums, staples of modern culture, are also direct offspring of theatre.

Greatly affecting the face of modern culture is the rolling tradition throughout history, sparked by Greek theatre. As shall soon be discussed, English Renaissance writers had a huge impact on modern western culture. Thus Highet’s statement is extremely significant: that (mostly due to Greek textual transmission issues), “for the English playwrights of the Renaissance Seneca was the master of tragedy” (207). Yes, Seneca is Roman. However, as Highet also states, “most of the essentials of Latin as of modern tragedy are borrowed from” the Greeks (198). Indeed Seneca, like other Roman playwrights, produced fabula crepidata, adaptions of Greek originals, such as his Phaedra, which was based on Euripides’ Hippolytus. The most significant English Renaissance dramatist is, of course, Shakespeare. While he was interested in the Classical world generally (six of his works have a Roman background, six, a Greek), it is clear that Seneca had a huge impact on the great bard (Highet 190-212). However, taking Seneca’s own influences into account, this of course, ultimately means that Shakespeare was greatly impacted by the Greek playwrights. It is interesting also to note that Shakespeare adopted, likely through the Romans, a Greek literary device. Stichomythia, where two characters attempt to out-argue each other through a series of quick, single lines, often appears in his work, for instance, Richard III, “where the hero and the plot are also shaped on Senecan models” (Highet 208).

By delineating the Greek influence upon Shakespeare, this makes clear the vast (indirect) impacts of Greek theatre. For Shakespeare, bears a huge cultural influence on today’s world. Consequently, we can consider, for instance, that the musical West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet and John Steinbeck’s The Winter of our Discontent, gets its title from act one of Richard III. For in these works, we see, not only a Shakespearean influence but also the enduring influence of Greek theatre.

This paper has explored how the Greeks invented theatre and the vast and varied influences that the invention continues to bear today. Now, we can consider a very different way in which the Greeks have influenced the modern world – the political sphere. Athenian democracy developed in the sixth century BC and went on, centuries later, to become extremely influential upon those thinkers in countries preparing to rebel against a monarchic political system. Before considering that influence, we can briefly examine exactly how this system of democracy functioned.

Athenian democracy marked radical experimentation with direct democracy. This is a political system that functions, not through the election of representatives to vote in place of citizens. Instead, the citizens themselves bear the ability to vote on legislative matters. In order to understand further how this system functioned, we must explore the main organizational bodies which formulated the Athenian system: the assembly, the council, the courts and the citizen initiators.

The meetings of the assembly, which happened ten times yearly, were really the focal point of democracy in Athens and convey the Athenian desire to put the power of the state in the hands of the people. Because Athens functioned as direct democracy, rather than being elected, the members of the assembly simply bore the right to attend. Citizens (free, adult males) were allowed, and indeed, were often expected, to show, sometimes being fined if they refused. (In the 5th century, at times, citizens were, in fact, paid to attend.) The assembly and those who attended enacted four main roles in the democratic process. It decided upon decrees, such as choosing whether to wage war against another state. It played a role in electing certain officials (although many officials were also decided by a random lottery). The assembly also helped draft and pass legislation and, before this job was passed to the courts, it was involved in trying political crimes. Decisions in the assembly were usually made after men had offered speeches both for and against the particular motion at hand. From here, as there were no political parties, a general vote was held (often by a show of hands or by casting a stone into a “ballot” jar) and the simple majority determined the outcome of any decision.

The council, meanwhile, was very connected to the Assembly. It oversaw their actions and also often prepared what was to be considered by the assembly. Later, it was the job of the council to carry out the decisions made at the assembly. Finally, the council also oversaw the officials who controlled Athens’ administrative affairs and offered some of the men constituting its membership to help deal with these issues. The president of the council changed every month, shifting among Cleisthenes’ ten tribes. Meanwhile, another remarkable feat of equality happened daily: every day, through a random lottery, the epistates was selected, he who would govern the council meeting and the assembly meeting, if it happened to fall on that day.

The courts and citizen initiators mark the final aspect of the Athenian democratic system that we shall discuss. Like the assembly, the courts were intended to enact the wishes of citizens and based on the idea that all are equal before the law. As such, the juries were selected from groups of men representing each of Athens’ ten tribes and the outcome of the trial was determined by the majority vote after the prosecutors and defendants (the men themselves, without lawyers) had made their speeches. In the 5th century, Pericles, a leader who greatly fostered the growth of Athenian democracy, introduced the payment of jurors, conveying the importance of every citizen’s role in the legal process. Finally, the citizen initiator was really the driving force of the whole system. The Greek word for this position is ὁ βουλόμενος, literally “he who wishes”. The word itself thus delineates the importance of Athenian democracy placed upon the average citizen’s rights to act for his polis. Any free, male citizen was encouraged, for instance, to suggest legislation, to offer their opinion to the council.

Now that we have explored what Athenian democracy entailed and how it functioned, we can understand more fully the impact that it had in later centuries. Clearly, the Athenian political system placed a huge amount of importance upon the rights of each citizen, upon the idea that the people controlled the affairs of the polis and that are equal. Indeed Pericles’ famous funeral speech declares the following about Athens’ political system: “Our constitution is called a democracy because we govern in the interests of the majority, not just a few. Our laws give equal rights to all in private disputes … and poverty is no barrier to office, if a man despite his humble condition has the ability to do some good to the city” (Thucydides 2.37).

One of the greatest influences that Athenian democracy bore upon the modern world is through its impact upon those thinkers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who contributed to the western embrace of democracy. These men were chiefly revolutionaries from America, England, and France. It is easy to see why the Athenian emphasis on freedom and equality spoke so greatly to both early Americans and those involved in the French revolution. Both these groups of people were striving to get away from the tyrannical, monarchic rule and instate a political system based on completely opposing concepts. Indeed, as Hannah Arendt states, “without the classical example shining through the centuries, none of the men of the revolution on either side of the Atlantic would have possessed the courage for what then turned out to be unprecedented action” (197).

As stated, “the principles and the institutions of the Athenian democracy influenced greatly the revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which sought the progress of the individual and not of the state or the leaders” (Bitros, Karayiannis 25). We can see how great an impact the Athenian model bore upon the men who ultimately aided in the creation of modern political systems. For instance, although philosophers and thinkers, such as John Locke, and later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, embraced representative democracy, they were clearly working from and expanding upon the Athenian model. Indeed, due to the difficulty of implementing direct democracy, as was done in Athens, “they chose, instead, to limit the power of rulers by establishing constitutional barriers to their tendency to become autonomous and to satisfy their personal interests, rather than those of the citizens they represent’ (Bitros, Karayiannis 26). It is also highly significant to note, that many philosophers, such as Locke, placed great importance upon property rights as integral to democracy – this, again, comes directly from Athenian democracy.

Looking at the United States’ Bill of Rights, one can truly see how greatly the founding fathers were influenced by the Athenian democratic system. The values presented in Athenian democracy are clearly embedded in the American Constitution. Consider the Second Amendment, for instance, which defends every citizen’s right to keep and bear arms. It is largely rooted in the idea that citizens can and should be able to defend themselves against the possibility of the oppressive, tyrannical rule; essentially, in line with the values of Athenian democracy, it aims to keep the power in the hands of the majority, of the people. Likewise, the Sixth Amendment, essentially states that all citizens are entitled to a fair trial by an impartial jury. This certainly evokes the Athenian law courts discussed earlier whereby all who wish are entitled to a trial, judged by a randomly chosen jury. Finally, the United States Declaration of Independence further conveys how deeply imbued Athenian ideas were in the works of the founding fathers. Take the famous line “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. This again really evokes the passage of Thucydides, quoted above, when Pericles states that all men, regardless of reputation or background are equally important members of the community.

The influence of Athenian democracy upon those taking part in the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries is thus extremely clear. Thomas Paine spells it out overtly in his famous work, Rights of Man: “What Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude” (120). Indeed, “the nearest prototype of democracy to that of ancient Athens is the system of governance in the United States of America” (Bitros, Karayiannis 25). However, it must be said that it is not only the United States and France that Athenian democracy impacted. After the revolutions of these countries, ‘In the United Kingdom, continental Europe and other countries, systems of democratic governance were established containing more or fewer elements of direct democracy, at the local level’ (Bitros, Karayiannis 25). As such, we can see that the Athenian model of democracy has produced a massive impact on the whole world, which continues to this day.

The Greek world has influenced modern culture in a huge number of ways. Mathematics classes, for instance, to this day, ask for knowledge of the Greek alphabet. Likewise, the devices used in modern debating hold their roots Greek oration. While this list could continue, such as the ancient Greece development of Hellenistic culture, this paper has explored but two aspects of Greek culture that bear a huge influence on the modern world. The first was the theater. The fact that we have theatre, opera, film and television and genres such as tragedy and comedy is due to this Greek invention. Finally, we also considered how the Greek theatrical tradition prompted a series of further influences, which in turn greatly impact modern culture. These, of course, will continue to spark further traditions and so, indirectly, keep alive the ever-adapting influence of Greek theatre. The huge impact of Athenian democracy was next considered – how it affected America, France and ultimately countries all over the world. One can understand why the system spoke so clearly to revolutionaries hoping to shift power to the people and how they accomplished this, largely inspired and influenced by the Greeks who had achieved it before them. Indeed, one only needs to look at the architecture of the White House to see how highly the founding fathers regarded their Greek predecessors. In short, theatre and politics are but two spheres in which we see the vast influence of the Greeks; truly the impact of the Greeks upon modern culture is great.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. New York: Viking Press, 1963. Print.

Bitros, George, and A. D. Karayiannis. Creative Crisis in Democracy and Economy. Berlin: Springer, 2013. Print.

Hammond, Martin, and P. J. Rhodes. The Peloponnesian War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Highet, Gilbert. The classical tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949. Print.

Paine, Thomas. Rights of Man. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1999. Print.

Sommerstein, Alan H.. Greek Drama and Dramatists. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Taplin, Oliver. “Greek Theatre.” The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre. Ed. John Russell Brown. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.