“My advice to you is get married: if you find a good wife, you’ll be happy; if not, you’ll become a philosopher.”—Socrates.
The ancient Greeks were more than ahead of their time regarding philosophy, architecture, mathematics, and literature compared to much of the world at that point. So just how did this advanced civilization come into existence post-Bronze Age and enjoy such stunning splendor? Learning about ancient Greece can be fascinating but intimidating—why do people call it antiquity, or the Classical period, or Hellenistic? When we talk about ancient Greece, we generally mean the period between the 12th–9th centuries BC to the 1st century AD. This period in Greek history had a great influence on the equally fascinating society of ancient Rome.
Contrary to the stereotypes you might have seen in movies and TV, it wasn’t all togas, temple-building, and gods of wine and war. So many innovations and ideas that originated in ancient Greece still play a part in our lives today. Here are 50 interesting facts about ancient Greece.
50. This Is Sparta!
Ancient Athenian boys went to school at the age of 7. At the same age, soldiers took Spartan boys from their mothers, housed them in a dormitory with other boys and trained them as soldiers. Spartan men were not allowed to live with their families until they left their active military service at age 30.
49. Worth Your Salt?
Ancient Greeks and Romans often bought slaves with salt. This is where the phrase “not worth his salt” comes from.
48. Universe, Where Art Thou?
The theory that planets orbit the sun was first proposed by the ancient Greek Aristarchus of Samos in the 3rd century BC.
47. “Let the Music-Master Be the First to Play”
The inventor of the Brazen Bull, Perilaus of Athens, was tricked into being its first victim. The Brazen Bull was a hollow statue of a brass bull. Once a man was locked inside the bull, Greek executioners would light a fire beneath it. As the man was scorched to death, his screams would be amplified by a system of tubes to sound like the roar of a bull.
Phalaris, a ruler in ancient Greece, didn’t exactly like Perilaus’ invention.
“His words revolted me. I loathed the thought of such ingenious cruelty, and resolved to punish the artificer in kind. ‘If this is anything more than an empty boast, Perilaus,’ I said to him, ‘if your art can really produce this effect, get inside yourself, and pretend to roar; and we will see whether the pipes will make such music as you describe.’ He consented; and when he was inside I closed the aperture, and ordered a fire to be kindled. ‘Receive,’ I cried, ‘the due reward of your wondrous art: let the music-master be the first to play.’” Phalaris I:12
Perilaus was removed from the Bull before he died, and to add insult to injury (literally), he was then thrown off a cliff.
46. As It Nappens
Just like the Spaniards with their customary siesta, the Ancient Greeks would insist on taking a quick mid-day nap throughout the summer. One 5th century medical text advised that a brief nap around noon kept the body from “drying out.”
45. Shake On It
The tradition of greeting another person by shaking hands dates at least as far back as the Ancient Greeks. One column at the Acropolis even shows the Greek goddess of marriage, Hera, shaking hands with the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena.
44. If Only We Had This Today…
In ancient Greece, there was a system where citizens could vote to exile a politician for 10 years. It was actually meant for any citizen, really, and it was called “ostrakismos”—as in, you’ve got it, ostracism. It was used less as a form of punishment and more as a pre-emptive strike against people thought to be a threat against the democracy or state.
In the ancient Greek mythology, there was an Unknown God, a placeholder for those gods not yet known to the ancient Greeks.
The word “idiot” finds its origins in ancient Greece, but at that time, it was meant to refer to anyone who didn’t participate in politics. In this day and age, we just call them the “sane.”
41. Too Sexy for My Tweezers
In ancient Greece, the unibrow was a sign of intelligence and great beauty in women. Many women who didn’t have epic unibrows naturally used makeup to draw one on.
40. Save Your Strength for the Games!
No wars were permitted in the month before the ancient Olympics, so that spectators could travel to Olympia unharmed. During The Olympic Truce, legal disputes and the carrying out of death penalties were also forbidden.
39. Lady in Red
In ancient Greece, the wearing of red lipstick was a sign that you were a …”lady of the night.” Under Greek law, any women who did work in that profession who appeared in public without their designated lip paint and other makeup could be punished for improperly posing as non-working ladies.
38. Move to the Muses
The word “music” comes from the Muses, goddesses of the arts in Greek mythology.
37. Ancient Good Boys
Spiked dog collars were invented in ancient Greece—but they didn’t serve the same training purpose that they serve today. Sheepdogs on farms wore spiked collars, called melium, to protect their necks from wolf bites as they defended flocks of sheep.
36. Who Needs Walls When You’ve Got Shields
After 800 BC, the ancient city of Sparta had no walls, quite possibly for the toughest reason of all time. According to one historical source: “The Spartan king Agesilaus simply pointed to his fellow citizens, armed to the teeth, the most formidable soldiers in Greece, and said, ‘Here are the walls of the Spartans.’ ”
Historians have since suggested that the walls were demolished on the orders of Lycurgus to heighten the need for militaristic reform in Sparta. This reason isn’t quite as fun, so we choose to believe the Agesilaus story.
35. An Apple a Day…
In ancient Greece, throwing an apple at somebody was a declaration of love, and in some instances, the gesture was used as a marriage proposal. You know what they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the heart… we’ll let ourselves out.
34. Do You Even Lift Calves?
Legend has it that progressive resistance training dates back to ancient Greece, when wrestler Milo of Croton trained by carrying a newborn calf on his back every day until it was fully grown.
33. Back to Basics, Back to Glory
In the 1990s, a small group of people in Greece revived the Hellenistic religion, and they now worship the Gods of ancient Greece. Hey, as long as they can keep track of it all…
32. Ancient Metaphors
The word “melon” has (also) been used to refer to breasts all the way back to ancient Greece.
31. A Tongue as Old as Time
Ancient Greek was actually the official language in Greece all the way up to 1976.
30. Turning Wine Into Water
Drinking undiluted wine in ancient Greece was a major faux pas, enough to characterize the anyone who did it as a drunkard and a person who lacked restraint and principle. Wine was usually mixed with water, at a ratio of 3:1. Stronger mixes were rarely used—when they were, it was for orgiastic revelry or rare celebratory occasions.
29. From the Earth to the Sky
The myth of the griffin, which was hugely popular in Greek mythology, likely began when fossils of Protoceratops skulls were found in gold mines near ancient Greece. There’s also evidence of griffins described in Egyptian and Persian mythology, and historians have suggested that similar fossils may have been unearthed in the Gobi Desert and the Nile Delta.
28. Origins of a Tradition
Nazi propagandists invented the Olympic Torch relay to tie the Third Reich to the glory of ancient Greece. It was also Hitler’s Nazi propaganda machine that popularized the five interlocking rings that symbolize the Games. Yikes.
27. Did Aristotle Flip Off Socrates?
The act of using the middle finger to “flip off” someone in a crude and rude gesture originated in ancient Greece.
26. The Birth and Death of Democracy
Ancient Greek democracy, which was the world’s first democratic government, lasted for only 185 years before giving way to tyrannical rule. Hey, at least they tried!
25. But Were There Ancient Paparazzi?
The glamour associated with the red carpet dates back to ancient Greece. The play Agamemnon mentions a “Crimson Path” that signified stature, as it was luxury fit only for the gods.
24. Mighty Centarians
Some citizens of ancient Greece lived to over 100 years, due to a healthy Mediterranean diet, the culture of physical activity, and a good sanitation system.
23. Direct Sales
“Ladies of the night” in ancient Greece wore sandals that left the words “follow me” imprinted on the ground as they walked. Take that, Christian Louboutin.
22. No Peace, No Play
In an ancient Greek play called Lysistrata, Greek women end a war by withholding intimacy until the men agree to peace. We can’t be sure, but this strategy might still be effective today.
21. Makes My Head Hurt…
It was common in ancient Greece to write manuscripts bi-directionally, meaning that one line would be written from left to right and the following line would be written from right to left. Just to make it doubly confusing, the letters were also mirrored from one line to the other. This was called boustrophedon text.
20. The Leadership Diet
In ancient Greece, men with potbellies were thought to be exceptional leaders. Hey, without Big Macs and Twinkies, it probably took a lot of effort to get that desired potbelly look.
In ancient Greece, “figging” was the insertion of the skinned ginger root into the anus or vagina to cause an intolerable burning sensation and discomfort. It was used as a form of discipline or punishment, primarily for female slaves.
18. I Liver You
In Greek mythology, the Gods punished Prometheus by having his liver eaten by eagles. It was then regrown so it could be eaten again every day. The reason for this was that in ancient Greece, the liver, rather than the heart, was thought to be the center of human emotions.
17. Bells and Whistles… Mostly Just Bells
Kettlebells date back to ancient Greece. A 143 kg kettlebell was found in Athens with an inscription that reads, “Bibon heaved up me above the head by one hand.” Well done, Bibon, Well done.
16. The Course of History
Historians believe that the Battle of Salamis, a naval battle fought between an alliance of Greek city-states under Themistocles and the Persian Empire under King Xerxes in 480 BC, is one of the most significant battles in human history. A Persian victory may have hamstrung the development of ancient Greece, and by extension, Western civilization.
15. But What Did They Sing?
Birthday candles began in ancient Greece when people brought cakes adorned with lit candles to the temple of Artemis, goddess of the hunt. The candles were lit to make them glow like the moon, a symbol associated with Artemis.
14. Slaves by the Thousands
At any given time in ancient Athens, between 40 and 80 percent of the population were slaves.
13. Check the Drachma Return Slot
The first vending machine was invented in ancient Greece. Considering they were one of the earlier societies to adopt coinage, it makes sense. Did they get ripped off by them too?
12. Beans, Beans, the Magical Fruit.
The phrase “Spill the beans” comes from ancient Greece, where they would vote using beans.
11. Freedom of Movement, Literally
In ancient Greece, people used to go to the gym naked. In fact, the word “gymnasium” means “school for naked exercise.” Yet when I walk out of the locker room nude now, I get banned from Planet Fitness.
10. Fame and Glory
The Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, was burned down by an arsonist who wished to be famous for his crime. Following his execution, the ancient Greeks made it a capital offense to mention his name. But the joke is on the Greek lawmakers, because his name was Herostratus, and he has a pretty solid Wikipedia page, which is pretty much the secret to immortality.
9. The Opposite of Willpower
The ancient Greeks had a word, “akrasia,” which described the lack of will that prevents us from doing something that we know is good for us. It makes sense that they had a word like that, because they also had gyms where they worked out naked. Just the thought of that strikes me with a critical case of akrasia.
8. Who Started It?!
In around 480 BC, the Persian King of Kings Xerxes launched a massive land and sea invasion of Greece to avenge his father’s own failed invasion, which itself had only been launched when he had tried to subdue the Ionian Greeks in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The Ionians had gotten support from other Greek city-states such as Athens and repelled the Persians, irking the Empire and leading to the Greco-Persian Wars which lasted half a century.
One of the most important battles during the Greco-Persian Wars was the Battle of Thermopylae, in which the Persians faced the fearsome Spartans. Sparta was the Greek city-state best known for its military. The battle has memorably been immortalized in the graphic novel by Frank Miller and the film 300. While there was ultimately more than 300 Greeks facing off against the Persians, they were still greatly outnumbered, but would fight valiantly nonetheless.
7. A Fallen King
After the battle was finally won by the Persians and the remaining rear guard of Greeks had been killed (many of them by the Persian archers, as later excavation would prove), the leader of the Greek forces was given a particularly humiliating punishment by the Persians. Although Leonidas’ body had been fought over by the surviving Greeks to protect it from desecration (as opposed to him being the last surviving man to be killed), the body of the Spartan king was beheaded and crucified. This went against the custom of the Persians, who normally treated their fallen enemies with honor, but Xerxes was feeling particularly ticked off after a week’s delay and a particularly humiliating battle in which thousands of his men had died.
6. First Athenian Constitution
The term draconian comes from the Greek legislator Draco, who was the first recorded legislator in Athenian history. He created a written code which was to only be enforced by a court, and his laws were extremely harsh—hence the term draconian coming to mean unforgiving legislation in Western culture. How harsh were they? Well, if you ever happen to get to use a time machine to go back, don’t steal a cabbage. You won’t like what happens to you.
5. Up for Grabs
Many people remember Alexander the Great for his history of military victories in ancient Greece, but few know about his dark family history. When his father King Philip of Macedon was assassinated in 336 BC, some circles suspected that Alexander and his mother had a hand in his stabbing. With the throne now free for the taking, Alexander quickly eliminated any enemies who stood in his path. With help from the Macedonian army, he murdered all other potential heirs to the throne. His mother Olympia helped Alexander’s quest by killing King Philip’s daughter, leading his wife Cleopatra Eurydice to die by suicide.
4. Brevity Is the Soul of Sparta
King Philip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father, once campaigned against the Greek city-states. Having conquered most of southern Greece, he sent a message to Sparta, which read, “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.” The Spartans, in characteristically terse fashion, replied with a single word: “If.” Suffice it to say, Philip did not attack Sparta.
3. What a Waste
The dung-filled death of Heraclitus goes to show that even philosophers can make mistakes. Unable to get rid of his dropsy (edema) by regular means, Heraclitus allegedly buried himself in manure to “absurd” the excess water of his body. In one account, the philosopher found himself trapped in the doody-pile, where he was promptly eaten by dogs.
2. Lend Me An Ear?
When he wasn’t arguing that motion is an illusion, the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea worked to rebel against his ruler, Nearchus. The rebellion didn’t work, of course, and Zeno was promptly kidnapped and brutally beaten. But before his death, he did manage to lure Nearchus close for a whisper… before biting his captor’s ear off.
1. So Stupid, It’s Smart
One Greek statesman discovered a trick to help him defeat procrastination: Demosthenes shaved one side of his head (seriously). Funny, but how does it help? Demosthenes reasoned—rightly, perhaps—that he would be less tempted to go outside if he knew people would make fun of his stupid haircut. Rather than risk the mockery and taunts of his fellow Athenians, he stayed home and studied. Something to remember next time you’ve got a big exam coming up.
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