Human Legacy Course/Greek Achievements

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Human Legacy Course I
Greek Achievements

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Hello and welcome to Lecture 3 of Week 5. In this lecture, we will be taking a basic look at Greek achievements. Our question for today is:

Why was a peaceful philosopher condemned to die? In 399 BC, Socrates, considered by many to be the wisest man in Athens, was put on trial. The charges laid against him were impiety, or disrespect for religion, and corrupting the city’s children. Some wealthy and powerful Athenians felt that Socrates’s teaching led people, including children, to question the actions of the gods. Having only recently lost the Peloponnesian War, a loss they attributed to the displeasure of the gods, the Athenians did not want to do anything that might anger the gods further. Therefore, they decided Socrates had to be punished.

Many historians do not believe the charges laid against Socrates were valid. They think he was really arrested for political reasons and that the charges of impiety and corruption were only a cover. Several of Socrates’s friends had been involved with a tyrannical government that had taken control of Athens, and historians think he was arrested to punish him for his connections to this group.

According to his student and friend Plato, Socrates accepted his death willingly and calmly. His friends were not so calm, grieving and urging Socrates to reconsider his decision. The old philosopher scolded them for their actions and asked them to let him die in peace. He then drank a cup of hemlock, a deadly poison and quietly passed away.

Greek Philosophy


Despite their condemnation of Socrates, the people of ancient Greece—especially Athens— were great believers in philosophy, the search for wisdom and knowledge. In fact, the word philosophy itself comes from the Greek word philosophia, which means “the love of wisdom.” Philosophy played a key part in classical Greek life and culture.

While we can trace the earliest Greek philosophy to the 500s BC, it reached its height in Athens during the 400s and 300s. This golden age of Greek philosophy was inspired by the three greatest Greek philosophers: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.



Born in the mid-400s BC, Socrates was the first of the great Athenian philosophers. Though he was famous even in his own lifetime, we know very little about Socrates’s personal life. What we know of his ideas comes from the writings of his students, like Plato. From those writings, we have obtained a clear picture of how Socrates thought and taught.

Socrates was interested in broad concepts of human life, such as truth, justice, and virtue. He thought that philosophers could learn what made good people and good societies. To learn such things, he thought that one had to ask questions. He started with basic questions such as, “What is truth?” When a person answered, Socrates followed up with more questions. By working through long series of questions, he thought people could discover the basic nature of life. Today we call this method of learning through questions the Socratic method.



Plato, one of Socrates’s students, became a great philosopher in his own right. Unlike Socrates, Plato left behind a great number of writings that record his ideas. These writings cover a wide variety of topics, from the nature of truth and goodness to the ideal form of government. Government is the topic of what may be Plato’s most famous work, the Republic. In it, Plato argues that a government should be led by the people most qualified to make good decisions—philosophers. No one else, he argues, has the skills necessary to lead:

“Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils—no, nor the human race.”

—Plato, Republic

As this excerpt suggests, Plato did not support Athenian democracy, in which all men, philosophers or not, could take part. To help spread philosophical ideas and thus improve the government, Plato wanted to make a philosopher’s education more formal. To that end, he founded the Academy, a school where respected philosophers could teach their students and hold debates. In Plato’s own lifetime the Academy became the most important site for Greek philosophers to do their work.



Among the scholars who studied at the Academy was Aristotle, the third of the great Athenian philosophers. Unlike Socrates and Plato, who mostly studied human behavior, Aristotle was more concerned with the nature of the world around him.

Aristotle tried to apply philosophical principles to every kind of knowledge. He used these principles to study art and literature, to discuss politics, and to examine the natural world. His writings covered subjects that ranged from truth to biology to astronomy to poetry.

One of Aristotle’s most valuable contributions to philosophy was his emphasis on reason and logic. Reason means clear and ordered thinking. Aristotle argued that people should use reason to help them learn about the world by making careful observations and thinking rationally about what they had seen. His emphasis on reason influenced the development of science in Europe.

Aristotle also helped develop the field of logic, the process of making inferences. He taught that people could use what they already know to infer new facts. For a simple example of Aristotle’s logic, read the sentences below. Notice how the third sentence uses information from the first two to draw a conclusion.

  • Birds have feathers and lay eggs.
  • Owls have feathers and lay eggs.
  • Therefore, an owl must be a type of bird.

Greek Literature


Philosophers were not the only Greeks to leave written works. Many works of Greek literature also remain, a great many of them still popular today. Among the many forms of literature in which the Greeks excelled were poetry—both epics and other forms—history, and drama.

Homer's Epics


Probably the most famous works of Greek literature are also some of the earliest. They are two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, both attributed to a poet named Homer. Epics, you may recall, tell stories about great events and heroes. Both of Homer’s epics tell stories about the Trojan War, the legendary fight between the Mycenaean Greeks and the soldiers of Troy.

The Iliad tells the story of the last year of the Trojan War. It is largely the story of two mighty heroes: Achilles, the greatest of all Greek warriors, and Hector, a prince of Troy and leader of that city’s army. Near the end of the epic, Achilles kills Hector in single combat, paving the way for the Greeks’ ultimate victory over Troy.

Although the Odyssey tells the story of heroes from the Trojan War, it does not take place during the war itself. It tells of the hero Odysseus, who angers the gods and is forced to wander the sea for 10 long years before he can return to Greece. Along the way, he faces terrible dangers—including monsters, magicians, and even the gods—that threaten him and his crew, though he does eventually reach home.

Homer’s epics had a tremendous influence in early Greece. Though they were not at first written down, poets recited and sang the epics throughout the Greek world. In time, the Iliad and the Odyssey became the basis for the Greek education system. Students were required to memorize long passages, and young men were encouraged to emulate the deeds of the heroes described in them. The heroic deeds described by Homer also inspired the subjects of many later Greek writers.

Other Forms of Poetry


The Greeks wrote many types of poetry besides epics. For example, the poet Hesiod wrote descriptive poetry. Among the subjects he described in his poems were the works of the gods and the lives of peasants.

The Greeks also created lyric poetry, named after a musical instrument called the lyre that was often played to accompany the reading of poems. Lyric poems do not tell stories. Instead, they deal with emotions and desires.

Among the earliest poets to gain fame for writing lyrics was Sappho, one of the few Greek women to gain fame as a writer. Her poems deal with daily life, marriage, love, and relationships with her family and friends. In the poem below, Sappho begs the goddess of love to send her a new love:

“Iridescent-throned Aphrodite, deathless Child of Zeus, wile-weaver, I now implore you, Don’t—I beg you, Lady—with pains and torments Crush down my spirit”

—Sappho, Hymn to Aphrodite

Another lyric poet, Pindar, who lived in the late 500s and early 400s, wrote poems to commemorate public events like the Olympic Games.



In addition to poetry, the ancient Greeks also wrote works in other fields. Among the fields for which they are best known is history. The Greeks were one of the first people to write about and analyze their own past.

The first major writer of history in Greece was Herodotus, who lived in Greece during the wars with Persia. In his most famous work, The Histories, Herodotus described major events of the wars, such as battles and public debates. Some of these events he had witnessed himself, but some were reported to him by other people. Unfortunately, some of Herodotus’s sources were unreliable, which led to errors in his history.

A second major historian likewise lived in Athens. Thucydides lived during the Peloponnesian War and wrote about it in detail. He included what we would today call primary sources, especially speeches that he heard delivered. Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides looked at his sources critically, ignoring those that seemed unreliable or irrelevant.

Xenophon is another early Greek historian whose work survives. Both a soldier and a philosopher, Xenophon had fought in Persia around 400 BC, long after the end of the Persian Wars. This service was the source for his major writing. Unlike Herodotus and Thucydides, Xenophon concentrated less on sources and debates and more on describing famous men. Despite his less critical style, Xenophon’s work has helped us learn what life was like in Greece during the 300s BC.



While the Greeks wrote histories to preserve the past and inform readers, they created another new form of writing for entertainment. That form was drama, the art of playwriting. Like many other elements of Greek culture, drama had its roots in Athens.

The earliest dramas were created as part of religious festivals honoring Dionysus, the god of wine and celebration. Most of these dramas consisted of a group of actors called a chorus who recited stories for the audience. Later, as dramas became more complex, individual actors began to take on the roles of specific characters in the stories.

Over time, two distinct forms of drama were developed. The first was tragedy. Tragedies usually focused on hardships faced by Greek heroes. Three great writers of tragedies lived and wrote at about the same time in Athens:

  • Aeschylus wrote plays based on ancient Greek myths and on events from Athenian history. His most famous series of plays, the Oresteia, tells of the tragedies that faced the leader of the Greek army when he returned home after the Trojan War.
  • Sophocles concentrated his plays on the suffering that people brought upon themselves. Many of his characters had fatal flaws that brought tragedy to themselves and their families. For example, Oedipus, the main character of three plays by Sophocles, unknowingly killed his father and married his own mother.
  • Euripides wrote about characters whose tragedy was not brought about by flaws but by chance or irrational behavior. For example, Medea tells of a woman who swears revenge on her unfaithful husband, killing his new wife and family.

The second form of drama the Greeks created was comedy. Many of these comedies were satires, plays written to expose the flaws of their society. The greatest comedy writer was Aristophanes. His plays poke fun at aspects of Athenian society ranging from government to the treatment of women. Aristophanes even mocks religion by having the clouds in the sky address the audience:

“There exist no gods to whom this city owes more than it does to us, whom alone you forget. Not a sacrifice, not a libation is there for those who protect you! Have you decreed some mad expedition? Well! we thunder or we fall down in rain.”

—Aristophanes, The Clouds

Greek Architecture & Art


An important characteristic of the Athenians was that they enjoyed beauty, both written and visual. They expressed their love of written beauty through literature, and their love of visual beauty through architecture and art.



The Athenians wanted their city to be the most beautiful in all of Greece. To help reach this goal, they built magnificent temples, theaters, and other public buildings throughout the city. To enhance the appearance of these buildings, they added fine works of art, both painted and sculpted.

The grandest of all Athenian buildings were built on the acropolis at the city’s center. Marble temples and bronze statues on the acropolis were visible from all over the city, gleaming in the sunlight. No other building on the acropolis, however, was as magnificent as the Parthenon, the massive temple to Athena that stood at the center of the acropolis. Begun by Pericles in 447 BC, the Parthenon took some 14 years to build. When finished, the marble temple was more than 200 feet long and 100 feet wide.

However, the Parthenon was impressive for its proportion, not for its sheer size. Its designers were careful not to make it either too tall, which would have made it look flimsy, or too wide, which could have made it appear squat.

Like most Greek temples, the Parthenon had doors but no windows. The structure was surrounded by tall, graceful columns, above which were slabs of marble carved with scenes from myths. Though the ruins of the Parthenon appear white today, parts originally were painted in vivid colors. A huge gold and ivory statue of Athena stood inside the temple.



Impressive as they were on their own, buildings like the Parthenon would not have been quite so magnificent without the statues and carvings created to decorate them. Greek sculptors were among the finest the world has ever known.

The Greeks were particularly adept at sculpting the human form. Sculptors carefully studied what people looked like, not only while they were still but also while they were moving. The sculptors then tried to re-create what they had observed, paying particular attention to how the subject’s muscles looked. In most cases, the result was a statue that looks as if it could come to life. For example, a statue of a discus thrower looks as though he is in the process of launching his discus into the air.

While the Greeks wanted statues to look lifelike and active, they did not necessarily want them to look realistic. Greek sculptors were not interested in depicting people as they really looked. Instead, they chose to portray their subjects as physically perfect, without any blemishes or imperfections. As a result, Greek statues almost all depict figures of great beauty and grace.

Though we know a great deal about ancient Greek sculpture, very few original works remain. Much of what we do know about Greek sculpture is based on copies of Greek statues made by the Romans a few hundred years later. Roman artists made many copies of what they considered to be the greatest Greek statues, including the discus thrower. Many of these copies survived even after the original statues were destroyed.



As with Greek sculpture, only a few original Greek paintings survive. Of those that survive, the best preserved are paintings on vases, plates, and other vessels. These vessels are often decorated with scenes from everyday life or from myths or legends. Most of them use only two colors—red and black—for their illustration. The red was the natural color of the clay vessels, and the black was a glaze added to the finished pieces. Despite this limited palette, Greek artists were able to convey movement and depth in their paintings. This ability was important to the Greeks since they wanted objects to be both functional and beautiful.

Though we have little evidence of larger paintings, written sources tell us that the Greeks also created murals, or wall paintings, in many public buildings. According to these sources, the Greeks’ murals often included scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey. Such paintings often focused on the aftermath of battle rather than on the battle itself. One Athenian mural, for example, showed a scene from the day after the defeat of Troy. Fallen soldiers still dressed in full armor lay amid the ruins of once great Troy. Themes like this one, also common in tragic drama, were very popular with the Athenian people.


  • Question #1: How did Socrates think people should learn?
  • Question #2: Why did Plato think that philosophers should be the leaders of governments?
  • Question #3: How did Aristotle’s emphasis on reason and logic contribute to the development of science?
  • Question #4: Who was Homer? For what works is he known?
  • Question #5: How were Greek tragedies and comedies similar? How were they different?
  • Question #6: Why might both Herodotus and Thucydides be considered fathers of history?
  • Question #7: What was most Greek painting like? On what types of objects did such painting appear?
  • Question #8: What was the general goal of Greek sculptors?
  • Question #9: Why was the Parthenon designed to be so impressive?

Thank you very much for listening to this lecture and goodbye.