Some periods of history are constantly revisited, for various reasons. People love exploring the past and the world that once was, from the World Wars, to revolutions and countries gaining independence, along with the fall of empires, and other important historical moments. One such historical period that’s garnered immense attention is Ancient Greece.
For centuries, Ancient Greece has been at the forefront of the discussion of history. We’ve recounted the stories of war, democracy, gods, Spartans, Trojans, and all things Greek in order to tell the epic story of this fascinating period in history. Greece, however, was built on mythology and the tales of gods and fantastical creatures. So much so that it’s seeped into every facet of Greek history. As a result, Ancient Greece’s history has become somewhat inflated, or distorted, to its reality. To truly understand this legendary time in human history, we must sort facts from fiction and understand some misconceptions we’re still contending with today.
10. Greek Wasn’t a Unified Nation
Greece, as a nation, is filled with rolling hills, mountains, and rivers, which acted as natural separators between the various city-states that existed. The Greece we know today is a relatively unified nation. Ancient Greece, however, was almost entirely the opposite.
Ancient Greece was a collection of autonomous city-states known individually as a polis, which shared near-identical ideologies, language, ways of life, and culture. However, beyond these shared ways of life and values, the unity or affiliations between these city-states was scarce. Even the best examples were short-lived or very loose in their definition of ‘affiliation’. There was no true consistency, as each polis was governed differently. Some poleis took on the democratic system originated in Athens, while others took on more traditional forms of government like oligarchy, aristocracy, and tyranny.
Often what would happen in Greece was an imbalance of power, with some city-states taking on more substantial influence and dominating neighboring, slightly weaker, city-states. Unity among the city-states was usually the result of impending war or conflict, such as the Persian Wars between 492-449 BC.
Greece was a peninsula that later became a nation during the Hellenistic period following Alexander the Great’s death. He has been credited with spreading the Greek language, art, culture, and city planning, which slowly resulted in a more unified nation.
9. A Divine Love of Color
The misconception about the Greeks and color originated from their statues and impressive buildings like the Parthenon, Temple of Zeus, and many other Greek temples showcased as structures void of color.
The Ancient Greeks had an affinity for marble, often their first choice of material for any construction project. Iconic buildings, which still stand today, like the Parthenon, were constructed using Pentelic marble. Most temples and statues would feature a mixture of marble, limestone, tufa, cut masonry, local stone, and wood.
Our knowledge of color featured on Greek statues and buildings was misguided for centuries. We believed that everything the Greeks made was an architectural and design marvel, all constructed predominantly in pure white marble. There was a preconceived notion that the Ancient Greeks had disdain towards color, and we’re now aware that wasn’t the case. Not only were their statues painted, but their buildings, like the Parthenon and other temples, all had elements of color scattered throughout. It wasn’t dull colors either. The Ancient Greeks loved bright colors, specifically purple, red, yellow, and white. However, it’s important to note that their classifications of these colors differed from ours today. For example, red to Ancient Greeks could be anything from orange to purple.
We based a lot of our understanding of the Greeks’ relationship with color on ancient buildings and statues where the paint had faded away after centuries of being hidden away or buried below the surface.
We get a lot wrong about the Spartans. It’s understandable, considering everything we’re told and shown about the mythic warriors of Ancient Greece who fought the Athenian army. However, a large part of why we get so much wrong about Spartans is because of how little we actually know about them.
We’ve gotten some key things wrong about these legendary warriors, which have been proven. For starters, Sparta wasn’t the name of an Ancient Greek city-state. Instead, it was in Lacedaemon where the Spartans lived. During the Peloponnesian War, from 431-404 BC, the warrior society of Sparta grew, taking on rival city-state Athens. Their culture was centered on military service from a young age and loyalty to the state.
From as young as seven, Spartan boys began training and state-sponsored education. They were taught the concept of being a Spartan, which meant understanding duty to their state, endurance, and discipline. Any healthy man became a Spartan soldier.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about the Spartans was their relationship with the rest of Greece. While the unification of Greece was slow, the Spartans were not the champions of the Greek cause as much as we’ve been made to believe. They chose not to join the all-Greek alliance leading up to the Greco-Persian war because of their anti-democratic views. While they were brave warriors who fought alongside the Greeks in the end, they were not the infallible heroes they’ve been made out to be.
7. Pederastic Mentorship in Ancient Greece
In Ancient Greece, there was a common practice of young Greek boys taking on apprenticeships with older men. This wasn’t just in Athens, but throughout Ancient Greece, and even included Spartans. It was their version of formal education. Young boys needed to gain apprenticeships to progress in Greek society.
There were rules to a relationship between a mentor and his mentee. For starters, it only lasted until the mentee grew a beard. Second, the mentor was the dominant. The basis of these mentorships was to enlighten the youth on all aspects of the world, which sometimes included sex. The Greeks’ relationship with sex wasn’t so much about love as it was about lust, desire, or aphrodisia.
The mentee was considered an eromenos, a passive partner in homosexual relationships. The mentor would determine when the eromenos was ready to integrate into Greek society as an adult. If the adult refrained from sexual relations with the young boy, it meant that boy was ready. However, if the mentor continued to engage sexually with the eromenos, they were expected to comply out of respect and gratitude. This was a common practice in Ancient Greece, although the rules varied from polis to polis.
While many today find it an abuse of power, it wasn’t viewed by the ancient world in the same way. Instead, it was just a part of growing up for boys. Sex was treated differently in the Greek world. So while certain aspects of pederasty were frowned upon, it was still a common occurrence of the time.
6. Technological Achievements Underrepresented
There are many things that we have the Ancient Greeks to thank for that never seem to be remembered by the modern world. When we think of Ancient Greece, we think of the Gods, the wars, the Spartans, and the incredible structures they built. However, while all those things deserve attention, it’s their technological achievements we totally under-represent and often completely ignore.
Ancient Greece was filled with some of the greatest minds the world has ever known. From Plato to Archimedes, the everyday items we have today, like alarm clocks, automatic doors, central heating, and showers, can all be traced back to these great minds, in one way or another. Famous examples of some Greek technological achievements include Plato’s creation of the first alarm clock and Archimedes with the first steam cannon. The Ancient Greeks are also credited with creating lighthouses, with the first in Alexandria, as well as clock towers, weather stations, watermills, and more.
5. Olympic Torch Lighting Wasn’t a Greek Idea
The modern international Olympic Games began in 1896 in Athens, which was fitting, considering it had already taken place there for over half a millennium. Some aspects of the Olympic Games we just assume have existed for centuries. Considering the games’ long history, we’ve always believed that the lighting of the Olympic torch was an ancient tradition. It wasn’t.
The history of the Olympic torch relay actually dates back to Berlin in 1936. Dr. Carl Diem was inspired by the writings of Plutarch and Ancient Greek drawings to create the Olympic torch, which became a tradition. It was conceived and paid for by Nazi Germany just three years before the Second World War began. The project was led by the Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels.
During the Second World War, no Olympic Games were held. When they began again in 1948, the Olympic torch returned, but it had a new message: one of peace. It was run through a devastated Europe from ancient Olympia to London. The first torchbearer started the relay by putting down his arms, removing his army uniform, and taking the blazing staff on the first leg of its journey.
4. Trojan War
There’s a lot of debate surrounding the Trojan War. Most people know all about this war, which pitted the Ancient Greeks against the people of Troy in western Anatolia. We’re aware of the famous Trojan Horse, gifted to the people of Troy as a deception to get Greek soldiers inside the city walls. From there, the Greek soldiers decimated the city, killing the men and taking its women. There’s only one problem: we’re not sure any of this actually happened.
For a long time, this story wasn’t treated as a myth or a legend, but as fact. The truth of the matter is that we’ve got no evidence to support the existence of the Trojan War, the wooden horse, or just about anything to do with this legendary story. We only know of the legend because it is celebrated in ancient Greek plays and texts such as Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. It eventually made its way to literature from the Romans, like Virgil’s Aeneid.
While ruins of Troy exist in Anatolia, the debate of whether it’s the same city in Homer’s text remains ongoing, along with the discussion on whether there even was a war to begin with.
3. Leonidas and the 300
Most people learned about Leonidas and the 300 soldiers from Zack Snyder’s 2006 film, 300. The film (and the graphic novel upon which it’s based), unsurprisingly, isn’t totally accurate in its recounting of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE during the Persian wars.
The legend goes that Leonidas and 300 Spartans single-handedly held off the army of Persian King Xerxes I. However, the truth is more nuanced, as it adds more context to how they got there, how true the numbers were, and, of course, that whole “the Spartans fought alone” thing.
When the Greco-Persian Wars began, King Xerxes I sent a vast army estimated to have been between 70,000 and 300,000 men to advance from the south. Leonidas had a far smaller army of only 6,000 to 7,000 soldiers that followed him into battle. His army was comprised of Greek soldiers from various city-states, and of course his 300 Spartans. The far smaller army held off the Persians for three days until a betrayal gave Xerxes an advantage.
Ephialtes, a citizen of Greece, betrayed his country and the army by telling Xerxes of the path around Thermopylae. He even led a portion of the Persian army along the trail. The Persians decimated part of the Greek Army, forcing a retreat. However, Leonidas, 300 of his bodyguards, a few helots, and 1,100 Boeatians stayed and continued to fight. A withdrawal would defy Spartan laws and customs.
The details of the battle have never been fully agreed on. Most believe that Leonidas and his army fought bravely but ultimately met their end at the hands of a much larger Persian invasion. Some, however, believe that there were survivors, and even consider Leonidas to have been one of them. Unfortunately, there’s no definitive proof of either theory.
2. The Burning of the Alexandria Library
The Library of Alexandria was one of Ancient Greece’s most famous examples of its influence and power in the ancient world. The Alexandria Library was a hub for scholars from around the globe who sought to peruse the books and scrolls of ancient civilizations.
When Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, the knowledge he’d gained during his lifetime of conquering and exploring the world survived. It motivated a movement to preserve knowledge and share it on a much grander scale than previously practiced. Creation of the library was spearheaded by Demetrius of Phaleron, a disgraced Athenian politician who became the advisor to King Ptolemy I Soter.
By 283 BC, the library was finished. Estimates range from 200,000 to nearly a million original texts were collected from around the world and stored in this hub of knowledge until its destruction in 48 BC.
The exact reason the Library of Alexandria burned down has often been blamed on a Muslim Army. However, it was actually just an accidental casualty of war. When Julius Caesar got involved in the Egyptian civil war between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII, he sided with Cleopatra. This led to him being besieged in the great harbor by Ptolemy and his forces. Caesar saw only one way out: blast the enemy forces. In doing so, Caesar and his men destroyed parts of the harbor and started a fire that spread and eventually consumed the Library of Alexandria and its hundreds of thousands of ancient texts, almost all of which are now gone forever.
1. A Shaky, Somewhat Uninspired History of Democracy
The Ancient Greeks are often credited with the birth of democracy. In a sense, this is true. However, our perception of what Greek democracy looked like seems to glorify something that wasn’t as impressive as the democracies we know today.
Democracy began in Greece when Athenian leader Cleisthenes introduced the new system, known as demokratia, to the people of Greece in 507 BC. The word demokratia came from the combination of demos, meaning ‘the people,’ and Kratos, meaning ‘power’.
The point of this new system of ‘rule by the people’ was to create more peace and stability. To have a system where an unpopular government was voted out, rather than removed through uprising or revolution.
However, their democracy wasn’t something to be lauded. Yes, it was a first of its kind, and it would become more inclusive and representative of all people in the future. Still, in Ancient Greece, it represented only a select segment of the population. Only free men were considered citizens in Athens. This meant women had no representation, and weren’t voters or active in the political system.
The way the Ancient Greek government functioned is also something we often forget. Every year, 500 names were chosen from all Athenian citizens. Those 500 people would serve their government for a year. They were legislators and crafted laws on which the entire Athenian population would vote. This meant their democracy was direct democracy, which hasn’t translated into present-day democracies. Most modern democracies are instead representative democracies.
For all the praise we give the Ancient Greeks for their creation of democracy, we often overlook their own shortcomings in their own creation. While it took centuries to remedy these flaws, some are still being contended with today.