Questions about Greece


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By far the most popular questions were about the Greek gods and Greek myths generally.
We can't do much with this topic in this class, unfortunately, but I can make a few comments and direct you to other sources. The Greek gods are important because long after anyone still believed in them, they became personfications of various ideas for Europeans, particularly in the period from the Renaissance to the present, though usually they were referred to by their Roman rather than their Greek names, often based on the stories in the Metamorphoses of Ovid. Ares (Roman Mars) stood for war, Poseidon (Roman Neptune) for the sea, Athena (Roman Minerva) for wisdom, and Aphrodite (Venus) for love. You can view many images of the various gods at Mythological Images of Greek Gods. A good introduction is The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Greek Mythology. You'll find more myths covered at Mythica. Note that both contain many hyperlink cross-references. A basic intro to the major gods is at Mythweb. You can see how the various gods relate to each other at Greek Gods and their Associates.

If this subject really interests you, consider taking one of our two terrific courses on the subject: Humanities 101 (The Ancient World) and Humanities 103 (Mythology). Either course fulfills the "H" requirement for a humanities class.

Are Greeks currently traditional towards their gods?
The Greeks converted to Christianity early in the common era, and religious ones today are mostly Greek Orthodox. No one seriously worships the ancient Greek gods any more.

Many of you asked questions about the Olympic Games.
There are many good sites explaining their history on the Web. I'll point out only a few things, and you should then explore the best of them, Dartmouth College's Ancient Olympic Games Virtual Museum. Unlike the modern Games, the ancient ones were strictly Greek. Non-Greeks couldn't participate. They were begun supposedly as a way of cementing a peace treaty, and always had religious associations. You'll find the answers to most of your questions in the section called "Ask the experts."

What foundations for modern democracy or modern world political government did Greece contribute?
Although the emerging democracies of the 19th century were happy to hark back to the Greeks as models, there was in fact almost no direct influence from the ancient Greek model on modern forms of government.

I would like to know more about Greek currency.
The Encyclopedia Britannica article is detailed, but you'll find more pictures of coins at the Ancient Greek and Romans Coins FAQ page.

Did they develop the first indoor plumbing in a city?
They weren't the first, and their plumbing wasn't as good as Roman plumbing, but some houses did have indoor toilets. See the History of Plumbing.

Why did most of the plays that were written in this period disappear from existence?
The original authors did not expect them to be performed more than once. They were thought of as events, not as literature. By the time people began to try to preserve the texts of some of the plays, only the most popular had been kept, and only some of those managed to survive in the ensuing centuries. Only plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides survived, though we have the names of many other authors and titles. After a while, the Greeks stopped writing new tragedies, and preserved only these "classics."

Exactly what was the Oracle at Delphi and how did it work?
The Oracle of Apollo at Delphi dates back to 1400 BCE, and wass considered the most sacred shrine in Greece. Visitors asked questions of the Pythia (the priestess of Apollo), who gave cryptic answers interpreted by priests. Although the oracle was consulted by many people, but its answers were famously often ambiguous or misleading. For more details, see http://www.dreamscape.com/morgana/desdemon.htm.

I want to know more about the statue of Athena in the Parthenon.
All we have are small copies. You can read more about it and see one at http://jcccnet.johnco.cc.ks.us/~jjackson/part.html.

I want to know more about the military tactics Athens used to defeat the Persians.
See Livio C. Stecchini's The Persian Wars. Read the chapter on "the Battle of Marathon," perhaps the most famous battle fought in ancient Greece.

What are the great battles of the Greeks?
The two most famous conflicts are the Persian War, which culminated in the Battle of Marathon, and the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. The first you can read about in Herodotus, the second in Thucydides.

If you felt like drinking, would you worship Dionysis until you didn't want to drink any more?
Although the worship of Dionysus involved drinking, Greeks felt no need to worship him when they drank. They tended to look down on drunkeness most of the time, watering their wine with two parts water to one part wine. In Plato's Symposium, he depicts as drunkenness as silly, and Socrates as superior because he could drink a good deal of wine without becoming drunk. But the ecstatic side of Dionysus' worship did involve becoming deliberately intoxicated to induce a sacred ecstasy.

If you felt like having sex, you need to worship Aphrodite?
Men might pray to Aphrodite for help if they were trying to seduce a woman, or a woman might pray to her sometimes if she was trying to conceive a child; but her services were not needed for ordinary sex. Of course she was not involved in the male-male sex that was so common in Greece either.

I would like to know more about Greek architecture.
Greek architecture, as continued and modified by the Romans, has been the most influential in the Western World. There don't seem to be any really comprehensive sites on Greek architecture, though there are many good books in the library, and you can get a general overview in the Encyclopedia Britannica. But the Perseus site lets you search for images by site or period. There are even more photos at the University of Colorado's Harpies art site

About how long did it take to build the temples that were made out of stone?
The Parthenon took 15 years. It was exceptionally large, but Athens also had exceptional resources to pay for it (taxes from its empire).

Why didn't the women exercize in the nude?
Spartan girls did; but generally the Greeks felt that women's nude bodies were shameful, unlike men's. Most of them reserved athletic events from men alone--clothed or unclothed. The Spartans were more concerned about free citizens vs. slaves rather than men vs. women, so they were willing to have women participate in activities shunned in other Greek societies. There was one race for women in the Olympic games in which women ran clothed, except that one breast was bared: a theme often picked up later in European art.

Why was Sophocles persecuted?
You're thinking of Socrates, the philosopher, who was condemned to die by the Athenians, rather than the playwright Sophocles, who was greatly honored by them. We'll talk about the death of Socrates in class.

Why did the Greeks decide that women had no rights? Did they get it from another culture or did they decide it themselves?
I'm not sure anybody has the answer to this question. Most ancient cultures gave women few rights, but many of the oldest myths of the Greeks seem aimed at rationalizing downright hostility to women. Did the myths cause the hostility or the hostility cause the myths? Hard to say.

Why were women so excluded in Greek society by men, but men worshipped goddesses?
Some goddesses, like Zeus' wife Hera, served to help keep women in their place, by emphasizing traditional wifely roles and being clearly subservient. The Greeks probably worshipped some goddesses like Athena before becoming to severely sexist, then had to rationalize their beliefs in terms of their new attitudes. For instance, they argued that Athena was born out of Zeus' forehead rather than from any woman, and that she always sided with men. She was "the exception that proves the rule."

What was the new idea of male homosexuality about? How was it derived?
Their accepting attitude toward male homosexuality is one of the most distinctive traits of the ancient Greeks, yet they wrote surprisingly little about it. Michel Foucault, in his influential History of Sexuality, scrutinized what little was left; and none of it really explains how these attitudes first arose. However, we can speculate. In many cultures and subcultures in which women are strictly banned, men substitute young men for the missing women. The stringent Greek efforts to banish most women from public life left only prostitutes and boys available for extramarital sex.

From the skimpy evidence we have, it was expected that many teenagers would take an adult male lover who would train and educate them as well as have sex with them. Oddly, the younger partner was discouraged from enjoying the sex, though some clearly did. They were supposed to outgrow this passive role and go on to take younger lovers of their own. It was seen as a stage to pass through. Plato depicts adult males as having a somewhat comical passion for Socrates (notoriously old and ugly at the time), and presents male-male love as superior to love for women so long as it was not expressed physically; but he seems to have been exceptional in this as in so many other things. There are numerous love poems expressing love between men, including some that seem to be pretty indifferent to whether the love object is male or female. There is some pretty graphic art depicting male-male love, though you won't see it in textbooks. There are some in Cecile Beurdeley's book, L'Amour bleu or for some mild examples, go to Perseus and search for vases vases using the keyword "courting," or read the article " Homoerotic Images in Greek Vase Painting" by Elisa Blum which gives many references to books containing the illustrations she discusses. Some other people did condemn the Greek attitude toward homosexuality, but many Middle Eastern cultures were pretty tolerant as well (the Jews were the big exception). Alexander the Great was famously more devoted to his male lover than to the various princesses he married for diplomatic reasons. Models like that kept gay love fashionable for a long time, even among the Romans, who sometimes criticized it. For more information, see Mentorship in the Education of Males and Male Love in Ancient Greece.

What about the education of children?
See Ancient Greek Education.

Did lesbians come from the city of Lesbos?
Lesbos is an island, not a city. Women who love women are associated with the island only because Sappho, who wrote passionate love poems to both women and men, came from it. Ancient Greeks didn't particularly associate the place with "lesbians" in the modern sense.

How respected were artists?
Unlike in most other societies, artists often signed their work. Even vase painters sometimes became famous. Sculptors could sometimes charge huge fees. They were sometimes criticized and attacked, but generally one can say that artists had higher status in Greece than in most other ancient cultures, where they were viewed as little better than servants.

I'm interested in Greek technology (building methods and inventions).
The Greeks were famously ingenious in devising various technical devices, but generally disinclined to apply them to practical use. The Romans were far more interested in practical engineering. You can study some of the most famous Greek inventions at the Technology Museum of Thessaloniki. Why did Greece spread so far west and south?
They made a deliberate effort not to let their poleis grow beyond a certain size, and sent out people to create new poleis in colonies.

Were they big fishermen because they lived on water?
They did fish a good deal, but seem to have preferred lamb and goat, judging by their writing.

Why do the men have to stay in the military until they are 30? Are they able to live with their wives or note? Do they care if they see their wives or not?
The Greeks you are referring to are the Spartans, whose customs were viewed as rather bizarre by other Greeks. They thought that men would be more manly separate from women. Men could only visit their wives by sneaking out of the barracks, but this was thought to be good training for being sneaky soldiers and spies in the military. Clearly they did sneak out successfully or the Spartans would have died out.

If they questioned religion, did they have temples for the Gods and goddesses? Did they worship them like other cultures did their gods and goddesses?
The Greeks differed a great deal among themselves, from fervent faith to deep scepticism. Some ceremonies, like the annual renewal of Athena's cloak in the Pan-Athenaic procession to the Parthenon, were as much civic celebrations of political import as religious rites. But what makes the Greeks distinctive from a very early date, is the tendency of numbers of them to criticize their own gods and myths, and to try to consciously invent new philosophies which other peoples would have tried to derive from their gods.

In some of the first Olympics is it known whether or not the winners of events won medals back then? Or was it just something like honor?
No medals, just an honorary olive wreath. If you were a really successful athlete, a statue might be made of you, or a poem written praising you. Some were fed at public expense after their victories. But the ideal at the Olympics was sport for sport's sake (and the honor of the gods).

I would like to know more about Greco-Roman wrestling.
See The Ancient Greeks and the Sport of Wrestling.

I'm interested in how come the Greeks repeated the names of places and how they handled it. Ex: Argos (2), Thebes (2).
I don't know. Maybe they liked the thought of recreating a famous city. There's a Troy, Idaho not far from here, and an Athens in Georgia. The habit seems to be a persistent one.

How large is Greece today (land area)?
It has an area of 50,959 square miles if you include all the islands. For more on the geography of modern Greece, see the Greek Embassy's Facts About Greece page.

Why did they look at art from a realistic view?
Probably because they admired themselves so much. No civilization put so much emphasis on the importance of the human form; so it was probably inevitable that their sculptures would become more and more realistic. You can find a good history of Greek sculpture in the Britannica, with lots of illustrations showing how the works became more and more realistic, but the Britannica doesn't try to explain why they did.

Other useful sites:
University of Pennsylvania: Ancient Greek World
Tufts University's Perseus Project
Fordham University's list of online texts and other resources.
Cambridge University's Classics Resources on the Web.
Ancient Greece.com.
Maecenas: Images of Ancient Greece and Rome.

The Role of Women in Ancient Greek Art


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