Ancient Greece

For The Historical Record

What do you want to be remembered for in a hundred years? Would it be preposterous to suggest that your descendants would remember you in two thousand years? Is this too much to wish for unless you are one of the lucky few who is famous today? How long does fame last? What are the qualities which make for enduring fame?

After two thousand years, few individuals will stand out from the milieu of society in general. Even if they are remembered for formulating the equation on how to obtain the sides of a right-angled triangle (Pythagoras), or for conquering much of the known world of the time (Alexander the Great), how can we know what made these people laugh and cry? How can we take a look into their personal lives to see what made them laugh and cry?

What was life in Ancient Greece like? Was it all that different from how we live now? How can we reach out and attempt to touch these people, perhaps smell a woman’s perfume or see a toddler playing with a prized toy? What mindset do we need to relate to how people lived two thousand years ago?

We can do little more than set aside preconceived notions about what Ancient Greeks were like. What preconceived idea do you have? Is it a stereotype? Do you think of them as uncivilized because they did not have computers so they could communicate over vast distances or because they didn’t have indoor plumbing? How much do we enrich our understanding of them as well as of ourselves if we lay aside these types of limiting ideas?

Archeologists and historians attempt to learn about not only the Ancient Greeks but other ancient peoples by excavating sites that are believed to have historical importance. Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), a German archeologist, enjoyed reading Homer’s ILIAD and ODYSSEY. He decided to search for the lost city of Troy solely on the evidence Homer presented in these epic poems.

In 1870 he found the ruins of Troy and uncovered objects made from gold, bronze and silver - objects which predated Homer’s ILIAD by over a thousand years. In 1876, after more searching, he found the ruins of an ancient city, Mycenae, on the plain of Argolis. Mycenae was the foremost city in the Aegean about 1400 B.C. Within the ruins, Schliemann found a drinking cup worked from thin gold which had to be hammered back into shape. Men like Schliemann, curious about the past, have rediscovered rich sources of history which tell the stories of very real people.

Archeologists not only search for ruins of ancient cities, but also reconstruct them once they are found. The most notable example is Pompeii, a city devastated by a volcano in A.D. 79 in Italy. People were found encased in volcanic ash and mud as they had tried to flee the fury of Vesuvius. The volcano had erupted so unexpectedly that life in this town, moments before the eruption, remains a place for visitors to explore - an insight into the way life was lived in the past.

Often artifact (an object made by people and describing people’s lives) which archeologists find, are abundant in examples of how people lived. For example, a painting on a wine jar will tell us much about how people dressed, how they wore their hair and what type of tools they used, such as mirrors, pots, and baskets (which the Ancient Greeks used for storage since they had no dressers or closets).

Archeology isn’t the only wonderful source for learning about the Ancient Greeks. The written word tells much. There are primary records which were written by people living in Ancient Greece and secondary records which are records copying parts or a part of a primary record.

One of these records is Plato’s TIMEUS AND CRITIAS. With this writing, he set men’s imaginations afire with his dialogues between Timaeus and Critias, who discussed the legendary Atlantis, an utopian land lost in space and time. Plato might have had access to primary records describing Atlantis but his dialogue is more than likely fictional according to most historians. However, this does not prevent others from writing about this mythical land nor searching for it.

To make recognition of the differing periods easier, Ancient Greek history is divided into several eras:

3000 B.C. Minoan civilization began on the island of Crete. 1600 B.C. Mycenaean civilization began on the Greek mainland

1200-800 B.C. The Dark Ages

800-500 B.C. Archaic Period

500-336 B.C. Classical Period (Alexander the Great became King in 336 B.C.)

336-146 B.C. Hellenistic Period (The Romans conquered Carthage in 146 B.C., putting an end to Ancient Greek supremacy in the Aegean).

Most of what we know about the Ancient Greeks and how they lived, comes from our knowledge of the Classical and Hellenistic periods. Therefore, unless a statement is specified as such, it comes from these two periods.

Thus, enduring fame is not a personal achievement but rather a legacy of the particular civilization we live in. Who knows but one day, two thousand years into the future, your face will be the one future civilizations look upon and wonder about. Perhaps it will be on a strip of film or just maybe, it will be in a family photograph album. Who knows how the future will remember you?