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All Spartan infants were brought before a council of inspectors and examined for physical defects, and those who weren't up to standards were left to die. (Public Domain)

SCIENCE & TECH: 10 Shocking Facts About the Ancient Greeks

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The Ancient Greeks are often hailed as the founders of Western civilization. Celebrated for their advancements in philosophy, democracy, science, and the arts, we tend to view the ancient Greeks through rose-tinted glasses. Under this polished veneer of civilization lies a trove of lesser-known, surprising, and sometimes disturbing facts that reveal the truth about ancient Greek life. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows in ancient Greece; life could be tough, and Greek society was deeply divided. Here are some interesting facts about Ancient Greece.

1.The Spartans Were Baby Killers

Few aspects of ancient Greek society have captured our collective imagination like the Spartans. Famed for their military prowess and disciplined way of life, the Spartans have gone down in history as some of the greatest warriors the world has ever seen.

But what some people don’t realize is that the Spartans practiced infanticide. Upon birth Spartan newborns were subject to rigorous inspection by the elders. The examination determined the child’s physical fitness and general health. If the child was deemed to be weak, sickly, deformed, or otherwise undesirable, they were taken to a palace called the Apothetae. This was a chasm in the Taygetus Mountains range where the babies were left to die.

All Spartan infants were brought before a council of inspectors and examined for physical defects, and those who weren’t up to standards were left to die. (Public Domain)

Sparta was a warrior society that prioritized collective strength and resilience over individual lives. This ensured that only the fittest would survive to become future soldiers or bearers of Spartan offspring. While abhorrent by modern standards, to them, state-run infanticide was a small price to pay to ensure Sparta’s continued glory.

2.Athens Legal System Was Very Different To Ours

It’s common knowledge that Athens was the cradle of democracy, but most people are much less familiar with its rather intricate, and different, legal system. While most courts today are attended by judges and lawyers, in Athens, legal proceedings were driven by ordinary citizens.

One of the most shocking aspects was the concept of public prosecution. In what could amount to a legal free-for-all at times, any citizen could start a lawsuit, even on behalf of someone else. Unsurprisingly, this sometimes led to an environment ripe for frivolous and malicious lawsuits that would make the most determined ambulance chaser blush. 

The ancient court system in Ancient Greece. (Public Domain)

The ancient court system in Ancient Greece. (Public Domain)

Athenian courts were large, with juries consisting of hundreds of citizens that had been chosen by lot. The idea behind having such a substantial number was that it reduced the chances of bribery, bias, and other forms of corruption. Unlike modern juries, deliberation wasn’t private but happened straight after hearing the arguments. On the bright side, jurors voted via a secret ballot to avoid reprisals.

Athens was also home to some peculiar laws, not all of them fair. For example, citizens could be ostracized (exiled for ten years) if they were deemed to be a threat to the state. They didn’t have to have done anything wrong or broken any laws; just being considered a threat was enough. Pretty much the opposite of innocent until proven guilty.

3.Greek Women Got The Short Straw

We often have a somewhat romanticized view of ancient Greece, but it was far from as liberal as modern media sometimes portrays it. Ancient Greece was a patriarchal society through and through, and women’s lives were starkly different from those of their male counterparts. Particularly in terms of rights and freedoms.

In most Greek city-states women were confined to domestic roles and had a limited public presence. They weren’t allowed to take part in politics (some democracy) and couldn’t vote or participate in the Assembly. Property rights for women were also restrictive. In Athens, women could not own property independently; any inheritance they received was managed by their male relatives. 

They also had little say about who they married. That was arranged by their male guardians. It was normal for female teens to be married off to much older men. Once married, they were supposed to stay at home, oversee the slaves, manage the household, and, of course, produce babies. Leaving the house without a male escort was even frowned upon.

A depiction of Greek women washing clothes, on a classical Greek vase. (Public Domain)

A depiction of Greek women washing clothes, on a classical Greek vase. (Public Domain)

Furthermore, women drew the short straw when it came to education. While boys attended schools to learn philosophy, rhetoric, and physical education, girls received little formal education, focusing instead on domestic skills like weaving and cooking. 

Surprisingly, the only place it didn’t stink to be a woman was Sparta. Rather than being treated like glorified slaves, Spartan women enjoyed slightly more freedom and education. They were trained in physical fitness to bear strong children and were encouraged to speak their minds more than their Athenian counterparts.

4.The Ancient Greeks Invented the First Analog Computer

Time for something a bit more positive. It might sound like something out of a Dan Brown novel, but the ancient Greeks invented the first analog computer. Kind of.

Known as the Antikythera, it was discovered in 1901 in a shipwreck off the coast of the Greek Island Antikythera. It’s believed to date back to around 100 BC, and the strange device is so complex and sophisticated that similar technology wasn’t seen again until the invention of mechanical clocks in the 14th century. 

The Antikythera Mechanism, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece. (Tilemahos Efthimiadis from Athens, Greece/CC BY 2.0)

The Antikythera Mechanism, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece. (Tilemahos Efthimiadis from Athens, Greece/CC BY 2.0)

The Antikythera is believed to have been used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendrical and astrological purposes. The machine is made up of a complex system of interlocking gears housed in a wooden box with bronze dials and pointers. The front of the device featured two dials that represented the solar and lunar cycles, while the back had a series of inscriptions and scales indicating the cycles of other celestial bodies.

The Antikythera is so shockingly advanced that it completely altered our understanding of ancient Greek technology. It revealed a level of engineering and astronomical knowledge far beyond what anyone dreamed they had possessed. Modern studies using advanced imaging techniques have allowed scientists to reconstruct its operation, shedding light on the incredible ingenuity of its creators.

5.Athletes Competed In The Buff

It’s no secret that the Greeks loved sports, but it’s less well-known that Greek athletes competed in the buff. The practice even had its own name, gymnos (naked in Greek), and was commonplace, especially during the Olympics and other big Panhellenic festivals. 

This wasn’t an attempt to spice things up for those uninterested in sports, however. The nudity actually served several purposes. For a start, it symbolized equality among competitors as it stripped away distinctions like wealth and status. It also served as a tribute to the gods by highlighting the ideal form of the human body. Practically speaking, nudity also allowed for greater freedom of movement and reduced the chances of athletes overheating. 

The Discobolus, or discus thrower, of Myron, is an ancient Greek sculpture of a nude male athlete throwing a discus. While the original, made in bronze, is lost, there are numerous Roman copies in existence. The Townley Discobolus is housed at the British Museum. (British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The Discobolus, or discus thrower, of Myron, is an ancient Greek sculpture of a nude male athlete throwing a discus. While the original, made in bronze, is lost, there are numerous Roman copies in existence. The Townley Discobolus is housed at the British Museum. (British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

What the nudity wasn’t, though, was fan service for the female spectators. The spectators were usually made up of male citizens who viewed the events as not just entertainment but a form of cultural and religious celebration. Sadly, women were normally banned from attending all athletic competitions. There were some events, like the Heraean games, however, in which women were allowed to compete.

 

6.Ancient Greek Dentistry Was Grim

It’s often talked about how the ancient Greeks made great strides in the field of medicine but their attempts at dentistry could be rather grisly. Ancient Greek dentists, like their modern counterparts, dealt with common dental issues such as tooth decay and gum disease, but their methods were often rudimentary and painful by today’s standards.

No one likes having their teeth pulled, but in ancient Greece, it was a common procedure, performed by using forceps to yank the decayed tooth out. The forceps were a basic metal instrument that looked like pliers. The extraction was done without anesthesia, making the whole procedure more than a little unpleasant. 

Obviously, toothpaste wasn’t an option when it came to dental hygiene. Instead, the Greeks mixed substances like honey, vinegar, and alum to clean their teeth and ease any pain. These treatments were documented by renowned physicians such as Hippocrates and Galen, who provided detailed descriptions of dental ailments and their remedies.

7.Greek Drinking Parties Revolved Around Getting Drunk And Arguing

The ancient Greeks liked to party just as much as we do today; they just did it a little differently. Symposia were a type of drinking party where men would gather to drink, eat, and chat while enjoying music and other forms of entertainment. They were usually hosted by the elite and held in private homes, where participants reclined on couches arranged in a circle or semicircle. Very lavish.

Plato´s Symposium painting by Anselm Feuerbach, 1869. (Public Domain)

Plato´s Symposium painting by Anselm Feuerbach, 1869. (Public Domain)

The drink of choice was wine, which was downed in copious quantities but was mixed with water. Despite being diluted, the wine was still plenty strong, and guests often drank to excess. Drinking games, such as kottabos, where participants flung wine lees at targets, were common and added to the fun.

Once the drink was flowing, the guests would take part in intellectual debates (or at least debates they thought were intellectual) that covered a wide range of topics, from philosophy and politics to poetry and love. Unsurprisingly, these debates had a tendency to get a little heated, and inebriation led to both profound insights and arguments. Famous works, like Plato’s “Symposium,” depict these gatherings as settings for serious philosophical discourse interspersed with bouts of drunkenness.

8.Public Slavery Was a Common Practice

While more commonly associated with ancient Rome, the Greeks weren’t strangers to slavery, and ancient Greece even had its own unique form of slavery called “public slavery. Public slaves, known as “dēmosioi,” were owned by the state rather than citizens. They played an important role in society and were used to do things like maintain infrastructure and perform administrative functions. 

Public slaves were often clerks, scribes, and secretaries who handled important official documents. Others acted as a form of police called Scythian archers. These slaves were used to keep order during public gatherings and enforce the laws. Others worked in public works, maintaining roads, buildings, and other essential infrastructure.

Public slaves had a certain degree of autonomy and often received a wage, allowing them to save money. Once they had earned enough, they could sometimes buy their freedom. Being a public slave was usually a much better proposition than being privately owned.

However, they were still slaves. They were seen as property and lacked the majority of personal freedoms and rights that citizens held. Their lives were strictly controlled by the state and could change in an instant depending on what their owners decided. 

Slavery in Ancient Greece. (Public Domain)

Slavery in Ancient Greece. (Public Domain)

9.Philosophers Were Like Outlandish and Eccentric Rockstars

Greek philosophers were the rockstars of ancient Greece. They might be celebrated for their profound contributions to Western thought, but some were also known for their eccentric and often shocking behaviors. 

Take Diogenes of Sinope, for example. The founder of the Cynic Schools, he famously lived in a large ceramic jar in Athens, rejecting social conventions and materialism. He would carry a lantern during the day, claiming to be searching for an honest man but never finding one. Diogenes also publicly mocked powerful figures, including Plato, whom he derided by presenting a plucked chicken as a “featherless biped” to challenge Plato’s definition of man.

Diogenes, depicted here by the French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, was a philosopher of the cynic school of Greek philosophy and many thought he was crazy, but he was super popular with the people of Athens. (Jean-Léon Gérôme / Public Domain)

Diogenes, depicted here by the French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, was a philosopher of the cynic school of Greek philosophy and many thought he was crazy, but he was super popular with the people of Athens. (Jean-Léon Gérôme / Public Domain)

Heraclitus, known as “The Obscure,” was another eccentric philosopher. He believed that change was the fundamental essence of the universe, famously stating, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” Heraclitus preferred solitude and often retreated to the mountains for contemplation, shunning social interactions.

Even the mathematicians were out there. Pythagoras, best known for the Pythagorean theorem, founded a religious movement combining philosophy, science, and mysticism. He imposed strict rules on his followers, including banning them from eating beans. Why? Because they contain the souls of the dead, of course. His community operated like a secretive cult, requiring rigorous adherence to esoteric beliefs.

10.Greek Democracy Wasn’t as Inclusive as You Might Think

People like to talk about Athenian democracy, but it was a far cry from what most Western countries employ today. It was often far less inclusive than the modern version. In Athens, only free male citizens could participate in the political process, which excluded women, slaves, and metics (foreigners living in Athens). 

As we’ve already mentioned, thanks to the patriarchy, women were completely excluded from all aspects of politics. Women couldn’t vote or hold political office. Then there were slaves, who made up a massive portion of the population, but were considered property and were barred from voting. They might have performed essential tasks, but they were voiceless in political matters.

Metics, despite contributing to Athens’ economy and culture, were also denied citizenship and political participation. Even within the citizen class, wealth played a crucial role. The political system favored the affluent, who could afford the time and resources to engage in public service (maybe that part hasn’t changed much). Ordinary citizens could attend the Assembly and serve on juries, but influential positions were typically held by the wealthy elite.

Put simply, Athenian democracy was a step in the right direction, but it was severely limited. Democracy ignored a huge section of the population and ignored the contributions these people made to society. For the most part it was a rich man’s game, rigged to ensure the continued dominance of a wealthy elite.

Conclusion

The ancient Greeks left an undeniable mark on history with their contributions to philosophy, democracy, and the arts. However, their society was also marked by practices and beliefs that can shock modern sensibilities. From the brutal reality of Spartan infanticide to the exclusionary nature of Athenian democracy, these surprising facts reveal a complex civilization with both admirable and unsettling aspects. 

By exploring these lesser-known facets of Greek life, we gain a deeper, more nuanced understanding of their culture. These shocking truths remind us that even the most celebrated societies have their dark and surprising sides.

Top image: Medusa by Caravaggio, 1597, shocked ancient Greece.            Source: Uffizi Gallery/CC BY-SA 2.0 

 

By Robbie Mitchell

 





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