The ancient Greeks brought us all sorts of important innovations, from democracy, born in 6th century BC Athens, to the Olympics, which began as a religious and athletics festival 200 years earlier. This article reveals ten surprising Greek inventions that you might not associate with this period in history, all of which prove how truly central the ancient Greeks were in the formation of civilization.
A Background On Ancient Greek Inventions And Culture
Ancient Greece was an artistic, political, and economic powerhouse whose culture has shaped many aspects of modern western society as we know it. Its classical style architecture, art, and literature have been reiterated and reimagined into 21st-century art and culture. It also introduced political democracy or demokratia, which has been sustained into numerous modern cultures. However, aside from ancient Greece’s well-known ideologies and contributions to contemporary society, there are also several Greek inventions that have continued to aid society even today.
10. Central Heating
Despite the hot, sunny Mediterranean summers, the ancient Greeks still needed to find ways of staying warm. In addition to thick cloaks and indoor fires, they came up with a far more technical and effective solution to keeping the cold at bay.
Of course, the power of the sun could be harnessed through the clever placement of windows, but the Greeks went one step further by constructing their buildings with a unique underfloor heating system known as a hypocaust.
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With hypo meaning ‘under’ and caust meaning ‘burning’, the name is self-explanatory. The floor would be built above a layer of raised stands, through which warm air from a nearby furnace would be circulated. This ingenious design was first recorded at the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in 350 BC and was also used at one of the earliest bathhouses, situated in Olympia, and used by athletes after their training and competitions.
When the Romans came to power, they adopted the technology and used it to great effect in their own homes, public buildings, and bathhouses. The fall of the Roman Empire also saw the sad decline in hot baths, which were largely a treat for the elite. Some form of the hypocaust system did continue to persist, however, in large buildings such as monasteries and castles.
Rudimentary bridges have been around as long as humans have needed to cross narrow stretches of water: it doesn’t take too much imagination to lay a log across a stream and hurry, albeit precariously, across. However, bridges were actually Greek inventions; they were the first to develop the art of bridge-building and constructed the first arched stone bridges.
So strong were these structures that several are still in existence (and use!) today, such as the Arkadiko Bridge in the Peloponnese, which dates back over three thousand years. It is one of four Mycenaean bridges built along a highway connecting the ancient cities of Tiryns and Epidaurus. At 2.5 meters in width, the bridge could easily accommodate a chariot and provides unique insight into Bronze Age travel, trade, and engineering.
As with most Greek inventions, the bridge was zealously taken up by the Romans, who constructed ever more impressive and extensive bridges across their empire. Unlike the hypocaust system, however, the bridge did not die out with the Romans but has proved a cornerstone of engineering ever since.
As the ancient Greeks improved their marine technology and ventured further afield on their ships, the need became apparent for more sophisticated safety procedures. The threat of hidden reefs and rocks were well-known to the seafaring Greeks and even featured in their most beloved stories. Often a sailor would be warned of an upcoming landmass by a fire stationed atop a tall hill, but these were unreliable, imprecise and did little to prevent collisions and shipwrecks.
The lighthouse became the solution to this problem and one of the most useful Greek inventions. Although many of these were simple structures, a few counted among the greatest constructions of antiquity, most notably the Pharos of Alexandria. This almighty lighthouse on the Egyptian coast was built during the Hellenistic Period of Greek history, after the fall of Alexander the Great. Soaring to a colossal 118m in height and containing hundreds of rooms, intelligently designed to dissipate the force of the wind and sustain the weight of the building, the lighthouse stood for the next 1000 years, until it was destroyed by earthquakes.
As much as the ancient Greeks loved sitting around for a drink and a discussion at symposia, they also loved to fight. From Marathon to Thermopylae, their battles are the stuff of legend, and it is no wonder that they developed a number of catastrophic weapons. Alongside its spears, swords, and shields, the ancient Greek armory also contained another weapon with huge destructive potential.
Around 400 BC, a Syracusan named Dionysius the Elder used the principles of tension, torsion, and leverage behind the crossbow to construct an immense stone-thrower, now recognized as the first example of a catapult. The Greeks soon took up the new technology, using it to great effect in their military conflicts: some catapults could throw incredibly heavy stones over a distance of 100m or more! This brought a lot of sieges to a swift end. They later developed the technology further, using it to create the ballista, which shot huge arrows across even greater distances. Dionysius’ invention revolutionized warfare, and the general principles behind his catapult remained in use for many centuries.
6. Musical Instruments
Much like today, music played a key role in ancient Greek society. Not only was it enjoyed in the privacy of one’s own home, but also at public events, from athletics competitions to religious ceremonies, and even during battle. So important was music to the identity of the Greeks that they considered it a gift from the gods, and attributed the invention of particular instruments to specific gods.
The lyre, a stringed instrument like a small harp, was the work of Hermes, the syrinx, more commonly known as the panpipes, came from the eponymous Pan, and the aulos, or the flute, was made by Athena, goddess of wisdom and war. The catalog of Greek instruments also included percussion in the form of the cymbals (kymbala), drum (tympanon) and tambourine (rhoptron), more wind instruments such as trumpets (salpinx) and horns (keras), and another stringed instrument, the kithara, which is generally considered the forerunner of the modern guitar.
The sheer range and scale of musical Greek inventions demonstrate how intrinsic the art was to the lives of the Greeks. From Plato to prostitutes, music was inextricably interwoven into their culture at every level.
5. Chewing Gum
The fifth-largest of the Greek islands, Chios was one of the ancient states to take up a democratic constitution like that of Athens. It was also one of the earliest to mint its own coins, which bore the symbol of the sphinx. And yet one of the most unique and important things about Chios was not its politics or economy, but it’s trees.
The trees that grow on the southern part of the island, which came to be known as Mastichochoria, secreted a resin nicknamed the ‘tears of Chios’. These droplets of mastic were harvested by the Greeks and processed in a rudimentary fashion to form a type of chewing gum. The famous ancient doctor, Hippocrates, even recommended its use to prevent digestive problems, ward off colds and freshen the breath.
The Romans too picked up on the use of mastic as chewing gum, often adding other ingredients to flavor it. It would not be for another 2000 years, however, that chewing gum was commercially manufactured, produced and sold in America.
Although the crane seems like a defining feature of the modern city skyline, this type of machinery was actually developed thousands of years ago. The ancient Mesopotamians invented apparatus to lift large quantities of water, and the Egyptians also had rudimentary construction technology, but it was the ancient Greeks who brought this machinery to a whole new level which allowed them to create ever more ambitious architectural marvels.
During the 6th and 5th centuries BC, the Greeks developed a system of pulleys, winches and ramps to produce a series of different cranes for lifting heavy loads. Individually, these were known by such names as the trispastos, which had three pulleys, and the pentaspastos, which had five, but the crane was generally referred to as the polyspaston, literally meaning ‘many pulleys’.
One of the most magnificent examples of the crane’s work in ancient Greece is the Parthenon, which was constructed out of blocks of marble so great that they could not be handled by men alone. While the Egyptians and Assyrians had employed human labor (often at the expense of human life) to shift and pile their building materials, the ancient Greeks invented the crane as a highly sophisticated solution to the problem of construction.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and since the ancient Greeks were not immune to pimples, boils and wounds, they came up with a method of dealing with these rather unpleasant inevitabilities. The Greek mathematician and engineer, Hero of Alexandria, recorded the use of an instrument called the pyoulkos to draw out pus. As well as being able to suck out substances into the chamber through a long, thin needle, the pyoulkos could also be used to inject liquids into the body.
It is thought that this syringe had been invented around 300 years earlier by Ctesibius of Alexandria, who was also responsible for a number of other innovations, including the water clock and the pipe organ. The ancient syringe was a similar size and shape to its modern counterpart but made of copper. Later in the 2nd century AD, the Greek physician Galen used syringes made of brass, which he is said to have used on the eyes as a cure for cataracts!
Sports played an important role in ancient Greece as a key stage in a child’s education, preparation for military conflict, and an accompaniment to religious worship. The most famous of all the athletics contests were those held at Olympia, the forerunner of the modern Olympic Games.
As well as the traditional running races and throwing competitions, the Greeks invented a number of new sports. Some of these involved combinations of the other events, such as the pentathlon, which consisted of jumping, two types of throwing, running, and wrestling, while others were more violent.
Wrestling has a long history preceding the Greeks, but the more formal contact sport of boxing, involving two fighters in a ring, wearing protective gloves and overseen by a referee, was the product of the 23rd Olympic festival, in 688 BC. 40 years later, another combat sport was introduced to the festival: the Pankration was a combination of boxing, wrestling and choking, and was so dangerous that many competitors died in the arena!
If there was anything the Greeks were better at than fighting, it was thinking. The word ‘philosophy’ comes from the Greek phile, meaning ‘love’, and sophia, meaning ‘wisdom, and the discipline is widely agreed to have its roots in the world of ancient Greece. Thales of Miletus is often considered one of the earliest western philosophers. He and the other pre-Socratic philosophers studied the natural world in order to better understand what it means to be human and sought explanations and justifications for our actions and beliefs.
During the 5th century BC, Socrates and his student Plato revolutionized human thought with their questions about the definition of things, their ideas about the soul and their challenge to almost universally accepted concepts. This legacy of curiosity and intellectual exploration was continued by Plato’s student Aristotle into the 4th century, when a large number of other philosophical schools, such as the Epicureans, Stoics and Skeptics, emerged to have their say.
Although individuals throughout history have undoubtedly wondered about many of the big questions explored by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and their contemporaries, the ancient Greeks turned these disparate contemplations into a discipline and can be said to have invented philosophy.
More On Ancient Greek Inventions
Terracotta Kylix Depicting a Man Playing a Lyre attributed to the Dokimasia Painter, 480 BC, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Each of these Greek inventions go to show the importance of the ancient thinkers, explorers and inventors behind them, not only to Greek history but to human civilization in general. Their philosophy shapes the way we think today, their engineering still helps us build up our communities, and their artistic innovations continue to bring beauty to the world around us. For more surprising historical inventions, read about those of the Romans, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians.