Ancient Greece is believed to be the basis of Western civilization. The narrative goes that Greece’s cultural legacy was passed on to Rome and then to the rest of Europe through the Roman Empire. The reality is more complex. The idea of ancient Greece as a shared cultural basis of the European Civilization is relatively recent, dating its origins to early modernity. The same is true for the concept of the West, which itself is a cultural construct created under specific historical circumstances.
Ancient Greece and Western Civilization
Philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle provided an intellectual foundation for many European philosophers. Greek art and architecture have been immensely influential in shaping European artistic tastes, particularly since the 18th century. The scientific contributions of Ancient Greece also helped develop new scientific insights in the early modern period. Regarding political organization, Ancient Greece is credited as the birthplace of democracy. For these reasons, it is often said that Ancient Greece provided a cultural model and basis for Western civilization, which carried on Greece’s legacy of democracy, philosophy, art, and science.
However, this view is based on the concept of a shared “Western” or “European civilization.” In reality, this concept is not universal nor value-neutral. Ideas such as “West” and “Europe” are constructs shaped by specific historical circumstances.
“The West” as a Concept
The idea of a “Western civilization” or simply “West” was constructed in specific and somewhat recent circumstances. The term “West” (typically understood as the opposite of the “East”) has numerous meanings. It refers to Europe, primarily Western Europe, as well as North America, Australia, and New Zealand, or what is today commonly referred to as “the Global North”. Also, the West is often equated with the North Atlantic, which reflects the history of European colonialization. However, the West as a concept is not solely based on geography. In reality, there is no full consensus over which places and countries belong to the West or what criteria can determine this. For example, is Eastern Europe part of the West or not?
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Instead of geography, the West is often defined based on the idea of a shared culture. However, this is also a vague criterion. Countries belonging to the West have significantly different cultures, languages, and histories. In this context, the shared cultural legacy of ancient Greece is often proposed as the basis of Western civilization. But how did this idea come about?
How Did the Ancient Greeks View the World?
How did Ancient Greeks view the world and their place in it? There were various Ancient Greek cultures, and their understanding of the world changed through time. Speaking about a universal “Ancient Greek heritage” is not easy. It is also not easy to summarize what different regions and city-states in Greece believed about the world. However, there was a shared Ancient Greek worldview — a worldview very different from our own.
In his Histories, Herodotus mentions that the world is divided into three parts: Lybia in the south, Asia to the east, and Europe as the rest. In this worldview, the Balkans and Anatolia, where the Greek civilization was located, make the center. This center separates the West from the East and the South. However, these areas are not seen as the center today but rather as the periphery of Europe or not even Europe at all. Also, the Ancient Greeks did not believe in the unity of “people living in Europe”, nor did they have a concept of modern racial categories.
The Ancient Greeks separated themselves from others based on language and cultural traits. Those who did not speak Greek were labeled barbarians (bárbaroi). The term referred to foreign enemies and allies alike. It referred to the great cultures such as ancient Egypt or Persia as well as small tribes scattered to the north of Greece.
Another thing that complicates the Greek legacy is the existence of rich trade and cultural networks with the other cultures around the Mediterranean and, sometimes, further to the east. Greeks did not form extensive networks with the barbarians to their north in the rest of Europe. While these contacts existed, Greece was primarily focused on the Mediterranean. This is not surprising: cultures like ancient Egypt were flourishing and significantly more influential compared to the small tribal societies of Europe.
The Legacy of Ancient Greece in Europe
Greek culture spread to new territories during the Hellenistic Period, the period that followed Alexander the Great’s conquests. However, the Hellenistic states of Alexander’s successors were mostly outside of Europe. Greek culture also significantly influenced Rome as the latter conquered the Greek world. Interestingly, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Roman Empire did not cease to exist. The Eastern Roman Empire (often referred to as Byzantine Empire) kept on until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE. However, the Byzantine Empire is typically not regarded as part of the West’s history, even though it had a direct cultural link to both Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome.
During the Middle Ages, the area today known as Western Europe was divided into numerous kingdoms and feudal territories. It was the time of Christianization, and religion greatly influenced the relations between states as well as with the Islamic world. The relationship between Christians and Muslims was tense and antagonistic throughout the Middle Ages. However, the Islamic world provided invaluable translations of numerous key ancient Greek texts. Thanks to this activity, many of the Ancient Greek texts were preserved and managed to become known throughout Europe in the centuries that followed. In contrast, Western Europe in the Middle Ages focused little on Greece. It was only in the Renaissance and Early Modernity that ideas about the importance of the Ancient Greek legacy flourished. It is possible to say that Western Europe got (re)introduced to antiquity during this period. This is when the idea of Ancient Greece as the basis for European culture was born.
An important figure who contributed to Europeans embracing Ancient Greece (and Rome) was Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), an early archaeologist and art historian. He dedicated his work to Greek and Roman art and contributed greatly to the rise of the Neoclassical movement. The popularity of Ancient Greece and growing ideas about the importance of its legacy prompted numerous travelers, writers, and adventurers in the late 18th and 19th centuries to visit Greece.
However, there was a problem. Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the territories of Greece had been under the control of the Ottoman Empire. This made Europeans of the 18th and 19th centuries view Greece as “the East”, and not part of their cultural sphere. While some Western Europeans, such as Byron, supported the Greek war for independence (1821-1832) from the Ottomans, the Europeans were mostly interested in Greek antiquity but not in modern Greeks. In other words, Western Europe saw itself, and not modern Greeks, as the cultural descendants of “glorious antiquity.”
These ideas continued through the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution and Colonialization ensured Western Europe’s power. At the same time, ideas about race — first formulated in the 18th century — intensified. The European elites claimed that their power and success around the world were a direct result of their racial superiority, which translated into superior intelligence, superior biological characteristics, and superior culture. These assumptions embraced the Greek cultural legacy as the basis for Europe’s “superior culture.” The practice of obtaining pieces of art and monuments from Greece and transporting them to western capitals became common, with the Parthenon marbles being the most well-known example.
Ancient Greece: The Cradle of Western Civilization?
The importance of Ancient Greece in the European imagination is immense. The belief that modern Europe’s roots can be traced back to Ancient Greece is a powerful one. On one side, it emphasizes the role that Greek culture played over the centuries. However, the concept of Greece as the cradle of Western civilization is often used uncritically or for nefarious goals (such as among white supremacists and racist organizations).
It is important to recognize and remember the intellectual achievements of Ancient Greece as well as their legacy and enduring, long-lasting influence. However, it is also important to understand that the idea that ancient Greece is the cradle of western civilization has its own history. The main fallacy in considering Ancient Greece the cradle of Western civilization is not the lack of Greek cultural heritage but the idea of a shared and essentialist “Western Civilization.”