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What have the Greeks done for us?

Greeks developed: engineering, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, sport, and theatre, legal systems of trial and of course democracy. Much of what the Greeks created was developed or destroyed by the Romans and then lost until the renaissance. We owe much of our civilizations principles to these ancient peoples.


Ancient Greece was not a single nation as it is today but a collection of independent city states governing themselves and warring, trading or making treaties in their best interests or to defend their honour as it suited them.

The Athenians invented a system of DEMOCRACY (DEMOS = people KRATOS = power) that was developed over nearly two hundred years. It differed from OLIGARCHY (rule by a few often self chosen aristocrats) and MONARCHY (rule by one usually a hereditary King). It was a more direct system than ours as all citizens could speak at the assemblies and cast secret votes on all issues rather than elect representatives. However women were not allowed to participate in this process nor were slaves and in order to be citizen a man had to have been born in the city and own property.

Debates were heard and the citizens would respond by placing a stone token in a jar, hollow centres meant agreement, solid centres meant disagreement the tokens for and against were counted and a decision taken based on the majority. A similar system was in place for conducting criminal prosecutions. If the token was hollow the accused was guilty.

Citizens were elected to public office like magistrates for short period’s time or may have been chosen by lot similar to our system of jury service. People could be banished from the City if enough people wrote their names on a shard of pottery called an OSTRAKA and placed it in the jar. They would be ostracised.



Much of our modern theatre terms and principles come from the ancient Greeks, the word tragedy is derived from TRAGOS- the goat skin worn by dancers and ODE- meaning song. ORCHESTRA is the open flat place in which the CHORUS work in front of the SKENE (scenery) a raised platform with a painted cloth or permanently built background where the PROTAGONIST and ANTAGONIST perform. Our word SATIRE is from the mythical half goat half man SATYR dancer dressed in goat skins that would appear in the comedies often rude and topical making reference to the powerful people of the day.


There are many other modern English words that have ancient Greek origins like telescope; thermometer lots of them are scientific. Ask the class if they can think of any other English words with Greek origins that could be added to the list below. A pdf version of the below table can be downloaded here.

English words with Greek origins

These web pages from BBC Bitesize give a good introduction to Greek Culture, War and Politics with animations, games, audio clips and a short video from Dick and Dom about Archimedes.



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