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Ancient Greece flourished at the crossroads of many different civilizations. It was not a completely unified state or an empire and was made out of many city-states called Polis.
Regardless of this fact, the vibrant social life, as well as cultural and ideational exchange between people, made Greek city-states fruitful grounds for countless discoveries and inventions. In fact, the Greeks can be credited with many inventions and discoveries which have been developed over time and adapted by subsequent generations.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at some of the most notable inventions of ancient Greece that are still in use today.
What was labeled as democracy in ancient Greece would likely not be considered even close to the practices of many democratic states today. Nordic countries would disagree that democracy started in Greece, as they like to claim that some Viking settlements practiced democracy as well. However, regardless of this, Greece is where the practice flourished and eventually went on to impact the rest of the world.
In ancient Athens, a concept of a city constitution was created to enshrine the political rights and obligations of citizens. This labeled Athens as the birthplace of democracy. Democracy was, however, strictly limited to around 30% of the population. Back then, only adult men were entitled to participate in democracy, meaning that women, enslaved people, and foreigners could not have their say in the everyday political affairs of ancient Greece.
Many different civilizations asked some of the most fundamental questions for which they tried to find answers. They showed their beliefs in their art, culture, and religious practices, so it would be wrong to say that philosophy originated in ancient Greece. However, western philosophy did begin to flourish in Greek city-states.
What helped these intellectual developments was the relative openness of the society and intellectual and cultural exchanges with the rest of the Mediterranean.
In the city-states of ancient Greece, intellectuals started to observe the natural world. They tried to answer questions about the origin of the universe, how everything in it is created, whether the human soul exists outside of the body or if Earth is at the center of the universe.
Reasoning and debate flourished in Athens and other cities. Modern critical thought and reasoning truly owe to the works of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Contemporary western philosophy stands on the shoulders of the Greek intellectuals that dared to ask, criticize, and provide answers.
The Olympic Games
Although the modern Olympic Games started in France based on the idea of Pierre de Coubertin, it was built upon the ancient Olympic Games that were first held in Greece. The very first known Olympic Games were held in Olympia, Greece in 776 B.C. The site where it was held was a place where the Greeks went to worship their deities.
During the Olympic Games, war and fighting would cease and people’s attention turned towards the competition. Back then, the winners of the games wore wreaths made from laurel leaves and olive figs instead of medals like those worn in the modern games.
The Olympic Games were not the only sports competition in Greece. Many other Greek islands and city-states organized their own competitions where people from all over Greece and the ancient world would gather to enjoy the spectacle.
Alarm clocks are used by billions of people around the world, but not many know where they were first created. The alarm clock was invented by the ancient Greeks and although the first alarm cloth was a rudimentary device, it served its purpose almost as well as the clocks used today.
Back in the 5th century BC, a Hellenistic Greek inventor and engineer called ‘Ctesibius’ created a highly elaborate alarm system that involved pebbles dropping down onto a gong to make a sound. Some alarm clocks also had trumpets attached to them which made sounds by using water to force the compressed air through beating reeds.
It’s said that ancient Greek philosopher Plato owned a large water clock that had an alarm signal that sounded like a war organ. Apparently, he was unhappy with his students because of their tardiness and used this clock to signal the start of lectures early in the morning.
Cartography is the practice of creating maps that display positions of different places and topographical objects on Earth. It’s believed that Anaximander, a Greek philosopher, was the first to put the concept of distances between different landmasses on paper and draw a map that attempted to accurately represent those distances.
Given the time context, Anaximander could not count on satellites and various technologies to draw his maps, so it’s not surprising that they were simple and not perfectly accurate. His map of the known world was later corrected by the author Hecataeus, who had traveled extensively around the world.
Plato and Hecataeus were not the only Greeks who practiced cartography, however, since there were many others who went on to try to develop maps that would depict the layout of the world at that time.
Imagining a world without theater is next to impossible as it’s one of the main sources of entertainment today. The Ancient Greeks are credited with the invention of theatre in the 6th century BCE. Since then, Greek theater in Athens was popular at religious festivals, weddings, and many other events.
Greek plays were probably one of the most sophisticated and complex methods of storytelling used in ancient times. They were performed all over Greece and some, such as Oedipus Rex, Medea, and The Bacchae are still known and loved today. Greeks would gather around circular stages and observe the plays that were being acted out. These plays were the first pre-written rehearsed interpretations of real and fictional events, both tragic and comedic.
Showers were invented by the Ancient Greeks somewhere in 100 B.C. Unlike the modern showers used today, the first shower was simply a hole in the wall through which a servant would pour water while the person having the shower stood on the other side.
Over time, the Greeks modified their showers, using lead plumbing and making beautiful showerheads that were carved with intricate designs. They connected different lead pipes into a plumbing system that was installed inside shower rooms. These showers became popular in gymnasiums and can be seen depicted on vases that show female athletes taking baths.
Bathing in warm water was considered unmanly by the Greeks, so it was always cold water that flowed from the showers. Plato, in The Laws, suggested that hot showers must be reserved for the elderly, while the Spartans believed freezing cold showers helped prepared their bodies and minds for battle.
The Antikythera Mechanism
The discovery of the Antikythera mechanism at the beginning of the 20th century sent shockwaves around the world. The mechanism looked rather unusual and resembled a clock with cogs and wheels. The confusion around it lasted for decades because nobody knew what exactly this highly complex-looking machine did.
The Greeks created the Antikythera mechanism around 100 BCE or 205 BCE. After hundreds of years, scientists were recently able to create 3D renderings of the mechanisms and developed a theory that the Antikythera mechanism was the world’s first computer.
Derek J. de Solla Price became interested in the device and investigated. Although its full use is still unknown as the device is missing many parts, it’s possible that this early computer was used to determine the positions of the planets.
Although complex infrastructure is often attributed to the Romans, Greeks were also ingenious builders. In fact, they were the first to create arched bridges which have become common architectural structures found throughout the world today.
The first arched bridge was built in Greece, and it is believed to have been built around 1300 BCE and made of stone. It was small, but sturdy, made from durable bricks the Greeks made themselves.
The oldest existing arch bridge is a stone corbel bridge known as the Mycenaean Arkadiko Bridge in Greece. Built in 1300 BC, the bridge is still used by the locals.
In Ancient Greece, Homer was viewed as the founder of geography. His works describe the world as a circle, ringed by a single, large ocean and they show that by the 8th century BC, the Greeks had a fair knowledge of eastern Mediterranean geography.
Although Anaximander was said to be the first Greek that tried to draw an accurate map of the region, it was Hecataeus of Miletus that decided to combine these drawn maps and attribute stories to them. Hecataeus traveled the world and spoke to sailors who passed through the port of Miletus. He expanded his knowledge about the world from these stories and wrote a detailed account of what he had learned.
However, the Father of Geography was a Greek mathematician called Eratosthenes. He had a profound interest in the science of geography and is credited for the calculation of the Earth’s circumference.
Although many civilizations, from the Romans to the Mesopotamians are often credited with the invention of central heating, it was the Ancient Greeks who invented it.
The Greeks were the first to have indoor heating systems somewhere around 80 BC, which they invented to keep their homes and temples warm. Fire was the one heat source they had, and they soon learned how to propel its heat through a network of pipes, sending it to various rooms in the building. The pipes were hidden well under the floors and would heat the floor’s surface, resulting in the heating of the room. For the heating system to work, the fire had to be maintained constantly and this task fell to the servants or slaves in the household.
Ancient Greeks were aware that air can expand when heated up. This is how the first central heating systems were created but the Greeks did not stop there, and they figured out how to create thermometers as well.
The first lighthouse was attributed to an Athenian naval strategist and politician called Themistocles and was built during the 5th century BC in Piraeus harbor.
According to Homer, Palamedes of Nafplio was the inventor of the lighthouse which was built either in Rhodes or Alexandria in the 3rd century BC.
Over time, lighthouses were built all over ancient Greece to light the way for passing ships. The first lighthouses were built to resemble standing stone columns that had fiery beacons of light coming out at the top.
The Water Mill
Watermills were another ingenious, revolutionary invention of the Greeks, used around the world for various purposes including agriculture, milling, and metal shaping. The first water mill is said to have been built in Byzantium, a Greek province, in the 3rd century B.C.E.
The ancient Greeks used water mills to grind grain which led to the production of food staples such as pulses, rice, flour, and cereals, to name a few. The mills were used throughout the country, including the dry regions where they could be run with small amounts of water.
Although many argue that water mills were invented in China or Arabia, a British historian known as M.J.T. Lewis proved to the world through research that water mills are, in fact, an ancient Greek invention.
The odometer is one of the most extensively used instruments in the modern world to measure the distance traveled by a vehicle. Today, all odometers found in vehicles are digital but a few hundred years ago they were mechanical devices that are said to have originated in ancient Greece. However, some historians attribute the invention of this device to Heron of Alexandria, Egypt.
Not much is known about when and how odometers were invented. However, the written works of the Ancient Greek and Roman writers Strabo and Pliny, respectively, provide evidence that these devices existed in Ancient Greece. They created odometers to help measure distance accurately, which revolutionized the building of roads not only in Greece but also in ancient Rome.
The earliest known vending machines were used in the 1st century BCE, and they were believed to have been invented in Alexandria, Egypt. However, vending machines originated in Ancient Greece where they were invented by Hero of Alexandria, the Greek mathematician, and engineer.
The first vending machine worked with a coin that was deposited at the top of the machine and would then fall onto the lever that was attached to a valve. Once the coin hit the lever, the valve would allow water to flow outside of the vending machine.
After a while, the counterweight would cut off the delivery of water and another coin would have to be inserted to make the machine work again.
The Greek Fire
Greek fire was invented in 672 CE during the Byzantine Empire and used as a flammable liquid weapon. The Greeks would attach this combustible compound to a flame-throwing device, and it became a potent weapon that gave them an immense advantage over their enemies. It’s said that the fire was so flammable that it could easily set ablaze any enemy ship.
It’s not entirely clear whether the Greek fire would instantly light when it made contact with water or once it hit a solid target. Regardless, it was this fire that helped the Byzantine Empire on many occasions to defend itself from invaders. However, the composition of the mixture remains unknown to this day.
Greeks were surely not the first people to gaze at the stars, but they were the first to try to find explanations about the world around them based on the movements of celestial bodies. They believed that the Milky Way is full of stars and some even theorized that the Earth could be round.
Greek astronomer Eratosthenes made one of the greatest astronomical discoveries when he managed to calculate the circumference of the globe based on the shadows that were cast by an object at two different latitudes.
Another Greek astronomer, Hipparchus, was considered one of the greatest observers of ancient astronomy and some even regarded him as the greatest astronomer of antiquity.
Medical Diagnostics and Surgical Tools
Medicine was practiced almost everywhere in the ancient world, especially in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.
However, the Greeks tried to follow a scientific approach to medicine and around the 5th century BCE, medical practitioners attempted to scientifically diagnose and cure illnesses. This approach was based on observing and recording the behavior of patients, testing different cures, and examining the lifestyles of patients. It was Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician, who caused such advancement of medicine.
Through observing wounds, Hippocrates was able to differentiate between arteries and veins without needing to dissect humans. He was referred to as the Father of Western Medicine and his contributions to medicine were great and lasting. He was also the founder of the famous Hippocratic School of Medicine on the Island of Kos in 400 BCE.
It is believed that ancient Greeks potentially performed the first brain surgery, as early as the 5th century CE.
Skeletal remains around the island of Thasos have been found, with skulls showing signs of trepanning, a procedure that involves drilling a hole in the skull to relieve patients of the pressure of blood build-up. It was found that these individuals were of high societal status, so it’s possible that this intervention was not available to everyone.
The Ancient Greeks are credited with the invention of the first crane that was used for heavy lifting in the 6th century BCE.
The evidence that cranes were first used in Ancient Greece comes from the large stone blocks that were used to build Greek temples which showed distinctive holes. As the holes were made above the block’s center of gravity, it’s clear that they were lifted using a device.
The invention of cranes allowed Greeks to build upwards meaning that they could use smaller stones to build instead of large boulders.
Ancient Greece was a place of wonders, creativity, and exchange of ideas and knowledge. Although most of these started out as simple inventions, they were altered over time, adapted, and then perfected by other cultures. Today, all the inventions mentioned in this article are still used around the world.
From the first forms of democracy to brain surgery, the ancient Greeks contributed to the development of human civilization and helped it to flourish, becoming what it is today.