The Intellectual and Cultural Influence of Ancient Athens

The Theatre of Dionysus - Birthplace of European theatre

Episode 19: Greek Gods, Philosophy and Science

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

The ancient city-state of Athens created one of the richest and most influential cultures in Western history.

They adopted the Phoenician alphabet (adding vowels to it) to create a written Greek language and they adopted papyrus from the Egyptians to preserve their ideas in books.

In addition to geometry, astronomy, philosophy, physics, engineering, drama and medicine, the Athenians introduced the modern concepts of reason and logic. Prominent Greek philosophers included:

  • Thales (born around 600 BC) – asserted the entire physical world could be worked out through reason and mathematics and correctly determined the approximate shape of the earth and its orbit around the sun.
  • Pythagoras (born 570 BC) – led a religious cult that used mathematical proportions to understand musical harmony and the movement of the planets and stars.
  • Democritus (born 460 BC) – theorized everything in the universe is made up of atoms.
  • Hippocrates (born 460 BC) – the first physician to to systematically classify illnesses based on points of similarity and difference.
  • Socrates (born 470 BC) – asserted knowledge can only be obtained through constant questioning.
  • Plato (born 427 BC) – (most famous disciple of Socrates) deduced planets move in a circular pattern around the sun and that day and night result from the Earth spinning on its axis.
  • Aristotle (born 384 BC) – Plato’s most famous pupil, founded the Lyceum and taught Alexander the Great. More focused on data than Plato, he studied and documented the physiology of all animals, and expounded on ethics, virtue and good character.

In this lecture, Benjamin also discussed the Greek gods and their origin myths, as well as the Cult of Dionysus and  efforts by Athenian to channel the Cult’s drunken and lascivious behavior into lavish open air theatrical events. Seating as many as 20,000 people, these events featured plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and other playwrights.

The film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a library card.

https://pukeariki.kanopy.com/video/greek-gods-philosophy-and-science

The Origin of Democracy

The Origin of Democracy

Press TV (2015)

Film Review

In this Press TV documentary about “democracy” in early Athens and Rome, what intrigued me most is that it glosses over burning questions that are glossed over in high school social studies. It has always mystified me why the Athenians put Socrates to death  and why the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official Roman religion in 313 AD – when only 20% of Romans were Christian and the emperor himself was non-Christian (he converted shortly before his death).

According to the Iranian scholars interviewed in this film, the supposed Athenian democracy was actually ruled by a hereditary nobility. Socrates ran afoul of them because he taught the Athenian form of government was actually a type of demagoguery. He was also highly critical of their lack of concern about morality, justice or the massive social inequality present in Athens at the time.

At the time of Socrates, only about 1/8 of the Athenian population (the landowners comprising the nobility) were allowed any input into government. Women and slaves (who comprised 3/4 of the population) and foreign non-slaves (about 10% of the population) were automatically excluded.

In addition to examining the contrasting political systems in the city-states of Athens and Sparta, the film looks at the Roman Republic (509-37 BC), which combined elements of both. It attributes attributes Constantine’s 313 AD Edict of Milan (which made Christianity the official religion) to a desire to unify the population during a period of growing class warfare and growing conflict with the Persian (Iranian) Empire. The latter, which stretched from the Indus to the Nile Rivers, was an enemy of Rome.

The film also explores two distinct differences between Western and Eastern systems of governance. Slavery was far more prominent under Western “democracy” and leaders were much hard to depose when they became corrupt. In contrast, Persian emperors were deposed when they became corrupt and lost the support of the people they ruled.


*A demogogue is someone who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.

More Ancient History They Don’t Teach in School

History of the World Part 2

BBC (2018)

Film Review

Part 2 of the BBC “History of the World” series covers the rise of the first western empires. This is commonly referred to as “ancient history,” a subject no longer taught in US schools (recently, however, it seems to be a popular topic for Hollywood features films). Although the reenactments in Part 2 are shorter and more plausible, Part 2’s failure to cover non-Western empires is a serious weakness.

The empires described include

  • The Assyrian Empire (2,500 – 609 BC) – focusing on the rule of Sennacherib (705-681 BC), who initiated the use of “total warfare” (killing non-combatant elderly women and children) and “shock and awe” terror tactics to subjugate neighboring nations. Sennacherib created the blueprint for every subsequent tyrant who has sought to rule by terror.
  • The Persian Empire – founded by Cyrus the Great with the conquest of the Median, Lydian, and Babylonian empires in 550 BC. Unlike Sennacherib, Cyrus ruled via by diplomacy and sought to integrate the various cultures under his rule.
  • The brief empire ruled by Alexander the Great (334-323 BC) – which included Turkey, Egypt, North Africa, and Asia Minor to the Indian border. Like Cyrus, Alexander also attempted to integrate the different cultures under his rule.

Part 2 goes on covers the rise of democracy in the city-state of Athens in the 6th century BC and their successful rebuff of a much larger Persian army that tried to conquer them.

This episode also explores the life and teachings of Gautama Buddha (5th-6th century BC) in India, Confucius (551-479 BC) in China and Socrates (470-399 BC) in Athens. All three promoted philosophies that were at odds with the violent and hierarchical empire building of the times.