Democracy, Disability & Death: 7 Amazing Facts About Ancient Greece

Democracy, Disability & Death: 7 Amazing Facts About Ancient Greece

Patrick Lynch - October 25, 2016

The ancient Greeks have been credited with a number of innovations; especially when it comes to philosophy. When people discuss Ancient Greece, they are usually referring to the period from 800 BC until 146 BC which is when the Romans took control of Greece.

Greece was inhabited by farmers as early as 6500 BC although there isn’t a tremendous amount of information about these settlers. The Minoan civilization is usually the first point of reference when discussing the history of ancient Greece as they lived on Crete and the Aegean islands from 3650 BC. The Mycenaean civilization followed and is often deemed to be the first ‘advanced’ civilization on Greece’s mainland; it flourished until 1100 BC. This was followed by a period called the Dark Age and Greece only began to recover from 800 BC.

From the 6th century BC onwards, Greece was to develop into one of the most advanced civilizations in the world. Keep reading to learn 7 interesting facts about ancient Greece and its society.

Democracy, Disability & Death: 7 Amazing Facts About Ancient Greece
Getty Images (Prisoners of War sold as slaves in Ancient Greece)

1 – Slavery was the ‘norm’

Unfortunately, slavery was normal in ancient Greece. As much as the Greeks valued ‘freedom’, this rule didn’t apply to a section of their society. The actual number of slaves varied depending on the region but estimates suggest the figure could be anywhere from 15% to 40% of the total population.

Slaves were procured from a variety of different sources. Poor families would sometimes sell one of their children in order to make ends meet. Defeated enemies of Greece were by far the biggest source of slaves. After his invasion of Scythia in 339 BC, Philip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) sold an estimated 20,000 women and children into slavery. War was such a good source of forced labor that slave traders would join armies during the campaigns in order to sell prisoners as soon as they were captured! There were also a number of trading posts around the Black Sea where slaves could be purchased. Simply put, if you had the money and the need, finding slaves was not a problem.

In Athens, citizens didn’t like the idea of working for someone else so even paid labor was viewed in a negative light (an exception was made for state employment). As a result, there was no shortage of work for slaves; they would be asked to work as chefs, nurses, porters, miners and even soldiers. Slaves were even forced to work in certain public positions. For instance, the Athenian police in the 4th and 5th centuries BC consisted mainly of Scythian slaves. According to some well-to-do Greeks, not owning slaves was a sign of poverty!

The treatment of slaves also varied according to their profession and of course the whims of their owners. Unfortunate slaves who worked as miners were subjected to terrible abuse and usually had a very short life. At the other end of the scale, those who worked as craftsmen were often treated well and could even engage in paid labor away from their masters although they did have to give him a sizeable portion of their income. If they earned enough, it was possible to buy their freedom. Slaves who became soldiers and died in battle were given the honor of a state funeral.

Democracy, Disability & Death: 7 Amazing Facts About Ancient Greece
YouTube- Ancient Greek Stadium

2 – They Founded the Olympics

The ancient Greeks loved festivals and games and were the pioneers of the Olympics which first took place in approximately 776 BC (this date is hotly disputed however which some scholars claiming the first Olympics took place in 765 BC). The event was held every four years in the town of Olympia which is in southwest Greece and up to 50,000 people would travel there from all over the country. The purpose of the games was to honor Zeus, the king of the gods. This immensely popular event continued for over 1,000 years until Roman Emperor Theodosius I banned them as part of his strategy to make Christianity the main religion of Rome.

For the most part, only Greek men who were born free were allowed to participate although women could enter horses in the equestrian events. Winners received wreaths or crowns made of olive leaves rather than the medals athletes receive today. The first Olympics apparently consisted of just one event; a 192 meter race known as the stadion race. This is where the word ‘stadium’ comes from.

Eventually, there were 23 events in total to choose from although no Olympics ever featured more than 20 events. The longest footrace was approximately 9 kilometers and the interesting Hoplite event was added circa 520 BC; it involved running up to 800 meters in full military gear!

In terms of combat events, the pankration was one of the most popular and probably the roughest as the only rules were no biting or gouging but some competitors did both! Boxing was introduced in 688 BC and sources suggest that body punches were either not used or not permitted. Fighters wore leather strips around their hands and were allowed to punch their opponent even when he was lying on the ground! If you were caught cheating, the punishment could be severe. Those caught trying to bribe someone would have to pay for a bronze statue of Zeus for example.

Equestrian events were also popular and a famous race involved the Emperor Nero who competed in the chariot race at the 67 AD Olympics. Nero was thrown from his chariot during the event but was still declared the winner on the grounds that he would have won had he finished! The pentathlon was a real test of a person’s all-round ability as competitors had to complete 5 events in a single day: Long jump, running, javelin throwing, discus throwing and wrestling. It’s unclear as to how the Greeks decided upon the overall winner however.

Famous athletes include Milos of Croton in wrestling, Cynisca of Sparta (who owned a four-horse chariot and is the first known female listed as an Olympic winner) and Varastades who won the boxing event in the final ancient Olympics and later became king of Armenia.

Democracy, Disability & Death: 7 Amazing Facts About Ancient Greece
Wikipedia – Athenian Democracy Outline

3 – Athenian Democracy is not the Oldest in the World

It is often stated that the Athenians (namely Cleisthenes) invented democracy in around 508 BC (yet another disputed date) but this probably isn’t the case. Leaving aside the entire ‘Greece had slaves so it can’t be a democracy etc.’ argument, it turns out that more than a dozen Greek city states had a democratic government before Athens and some of them were created almost a century before the Greek capital followed suit.

There is undeniably an Athenocentric (yes, I made that word up) slant in texts written about ancient Greece. Apparently, over 30% of all Greek history books are dedicated to Classical Athens which is probably why the Athenian democracy myth gets peddled so frequently. The city of Ambracia is believed to have been ruled by a popular assembly as early as 580 BC and it may not even be the first.

The Athenian system was ‘direct democracy’ where citizens could vote directly on executive bills and legislation. The undemocratic aspect was the fact that only free men with land were allowed to vote. At the beginning of the 5th century BC, this was no more than 10-15% of the population.

The system was rather complex and included a Popular Assembly, Popular Tribunal, Ancient Tribunal, Military & Civil Magistracies and a Council of 500. Each section had its own responsibilities. For instance, the Ancient Tribunal was made up of 150 citizens and had jurisdiction on homicide while the Archons in the Civil Magistracies council organized the feasts celebrated in Athens.

The longest ruling democratic leader was Pericles and once he died, Athenian democracy began to hit a slippery slope. In the grand scheme of things, democracy in Athens didn’t last very long at all because the Macedonians eliminated it in 322 BC. Although there was a revival of Athenian institutions later on, the city never again came close to the level of democracy it enjoyed in the 4th and 5th centuries BC.

Democracy, Disability & Death: 7 Amazing Facts About Ancient Greece
SlidePlayer – Spartan Culture

4 – They Thought Little of Those with Disabilities

The ancient Greeks (and Romans) admired physical perfection and believed that any marks of deformity (or indeed racial differences) marked a person out as being ‘inferior’. Even the philosopher Aristotle, deemed to be one of the most forward thinkers in ancient Greece, believed that parents should get rid of imperfect children. He said: “Let there be a law that no deformed child should live.” According to Greek law, a newborn baby was not classified as a ‘child’ until it was one week old so parents could dispose of a deformed child without having to feel guilty.

In Sparta, the state ruled on whether weak children should be reared or left to die because kids belonged to the state rather than to their parents. Parents had a legal obligation to abandon disabled children and community elders were responsible for inspecting every single Spartan child straight after birth. The newborn was brought before a council of elders (the Gerousia) who decided if the child should live or die. A child that was deemed healthy was allowed to survive but an ill-formed child had to be disposed of by its father. Children sentenced to die in this fashion were usually thrown into a chasm in the Taygetas mountain range.

However, it is a mistake to suggest that the ‘disposal’ of children with disabilities was automatic. Plutarch wrote that the Spartan King Agesilaus II was crippled but fails to outline why he was not murdered like other disabled Spartan babies. There was also an Athenian council called the Boule which gave economic assistance to disabled citizens in financial need.

If you thought faking disability to gain benefits was a modern phenomenon, think again! There is at least one report of a Greek lawyer being called to defend a client accused of faking his disability in order to receive money from the Boule. The disabled craftsman claimed that he needed the money or else he would be “in the most dreadful position.” In other words, while the ancient Greeks did have a bad attitude towards disability when compared to modern civilizations, they did not ostracize or murder every single disabled person as some texts might have you believe.

Democracy, Disability & Death: 7 Amazing Facts About Ancient Greece
Teen Travel Talk – The Theater at Epidaurus

5 – They Shamed Rich People into Paying Tax

How I wish we could implement such a system in the modern era! While giant corporations and billionaires are able to use all sorts of trickery to get away with paying tax, things were a little bit different in ancient Greece. Citizens believed that direct taxes were tyrannical so democratic cities tried to avoid directly taxing people as much as they could. While there was no outcry when a non-citizen was taxed, the Greeks seldom hit people with punitive tax rates and preferred to rely on civic commitment.

In other words, they believed the wealthiest people in the state should pay tax because their wealth was only possible due to the hard work of others. It was also believed that achieving wealth was a matter of good fortune. As there were no major industries or big businesses in ancient Greece, money was inherited; this usually happened when a family owned a lot of land and made a healthy profit from rent. As a result, this ‘aristocratic’ class was under pressure to show their worthiness to the city they lived in.

There were two main methods of taxing the wealthy. The first option was to levy a special tax known as an eisphora on wealthy citizens during times of emergencies such as war. This was a tax on assets rather than on income and while we don’t know how much they paid, it appears as if people in the top 30% in terms of wealth were taxed. The other method involved getting the rich to pay for public services. Examples include paying for the choruses for plays at festivals and government works such as warships. The wealthy hardly ever complained about the system and many of them paid more tax than was required.

Those who failed to comply were shamed so very few people would refuse to perform their duty. In addition, their reputation was based on the quality of the work they provided. For instance, if they subsidized the creation of a colonnaded street and it subsequently fell down, they would be known as a cheapskate. On the upside, they were honored when they got it right. To this day there are statues with inscriptions on them celebrating the generosity of the patron.

Democracy, Disability & Death: 7 Amazing Facts About Ancient Greece
Wikipedia – Ancient Greek Philosophy

6 – They Excelled in Philosophy & Invention

The philosophy of the ancient Greeks was hugely influential in the formation of Western Civilization and its ideologies. The Classical Period in particular (some historians say this era took place from 510 BC to 323 BC) benefited from different thought processes and ideas from different parts of the ancient world. Ancient Greece became what it was thanks to the exchange of knowledge with other advanced civilizations of the age including the Egyptians, Persians, Hittites and Mesopotamians.

Although Greek philosophy can be traced back to at least 1500 BC, it really came to the fore during the Classical Period. Socrates was one of the first great thinkers of his age and is often deemed to be figurehead for Western Civilization. He was remarkably advanced and was several centuries ahead of his time. Socrates did not believe that God was omnipotent and is perhaps best known for the Socratic Method of thinking which involved one person asking questions and, through the answers, both the person answering the questions and the questioner himself would come to a logical answer.

Plato is another well-regarded philosopher of the age and was a student of Socrates. His Socratic Dialogues promoted free thinking and the exchange of ideas on various subjects including religion, logic and mathematics. Plato travelled extensively and learned a great deal from his trips to Egypt, Italy and Cyrene. He was on the road for 12 years and returned to form the Academy of Athens.

His pupil Aristotle is often considered to be the first scientist in the West. He attended the Academy of Athens in approximately 367 BC and studied there for up to 20 years. Aristotle apparently taught Alexander the Great and when the great conqueror took Athens, he allowed Aristotle to start a new school. The legendary Greek thinker studied a wide range of topics including biology, philosophy, geology and astronomy.

There are a number of ‘modern’ inventions that have their origins in ancient Greece including the water mill, odometer, alarm clock, geometry, medicine and a lot more. Of course, not everyone was enamored with the deep thinkers of Greece. For example, Socrates angered several influential people with his radical ideas and was accused of polluting the minds of young Athenians. He was also a non-believer of the Athenian Gods, a ‘crime’ that was punishable by death. In 399 BC, Socrates was condemned, sentenced to die and was forced to drink hemlock.

Democracy, Disability & Death: 7 Amazing Facts About Ancient Greece
Wikipedia – Peloponnesian War

7 – Athens was the Bully of Ancient Greece

For those with a cursory interest in ancient Greece, Athens seems to be a fantastic city. Certainly, it was filled with advanced thinkers, had its own form of democracy and achieved great things in art, architecture and sculpture. However, there is a dark side to Athens and I’m not just talking about slavery! The city had an uneasy relationship with most Greek states and a downright tumultuous one with Sparta which ultimately led to war.

The Greek states managed to unite in the face of Persian invasions. During the first invasion of 492-490 BC, Athens was joined by Eretria, Naxos and Plataea. The majority of the states came together to successfully fight off the Persians during the second invasion of 480-479 BC. This alliance included the Spartans, Corinthians, Phocians and Thespians. However, by the end of the war, Sparta and Athens emerged as the two most powerful Greek states.

In 478 BC, a coalition known as the Delian League was formed between Athens and a host of other states but Sparta refused to join. One of the aims of this alliance was to take Persian territories on the east coast of the Aegean. After a number of successes, the Delian League gained strength but soon, it became less of an alliance and more of an Athenian empire with so-called ‘equal’ allies treated as inferior states. Athens conquered cities that made an effort to try and leave.

The island of Melos refused to join so the Athenians created a blockade which starved the inhabitants and then they enslaved those who survived. The Delian League was supposed to have a shared treasury but Athens circumnavigated that problem by simply pocketing the money!

The other Greek city states were fed up with Athenian tyranny so a handful of them sided with Sparta. Tensions rose and ultimately led to the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) which resulted in victory for Sparta and its allies and ended Greece’s golden age. It also marked the end of Athens as a major force in Greece although it did continue to play a significant role in the country’s politics for some time afterwards.