10 Secrets About Ancient Greece That Are Rarely Recounted
The ancient Greeks have contributed so much to modern civilization, especially regarding education, philosophy, science, art, politics, and language, among other things. But, their legacy does not end there. One of the most enduring things about ancient Greece is the mythology. Zeus, Minotaur, Hercules, Achilles, Prometheus… The list is virtually endless. But, while it’s a given that most myths are fiction for the most part, have you ever wondered if there is any truth in the stories? I have, and after doing my homework, here is a list of 10 secrets about Greek mythology and Ancient Greece that have only been revealed fairly recently.
1. The Trojan Horse Didn’t Really Exist
We are all familiar with the story of the Trojan Horse from Homer’s Odyssey, but it turns out that the legendary wooden horse that was used to sneak into Troy is indeed a myth. While there are no doubts about Troy being a real city which was really burned to the ground by the Greeks, there is no archaeological evidence to support the existence of the Trojan Horse, which is the source of the myth. It was probably inspired by the fact that most armies were using damp horse hides to protect themselves from flaming arrows during sieges.
‘The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy.’ (Public Domain) Although it looks impressive, there was no real Trojan Horse.
2. There is No Proof that Homer Existed
In addition to some of his biggest epics being a myth, we cannot say for sure that Homer himself existed. To be more accurate, there is no written proof about Homer ever existing - which isn’t to say for sure that he didn’t either. The problem is that Greek epics and legends were passed on orally for centuries, before someone remembered to write them down, which means it’s hard to prove that Homer had existed and written all those epics.
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Frontispiece and Titlepage of a 1752 edition of Alexander's Pope's translation of The Odyssey. (Public Domain) Was the Odyssey really written by Homer?
3. Pythagoras May Not Have Invented the Theorem Bearing His Name
Again, there is no written evidence that Pythagoras came up with his famous equation. But, there is evidence that the Babylonians were using the theorem to do calculations a few centuries before. Pythagoras was a brilliant mathematician nonetheless and was the first one to use ratios in order to explain music intervals.
Old Babylonian clay tablet (known as Plimpton 322) stores combination of primitive Pythagorean triples. Babylonians knew of the ‘Pythagorean’ theorem. (Luis Teia)
4. Spartans Didn’t Use Iron as Currency
Although it fits in well with the whole Spartan mythology and their image as hardened warriors, Spartans did not actually use iron as currency. In fact, no coins were ever actually made in Sparta. Instead, they used foreign silver. Apart from that, there was no import of luxury goods into Sparta, as it would alter the way they led their lives, which consisted of rigorous training regimes, war, dieting, and of course, using laconic expressions, for which they are known the most.
‘A spartan woman giving a shield to her son’ by Jean-Jacques-Francois Le Barbier. (Public Domain) Spartans weren’t all about iron money.
5. The Greek Alphabet Didn’t Have Just One Inventor
One of the first works that was ever written down using the Greek alphabet was the Homeric epics - dating as far back as the 8th century BC. The Greek alphabet actually used the Phoenician alphabet as a basis. The first two letters of the aforementioned alphabet were aleph and bet, hence the name. According to ancient Greeks, Palamedes was the one who invented the Greek version, but surprisingly, it was the Pythagoras who gave the letters their distinct geometrical shapes they are famous for.
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Pythagoras helped shape the Greek alphabet. (CC BY SA 3.0)
6. Greeks Started Using Money Because of Their Psyche
Needless to say, when it first appeared, money made things a lot easier. However, trade was not the reason why Greeks started using currency and coins in the 5th century BC. They did it because the idea of reciprocation and obligation to their fellow men that was deeply ingrained into their society and psyche.
454-404 BC Attica, Athens. Tetradrachm. Helmeted head of Athena right / ΑΘΕ, owl standing right; olive-sprig and crescent above. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc./CC BY SA 3.0) Greek money came about due to reciprocity and obligation.
7. Theaters Were a Part of the Cult of Dionysus
There is no doubt that the great Greek tragedies and comedies performed at the Acropolis were a part of the cult of Dionysus. But, there has been a lot of debate about the origins of theater itself. According to some sources, it started with the actor Thespis, because of whom we use the word “thespian”, who performed his roles standing on a cart almost a century earlier.
The half-mask over the eyes and nose identifies the figure as an actor. He wears a man's conical cap but female garments, following the Greek custom of men playing the roles of women. (Public Domain) Did Greek theater come about thanks to a man who stood on a cart?
8. Socrates Was a Warrior before He Became a Philosopher
Even though Socrates is primarily known for his legacy as a thinker and a philosopher, he was actually an experienced warrior who survived grueling military campaigns - during which he even performed heroic acts. It was his experience in the military that made him think about life. He spent the rest of his life trying to educate his fellow Greeks and get them to think about their own lives.
Statue of Socrates – warrior turned philosopher. (C Messier/CC BY SA 4.0 )
9. The Secrets of Greek Cults Remain Secret
We've already mentioned the cult of Dionysus, but there were other cults, most notably the cult of Demeter, who was a goddess of agriculture. Not much is known about what actually went on during the ceremonies. It is speculated that the initiations involved wearing ritual clothing and worshiping different objects so that initiates would be permitted with a glimpse of the afterlife.
Demeter, enthroned and extending her hand in a benediction toward the kneeling Metaneira who offers the triune wheat that is a recurring symbol of the mysteries (Public Domain) The cult of Demeter was just one mysterious group in ancient Greece.
10. Alexander the Great Was Not That Great
We are not trying to take away anything from his military prowess, which is legendary and accurate. But, his stature was short and Alexander was not known for being disciplined. He drank and had a bad temper, and there are plenty of his companions that wound up on the receiving end of his tantrums. Later in life, he became paranoid. However, his legacy as a famous military leader remains untouched.
The meeting between Alexander and Diogenes (Public Domain) Alexander the Great was rather short, angry, paranoid, and somewhat undisciplined.
Top Image: Bust of Pythagoras. (CC BY SA 3.0), ‘The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy.’ (Public Domain), Statue of Socrates – warrior turned philosopher. (C Messier/CC BY SA 4.0), Demeter, enthroned and extending her hand in a benediction toward the kneeling Metaneira (Public Domain), The meeting between Alexander and Diogenes (Public Domain), and Tetradrachm. ΑΘΕ, owl standing right; olive-sprig and crescent above. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc./CC BY SA 3.0)
By Mia Stokes
Pickles, M. (2014) ‘Did the Trojan Horse exist? Classicist tests Greek 'myths'.’ Available at: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/arts-blog/did-trojan-horse-exist-classicist-tests-greek-myths
Galloway, F. (2017) ‘10 Reasons Alexander The Great Was Not So Great.’ Available at: http://listverse.com/2017/03/27/10-reasons-alexander-the-great-was-not-so-great/
O'Connor, JJ. & E F Robertson (2000) ‘Pythagoras's theorem in Babylonian mathematics.’ Available at: http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/HistTopics/Babylonian_Pythagoras.html