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Lecture: Ancient Greece and Hellenistic Era

This is the first era where we have the evidence to bring natural philosophy (science) into our discussion of technology. The classical and Hellenistic Greeks not only created technologies to control the environment, increase trade, and build structures, they developed intellectual schema which help us understand the role of those technologies.

Hellenic or Classical Greece

"Hellenic" refers to the Greek word for Greece: "Hellas". It is the era between the Archaic Age (the time of Homer) and the Hellenistic Era (following Alexander the Great). During this time most of Greece was divided into city-states (poleis), each with its own political system, and most in competition with the others for land or trade. The era is also called "Classical" Greece, since so much of the classic forms of architecture and sculpture developed during that time.

But much of what we call Hellenic or Classical Greece is really focused on the 5th century BC in Athens. The polis of Athens between the Persian Wars (which they won) and the Peloponnesian War with Sparta (which they lost) developed a rich culture that carried forward intellectual influences from before and added a new, naturalistic view of knowledge. Athens' intellectual achievements were the product of a highly commercial society, supported by slavery and a democracy consisting of Greek, adult, male citizens.

The wealth of the society meant that there was time for learning. In cultures that must focus on subsistence, there is little time for intellectual exploration or education beyond that required to provide food and needed goods. Most "knowledge workers" would be shamans or others whose spiritual connections and scientific understanding of nature would make them of value. But surplus of agricultural goods, the first major advance out of the Neolithic Age, led not only to further specialized labor but the rise of a knowledgeable class of people. Those with extra wealth from trade could afford to hire smarter people to teach their children. Leisure time allowed for thinking about things.

Although many 6th-3rd century BC Greek writings have not come down to us in their original form, some were preserved and others were translated and retranslated outside of Europe. We have many more works showing us the Greek mind than we have from ancient Babylonia or Egypt. What we notice first in the Greek works is their emphasis on exploring and explaining the natural world. Greek scholars, for example, considered astronomy to be a branch of mathematics. They studied the stars and created models of planetary motion. They created maps of the known world, built cranes to move large objects, and designed plumbing and city systems. They used an abacus to do calculations.

Modern technology reveals ancient technology

The Antikythera Mechanism, found in a shipwreck a century ago, also indicates a high level of understanding of math and science. By the time sophisticated x-ray technologies were available to examine it carefully (around 2005), the computer had already changed our lives. The device is now interpreted as an ancient computer. This is another way that history is always changing - it is the new emphasis that our current culture has on computers that led to a new interpretation of an ancient object.

Writing and its influence

Another way in which our current view of the world influences our interpretations can be seen in the Greek view of writing. I've mentioned before that writing is a self-conscious act for a society, a way of preserving the past and present for the future. But Socrates, one of the most famous Greek philosophers, was against writing as a way of preserving knowledge. He thought it stultified knowledge, frozen it in time in a way that made ideas difficult to question, and thus new knowledge harder to create. His student, Plato, wrote a dialogue between Socrates and another character to explain his mentor's point of view:

Plato, The Phaedrus – a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus (~370 B.C.)

Socrates: I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

Phaedrus: That again is most true.

Socrates: Is there not another kind of word or speech far better than this, and having far greater power-a son of the same family, but lawfully begotten?

Phaedrus: Whom do you mean, and what is his origin?

Socrates: I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent. 

Phaedrus: You mean the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which written word is properly no more than an image? 

Socrates: Yes, of course that is what I mean.

On the one hand, Socrates' view may seem archaic. But on the other, we are now entering a world where there is so much information, and its format is always in flux. Some see the internet as a way to not only share writing, but to argue against it, to fight against it becoming static. Or perhaps Socrates would see the internet as just a collection of images representing ideas, rather than the development of ideas themselves.

ParthenonHellenic Art

Greek art and architecture are often seen as a visual way to understand ancient Greek culture. Certainly the Greeks valued moderation and balance - that is evident everywhere from the design of the Parthenon to their medical works to the vases and pots they used every day. The Parthenon itself, commissioned by Pericles as a symbol of Athenian glory, was made of marble and had a huge painted statue of Athena inside it. The Greeks developed techniques for free-standing sculpture, and used it to express ideals of form. Many original Greek works, however, were cast in bronze. During and after the wars with Sparta, bronze works were often melted down for weapons. Many of the "ancient Greek" sculptures we have today are marble copies from Hellenistic and (primarily) Roman times.

The famous Attic pottery (Attica was the region surrounding Athens) is another representation of Greek artistic style, but it also represents their technological achievements. The pots themselves were beautifully made and used for everything from wine to olive oil. Styles were originally geometric, but by the 7th century BC had started to feature figures of humans and animals. "Black figure" painting was achieved by applying a clay slurry to a dry pot before firing. The paint could be incised and other colors applied on top. The iron-rich clay of Attica made for superior pots, and figures tended to be mythological. By the 6th century BC many pots were painted with images of (presumably famous) athletes, and some showed erotic scenes. Different artists had different styles, and historians today are able to distinguish among the masters.

red figure signature
Red figure artists sometimes
signed their work

Around 530 BC, the "red figure" technique was developed, a significant innovation that allowed not only for a black background, but also much finer detail. It was achieved through a three-stage firing technique, with the last stage at a lower temperature to melt and seal the images. The paint was applied directly to a smooth surface, making possible figures in profile, with detailed faces, and clear depictions of fur and feather on animals. Clothing could be more detailed, and additional colors used. Unlike in black figure pottery, the outlines carved into the pot disappeared during firing, melting into the black background, making for a much clearer image. A single technological innovation changed the field.

The Hellenistic Age

After the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta ended, Spartan rule led to cultural decline. To the north of mainland Greece, in Macedonia, a warrior emerged who wanted to regain the glories of classical Greece. When Alexander conquered Greece and went on to create a huge empire to the east, he deliberately brought classical Greek culture with him. Alexander had been tutored by Aristotle, who had been a pupil of Plato, who had been a student of Socrates. Although he was not Athenian, Alexander saw himself as inheritor of Greek philosophy and science. Aristotle in particular had been concerned with categorizing knowledge, of both the natural and human world. Along with Alexander's armies went scholars and natural philosophers, to study the world being conquered.

Alexander's empire

Most of the people in Alexander's huge empire weren't Greek - they were Bactrian and Persian and Indian and many other cultures. Although the political empire Alexander set up did not survive his death, trade was free among the empire, and with goods flow ideas. The technologies of the east, including water-lifting devices, creating artworks with glass, cataract surgery techniques, and mathematical advances such as the independent work in what would be called the Pythagorean theorem spread across the empire. The city Alexander built in Egypt, Alexandria, featured a huge library and attracted many scholars. (Humility was neither a Greek nor Macedonian virtue - Alexander named a lot of cities he founded "Alexandria".)

Archimedes screwThe list of scholars and intellectual achievements usually called "Ancient Greek" actually are from the Hellenistic Era (after Alexander's death in 323 BC). Herophilus's new ideas of systematic anatomy, Erasistratus' work on the heart as the motor of the circulatory system, Galen's development of the idea of bodily systems, Aristarchus' idea that the sun is the center of the astronomical system, Euclidian geometry, the Archimedes screw - all of these are Hellenistic. Although historians often separate science and technology, Archimedes provides an excellent example of "practical" science, in his case in hydrostatics. The water-lifting screw he likely helped develop was used to lift water from the Nile for agriculture - unlike earlier devices, it was portable.

Tower of the WindsAround 50 BC, Andronikos constructed in Athens, not the first water clock, but an ancient one that still exists. Water clocks work without a need for astronomical observation, and through much of history they have been either novelties or related to religious observance, tracking months and celestial phenomenon rather than the hours of the day. His "Tower of the Winds" contained not only a water clock, but also eight sundials in the Cardinal and Primary Intercardinal directions (N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, NW) and a weather vane, designed to be seen from the Agora, so it might have helped people know how long they'd been shopping or attending government meetings!

One of the great horrors for historians likely occurred in AD 4th century, when the Library of Alexandria burned. It contained so many scrolls that its burning, which may have occurred in several separate fires, is a symbol of lost knowledge. The Library was not just a collection of documents, but a state-funded institution that sponsored scholars doing original research.

Practical technological development also occurred during this era. Experiments were done with the torsion-spring catapult, which could hurl large objects at enemy troops. Kickwheels were added to potter's wheels, speeding up the production of ceramics. The works of Heron show the invention of a surveyor's instrument (startlingly similar to what we use today), a carpenter's level, and the screw press, which saved labor by fully pressing grapes and olives with ease. Heron also created toys for fun, many using "steam power" to work - balls rotating in a steam flume, little figures offering drinks when an altar's candle is lit.


In the 4th century BC, a natural philosopher emerged who had an extraordinary influence on Western thought for the next 800 years. The scientific world view he created influenced not only philosophy but the way in which many people assumed the world (and the universe) worked.

Aristotle was a student of Plato, who had proposed a world of ideal forms. Perhaps for this reason, Aristotle saw nature as perfect and organized, and sought to reveal that organization. His view of the heavens was that the earth was still, and perfectly spherical objects moved in perfectly spherical motion around it. He dealt with the obvious problem of retrograde motion (some stars and planets appear to move backwards at certain times) by adding more spheres to the system. But Aristotle worked in other fields than cosmology: ethics, rhetoric, metaphysics, anatomy, and logic, to name a few. And even though he was not a tinkerer with engineering or objects, the systems he developed reflected what people saw every day. We do not feel the earth move, and the stars and planets do seem (from our view) to be spheres and to move in orbits. The division of matter into earth, air, fire and water also makes sense, as does the idea that earth and water are heavy and so naturally move toward the core of the earth, while air and fire are light and move upward. Motion that is not naturally occurring must be "forced" by an identifiable mover.

Aristotle also created classifications of animals into a hierarchy, identified three types of soul corresponding to vegetable/animal/human, and saw the practical arts as necessities while science was a luxury. He knew that only people with leisure could engage in deep thought, and did so out of curiosity.

Many of the practical technologies which developed apart from (or at least without reference to) Hellenistic science, however, occurred in Roman times, our next unit.


It would be a mistake to oversimplify and glorify the Greek advances. Until the Greeks, we simply do not know how technologies fit in with intellectual life. The scarcity of written evidence has led to historians viewing pre-Hellenic societies as primitive in their understanding, basing their thought on supernatural connections. According to Auguste Comte, a 19th century philosopher, mankind has three stages. The first, primitive stage he called the Theological Stage. Here people assume supernatural causation for natural phenomenon: the gods cause rain, inanimate objects have spirits inside them that determine their character. In the Metaphysical Stage, these forces become metaphysical instead: abstract concepts explain causation, such as warm air rising because it is in its nature to rise. In the final, Positive Stage, explanations are scientific, based on experimentation, observation and reason. We tend to assume that everyone before the Greeks was in the Theological Stage, imbuing rocks and weather with spirits, instead of acknowledging the observation and reason demonstrated by the shamans. When we acknowledge the scientific activities of the pre-Hellenic shamans, the Greek experience loses some of its novelty if none of its interest.