What have the Greeks ever done for us?

Well, for a start they founded our language, philosophies, politics and culture, retorts Tim Salmon. Still in doubt? Then visit the sites where it all began
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The Independent Travel

Given that a classical education seems about as relevant to modern life as medieval history, you could be forgiven for thinking that all the Greeks have ever done for us was whinge about some Marbles and introduce an undrinkable wine and cheesy salad to our diet. But think again: we owe practically everything to the Greeks.

Given that a classical education seems about as relevant to modern life as medieval history, you could be forgiven for thinking that all the Greeks have ever done for us was whinge about some Marbles and introduce an undrinkable wine and cheesy salad to our diet. But think again: we owe practically everything to the Greeks.


The be-all and end-all, the alpha and omega of our culture. Out of Latin, via Etruscan and back to the Greek, the language of Europe's first literary work, Homer's Odyssey and Iliad. In its earliest form, Linear B, it survives in several thousand clay tablets, found in Crete at the Minoan palace of Knossos (open 8am-5pm), admission €4.50 (£3); in the Peloponnese at Mycenae; at the great walled palace of Agamemnon (open 8am-7pm), admission €6 (£4), and at Pylos (8.30am-3pm, closed Monday), admission €3 (£2) in the palace of Homer's wise old King Nestor.

The National Archeological Museum in Athens, which houses samples of practically everything Greek including the most spectacular finds from Mycenae, is closed until summer; thereafter it should be open Monday (10.30am-5pm), Tuesday to Sunday (8.30am-3pm), admission €6 (£4).


Practically all the elements of the English neo-classical style come from the Greeks: pediments and porticoes; the orders of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian; triglyphs and metopes; sculpture as ornament. In the middle of Athens at the Acropolis (open from 8.30am-7pm in the summer, 8.30am-2.30pm Nov-March, admission €12/£9.85) you can see it all: the perfect classical proportion of the Parthenon, the exquisite little temple of Athena Nike, and the elegant Erechtheium, its porch supported by sturdy girls (now all casts taken from the British Museum's Caryatid, rather than the pollution-eaten ones that had remained in situ).


"Dhrama," say the modern Greeks, with a slicing motion of the hand, to describe any kind of scene, fuss or hullaballoo. Polonius, vaunting the talents of the players in Hamlet, calls them "the best actors in the world - for tragedy, comedy, history...". The words are Greek and the tragedies and comedies of their great playwrights of the 5th century BC are the direct ancestors of our theatre.

Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, with Aristophanes providing the irreverence, competed with each other at the spring festival of the Dionysia in the theatre that you can see today on the southern slope of the Acropolis in Athens (open daily from 8.30am to 7pm in the summer, 8.30am to 3pm daily except Monday between November and March), admission €1.50 (£1).Many of their works are set in towns that are within half a day's drive of Athens. Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannus take place in Thebes, whose little-visited museum (open 8am-2.30pm, closed Monday) has a wonderful collection of painted sarcophagi; admission €2 (£1.35). Keep on along the road to Delphi and you come to the crossroads where Oedipus killed his father, with consequences as dire for the modern psyche as Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

The most complete of the surviving ancient theatres, Epidaurus (open 8am-7pm; admission €6/£4), is 90 minutes' drive from Mycenae. Here every summer many of the classical works are performed as part of the Athens Festival (00 30 210 928 2900; www.greekfestival.gr).


Politics: the business of running a polis, or city. Ancient Greece was not a single unitary state, but a collection of small independent cities. They all tried various forms of organising their lives: oligarchy, tyranny, democracy and versions thereof which frequently degenerated into anarchy. Democracy, the particular invention of the classical Greeks, reached its fullest and, some no doubt would say, most florid and degenerate form in fifth-century Athens - the richest, most powerful and creative of the city-states.

If you live in a small Greek town or village today and you want to meet your plumber, he won't have a business address; he will tell you to meet him in the agora. He means the cafés in the square where people gather to do business. In ancient Athens, it was the huge area on the north side of the Acropolis, extensively excavated now and dominated by the near-perfect temple of the Theseion. Here you can see the bouleuterion, the meeting place of the executive council of the Athenian democracy, and, on the hill of the Pnyx overlooking it, the place where the Assembly met, in whose debates every one of the roughly 30,000 adult male citizens (but no women, immigrants or slaves) had the right to participate. Some of the machinery of this democracy is on display in the Agora Museum (open 8.30am-3pm, closed Monday, admission €4/£2.70), where you can see jurors' disks for pronouncing verdicts of guilty or not guilty, a water clock for timing lawyers' speeches and pottery shards for voting to "ostracise," - ie. banish for 10 years - politicians and officials who had fallen from grace. A precedent there, perhaps.


Master of all - philosophy, moral and political; literary criticism; biology and physics - was the great Aristotle. Born in the village of Stagira (on the road from the northern town of Thessaloniki to the monastic republic of Mt Athos) he came to Athens to study with Plato, who was in turn a pupil of Socrates.

Medicine was called "hygiene" by the Greeks, after Hygeia, daughter of Asclepius, god of healing. Hippocrates, of the Oath, practised it at the sanctuary of Asclepius (admission €4, (£2.70); open 8.30am-3pm, closed Mondays) on the island of Kos. You can reach Kos on some charter flights from Britain, or via Athens, or by ferry from Rhodes or Pireaus.


The message of Christ first came to Europe in Greek. The Greek-speaking St Paul brought it, when he landed at the northern Greek port of Kavalla AD49 and made his first converts in the neighbouring town of Philippi. The other island associated with the beginnings of Christianity is Patmos, which is connected daily by ferries to Rhodes and Pireaus. Its beautiful castle-monastery of St John, founded in 1088, commemorates the presence here of St John the Apostle, author of the gospel and the Book of Revelations, which he is said to have written here.