10 Key Inventions and Innovations of Ancient Greece | History Hit

10 Key Inventions and Innovations of Ancient Greece

Chris Smith

29 Oct 2021
'The School of Athens' by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino.
Image Credit: Raphael Rooms, Apostolic Palace / Public Domain

The civilisation of ancient Greece may have been effectively ended by the Romans in 146 BC, but its remarkable cultural legacy is still going strong over 2100 years later.

The term “cradle of Western civilisation” is by no means an overstatement. Many devices, fundamental ways of working and modes of thinking that are still relied on today were first developed in ancient Greece.

Here are 10 important ideas, inventions and innovations from ancient Greece that helped shape the modern world.

1. Democracy

Democracy, the system of governance used by just over 50% of the world’s population (as of 2020), was established in Athens in 508-507 BC.

The two central features of Greek democracy were sortition – which involved randomly selecting citizens to fulfil administrative duties and hold judicial office – and a legislative assembly in which all Athenian citizens could vote (though not everyone was regarded as an Athenian citizen).

The Greek statesman Cleisthenes instigated many significant political reforms and is therefore regarded as ‘the father of Athenian democracy’. 

A 19th-century painting by Philipp Foltz showing Pericles addressing the Athenian Assembly.

Image Credit: Rijks Museum

2. Philosophy

Ancient Greece hugely influenced Western thought through the development of philosophy in the 6th century BC. Pre-Socratic thinkers such as Thales and Pythagoras were chiefly concerned with natural philosophy which is more akin to modern-day science.

Later, between the 5th and 4th centuries BC, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle’s teacher-student lineage provided the first in-depth analyses of ethics, critical reasoning, epistemology and logic. The Classical (or Socratic) period of philosophy shaped Western scientific, political and metaphysical understanding right up to the modern era.

3. Geometry 

Geometry was utilised by ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and the Indus civilisations before ancient Greece, but this was based on practical necessity more than theoretical understanding.

The ancient Greeks, first through Thales then Euclid, Pythagoras and Archimedes, codified geometry in a set of mathematical axioms established through deductive reasoning rather than trial and error. Their conclusions continue to stand the test of time, forming the basis of geometry lessons taught in schools to this day.

4. Cartography

Dating the earliest maps is notoriously difficult. Is a wall painting of an area of land a map or a mural, for example? While the Babylonian ‘Map of the World’ created in Mesopotamia between 700 and 500 BC is one of the oldest surviving maps, it is scant in detail with only a few regions named.

The ancient Greeks were responsible for underpinning maps with mathematics, and as Anaximander (610–546 BC) was the first to map the known world, he is considered the first mapmaker. Eratosthenes (276–194 BC) was the first to demonstrate knowledge of a spherical Earth. 

Dan visited the Bodleian Library in Oxford, home to one and a quarter million historic maps. Aided by professor Jerry Brotton, together they discuss the significance of ancient cartography and look at some of the jewels of the collection.
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5. The odometer

The invention of the odometer was fundamental to travel and civic planning, and billions are still used every day. The odometer gave people the ability to accurately record distance travelled, and therefore plan journeys and form military strategies.

While there is some debate over precisely who invented the odometer, with Archimedes and Heron of Alexandria the two main candidates, there’s no doubt that the late Hellenistic period is when this vital instrument was developed.

A reconstruction of Heron of Alexandria’s odometer.

6. The water mill

The ancient Greeks pioneered the use of water mills, inventing both the water wheel itself and the toothed gearing to turn it. Used to grind wheat, cut stones, extract water and generally decrease the human workload, water mills proved vital to productivity.

Said to have originated in the 300 BC in Byzantium, the earliest descriptions of watermills in engineer Philo’s Pneumatics have led many to conclude he was ultimately responsible for their invention. However, it is also speculated that he was merely recording others’ work.

7. The crane

Another example of ancient Greek inventors reimagining existing technology for a new, more useful purpose, cranes were based on the Mesopotamian shadouf, which was used for irrigation. By 515 BC, the ancient Greeks had developed a larger, more powerful version that enabled them to move heavy stone blocks.

While the modern introduction of electricity and the ability to build to a greater height has improved on the ancient Greeks’ effort, cranes remain as central to the construction industry now as they were 25 centuries ago.

8. Medicine 

Born in 460 BC, Hippocrates is regarded as the “Father of Modern Medicine”. He was the first person to reject the notion that illnesses were punishments inflicted by the gods or the result of other such superstitions.

Through his teachings, Hippocrates pioneered observation, documentation and clinical trials, and with the Hippocratic Oath provided a professional guide for all subsequent physicians and doctors. Like many of Hippocrates’ ideas, the Oath has been updated and expanded over time. He nevertheless established the basis for Western medicine.

Hippocrates’ lectures formed the basis of Western medicine.

9. The alarm clock

In the 3rd century BC, Ctesibius, the “Father of Pneumatics”, developed a water clock (or clepsydras) which was the most accurate time-measuring device until Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock in the 17th century.

Ctesibius modified his water clock to include pebbles which would drop onto a gong at a specific time. Plato is said to have fashioned his own alarm clock that similarly relied on siphoning water into a separate vessel, but instead emitted loud whistles similar to a kettle from thin holes when the vessel was full. 

French sculptor Auguste Rodin took inspiration from the classical art he saw at the British Museum in 1881. Now Janina Ramirez returns to that very same institution to guide us round the exhibition of his iconic works and ancient influences, displayed here side-by-side for the first time.
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10. Theatre

Born of the ancient Greek value for the spoken word and for rituals involving masks, costumes and dancing, theatre became a hugely significant part of Greek life from around 700 BC. All three key genres – tragedy, comedy and satyr (in which short performances made light of characters’ struggles) – originated in Athens and were spread far and wide throughout the ancient Greek empire.

Themes, stock characters, dramatic elements and typical genre classifications all survive in Western theatre to this day. And the huge theatres that were built to accommodate thousands of spectators established the blueprints for modern entertainment venues and sports stadia. 

Chris Smith