6 November 2011

What Have the Greeks Ever Done for Us?

Greece: ask someone what they think about the country at the moment and the answer might well be resentment at the irresponsible borrowing, overgenerous retirement benefits, employment cronyism and reluctance to pay taxes which have led to the current economic crisis in Europe. The words hell and handbasket spring almost automatically to mind. 

Yet there is so much more to Greece than its present unfortunate predicament. 

Today we ask the question what have the Greeks ever done for us? We will begin by taking a look at the time Greece was (really) bankrupt.

The Modern Olympics
Greece had made an attempt to modernise and as such had massively over borrowed. By 1893 it had become too much and the Greek Prime Minister, Trikoupis (above, right), had to announce bankruptcy. It might not have happened had the export market for currants (then the biggest Greek export) collapsed. Greece was forced to give the running of its economy over to a commission of German, French and other European officials.

The same year the Congress for the Restoration of the Olympic Games met and its organiser, Baron Pierre de Coubertin (above left), swayed the delegates to award host nation status to the place where it had all begun, Greece. The Greek government, as you can imagine, were anaemically keen about the prospect. Coubertin called a public meeting in Athens and swayed the people of Greece with the words “The dishonor here would consist not of being beaten: it would consist of not contending”. Not only were the Greeks convinced, Coubertin (with no irony on his part) left the world the not the winning but the taking part slogan of the games.

The organising committee met for the first time only fourteen months before the games began. In a dazzling display of virtuoso Greek bravura they decided that they would not accept a penny from abroad. The people of the bankrupt state of Greece would raise each and every drachma.

And so they did. Local authorities held collections, rich merchants were targeted and appeals went out to the Greek diaspora through embassies and consulates.

It worked – the monks of Mount Athos even contributed. Altogether the people of Greece raised 1.5 million drachma, with a further million coming from a single individual, the mega rich expatriate merchant Georgios Averoff.

This was ten times more than the amount needed estimated by Coubertin. Greece successfully gave birth to the modern Olympics at a time when it was virtually destitute. Perhaps we really shouldn’t write it off as a spent force at the moment?

Trial by Jury
Juries began in Athens around 500BC. Although there was no public prosecutor anyone could bring a case against anyone else.

A judge would decide whether the injured party’s claims were sufficient, in terms of evidence for a trial to be called, by asking both parties questions. Juries were paid little for their services but you had to be a citizen aged over thirty to be on one.

In order to avoid bribery some juries had as many as five hundred people on them – no one could afford to buy so many people.

The jurors had to make an oath that they would listen to both sides equally. It wasn’t so much innocent until found guilty as innocent until found guilty by the jury (sound familiar?).

Even the word has origins in the Greek language and it cannot be denied that the western tradition of theater has its roots in Greece.

Every town in ancient Greece had at least one theater. It was so important that prisoners could be temporarily released from jail so that they could go and see the latest piece.

Competition between the different city states was fierce with many competitions. So many people wanted to watch that the theaters had to be built outdoors.

The staggered seating area, built on hillsides so that everyone could see what was going on in the stage area was called the theatron (and no prizes for guessing how that word went on to evolve).

Around 500BC the city state of Athens became a democracy. Although it endured for only one hundred years it laid the roots for the political systems we know and (sometimes) trust today. Each year all the names of the citizens were placed in a hat (or ancient Greek equivalent) and five hundred names would be drawn.

These men (for women were not citizens but give them a break this was twenty five centuries ago!) would create the laws of the city for the next year. Once created, they would be voted on by every citizen and the majority decision was the one which passed. Imperfect this system may have been but without it we might not have our democratic systems today.

The Shower
The Greeks were the first to have a shower system that we today would recognize. Their aqueduct systems enabled water to be pumped in to large communal shower rooms (used by rich and poor alike). Their sewers meant that the water could be drained in the same way we drain our water. Discoveries at Pergamum and the pottery of the time indicate we would regard these as similar to the modern day locker room. All very 300 then. The Romans, as with many things, took this idea and made it their own.

The Analog Computer
More than a century ago an astonishing instrument was discovered by divers at the sea bed near the island of Antikythera. It flabbergasted authorities on the ancient world. Was it an astrolabe? Was it an astronomical clock? Or something else?

For many years, systematic examination of the object, now known as the Antikythera Mechanism failed to illuminate the purpose of this strange machine. Yet research over the last fifty years has shed some light. The machine was made around 200BC and is the most complex and refined piece of machinery yet discovered from the ancient world. There is no evidence of anything as sophisticated as this for the next thousand years. The Antikythera Mechanism is now understood to be dedicated to astronomical phenomena and operates as a complex mechanical computer which tracks the cycles of the Solar System.

The Ancient Greeks liked their snacks and fast food as much as we do. They covered their bread with a combination of cheese, oils and herbs and called it πίτα. That’s pita to me and you (another word you can transparently see evolve over the millennia). Although it is argued that the word may even have Germanic roots, if we were to be transported back in time two and a half thousand years and given a choice of food in what is now Germany and Greece we would recognize the latter country’s offering. Plus we would pay for it in coined money. In what is now Germany at that point in time beads or shells might get you your dinner. No irony there, then.

All that maths!
Euclidean geometry, the Pythagorean theorem, trigonometry, the golden ratio. All Greek. And although these discoveries have brought untold misery to countless generations of schoolchildren, without them we would have no navigation, architecture, and so on - the list is pretty much endless. Let’s just say modern science and move on.

The catapult and crossbow
If you want to reduce the number of people killed in battle then the best bet, in ancient times (as it is now), was to have a distance between you and the enemy. Thanks to all that maths, the Ancient Greeks were able to create a catapult which increased the range and power of missiles.

Created to fire arrows (big arrows, enough to take out a Na'vi), the first catapult was deployed against the Carthaginians in 399BC. The crossbow came about even earlier, to the late 5th Century BC. Just think what your average Spartan would have thought of an Uzzi 9mm.

The Steam Engine
Hero of Alexandria invented the first steam engine but it was not used to draw carriages but to amuse children. Also known as a aeolipile or a Hero Engine, it consisted of a vessel, usually a sphere or a cylinder which rotates on its axis, having oppositely bent or curved nozzles projecting from it.

When the vessel is pressurized with steam, steam is expelled through the nozzles, which generates thrust due to the rocket principle.

The forces result in a rotational movement and the vessel spins on its access. Drag and frictional forces build up and (having canceled the accelerating torque) achieve a steady state speed.

In other words a steam engine, which must have enchanted those who were children at the same time as a certain Jesus of Nazareth. Hero did create automatic doors for a temple with the aid of steam power too, but the idea failed to catch on.