Religion affected every aspect of Greek life. Greeks considered religion necessary to the well-being of the state. Temples dedicated to gods and goddesses were the major buildings in Greek cities. Greeks worshipped twelve chief gods and goddesses. They were thought to live on Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece. Among the twelve were
Zeus: chief god and father of the gods
Athena: goddess of wisdom and crafts
Apollo: god of sun and poetry
Artemis: sister of Apollo, goddess of the moon and of the hunt
Poseidon: brother of Zeus and god of the seas and earthquakes
Greek religion did not focus on morality. The spirits of most people, regardless of what they had done in life, went to a gloomy underworld ruled by the god Hades(god of the underworld). Because the Greeks wanted the gods to look favorably upon their activities, rituals, (ceremonies or rites) were extremely important. Greek religious rituals involved prayers combined with gifts to the gods. Festivals also honored gods and goddesses. Certain festivals were held at special locations, such as those dedicated to the worship of Zeus at Olympia or to Apollo at Delphi. Numerous events, including athletic games, took place in honor of the gods at the Greek festivals. The first such games were held at the Olympic festival in 776 B.C.
The Greeks also had a great desire to learn the will of the gods. In order to do this, they made use of the oracle, a sacred shrine where a god or goddess revealed the future through a priest or priestess. The most famous was the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, located on the side of Mount Parnassus overlooking the Gulf of Corinth. At Delphi, a priestess, thought to be inspired by Apollo, listened to questions. Her responses were then interpreted by priests and given in verse form to the persons asking the questions. Representatives of states and individuals travelled to Delphi to consult the oracle of Apollo.
Although Greek religion is no longer practiced, it was the source of most Greek drama and art. Not only did the Romans adopt the Greek gods, but many stories and references about Greek gods appear in European and American literature.
For the Greeks, the most important form of architecture was the temple, dedicated to a god or goddess. At the center of Greek temples were walled rooms that housed both the statues of deities and treasuries in which gifts to the gods and goddesses were safe-guarded. These central rooms were surrounded by a screen of columns that made Greek temples open structures rather than closed ones. Although the columns were originally made of wood, in the fifth century B.C. marble began to be used.
One of the finest examples of Greek classical architecture was built in Athens in the fifth century B.C. The most famous building on the Acropolis, the Parthenon, is regarded as the greatest example of the classical Greek temple. It was built between 447 and 432 B.C. Dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, the Parthenon was an expression of Athenians’ pride in their city-state. It shows the principles of classical architecture: the search for calmness, clarity, and freedom from unnecessary detail.
Greek sculpture also developed a classical style. Lifelike statues of the male nude, the favorite subject of Greek sculptors, showed relaxed attitudes. Their faces were self-assured, their bodies smooth and muscled. Classical Greek sculptors did not seek to achieve realism, however, but rather a standard of ideal beauty.
The Greeks were the first people to present history as a systematic analysis of past events. Herodotus wrote History of the Persian Wars, often seen as the first real history in Western civilization. Herodotus traveled widely and questioned many people as a means of obtaining his information.
Many historians consider Thucydides the greatest historian of the ancient world. Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides saw war and politics as the activities of human beings, not gods. He examined the Peloponnesian War clearly and fairly, placing much emphasis on accuracy.
“And with regard to my factual reporting of the events of the war I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else I heard of them from eye-witnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible.”- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
Greek Drama In ancient Greece, theatre was a really big deal. Crowds of 15,000 people would gather to see a play. Theatre was so important to the ancient Greeks that prisoners would be released from jail temporarily, so they could also attend.
Every town had at least one theatre. The ancient Greeks were always bragging about the wonderful performances in their city-state. The ancient Greeks held drama competitions with winners for playwriting and performing. These competitions were not only held in their own towns, but also in competition with other towns. Theatre was a big, big deal.
Because so many people came to see the plays, the Greeks built huge outdoor theatres on hillsides, so that people could be seated in a way that let them see what was going on down in the orchestra pit - the stage area. The entire seating section was called the Theatron, which is the origin of our word "theatre".
Part of the reason plays were so important is that originally plays were performed to honor Dionysus, the ancient Greek god of harvest and wine. But over time, many different gods got in the act, so to speak, especially the 12 Olympians - the major gods of ancient Greece.
Sophocles was a famous ancient Greek playwright. He wrote 120 plays. But there were many Greek playwrights because plays were so popular. His most famous play was Oedipus Rex. In this play, the oracle of Apollo accurately foretells that Oedipus will kill his own father and marry his mother. Despite all attempts to prevent this, Oedipus does commit these tragic acts.
Euripides was another Athenian dramatist who created more realistic characters. Many of the themes that he pursued questioned traditional values. He portrayed war as brutal and barbaric and showed the effect that it had on children.
There were three types of plays.
Tragedies: The first type they invented was the tragedy. In tragedies, one or more major characters always suffered a disastrous end. They examined such problems as the nature of good vs. evil and the nature of human beings.
Comedies: Comedies were invented next. In comedies, plays always had a happy end. The third type was the satire.
Satires: Satires were plays that made fun of mortal legends and of real people. In ancient Greece, you did not poke fun at the gods - not in a play, not in real life, not ever. But you could poke fun at your leaders. And that was uniquely Greek. Satires in ancient Greece were often political in nature, and could indeed affect people's opinions about current events.
In Greek drama, the chorus or the singers told the story, not the actors. Actors used gestures and masks to act out their parts. Actors changed roles by changing masks.
Probably the most famous actor in ancient Greece was a man named Thespis. Actors today are called thespians in his honor.
Culture of Classical Greece Learning Stations Worksheet
Why was religion important to the Greeks?
What was the significance of Olympus to the Greeks?
List the 8 gods and goddesses listed in this reading and what they were god/goddess of.
In what ways did the Greeks honor their gods and goddesses?
What was the oracle and why did Greeks use it?
Why/how is Greek religion still remembered today even if it is no longer practiced?
Architecture and Sculpture
What was the most important form of architecture for Greeks?
Describe the layout of Greek temples.
What is the greatest example of the classical Greek temple?
What principles of Greek architecture does the Parthenon show?
Were Greek sculptors trying to achieve realism in their statues, or something else? What did most Greek statues look like?
Based on the quote, how did Thucydides conduct research?
How did Herodotus and Thucydides differ?
Describe the difference between tragedies/comedies/satires.
Where did the words “theatre” and “thespian” derive from?
Who was Sophocles? What famous play is he best remembered for?
Why were plays so important to the Ancient Greeks?