How did the ancient Greeks think? A great help to understand it comes from their incredibly rich language. To define concepts deeply rooted in Greek civilization and culture, the ancient Greek language uses very precise words.
However, when considering Greek civilization, one must be careful not to merge ideas, behaviours, and traditions from different eras. The archaic period dominated by the warrior aristocracy (8th to 6th century BC) is very different from the classical period of the poleis (5th to 4th century BC), the time of Athens, Sparta, the Persian wars, democracy, and the flourishing of the arts. Likewise, the classical period differs from the Hellenistic period (3rd to 1st century BC), when city-states lose importance and instead, great Hellenistic kingdoms such as the Kingdom of Egypt, the Kingdom of Macedonia, and the Seleucid Empire emerge.
In this article, words in Ancient Greek are presented in rough chronological order, starting from the Bronze Age and reaching the Hellenistic era, covering all the major epochs of Greek civilization.
The Words of Greek Civilization: The World of Heroes
The Greek civilization traces its roots back to the archaic world depicted in the Homeric poems of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The dating of these works is uncertain, usually indicating a period between the 11th and 8th centuries BC. According to tradition, the Trojan War would have taken place at the end of the 12th century BC (1194-1184 BC), but the exact date is not so important. What matters to us is understanding the values and ideals of the people of that era, embodied in the heroic figures of Achilles, Ajax, and Odysseus (the Greek name of the hero best known as Ulysses).
The Homeric poems serve as an encyclopedia of behaviours, rituals, and practices to be followed during the war. They provide practical instructions ranging from organizing a funeral to the appropriate number and type of gifts to exchange during an embassy. Alongside this “manual-like” aspect, there is also the ideological one: the Homeric heroes are the models that the aristocracy must follow.
Before exploring the words that help us delve into the mindset of early ancient Greeks, a clarification is necessary: the Iliad and the Odyssey do not represent a specific historical period. This topic would require a separate article, but to summarize, both poems incorporate weapons, objects, institutions, and religious rites from different eras, from the Bronze Age (including the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations, 2800-1100 BC) to the beginning of the archaic age (8th century BC). The two poems are a collage of diverse elements so that it’s important to remember that values and ideologies represented in the texts come from different periods with different cultures and societies.
Kalos kai agathos (καλὸς καὶ ἀγαθός)
“Good and Beautiful.” In Greek civilization, goodness and beauty go hand in hand. Valiant heroes and powerful gods are always described as having dazzling beauty, and their brightness is one of their most significant attributes. In Homeric Greek, their eyes are bright, their skin radiant, the hair shiny, aspects that are typically translated as “blue eyes,” “milky skin,” and “blond hair.” The lexicon of colours in ancient Greek is quite problematic, but more than the actual colour of eyes and hair, what matters in these texts is precisely the degree of brightness. Divinity is associated with light, and thus, gods and demigods shine.
Even in later times, the combination of good and beautiful enjoys tremendous success. Just think of Greek art, where the canon requires beautiful and regular features even in portraiture of real people. They are all uniformly beautiful, and similar, without imperfections, such as wrinkles, receding hairlines, or moles. Roman portraiture, on the other hand, embraces realism as its main characteristic. In the Homeric poems (but not only), ugliness and deformity are associated with ignoble, unreliable, envious individuals whom good people should keep away from. Later, the narrative shifts a bit and ugliness becomes an allegory applied to the monsters that heroes combat.
“Fame, glory.” Kleos is a fundamental concept to understand the early Greek civilization because it drives heroes’ actions. The clearest example is Achilles. Before Achaeans sailed to Troy, he had to choose between two options: living a long and happy life, but being forgotten after his death, or living a short and tormented life that would allow him to be remembered for eternity. Achilles chooses the second option, as expected of a true Homeric hero. For the people of that time, glory is the only way to earn immortality. To be remembered in the future thanks to their kleos (fame), they must build their timé (honour) in the present.
“Honor.” Timé is not just a good reputation; in the world of Homeric poems, it has a very concrete meaning too, that is war spoils. A great warrior deserves a great loot, a clear sign of his value and importance. This explains why in the Iliad, heroes so often quarrel over getting the largest share of the spoils or the weapons of a fallen comrade, as happens after Achilles’ death. Not recognizing the proper material reward for the hero’s valour is a terrible affront that cannot be ignored. This is precisely how the Iliad begins, with “the deadly wrath” of Achilles because Agamemnon took away his slave-girl, Briseis.
Timé helps us better understand a fundamental aspect of the Greek civilization depicted in the Homeric poems. Anthropologists define it as a “shame culture,” as opposed to a “guilt culture.” In shame cultures, individuals do not focus on the morality of their actions. Instead, their behaviour is guided by the need to preserve their reputation and the shame that would arise if others lost their esteem for them.
Indeed, the Homeric heroes do not always behave admirably, but this is due to their value system. The shame they would feel for not being brave enough, for example, prevails over the sense of guilt for harming others (characteristic of a guilt culture).
The Words of Greek Civilization: Living Politics
Language changes with the evolution of society, and compared to the aristocratic past, even the words change in classical Greece. Now, no longer kings or tyrants are ruling the Greeks, but the people themselves, in the case of democracies, or oligarchic regimes (aristocracies) that still have to be accountable to the people for their decisions. The most significant word of this period is undoubtedly a neologism born precisely at this moment: democracy.
“Democracy.” It is a compound word, formed by demos (δῆμος) and kratos (κράτος), meaning “power of the people.” Interestingly, a word that has a positive meaning for us, in ancient Greek had a negative nuance, determined by the second word that composed it: kratos. The translation of kratos is power, but like many Greek words, it has a more specific meaning than the one we generally associate with it.
In Greek, the concept of “power” can be conveyed in two different ways, arké (ἀρχή) and kratos. Arké has a neutral meaning, while kratos indicates the power that contains an element of violence because it signifies the one who prevails in a battle. Aristotle indeed defines democracy as a corrupt form of popular government, which we would consider as demagogy.
His negative judgment stems not only from his personal convictions but also from what Athenian democracy has become: after the death of Pericles, Athens is governed by demagogues who use the people for their interests and are condemned by their contemporaries. Democracy becomes demagogia (δημαγωγία), composed of demos + ago (ἄγω) «lead». The degenerated form of democracy is also called ochlocracy (ὀχλοκρατία, “power of the crowd”), from óchlos (ὄχλος), “multitude, mass,” and kratos, that is a form of government dominated by the crowd, led by demagogues.
The Words of Greek Civilization: Theater as an Expression of Civilization
For Greek culture, theater is not merely a pastime but a fundamental tool to strengthen common identity and convey behaviour patterns. Theater has a civic function, and many of the words that best clarify the mindset of ancient Greeks can be found in the tragedies of the three greatest Greek tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. All three lived in the 5th century BC in Athens, and it’s no coincidence that this was the golden age of theatre. Tragedies and comedies flourished under the democratic regime, as citizens were more actively engaged in public life.
“Hubris, arrogance, excess.” It is one of the most challenging terms to express with a single word and, at the same time, one of the most significant words in all of Greek civilization. That is why it’s worth spending a few more words on it.
Hybris is originally linked to religion but extends to all aspects of human life. It is a highly negative concept, a grave sin that triggers divine retribution. Revenge can affect not only the guilty individual but also those close to him, no matter if they are innocent. The one who commits hybris shows no respect for the gods, for what is sacred; they do not know their place. Myths are full of men and women punished for their hybris. Arachne, who claims to be a better weaver than Athena and is punished by being transformed into a spider, or the satyr Marsyas, who challenges Apollo to a musical contest and, upon losing, is flayed alive by the god.
Hybris is a rebellion against social conventions. It’s believing to be above the law, despising both men and gods and even daring to challenge them. Ancient societies have no place for solitary and rebellious heroes, as they pose a danger to the community. For instance, politicians or generals who succumb to hybris will bring ruin to the city, as they will only focus on their glory.
However, this is how human nature works: power and wealth make people too proud and arrogant. Equally naturally, hybris will bring them pain. This is the essence of Aeschylus’ theatre: man cannot avoid suffering because, by nature, he tends to exceed boundaries. Nevertheless, the pain is not in vain. Only through painful experiences, it’s possible to find balance, discover his place in the world, and become a good citizen.
“Destiny.” It is another core concept of Greek civilization and the basis of tragedies and epic poems. For the Greeks, both humans and gods must submit to an uncontrollable force from which no one can escape: destiny.
A lot of tragedies revolve around a prophecy that the protagonists try to avoid. For example, the king of Thebes knows that his son will kill him and marry his mother, so he orders the killing of his son, Oedipus. However, the child is saved and raised by the king and queen of Corinth. Oedipus discovers the terrible prophecy that concerns him and flees, only to end up meeting his real father. After a dispute, he kills him and, as a reward for defeating the Sphinx, marries Jocasta, the widowed queen, who is his mother.
Escaping destiny is impossible, but the real tragedy is that this does not absolve humans from their crimes. Indeed, Sophocles’ tragedy “Oedipus Rex” begins with a plague striking Thebes, which the gods unleash to punish Oedipus, and it ends with Jocasta’s suicide and Oedipus blinding himself after discovering the truth, leading him to exile.
The Words of Greek Civilization: Philosophy
Philosophy is one of the fields for which Ancient Greek has generated the most words. For now, I’ll focus on just one, as the subject is so vast that it deserves a separate article.
“Moderation” or “Self-control.” This is again an essential word to understand the mindset of ancient Greeks and Greek civilization in general. Its best explanation can be found in a phrase by Aristotle: μέσον τε καὶ ἄριστον, which means “virtue lies in the middle.”
As already evident from the concept of hybris, Greeks did not appreciate excess, which they considered a typical characteristic of barbarians. A Greek man had to be capable of measuring himself and finding a balance between extremes. For example, if a man lacks courage, he is a coward, but if he is eager to fight, he becomes reckless and a danger to himself and his comrades. One must know how to calibrate emotions and actions and find “the right mean” (μεσότης, mesotes). However, it’s essential to note that this is not a justification for mediocrity, especially because the Greeks were highly competitive. Instead, it’s a guide to avoiding incorrect and dangerous behaviours and to remember that they are human beings, not beasts lacking control over their animal instincts.
The pursuit of moderation is evident in classical art, where individuals are depicted with calm and solemn expressions, in relaxed poses, in one word: balanced. Twisted movements, anguished faces, grotesque realism, and agitation come later, with Hellenistic art. During that time, citizens become subjects and art and theatre no longer mould men who should participate in the governance of the city. Even values had changed. If previously emotions and feelings were concealed, later they become evident, violent, and “pathetic.”
Moderation may seem set aside, but it will not be forgotten. Romans greatly appreciate this concept, and the mesotes of Ancient Greek will change its name: it will become the Latin medietas.
A book on Ancient Greek and its grammar is “The Ingenious Language: Nine Epic Reasons to Love Greek” by Andrea Marcolongo (2016). I didn’t love it very much because it tends to portray the ancient Greeks as superhuman figures without flaws. Besides being unrealistic, this image of absolute perfection makes these people annoyingly distant. However, if one has no knowledge of Ancient Greek, it can still give an idea of how the language worked.
Much more precise and specialized is “Lexis. Lessico della lingua greca per radici e famiglie di parole” (Lexis. Lexicon of the Greek language for roots and word families) (2018). It is a great book to delve into the words of Greek and dissect their etymologies, but it is not for beginners and at the moment it is only in Italian.
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Did you already know these ancient Greek words? Which one has you surprised the most?