In what ways did Greek inventions affect later development in European life?

This article is the twentifirst of an ongoing series from EuroClio providing teachers with ideas and practical resources for teaching a range of topics in their classrooms. You can find a wealth of additional resources including units, source collections and eLearning activities on the Historiana website and you can read the other articles in the series here.

What have the Greeks ever done for us?
Classical Greece is often regarded as the cradle of European culture and civilisation. Its architecture and art has been emulated throughout European history. Greek philosophy is considered to be the basis not only of critical thought and empirical research, but in a different way also of a lot of Christian thinking, the lens through which a Jewish belief became Europeanised.

At the same time, one of classical Greece’s most enduring inventions
– or rather: the invention of classical Athens –, democracy, is being fiercely debated all over Europe. Although most Europeans would consider themselves at least moderately democratic, they differ on how that democracy should be organised. How free should freedom of speech, a core principle of the Athenian Assembly, be? Can the government of a strong man, even if he is elected through fair elections, be considered truly democratic? Are demagogues and populist true democrats or a threat to the survival of the democratic principles.

These questions plagued ancient Greeks as much as modern Europeans. Studying the organisation of the ancient Athenian democracy and its ancient critics, may help students to develop a more informed and positive critical view on democracy. It may also stimulate him or her to think about the future of European democracies and the ways in which they might contribute to that future. Historiana has recently developed a new source collection entitled ‘In what ways did Greek inventions affect later development in European life?’. This collection discusses the contribution of classical Greek culture on later European culture, not only democracy, but subjects like theatre and inventions as well. The collection begins with an examination of the background of these reforms and the reforms themselves. These contributions are illustrated by using images from different European collections.

Athenian ostraka
Source: Όστρακα 8ου και 7ου π.Χ. αι. από την τομή Γ’, 4 quarter of
the 20th century, Άγνωστος δημιουργός, Εν Αθήναις Αρχαιολογική
Εταιρεία via European

Ideas for Teaching Historical Thinking with this Source Collection

There are several ways in which this source collection might be used to promote students’ historical thinking:

  • Significance: Examine the different contributions to decide how significant they are to modern European culture.
  • Continuity and Change: Examine the contributions to ascertain how these have been adapted throughout the centuries. What did Europeans conserve and what did they alter?
  • Perspective-taking: Investigate the difference and similarities in values behind democratic ideas and institutions of ancient Greeks on the one hand and modern Europeans on the other.

What can we learn from the Ancient Greeks for democracy today?
The example eLearning Activity provided on Historiana entitled: ‘What
can we learn from the Ancient Greeks for democracy today?
’ presents
a lesson idea which uses an online mode of teaching and learning.
The lesson aims to develop students’ skills in drawing justified conclusions about the development of democracy from ancient times until the present.

After a brief introduction, students are provided with a number of
sources on characteristics of ancient Athenian democracy. They are
asked to sort them according to the level of similarity with the
democracy in which they live. This activity helps students not only to
think about change and continuity, but also gives meaning to the
subject, by connecting the ancient democracy to the world in which
they themselves live.

After this activity they are presented with a number of ancient
philosophers and their critique on the Athenian democracy. Using a
highlighting tool they are asked to mark those passages that in their
opinion provide lessons for today. They are also asked to explain
those lessons. When this task is completed, the students are presented with a final question: ‘How far did democracy progress since the Ancient Greeks?’

Using their early analyses and their answers students need to
formulate their own opinion in writing. This last task makes them
apply the knowledge to their own situation and therefore supports
the development of a critical but engaged democratic citizenship.
Of course, the results of this eLearning activity could be used as a
starting point for a real-life discussion, either in groups or with the
entire class. Relevant points of discussion might be: ‘Which elements
of ancient democracy are less relevant for today and why?’, ‘Which
elements might be reintroduced?’ and ‘What is the chance that modern democracy might disappear as the ancient one did? Should
we prevent that, and if so: how?’

As with all Historiana eLearning Activities, this activity can be saved to
‘My Historiana’ and then edited and adapted for use in your specific
classroom context.


Historiana would not be possible without the efforts and generous contributions of historians and educators from Europe and beyondand the support of the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union.


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