7 Interesting Facts About Ancient Greece You Probably Didn’t Know

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An engraving of the Parthenon in Ancient Greece.
The Parthenon. PDP

Greece has a rich history reaching back for centuries, with the history of the Ancient Greeks being some of the most colorful. People know a lot about the ancient cities of Greece, their wars, and their customs; but here are some facts you probably didn’t know, that you’ll be glad I told you!

A dog on an an Attic black-figure hydria from Ancient Greece
A dog on an Attic black-figure hydria, circa. 500 BC. Marie-Lan Nguyen // CC-BY 2.5

1. Greeks loved their dogs!

The Greeks had great love and respect for dogs as companions, protectors, and hunters which can be seen in contemporary writing and surviving epitaphs from the Ancient Greek period. Xenophon wrote a long passage on how to name a dog claiming it was best to keep it short, at most two syllables, and it had to be meaningful. The name of Xenophon’s own dog translated to ‘eager’, and there are several dogs featured in Greek mythology such as Aura, which means ‘breeze’, who was Atalanta’s dog.

The Greeks invented the spiked collar for dogs to wear, not to restrain or train the dog, but to protect their dogs from their necks being bitten by wild wolves. 

Dog breeds would not have been what we know today, but they did have dogs which were a range of looks and personality with hound dogs helping with hunting, and a small fluffy dog was the height of masculinity for a man to take to the gymnasium!

2. But they had more uses for dogs than just companionship…

There is evidence from Ancient Greece that dogs were more than just loyal companions and capable hunters, they were also used in sacrifice, cooking, and medicine. 

Plutarch, a Roman historian who wrote largely about Greece, wrote that the Thebans would sacrifice a dog as a rite of purification. 

The Greek historian Hippocrates wrote a serving suggestion for dog meat and how it would be preserved alongside other meat such as pigeon. 

The strangest of these alternative roles of dogs is in medicine. Ancient Greece has one of the earliest descriptions and cure suggestions of the female affliction called ‘the wandering womb,’ later called ‘hysteria,’ and it involves the disembowelment of a puppy and filling it with sweet-smelling herbs. This would then be burnt between a woman’s legs and a foul smell would be put next to her nose to coax the womb back to its place in the stomach area…

The Ancient Greek theatre of Epidaurus
The Ancient Theatre at Epidaurus designed in 4th Century BC. Carole Raddato // C-C BY-SA 2.0

3. The Greeks had quite a sense of humor and showed it in many ways.

The Greeks are well known for their dramas performed on stage which would fall into one of three categories; tragedy, satyr, or comedy. Aristophanes was considered the first master of comedy with plays, such as ‘Lysistrata,’ being satirical commentaries of everyday Greek life, often mocking the foolishness of powerful men and other characters in the society. 

Another way the Greeks showed their humor is in the way they decorated their pottery. One example of this is on the ‘kylix’, a wine-drinking cup which would often feature an amusing, and often sexual, image that would appear the more the wine was taken from the cup. 

4. There were more sports competitions than just the Olympics, and they were far more exciting than the modern games.

The Olympic games were the most famous Greek sporting event and were held in Olympus in 776 BCE. It was one of the ‘periodos’, a series of four sports events held at different sacred places, with other events being held at Delphi, Corinth, and Nemea.

Sports included some we might recognize such as running, wrestling, boxing, and horse racing. But the Greeks also took part in chariot racing and hoplite racing, which involved running in full military gear as opposed to naked. They also had a combat sport called pankration, which had little to no rules and was like a combination of wrestling and boxing.

Soldiers battling each other during the battle of thermopylae
The Battle of Thermopylae took place in 480 BC. Internet Archive

5. There weren’t only 300 in the army at Thermopylae, but it was still an amazing battle.

A long-held assumption is that there were only 300 Spartans who faced the Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae, but this is not quite true. The initial size of the Greek army was roughly 7000 men, but faced with a Persian army that Herodotus claimed was made up of over 2 million (it is estimated now the army may have been 100-200 thousand strong) the leader of the Greek army, a Spartan king called Leonidas dismissed a large portion of the army, with few remaining to hold off the Persian force during the retreat. 

In this final battle, although there WERE 300 Spartans, they were joined by 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, and a few hundred others, probably slaves. 

Although the battle was lost, the Greeks won the war largely thanks to the sacrifice of those who stayed behind. 

Thermopylae led to one of the most famous and badass quotes of all Greek history recorded by Herodotus from Dienekes, who was told that Persian arrows would block the sun and he responded: “we will fight in the shade”.

6. Greeks believed they had a shared heritage from Hellen, who was a man.

Despite often being at war, all Greeks believed they had a shared ancestor in the shape of Hellen. Based on the mythology of Greece, Hellen was believed to have been the grandson of Prometheus, who gifted man with fire and was punished for doing so. In another myth, Hellen is one of the sons of Zeus. From Hellen, the Greek people referred to themselves as the Hellenes and saw themselves as descendants of their gods. 

This shared ancestry gave the Greek people a distinction between themselves and people from other countries who they referred to as barbarians. 

The word barbarian originated from Ancient Greece and translated to ‘babbler,’ it is onomatopoeic as when they spoke all the Greeks heard was “bar bar bar.” More humor.

Drawing of Hippocrates, a physician from Ancient Greece.
Hippocrates of Kos was a Greek physician regarded as the “Father of Medicine”.

7. Greeks had an interesting view of how babies were made.

In Ancient Greece, men expecting a baby would hope for a boy, and often girls were a disappointment, which led to high levels of female infanticide as people would leave their girls on a mountain to be exposed to the elements. Ancient philosophers tried to explain why some babies were boys and some were girls, and the explanations are quite ridiculous. Hippocrates wrote that when strong sperm was overwhelmed by weak sperm, a girl would be born. However, if the strong sperm overpowered the weak, a boy would be born. 

Lycurgus, who created rules for living with spouses in Sparta, tried to separate partners and keep both healthy with diet and exercise. He believed if people were more rigorous in health and were kept apart the sex would be better because of the build-up, therefore the baby would grow up to be stronger as a result.

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