The culture of Greece has developed over thousands of years, beginning with Mycenaean Greece and continuing in Classical Greece, under the influence of the Roman Empire and its Eastern Greek extension, the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium. Other cultures and nations, such as the Latin and Frankish states, the Ottoman Empire, the Venetian Republic, the Genoese Republic and the British Empire also left their mark on modern Greek culture, although historians credit the Greek War of Independence with the revival of Greece and the birth of a unique and coherent unity of its diverse culture.
In ancient times, Greece was the birthplace of Western culture. Modern democracies owe much to the Greek belief in government by the people, trial by jury and equality before the law. The ancient Greeks were pioneers in many fields based on systematic thinking, including biology, geometry, history, philosophy, physics and mathematics. They introduced such important literary forms as epic and lyric poetry, history, tragedy and comedy. In their search for order and proportion, the Greeks created an ideal of beauty that strongly influenced Western art.
Artistic production in Greece began in the prehistoric civilisations of the Cyclades and Minoans, both of which were influenced by the local traditions and art of ancient Egypt.
In ancient Greece, there were several interrelated painting traditions. Due to their technical differences, they underwent a somewhat differentiated development. Not all painting techniques are equally represented in the archaeological record. According to authors such as Pliny or Pausanias, the most highly regarded art form was individual, movable painting on wooden panels, technically known as panel painting. In addition, the tradition of mural painting in Greece goes back at least to the Minoan and Mycenaean Bronze Ages, with the magnificent decoration of frescoes from sites such as Knossos, Tiryns and Mycenae. Much of the figurative or architectural sculpture of ancient Greece was painted in colour. This aspect of Greek stone is called polychromy (from Greek πολυχρωμία, πολύ = many and χρώμα = colour).
Ancient Greek sculpture was almost exclusively made of marble or bronze, with bronze casting from the 5th century onwards. Fortunately, both marble and bronze are easy to shape and very durable. Chryselephantine sculptures used for temple cult images and luxury works used gold, usually in the form of leaves and ivory for all or part (faces and hands) of the figure, and probably also precious stones and other materials, but were much rarer and only fragments have survived. In the early 19th century, systematic excavations of sites in ancient Greece had uncovered an abundance of sculptures with surface traces, especially multi-coloured ones. It was not until the publication of the findings of the German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann in the late 20th and early 21st centuries that the painting of ancient Greek sculptures became an established fact.
Artistic production continued during the Byzantine period. The most striking feature of this new aesthetic was its “abstract” or anti-naturalistic character. While classical art was characterised by the attempt to create representations that imitated reality as much as possible, Byzantine art seems to have abandoned this attempt in favour of a more symbolic approach. Byzantine painting focused mainly on icons and hagiographies.
The post-Byzantine schools of art include the Cretan and Heptan schools.
The Greek academic art of the 19th century (Munich School) can be considered the first artistic movement in the Greek Kingdom. Modern Greek painters include Nikolaos Gyzis, Georgios Jakobides, Theodoros Vryzakis, Nikiforos Lytras, Konstantinos Volanakis, Nikos Engonopoulos and Yannis Tsarouchis, and sculptors include Pavlos Prosalentis, Ioannis Kossos, Leonidas Drosis, Georgios Bonanos, Georgios Vitalis and Yannoulis Chalepas.
After Greek independence, modern Greek architects tried to combine traditional Greek and Byzantine elements and motifs with Western European movements and styles. Patras was the first city in the modern Greek state to develop a city plan. In January 1829, Stamatis Voulgaris, a Greek engineer in the French army, submitted the plan for the new city to Governor Kapodistrias, who approved it. Voulgaris applied the orthogonal rule to the Patras urban complex.
Two particular genres can be considered: Cycladic architecture with white houses in the Cyclades and Epirotic architecture in the Epirus region.
After the foundation of the Greek kingdom, the architecture of Athens and other cities was mainly influenced by neoclassical architecture. For Athens, the first king of Greece, Otto of Greece, commissioned the architects Stamatios Kleanthis and Eduard Schaubert to design a modern city plan adapted to the capital of a state.
Theatre in its western form was born in Greece. The classical city-state of Athens, which became a major cultural, political and military power during this period, was its centre, where it was institutionalised in a festival called the Dionysia, which honoured the god Dionysus. Tragedy (late 6th century BC), comedy (486 BC) and the satyr play were the three dramatic genres that emerged.
During the Byzantine period, the art of theatre experienced a marked decline. According to Marios Ploritis, the only form that survived was folk theatre (mimos and pantomimos), despite the hostility of the official state. Later, during the Ottoman period, the main theatrical folk art was karagiozis. The Renaissance that led to modern Greek theatre took place in Venetian Crete. Important playwrights are Vitsentzos Kornaros and Georgios Chortatzis.
Modern Greek theatre emerged after Greek independence in the early 19th century and was initially influenced by Heptan theatre and melodramas, such as Italian opera. The Nobile Teatro di San Giacomo di Corfù was the first theatre and opera house of modern Greece and the place where the first Greek opera, The Parliamentary Candidate by Spyridon Xyndas (with an exclusively Greek libretto) was performed. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Athens theatre scene was dominated by revues, musicals, operettas and nocturnes. Among the best-known playwrights were Spyridon Samaras, Dionysios Lavrangas, Theophrastos Sakellaridis and others.
The National Theatre of Greece was founded in 1880. Playwrights of modern Greek theatre include Gregorios Xenopoulos, Nikos Kazantzakis, Pantelis Horn, Alekos Sakellarios and Iakovos Kambanelis, and actors include Cybele Andrianou, Marika Kotopouli, Aimilios Veakis, Orestis Makris, Katina Paxinou, Manos Katrakis and Dimitris Horn. Important directors are Dimitris Rontiris, Alexis Minotis and Karolos Koun.
Greek literature can be divided into three main categories: Ancient, Byzantine and Modern Greek literature.
At the beginning of Greek literature are the two monumental works of Homer: the Iliad and the Odyssey. Although the dates of composition vary, these works were set around 800 BC or later. During the classical period, many genres of Western literature gained prominence. Lyric poetry, odes, pastorals, elegies, epigrams, dramatic representations of comedy and tragedy, historiography, rhetorical treatises, philosophical dialectics and philosophical treatises all emerged during this period. The two most important lyrical poets were Sappho and Pindar. The classical era also saw the emergence of drama.
Of the hundreds of tragedies written and performed in the classical period, only a limited number of plays by three authors have survived: those of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The surviving dramas of Aristophanes are also a treasure trove of comic performances, while Herodotus and Thucydides are two of the most influential historians of the period. The greatest prose achievement of the 4th century is philosophy, with the works of the three great philosophers.
Byzantine literature refers to the literature of the Byzantine Empire written in Attic, medieval and early modern Greek. It is an expression of the intellectual life of the Byzantine Greeks during the Christian Middle Ages.
Modern Greek literature refers to literature written in ordinary Modern Greek from the end of the Byzantine era until the 11th century. The poem Erotokritos from the Cretan Renaissance is undoubtedly the masterpiece of this period of Greek literature. It is a romance in verse written around 1600 by Vitsentzos Kornaros (1553-1613). Later, in the period of the Greek Enlightenment (diafotismos), writers like Adamantios Korais and Rigas Feraios prepared the Greek Revolution (1821-1830) with their works.
The most important literary figures of modern Greece are Dionysios Solomos, Andreas Kalvos, Angelos Sikelianos, Emmanuel Rhoides, Demetrius Vikelas, Kostis Palamas, Penelope Delta, Yannis Ritsos, Alexandros Papadiamantis, Nikos Kazantzakis, Andreas Embeirikos, Kostas Karyotakis, Gregorios Xenopoulos, Constantine P. Cavafy, Nikos Kavvadias, Kostas Varnalis and Kiki Dimoula. Two Greek authors were awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature: George Seferis in 1963 and Odysseas Elytis in 1979.
Most Western philosophical traditions began in ancient Greece in the 6th century B.C. The first philosophers are called “pre-Socratic”, meaning that they lived before Socrates, whose contributions marked a turning point in Western thought. The Presocratics came from the western or eastern colonies of Greece and only fragments of their original writings have survived, in some cases a single sentence.
With Socrates, a new period of philosophy began. Like the Sophists, he completely rejected the physical speculations with which his predecessors were concerned and took the thoughts and opinions of the people as his starting point. Some aspects of Socrates were first collected by Plato, who also combined with them many principles established by earlier philosophers and developed all this material into the unity of a complete system.
Aristotle of Stagire, Plato’s most important pupil, shared with his teacher the title of the greatest philosopher of antiquity. But while Plato had tried to illuminate and explain things from the supersensible point of view of the forms, his pupil preferred to proceed from the facts given by experience. With the exception of these three most important Greek philosophers, the other schools of Greek philosophy known in antiquity were Stoicism, Epicureanism, Scepticism and Neoplatonism.
Byzantine philosophy refers to the distinctive philosophical ideas of the philosophers and scholars of the Byzantine Empire, especially between the 8th and 15th centuries. It was informed by a Christian worldview, but could draw ideas directly from the Greek texts of Plato, Aristotle and the Neoplatonists.
On the eve of the fall of Constantinople, Gemistus Pletho attempts to restore the use of the term “Hellene” and argues for a return to the Olympian gods of antiquity. After 1453, a number of Greek-Byzantine scholars who fled to Western Europe contributed to the Renaissance.
In modern times, diafotismos (Greek: Διαφωτισμός, “enlightenment”, “enlightenment”) was the Greek term for the Enlightenment and its philosophical and political ideas. Its representatives included Adamantios Korais, Rigas Feraios and Theophilos Kairis.
Other modern Greek philosophers include Cornelius Castoriadis, Nicos Poulantzas and Christos Yannaras.
Music and dances
Greek vocal music dates back to ancient times when mixed choirs performed for entertainment, celebration and spiritual reasons. The instruments used at that time included the double-reed aulos and the plucked string instrument, the lyre, especially the special type called the kithara. Music played an important role in the educational system of the ancient world. Boys were taught music from the age of six. Later, influences from the Roman Empire, the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire also had an impact on Greek music.
While the new technique of polyphony was developing in the West, the Eastern Orthodox Church resisted any kind of change. Consequently, Byzantine music remained monophonic and without any form of instrumental accompaniment. As a result, and despite some attempts by some Greek singers (such as Manouel Gazis, Ioannis Plousiadinos or the Cypriot Ieronimos o Tragoudistis), Byzantine music was deprived of the elements that favoured an unhindered development of the art in the West. However, this method, which kept music away from polyphony, together with centuries of continuous culture, allowed monophonic music to develop to the highest peaks of perfection. Byzantium introduced Byzantine monophonic chant, a melodic treasure invaluable for its rhythmic variety and expressiveness.
In addition to Byzantine (ecclesiastical) song and music, the Greek people also cultivated Greek folk song, which is divided into two cycles, acritic and klephic. The acritic originated between the 9th and 10th centuries and expresses the lives and struggles of the acrites (border guards) of the Byzantine Empire, most famously the stories surrounding the Digenes acritas. The Kleptian cycle was established between the end of the Byzantine period and the beginning of the Greek War of Independence. The Kleptian cycle, as well as historical songs, paralogies (narrative songs or ballads), love songs, mantinades, wedding songs, exile songs and hymn songs express the life of the Greeks. The Greek people’s struggles for freedom, their joys and sorrows and their attitudes to love and death have a unity.
The Heptan cantádhes (καντάδες ‘serenades’; Sing.: καντάδα) became the forerunners of modern Greek song and significantly influenced its development. In the first half of the following century, several Greek composers continued to incorporate elements of the Heptanic style. The most popular songs of the period 1870-1930 were the Athenian serenades and the songs performed on stage (επιθεωρησιακά τραγούδια “theatrical revue songs”) in the revues, operettas and nocturnes that dominated the Athenian theatre scene.
Initially associated with the lower classes, rebetiko later (and especially after the population exchange between Greece and Turkey) became more acceptable as the rough edges of its overtly subcultural character were softened and polished, sometimes beyond recognition. It was the basis for the laïkó (folk song) that followed. The most important performers of the genre are Vassilis Tsitsanis, Grigoris Bithikotsis, Stelios Kazantzidis, George Dalaras, Haris Alexiou and Glykeria.
As far as classical music is concerned, it is thanks to the Ionian Islands (which were under the rule and influence of the West) that all the great advances in classical music from Western Europe were introduced to mainland Greece. The region is notable for the birth of the first school of modern Greek classical music (Heptanian or Ionian School, in Greek: Επτανησιακή Σχολή), founded in 1815. Prominent exponents of this genre are Nikolaos Mantzaros, Spyridon Xyndas, Spyridon Samaras and Pavlos Carrer. Manolis Kalomiris is considered the founder of the Greek National School of Music.
In the 20th century, Greek composers had a significant influence on the development of the avant-garde and modern classical music, with figures such as Iannis Xenakis, Nikos Skalkottas and Dimitri Mitropoulos achieving international fame. At the same time, composers and musicians such as Mikis Theodorakis, Manos Hatzidakis, Eleni Karaindrou, Vangelis and Demis Roussos have attracted international audiences for their music, which includes music from famous films such as Zorba the Greek, Serpico, Never on Sunday, America America America, Eternity and a Day, Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner and others. Greek-American composers known for their film scores include Yanni and Basil Poledouris. Greek opera singers and classical musicians of the 20th and 21st centuries include Maria Callas, Nana Mouskouri, Mario Frangoulis, Leonidas Kavakos, Dimitris Sgouros and others.
During the dictatorship of the colonels, Mikis Theodorakis’ music was banned by the junta and the composer was imprisoned, exiled within the country and taken to a concentration camp before finally being allowed to leave Greece due to the international reaction to his imprisonment. Anthrope Agapa, ti Fotia Stamata (Make Love, Stop the Gunshots) by the pop group Poll, released during the junta years, is considered the first anti-war protest song in Greek rock history. This song, which takes up the hippie slogan “Make love, not war”, was directly inspired by the Vietnam War and became a “big hit” in Greece.
Greece has participated in the Eurovision Song Contest 35 times since its debut in 1974. In 2005, Greece won with the song “My Number One”, performed by Greek-Swedish singer Elena Paparizou. The song received 230 points with 10 sets of 12 points from Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, Great Britain, Turkey, Albania, Cyprus, Serbia & Montenegro, Sweden and Germany and was also a great success in other countries and especially in Greece. The 51st Eurovision Song Contest took place in Athens, in the covered Olympic Hall of the Athens Olympic Sports Complex in Maroussi, under the direction of Maria Menounos and Sakis Rouvas.
Greek cuisine is characteristic of the healthy Mediterranean diet embodied in the dishes of Crete. Greek cuisine uses fresh ingredients to create a variety of local dishes such as moussaka, pastitsio, classic Greek salad, fasolada, spanakopita and souvlaki. Some dishes date back to ancient Greece, such as skordalia (a thick puree of walnuts, almonds, crushed garlic and olive oil), lentil soup, retsina (white or rosé wine sealed with pine resin) and pasteli (a sweet bar with sesame seeds cooked in honey). Throughout Greece, people like to eat small dishes such as meze with various dips like tzatziki, squid and small grilled fish, feta, dolmades (rice, currants and pine nuts wrapped in vine leaves), various pulses, olives and cheese. Olive oil is added to almost every dish.
Sweet desserts include melomakarona, diples and galaktoboureko, and drinks include ouzo, metaxa and various wines, including retsina. Greek cuisine differs greatly from other regions of the continent and from island to island. It uses certain flavours more frequently than other Mediterranean cuisines: oregano, mint, garlic, onion, dill and bay leaves. Other common herbs and spices include basil, thyme and fennel seeds. In many Greek recipes, especially in the northern parts of the country, “mild” spices are used in combination with meat, for example cinnamon and cloves in stews.
Greece is the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games, first recorded in Olympia in 776 BC, and has twice hosted the modern Olympic Games, the first Summer Olympics in 1896 and the Summer Olympics in 2004. In the parade of nations, Greece is always named first as the founding nation of the ancient precursor to the modern Olympic Games. The nation has participated in all the Summer Olympics and is one of only four countries to have done so. With a total of 110 medals won (30 gold, 42 silver and 38 bronze), Greece ranks 32nd in the count of all summer Olympic medals by number of gold medals. Their best result was achieved at the 1896 Summer Olympics, when Greece came second in the medal table with 10 gold medals.
The Greek national football team, ranked 12th in the world in 2014 (and 8th at its peak in 2008 and 2011), was crowned European champions in 2004 in one of the biggest upheavals in the sport’s history and has become one of the most successful national teams in European football. It is one of only nine national teams to have won the UEFA European Championship. The Greek Super League is the highest professional football league in the country with 16 teams. The most successful are Olympiacos, Panathinaikos, AEK Athens, PAOK and Aris Thessaloniki.
The Greek national basketball team has a decades-long tradition in the sport and is considered one of the greatest basketball powers in the world. In 2012 it was ranked 4th in the world and 2nd in Europe. It has won the European Championship twice (1987 and 2005) and has reached the Final Four in two of the last four FIBA World Championships. In 2006, it finished second in the world after a spectacular 101-95 victory over Team USA in the tournament’s semi-finals. The national basketball league, A1 Ethniki, consists of fourteen teams. The most successful Greek teams are Olympiacos, Panathinaikos, Aris Thessaloniki, AEK Athens and P.A.O.K. Greek basketball teams are the most successful in European basketball in the last 25 years. They have won no less than 9 Euroleagues since the creation of the modern Euroleague Final Four format in 1988, while no other nation has won more than 4 Euroleague championships in that period. In addition to the 9 Euroleagues, Greek basketball teams (Panathinaikos, Olympiacos, Aris Thessaloniki, AEK Athens, P.A.O.K, Maroussi) have won 3 Triple Crowns, 5 Saporta Cups, 2 Korać Cups and 1 FIBA European Champions Cup. Following the 2005 European Championship triumph of the Greek national basketball team, Greece became the reigning European champions in both football and basketball.
The Greek national women’s water polo team has established itself as one of the leading forces in the world and became world champions after defeating hosts China at the 2011 World Championships. It also won silver at the 2004 Summer Olympics, gold at the 2005 World League and silver medals at the 2010 and 2012 European Championships. Greece’s men’s national water polo team became the third best water polo team in the world in 2005 after defeating Croatia in the bronze medal match at the 2005 World Swimming Championships in Canada. The top national water polo leagues, the Greek Men’s Water Polo League and the Greek Women’s Water Polo League, are considered the best national water polo leagues in Europe as their clubs have achieved significant success in European competitions. In the men’s European competitions, Olympiacos won the Champions League, the European Super Cup and the Triple Crown in 2002, becoming the first club in the history of water polo to win all the titles in which it participated in a single year (national championship, national cup, Champions League and European Super Cup), while NC Vouliagmeni won the LEN Cup Winners’ Cup in 1997. In the European women’s competitions, the Greek water polo teams (NC Vouliagmeni, Glyfada NSC, Olympiacos, Ethnikos Piraeus) are among the most successful in the European water polο. They have won no less than 4 LEN Champions Cups, 3 LEN Trophy and 2 European Super Cups.
The Greek national men’s volleyball team won two bronze medals, one at the European Volleyball Championship and the other at the European Volleyball Paliga, a 5th place at the Olympic Games and a 6th place at the FIVB Men’s Volleyball World Championship. The Greek league, A1 Ethniki, is considered one of the best volleyball leagues in Europe and Greek clubs have achieved significant success in European competitions. Olympiacos is the most successful volleyball club in the country, having won the most national titles and is the only Greek club to have won European titles; it has won two CEV Cups, has twice been runner-up in the CEV Champions League and has participated in no less than 12 Final Fours in European competitions, making it one of the most traditional volleyball clubs in Europe. Iraklis have also enjoyed great success in European competitions and have been runners-up in the CEV Champions League three times.
In other sports, cricket and handball are relatively popular in Corfu and Veria respectively.
The many gods of the ancient Greek religion, as well as the heroes and mythical events of the ancient Greek epics (the Odyssey and the Iliad) and other works of art and literature of the time, form what is now colloquially known as Greek mythology. In addition to its religious function, the mythology of ancient Greece also has a cosmological function, as it attempts to explain how the world came into being and how it functions.
The main gods of ancient Greek religion were the Dodecathlon or the Twelve Gods who lived on top of Mount Olympus. The most important of all the gods of ancient Greece was Zeus, the king of the gods, who was married to Hera, who was also Zeus’ sister. The other Greek gods who made up the twelve Olympians were Demeter, Ares, Poseidon, Athena, Dionysus, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Hephaistos and Hermes. In addition to these twelve gods, the Greeks also had various other mystical beliefs, such as nymphs and other magical creatures.