Who's your favorite hero of ancient Greek culture? Ours just might be the aptly named Hero of Alexandria, who lived around 10 - 70 AD, and may possibly be one of the earliest, most prolific technical writers ever.
We nominate King Leonidas, of Tonight we Dine in Hell fame as a very close runner up. Hopefully you've seen the movie 300 and can relate. More on that later, but for now, back to Hero, our hero.
Hero the inventor did so much to get the Greeks and the rest of civilization up to speed. He invented such things as steam engines, vessels that mix water and wine or dispense either separately, "automatic" doors, and even the first vending machine — a container that pours holy water when you insert five drachmas.
If you want to read about the nearly 80 interesting items our Hero created and diagrammed for the good of the Greek people, you can read about them in an English version of The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria.
Be sure to read the sections on the Automatons, particularly this chapter title: 'An Automaton, the head of which continues attached to the body, after a knife has entered the neck at one side, passed completely through it, and out the other, which animal will drink immediately after the operation.'
Hero was a bit wordy and macabre, wasn't he? But still brilliant!
Let's go back to the 8th century B.C., when the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet and modified it for their own ends. Geographically, Greece was merely a loosely held together collection of islands and smaller communities.
Money changed everything, around 680 B.C. Middle class merchants began trading more, and wished for more power, which caused a bit of strife. The aristocracy fought to maintain control and the cities began raising armies. Enter the Spartans and a new turn in ancient Greek culture.
Athens, Corinth, Sparta and Thebes gained control of the land surrounding those cities. Athens and Corinth in particular made strides in commerce and maritime power.
Around 500 B.C. the political climate changed dramatically. Athens and Sparta were constantly fighting, and Isagoras was installed as a magistrate in Athens. But since he was pro - Spartan, a rival suggested to the Athenian people that they all rule equally. Thus, the birth of democracy and the Golden Age of Athens.
Here's where we get to the cinematic Leonidas' morbid dinner promises.
King Darius I of Persia decided to add Greek land to his empire. He invaded in 490 B.C. but lost. His son, Xerxes I (commander of those pesky Immortals) tried again at the famous battle of Thermopylae, in which the Spartans held a critical mountain pass for three days.
In real life, the ratio of Spartans to Persians was about 7,000 to 100,000, or 7 to 100. Still terrible odds, but it's easier to defend a narrow pass with those numbers, than it is to engage in battle on an open field. If you want more on this battle and the Persian invasion, the History Channel has a great documentary on Xerxes' three - pronged attack, or you can read the basic rundown available here: The Battle of Thermopylae.
Whether you've seen the movie 300 or this documentary, you know that the Spartans eventually fell when the Persians discovered a way to attack the Greeks from the rear.
This doesn't mean that Xerxes won the war, though. His ground troops and navy suffered heavy casualties during this invasion, and the Greco - Persian Wars raged on for about 30 more years, leading to ultimate victory for the Greeks.
How can we talk about early Greek culture and not mention Alexander the Great? We can't. We're back to war with the Persians, this time against Darius III.
Alexander of Macedon fought Darius and invaded lands as far away as India. Surviving records report he is undefeated. Chalked up as wins ( yes, this was before steroids ) are the following countries: Anatolia (Turkey) , Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, Gaza, Egypt, Bactria (Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and other -stan countries), Mesopotamia (parts of Iraq, Syria&Turkey) and the Punjab, India.
What does all of this mean to the ancient Greeks ? Expansionism, not just geographically, but also culturally.
Alexander died in Babylonia in his early 30s, and his empire did not hold together for very long without him. Much infighting between political factions post - Alexander lead to a weakening of Greece overall.
The Romans acquired Macedonia around 146 B.C., the Aegean Islands in 133 B.C., and other cities including Athens in 88 B.C.
Well where do we begin ?
We still have the amazing ruins of Athens, such as the temple to Athena ( the Parthenon ) on the Acropolis. We have vending machines courtesy of Hero; great, somewhat historically accurate movies dramatizing ancient Greek culture and history; and we still run marathon races, courtesy of Darius I's first invasion of Greece. (According to debatable legend, a messenger ran 26 miles to Athens to report a Persian defeat.)
There's so much more of course, but we'll save some of that for other pages.
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