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11 Common Misconceptions about the Ancient Greeks

The Parthenon, Athens, Greece, print dated 1842
Everett Historical/Shutterstock

Considering their story dates back to the eighth century BCE, we know a lot about the ancient Greeks. But, from the Greeks themselves to the Romans to Zack Snyder, the waters have been well muddied for the sake of popular culture.

Here’s a handful of common misconceptions about the ancient Greeks that you may not have learned in school (as curricula usually blast through that early stuff), or that you learned from the 2007 Gerard Butler cartoon, which wasn’t real.

Greece Was a Peninsula, Not a Political Entity

Today, there’s a Greece that is, more or less, a unified nation. But, before the Hellenistic Period (and during much of the ancient Greek civilization), Greece was a peninsula filled with autonomous city-states (or poleis).

You already know about poleis, but it’s important to consider that citizens of these different poleis didn’t consider themselves countrymen. In particular, the Spartans were said to have considered anybody from even just outside of their borders as “foreigners.”

A sense of Greek/Hellenistic identity eventually did coagulate following Alexander the Great’s empire building. He spread the Greek language, city planning, and art. As a result, the time around his death (323 BCE) is considered the beginning of the Hellenistic Period, when the ancient Mediterranean world reflected Greek influence.

And, of course, a sense of Greek identity grew in the face of antagonism—especially over and against the Romans and Egyptians.

Pederastic Mentorship Wasn’t Just for Athenians

“Athenians were boy-lovers, but Spartans were warriors!” say people who don’t know what they’re talking about. The truth is closer to this: both were both. Athens at various points had a powerful military (more on that later), and Spartans also took part in the whole adult male mentor / young male mentee relationship.

For the ancient Greeks in general, it was a regular part of a boy’s life to be taken under the wing of an older guy who could teach him the ways of the world. You might say, “uh, OK—why didn’t boys just get mentored by their fathers?” I don’t know the answer to that, so allow me to respond with another question: have you ever tried having an in-depth conversation with your father? It’s impossible.

And, yeah, it appears that there was a sexual component at play here. That said, the Greeks would not have seen this as having anything to do with sexual orientation (not that they would have shared our modern understanding of orientation). It was just a normal part of growing up as a boy.

I don’t see the appeal in this system at all, but it’s a good reminder that this was a civilization far removed from our own.

“Sparta” Wasn’t the Name of the City-State

Black figure pottery. Ancient Greek mythology. Warriors Sparta

The actual polis that we talk about when we say “Sparta” was Lakedaimonios, or Lacedaemon if you prefer it in Latin. Sparta was actually the principal settlement in Lacedaemon—the largest of the Greek poleis.

As a side note, this is where we get the term laconic—the characteristic of using few words. The Spartans (or rather, the Lacedaemonians), were known to reply to the demands of their enemies with an unmatched glibness. Beyond that, they didn’t write much at all.

The Athenians Were Good at War, Too

The Spartans (I’m not writing “Lacedaemonians” every time, here) weren’t the only Greeks with exceptional martial prowess. Yeah, it would seem the Athenians placed much focus on a more well-rounded culture than the Spartans, who preferred to keep their war-blinders on.

But the Athenians could walk and chew gum at the same time, and you don’t become a top-two polis without some fight in you. As a matter of point, Athens boasted the greatest Greek navy. During the Peloponnesian War, which pitted the Delian League (led by Athens) against the Peloponnesian League (led by Sparta), the Spartans had to get help from the Persians to defeat the Athenian navy (and thus gain hegemony over the Athenians).

That said, the Spartans were indeed the greatest land power of Greek antiquity.

They Loved Bright Colors

This one you probably know, but it’s still a common misconception that Greek sculpture looked then the way it looks today: like unpainted board game pieces. Instead, everything was given life with a bright color palette. The white marble statues, buildings, ships—the things we have left have long since lost their paint jobs, but ancient Greece would have been a vibrantly hued place, rather than an anodyne garden of white stonework.

The Olympic Torch Relay Wasn’t Invented by the Greeks

The Olympic flame was handed to organizers of the Pyeongchang (South Korean) Winter Olympics Feb. 9-25, 2018
Ververidis Vasilis/Shutterstock

“Oh wow, well, it’s a lovely ceremony; who are the nice people that did invent it?”

Funny story: it was the Nazis. Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels was placed in charge of the 1936 Olympic Summer Games in Berlin, so the torch relay ceremony was presumably his idea. I’m sure he at least took credit for it.

The Spartans Didn’t Protect “Western Democracy” from a Persian Slave Horde

I’m not quite sure where this idea comes from, but twenty-first-century pop culture seems to regard ancient Greece as the “us” (western, democratic), and the Persians as a faceless horde of slaves.

The truth is that slavery was ubiquitous in ancient Greece. This was especially true in Sparta (Lacedaemon), where there was an entire sub-class of “helots”—essentially, subjugated ethnic groups who were not considered citizens, and who greatly outnumbered the “true” Spartans of Lacedaemon (the male citizens, or Homoioi). And somewhere in between sat the Perikoi class of people who weren’t citizens, but also weren’t slaves.

The Spartans had the slave horde, only they used that horde to do all the menial work back home, so the citizens could focus on training, fighting, and making more citizen-soldiers. The latter was so important that King Leonidas encouraged his wife, Gorgo, to have children with other men in his absence. (Sparta always needed new soldiers.)

That said, the helots of Sparta may have enjoyed greater autonomy, relative to their counterparts in, say, Athens. While an Athenian slave would live with their master as chattel, Sparta wasn’t big on personal property or individualism. The helots belonged to the state. The citizens died on the field for the state.

“The 300” Weren’t Alone at Thermopylae

The idea of 300 badass Homoioi (plus Leonidas) holding off millions of Persian soldiers is a cool and profitable idea for a comic book (and movie) and presents an inspiring myth. It’s probably true that there were about 300 Spartan hoplites. Still, they weren’t the only Greek soldiers to volunteer to fight a doomed battle against what was more likely about 120,000-300,000 Persians (as opposed to the millions reported by Herodotus).

Soldiers from several poleis joined those Spartans, including men from Corinth, Thebes, Syracuse, Aegina, Rhodes, Argos, Eretria, and Elis, as well as members of Sparta’s Perikoi class (non-slave foreigners), who together totaled around 7,500 Greek belligerents—the vast majority of whom have been forgotten in favor of the Spartan myth.

Very Little Is Known about Sparta

Considering what a significant player Sparta was during this time, we know almost nothing about them. As mentioned previously, they weren’t a loquacious society and were keen not to be known well by foreigners.

The result is that the only writings we have regarding the Spartans come either from their contemporary foreign enemies (or admirers) and from ancient historians that lived well after the fall of Sparta. For example, the Romans found the myth of Sparta fascinating enough that the once-mighty settlement became something of a Roman-era tourist trap, where curious Roman travelers could see “reenactments” of the brutal whipping of Spartan boys.

These reenactments were well-separated from the actual practices of the Spartans, which took place hundreds of years earlier. So, we know more about what non-Spartan Greeks and, later on, Romans thought about the Spartans. But we don’t really know what the Spartans were like. Mystery breeds both fear and fascination, far better than detailed record-keeping ever could.

Athenian Democracy: Not All That Inspiring

Socrates (center, left), at the school of Athens, 400 BC, Engraving after painting by Raphael
Everett Historical/Shutterstock

Look, things were different three millennia ago. I get that. Athenian democracy was a more equitable system than the sort of tyranny that existed in many of the other poleis, and in other parts of the world at the time.

But these were still very early days for democracy. Only native-born men could vote—so no women or people born outside of Athens had a say in politics. It also included the worst kind of popularity contest: ostrakismos, or ostracism. This one you might remember from school: the people (that is, native-born men) could cast votes on which guy most of them hated, and then that person would be exiled. It’s a bit like if you got to vote at town meetings to deport your least favorite people. It’s the kind of system that sounds great on paper, until you realize other people can do it to you, too.

There’s some irony in the fact that Spartan women appear to have had comparatively more power than women of other poleis. Why, they were even afforded the right—nay, the responsibility—of murdering their own sons, should they return from war in disgrace. That’s according to the stories written by non-Spartans, of course.

There Were Loads of Poleis

If you’re getting sick of hearing about Athens and Sparta, then you probably would have been in good company twenty-six centuries ago. While those were the two major players, there were many, many poleis—more than 1,000 city-states at one point.

The Greek peninsula isn’t huge, so many of those poleis were quite small. For a sense of scale, Sparta/Lacedaemon was the largest at 8,500 square kilometers—much larger than most of the city-states. Many lesser poleis, meanwhile, were seated on the mess of small islands surrounding the Greek peninsula.

Some sources and further reading:

Alex Johnson Alex Johnson
Alex Johnson is a freelance writer who has been writing professionally for over 12 years but has been a critical geek for nearly 34. He also writes history books with curse words in them. Read Full Bio »