The Evolution of Greek Culture and Technology

(taken from

Lilian Lam

A culture is defined by its shared set of values, norms, beliefs, and institutions. In this way, the development of technology is greatly affected by culture and the two develop amidst an interwoven relationship. Technological improvements are made to fulfill human needs and desires, thus developing as a best-fit to culture. However, these same technological improvements also have an effect on culture by reinforcing current norms and allowing new ways of life to develop. This bidirectional feedback loop can be observed in the expansion of Greece, starting from its beginnings as scattered agricultural groups to its rise as a dominant city-state.

Prior to the formation of the Greek empire, the inhabitants of the region lived as nomads. To accommodate the migratory lifestyle of these groups, technological innovations were solely designed to increase mobility (Chant, 53). Fur clothing and the harnessing of fire were developed to allow the nomads to spread into the remaining colder territories. Wheeled carts and wagons were crucial in improving transportation between campsites. The domestication of the horse along with the creation of the bridle and bit came as tremendous benefits to nomadic lifeways.

Around 7000 BC, there was a shift from the nomadic lifestyle to one that depended upon small-scale agriculture. During this agricultural revolution, humans learned to control and increase the supply of usable plant and animal resources available to them. Early technological innovations consisted of hand implements designed to make the task of harvesting less energy-consuming on the operator. Improvements made to the scythe included a longer blade to increase energy output and the use of handgrips on a straight haft handle to speed up the overall operation (White, 29). These agricultural technologies influenced the development of Greek culture by providing a much larger and dependable food supply. With a larger and more dependable food supply, the population size exploded beyond any former ceiling in the past (Cipolla, 25). Community-based life and social groups emerged when humans no longer had to spend all their time gathering sustenance. However, culture had an effect on technology as well, and the irreversible shift of Greek culture to concentrations of large populations in urban centers posed the problem of production and organization of food supplies. This pressure encouraged further technological advancements in food storage techniques, such as the creation of storage granaries, and labor-reducing machines. The most important piece of machinery was the plough, which was first intended for the Mediterranean soil but later evolved to cleave heavier soil when more agricultural fields were needed (White, 59-60). As early as the 4000 BC, the Greeks also pioneered farming techniques such as the three-crop rotation method (Cipolla, 46).

Water supply became a major focus with the rise of large, sedentary urban centers. Due to the dense population concentration of the cities, humans could no longer rely on natural resources alone. The bucket-wheel was one of the initial Greek water technologies used to lift water from wells to a higher elevation. In its later modified form, the bucket-chain hoist relied on a tread-wheel and water-wheels with paddles (White, 33). As Greek culture continued to grow, hydraulic engineering evolved to fulfill the need for transporting greater water supply into the city. The Greeks developed piped water supply with gravity tunnels, aqueducts, and the inverted siphon, overcoming the difficulties of air-locks, pressure, and sediment formation in the system (White, 162). The Greeks were also concerned with the purity of water supply and the need for filtration was recognized early on. Boiling was the most common method practiced, though filtering agents and settling tanks were also being developed (White, 168).

As flourishing trade began to link the civilizations of the Mediterranean and Near East, the expanding Greek culture stimulated the development for more advanced ship-building. The first ancient sailing ships could not travel without the aid of following winds, but the economic motives for trade spurred the development of Greek holkades, trading ships, that had deep hulls and broad beams to allow them to sail close to the wind. Underwater archaeology has also revealed that from 4000 BC onwards, ships were build to withstand a carrying capacity of 150 tons, capable of carrying sufficient amounts of cargo and merchants. Steering equipment, sails, anchors, and keels were crafted to increase the stability and speed of the boat (White, 145-151), qualities that benefited the efficiency and rate of trade.

Throughout its history, the Greek empire has been embroiled in many military battles. The combatant and aggressive nature of the culture spurred a vast number of technological innovations in military weaponry, mining, and metallurgy. In the classical Greek era, the “impulse to match, and if possible to surpass, the offensive capabilities of real or potential enemies overrode considerations of expense” (White, 46), and a wealth of literary sources and actual artifacts corroborate this cultural attitude. The Greeks focused on the design of missiles and defensive weapons in siege warfare. Catapults, arrow-shooters, and stone-throwers evolved to have faster firing speed and accuracy (White 47). In turn, to provide the raw materials for these technologies, the Greeks mined extensively for silver, bronze, and iron. This required further development of technologies to improve mining and smelting. Intensifying military competition also stimulated improvements in shipbuilding (Cipolla, 56).

The Greeks were also a culture that was infused with religion. This religious aspect of the culture can be observed in the development of technologies in city-building and art. Erecting a temple required methods of quarrying and transporting building materials, construction, and organization of labor (Chant, 69). Massive columns were popular in Greek architecture and required the use of transport devices. Initially, ox-drawn wagons were used, but as heavier column drums were being crafted out of heavy blocks of marble, animal power was replaced with the weight-reducing crane and its system of pulleys and winches (White, 79). In addition to temples, the Greeks also devoted works of art to the gods. Major technological developments in art stem from the late fourth century BC, and include such innovations as the potter’s wheel and glass-working techniques (White, 37-41).

The evolution of the Greek empire illustrates how the developing culture affected the types of technologies that were pursued and the timing of their innovation. Greek technologies were pioneered when there was a cultural requirement or desire for them. As individual groups, and later on city-states, became increasingly dependent on agriculture, more technological advancements were needed improve the means to produce, harvest, and store this food supply. These agricultural innovations allowed the formation of vast urban centers, housing a large population that required a water source, which required the invention of means to transport water supply away from its natural source. As the culture engaged in trade and military combat, ships and weapons were in need, as were the numerous input technologies involved in producing these final technological products. Religion in the culture also encouraged technological advances in architecture and the arts. Once culture spurs the development of new technologies, these technologies come to reinforce the cultural norms and values themselves, while also opening the door to new possibilities for cultural development. The metal-working advancements of the Bronze Age brought was accompanied by rapid population growth and the development of a hierarchical society (Chant, 49), and brought on an acceleration in agriculture, exploration, and conquest.

Though I have focused primarily on the relationship between culture and technology, it is also important to remember the influence of the environment. Through cultural macroevolution, the environment shapes how the culture will form, which in turn shapes the subsequent technologies that are developed (Ehrlich). Because of Greece’s location in the Mediterranean, a dry-farming method of agriculture was sufficient in the mild climate. There lacked a need for extensive irrigation, as such was the case for the arid regions of Iran (White, 68); therefore irrigation technologies were not heavily pursued. However, because of its coastal location, ship-building was an extremely crucial technology and held primary focus. Furthermore, the development of new techniques can lead to significant alterations to the environment, causing problems that require further technological change to correct.


Works Cited:

Chant, Colin. "Chapter 2: Greece" in " Pre-industrial Cities and Technology." Routledge Press, 1999. pp. 48-80.

Cipolla, Carlo M. "The Economic History of World Population." The Harvester Press, 1978. pp. 17-54.

Ehrlich, Paul R. "Ch.11: Gods, Dive-Bombers, and Bureaucracy" in "Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect." Island Press, 2000. pp. 253-279.

White, K.D. Greek and Roman Technology. Cornell University Press, 1984.

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