How the Greeks Gave Us Western Civilization

Exhibit displays fabulous treasures from Hellenic history
June 15, 2015 Updated: June 16, 2015

A new exhibition at the Canadian Museum of History invites visitors to journey through 5,000 years of Greek history and culture. “The Greeks – Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” spans multiple eras, from 6000 B.C. when communities began forming on the Greek mainland and on islands in the Aegean Sea, all the way to the rule of Alexander the Great, which began in 356 B.C.

Stunning artifacts are on display, such as a collection of bronze and gold helmets of noble warriors and a trove of gold jewellery and other adornments buried with the remains of a high priestess.

Over 500 treasures drawn from the collections of 21 Greek museums make up the exhibition, which is enhanced by multiple videos, audio recordings, and touchable objects as well as a dramatic overall design.

Stunning artifacts are on display, such as a collection of bronze and gold helmets of noble warriors and a trove of gold jewellery.

According to museum notes, “The exhibition concludes with a simple truth: Ancient Greece lives on in all of us.”

One may ask why. Joan Breton Connelly, a classical archaeologist and author, aims to explain that in her 2014 book, “The Parthenon Enigma – A New Understanding of The West’s Most Iconic Building and the People Who Made It.”

For the ancient Greeks, Connelly writes, it “was a spirit-saturated, anxious world dominated by an egocentric sense of themselves and an overwhelming urgency to keep things right with the gods.” She goes on to say that the Athenians were continuously “threatened by war, violence and death.” They consulted oracles, believed in the casting of spells, bird-omen readers, and love potions, but tried to be “the most beautiful and noble.”

Greece Through the Ages

The exhibition is divided chronologically into six main zones.

Zone 1 presents the Neolithic Period when the region’s hunter-gatherers began to grow crops and raise livestock. By 4000 BC, kiln-dried pottery was being made and metalworking had started. During this time the Minoan civilization arose. Exhibit pieces include clayware, fragments of frescoes, and golden objects.

Zone 2 covers the period between the 16th and 12th centuries B.C., when the Mycenaean culture developed. They had a written language, inscribed on clay tablets, which was an early form of ancient Greek. This culture is considered the first-known “Greek” civilization, according to museum notes.

Featured is an exquisite gold funerary mask, once associated with Agamemnon, the mythical King of Mycenae who is said to have led the Greeks in their war against the Trojans. This is the first time that this mask has been displayed outside Greece.

Homer, the Parthenon

Zone 3 presents the decline of the Mycenaeans as the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age between the 11th and 8th centuries B.C. This was the age of Homer and his epic poems, the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.”

Zone 4, which includes the Archaic Period, covers a time of rebuilding, between the 8th and 5th centuries. This era saw the spread of Greek culture around the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Black Sea, and the building of the first Greek temples. The famed Parthenon in Athens, sacred to the goddess Athena, was built between 447 and 432 B.C.

There are fabulous collections of burial items, including bronze and gold helmets of noble warriors and the treasures buried with the remains of a high priestess. This zone also displays a striking example of a kouros, a statue of a young male, this one carved from Parian marble.

The Birth of Democracy

Zone 5 shows visitors the Classical Period of ancient Greece, when more than 1,000 city-states shared an uneasy coexistence. This is when the Olympic Games originated, when philosophy, theatre, and rhetoric flourished, and when democracy was born. Highlights include audio recordings of writings by Plato and Aristotle as well as tools of early democracy, such as bronze ballots of the jurors of that time.

Zone 6 presents Phillip 11, the Macedonian king who united the Greek city-states through war, diplomacy, and his seven marriages. We also learn about Phillip’s son Alexander, who ascended the throne when he was 20 and soon conquered much of the ancient world.

On view is a priceless silver and gold diadem that symbolized the supreme political, military, and religious authority of Phillip 11, who is thought to have been wearing the headband at the moment of his assassination. Also on exhibit is an iconic marble portrait of Alexander the Great and the wreath of Queen Meda, a golden crown that ranks among the true masterpieces of the ancient world.

“The Greeks – Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” will be on display at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa until Oct. 12. It is the exhibition’s first time in North America.

Susan Hallett is an award-winning writer and editor who has written for The Beaver, The Globe & Mail, Wine Tidings and Doctor’s Review, among others. Email: