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     Magna Graecia


the language - writing - alphabet - numeral systems
The language    

The country which became Greece was inhabited since the Paleolithic era, and various people, called Pelagians, had settled down there.

About 2000 B.C., several civilizations coexisted in the Aegean world. In Crete, the Minoan civilization built its palates (Cnossos, Phaistos, Mallia, Zakros), and developped a writing system. In the Cyclades, a civilization known as "cycladic" was thriving. In the Peloponnese, the helladic civilization became flourishing, probably under the influence of a recently settled people, the Hellenes.

Other populations arrived in successive waves: the Ionian occupied the Attic and the Cyclades, the Eolian settled in Thessalia. The Achaens settled in the Peloponnese, and were the origin of the mycenaean civilization which was to dominate between 1600 and 1200 B.C.

About 1450, Crete passed under mycenaean domination, and the greek language overrided gradually the indigenous language. The inscriptions which were found then are written in "Linear B" , a script which represents a greek mycenaean dialect

Probably devastated by the invasion of the Sea Peoples, Greece was then occupied, between the 13th and the 11th century B.C., by new comers, the Dorians. It entered at that time the “dark ages", and several centuries passed before the big Greek cities came to the fore.

These migrations and mixing of populations lead to some cultural and economic unification which made the prosperity of the Greek world, but each people kept its dialect and its individuality: the Ionian kept the bases of the Achaean organization, Dorians built up a warlike society. The Attic area remained unaffected by these upheavals, and accomodated populations which flew their area of origin.

The Greek language belongs to the group of Indo-European languages which includes also Latin, Italic languages, Gallic and Celtic, Germanic and Scandinavian languages, Sanskrit and Persian. Did it appear about 2000 B.C.when immigrants settled in Greece and integrated the languages of former old inhabitants, or was it born much earlier among the populations which arrived later is successive waves, the question is still disputed.

Moreover, we do not know if its generalization resulted from a forced action or a progressive infiltration. Anyway, the first written texts, in a primarily Ionian Greek tinged with Eolian, go back to 8th century B.C., and they were nothing less than the poems fo Homer and Hesiodos.

Up to the 4th century B.C., many dialects coexisted in different areas, but they remained close enough to allow the inhabitants of various cities to communicate:
  • the Mycenaean dialects survived in Arcadia (center of the Peloponnese) and Cyprus.

  • Ionian was spoken in Asia Minor, in Euboea and in some Cycladic islands. It was used by Herodotus, Hippocrates and Theognis. Mingled with Eolian elements, it was the base of the Homeric poems, and inspired all Greek poets.

  • Attic, a branch of Ionian, is the classical Greek language. It is the one which was used during the splendor of Athens, in the 5th and the 4th century B.C., the language of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, Isocrate, Eschine, Demosthenes and so many others.

  • Eolian, which gathers other dialects like Lesbian (the language of Sappho), Thessalian and Beotian.

  • Dorianwas spoken in the North-West and in the Peloponnese. It was the language of the Spartans and the colonists who went to settle in the Egean and in the Western Mediterranean Sea (Magna Graecia).
In the 4th century, the conquests of Alexander the Great resulted in spreading the Attic language, while integrating many linguistic elements from the conquered countries. This made it a more universal language, which was adopted in all the literature, and was then called "the common language" or “koine Greek”. It was used in Alexandria as in all the Greek world. In the 1st century A.D., it was also the language of the first christian authors. It was maintained until it turned into the medieval Greek, at the advent of the Byzantine empire in the 4th century A.D.


The first written texts found in the Greek world, more precisely in Crete, go back to the Minoan time, between 2000 and 1200 B.C. Called "linear A" , this script was made up of 85 signs or ideograms, which suggests a syllabic writing. It has not been deciphered yet.
On the right, the famous Phaistos disc is one of the greatest enigmas of history. A unique example of this kind of writing... If it is even really a writing.

Two writing systems derived from linear A:
  • the one called linear B, used in Crete,
  • the Cypro-Minoan or linear C, used in Cyprus which, as the linear A, remains undeciphered. Some tablets with this script were even found in Ugarit. This script would be the origin of the Cypro-Syllabic writing.
The first systems, linear A and Cypro-Minoan, were probably intended for writing the Minoan language, and the new systems, linear B and the Cypriot-Syllabary could be the result of their adaptation in order to transcribe the old Greek languages. Anyway, the latter were used to write Greek dialects.

Linear B (on the right) was used in Crete where it coexisted for a while with linear A. It was deciphered in 1952 by the british architect Michael Ventris. This syllabic system was used to write Mycenaean, an archaic form of old Greek. It was made up of syllabic signs representing either a single vowel, or a “consonant + vowel” pair. The numeral system was decimal, and the measurement and weight units derived from the Babylonian system.

The Cypriot-syllabary appeared between the 11th and the 8th century B.C. It was used to write the local Greek dialect until the Ptolemaic period, where the Greek alphabet, with which it had coexisted for a long time, gradually imposed itself. Robert Hamilton Lang began to decipher it in 1869, leaning on a Cypriotic-Phoenician bilingual text dating from 4th century B.C.

The Greek alphabet    

When the “Dark Ages" were over, at the end of the 9th or the beginning of the 8th century B.C., the Greeks built up their new alphabet, which results directly from an adaptation of the Phoenician one. Various assumptions were made on the place where the alphabet was taken over: Boeotia according to Herodotus, Euboea according to Plutarch...

However, whereas Semitic languages can be handled correctly with scripts were only consonants are represented (abjads), this was not the case for Greek dialects.

the Greeks thus modified the Phoenician alphabet by adapting the use of the consonants to the sonorities of their language, but especially, they introduced a great innovation: the writing of vowels. For that, they re-used some Phoenician consonants which were useless in Greek, and also added the I (iota). Henceforth, the consonants were to be accompanied by a vowel to make the syllable pronounceable.

On the whole, the Greeks kept the names of the Phoenician letters, as well as their "alphabetical order". The first Greek texts, dating from 8th century, are moreover written from right to left. Later, the direction changed, using even sometimes the Boustrophedon ("like the ox plowing the furrow”, with lines written alternatively from left to right and from right to left), before being set from left to right.

The Greek alphabet was built up gradually and spread while getting adapted to the variaous areas, but always starting from the Phoenician model. In 1887, Kirchhoff distinguished 3 groups in this evolution: the Cretan group, the Attic, Ionian and Corinthian group, and the Western group (Phrygia, Euboea, Boeotia, Thessalia, western Peloponnese and Magna-Graecia), from which derived later the Etruscan alphabet, then the Latin one.

The Greek letters - which exist only as block letter – were drawn differently according to the cities and the areas. In 403, Archinos imposed in Athens the use of a Ionian-type alphabet. The other Greek cities followed this example gradually.

On the right, a detail of the law code of Gortyn, written in Boustrophedon

Later, spaces between words were introduced, and at the hellenistic period, diacritic signs like the "breathings" and accents, as well as a cursive style of script (whereas block letters, or "Uncial" , remained the model) but the complete system with accents, block and small letters, and punctuation was generalized only in the 9th century A.D.

The Greeks used also diphthongs to create new sounds by associating letters (like “oi" , "an" , "ou" in French), but their exact pronunciation was forgotten in the course of time. When, at the Renaissance, ancient Greek was rediscovered, Erasmus gave the diphthongs a pronunciation (the Erasmian pronunciation) which was used in education, though no one could tell if it corresponded to any reality.

Greek numeral systems    

The oldest Greek numeral systems were directly derived from the Egyptian one : a decimal system, without zero, using a sign for each decimal position (units, tens, hundreds, thousands)...
These signs vary, but the principle is always the same: each sign is repeated as many times as required.

An example which is quoted everywhere on the Web: the number 6438, which is written in the Cretan system:

and in the archaic Greek system:

This doesn’t look convenient for writing 999...

Acrophonic numerals

As of the 5th century B.C., Attic Greeks used figures called "acrophonic numerals" because each sign is the first letter of its name (except for the 1, a bar)
  • I for 1 (a bar),
  • G for 5 (PENTE, with the ancient style of the letter "P" ), like in "pentagon",
  • D for 10 (DEKA), like deca-...,
  • H for 100 (HEKATON), like hecto-...,
  • C for 1000 (CILIOI), like kilo-...,
  • M for 10000 (MURIOI), (the myriad)
This inspired the Etruscans, and later the Romans.
To avoid having to write 9 signs for 9, 90 or 900, intermediate signs were added

This system allows to read numbers easily, but is not more convenient for calculations...

Although it was widespread during the Athenian hegemony, it was replaced in 403 B.C. by the system called Ionian (at the same time than the reform of the script, also of Ionian origin), which had already existed in Milet for several centuries and used alphabetical numerals (also called Milesian numerals).

Alphabetical numerals

The principle is simple: it uses the letters of the alphabet. The first letter (alpha) is used as 1, the second (beta) as 2, the third (gamma) as 3, etc, up to 9. The next 9 letters are used for the tens, and then the next 9 ones for the hundreds.

Thus 27 different signs are required to write all numbers from 1 to 999, and each number is written using 3 signs at most, which is shorter than before.

Since the Greek alphabet includes only 24 letters, the Greeks added 3 additional letters recovered from the archaic alphabet: the stigma or digamma ϝ for the number 6, the koppa ϟ for 90 and the sampi ϡ for 900.

For clearly showing that a number is written and not a word, these signs are initially underlined or upperlined, and later simply followed by a sign, the "kerea" which looks like a single quote.

That solves the problem for the numbers from 1 to 999. And above 1000? To indicate that the first figure shows thousands, a "kerea" was put left of the first sign (aristeri kerea). And so we can reach 10000.

Some examples:

Beyond 10000, the system changes, and uses the "good old" Myriad, the M, which is worth 10000, and over which is written the number of myriads. Taking the same examples than above:

The Greek scientists proposed other systems to go further, like the "myriad of myriads" (10000 times 10000) which corresponds in fact to a power of 2.

In short, calculation remained very difficult, and the use or arithmetic tables (abacuses) was essential.

Let us note that this system did not completely disappear and that the Greeks still use it as we use roman numerals, for example when naming a king: where we write Georges II (and not Georges 2), the Greek will write b’ !

The astronomers introduced a zero!

Greek astronomers used the same system as their Babylonian "colleagues", i.e. the sexagesimal system (base 60) which defined the 60° angle of the equilateral triangle and the 360° of the complete circle, divided in 60 minutes of 60 seconds
This system would have been adapted by Hipparchus about 140 B.C. To apply it, only the numbers between 1 and 59 (sign 50 + sign 9) were used. When the arc counts only degrees and no minutes, the absence of minutes was noted by using a sign which is a kind of zero, but which means only “no unit” and is not a real figure. It looks like a "o", underlined or upperlined in various ways according to the writer.

This notation is the one that was used by the Ptolemies (about 140 B.C.) and later astronomers.