Compare and contrast essay: Ancient Egypt and Greece

The ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek civilizations are two of the oldest known civilizations in our history. The Egyptian civilization, based in the eastern part of North Africa, is believed to have started around 3150 BC and continued till the end of the Pharaoh rule in 31 BC. The ancient Greek civilization is believed to have been in effect from 1100 BC till about 146 BC. Many similarities and differences existed between these two civilizations, as even though they co-existed during a certain timeframe (1150 BC to 146 BC), they were located in different geographical areas. Because of these differences in geography, both these civilizations were subjected to different kinds of exposure, which included contact with other civilization and cultural inheritance. In the political sphere, we find that the Egyptian civilization had stronger emphasis on central authority, while the Greeks had a more decentralized structure, where powers were distributed over the cities and the states as well. As far as art is concerned, we find that the Egyptians were more involved in creating great monumental and gaudy structures, while the Greeks were more involved in creating smaller, more literary pieces of art.

One of the biggest reasons why these two civilizations had these differences is due to their geography. The Egyptians had easy access to large stones that they could bring in to their country and use them to erect such monumental structures. Many scholars believe that it was their power structure and the lust of large buildings that caused the Egyptians to develop a class system where they had to gather mass laborers to work for them. This can also be attributed to the Egyptians have a very strong bureaucracy and a strictly centralized government system. These differences can also be attributed to the difference in religious beliefs of the two civilizations, as the Egyptians had a very strong believe in the after-life and they built all their large pyramids and structures in order to help their dead find a better life after death. The Greeks lacked such beliefs and this is why their social structure was very different from the Egyptians.

Both the civilizations are known to have been extensive traders, however, there were certain differences in the way that they traded due to their geographical location. The Egyptians had the Nile to their advantage and their production was mostly agricultural. The Greeks had a much harsher climate and their focus was instead on the development of commercial law and merchant class. This is why the Greeks had to develop much more complex trade routes than the Egyptians did. Many scholars as being more stable than the Greeks also describe the overall political structure of Egypt. Most scholars agree that this was because of the comprehensive religious belief system that the Egyptian had in place. The Greeks lacked such a strong belief system and their political structure was marked by intermittent and heavy disruptions.

However, the two civilizations were very similar as far as the social stratification was concerned. Both civilizations had a upper class that were landowners and each of these upperclassmen had their peasants and slaves. Religious priests were also part of the upper class, as they had a great say in the political happenings of both the civilizations. Even though both the civilizations encouraged scientific studies in astronomy and mathematics, and had greatly developed political and economic systems, they both showed more conservatism. Change was not encouraged and was only brought on about because of outside forces, such as natural disasters or invasions. Both civilizations, were therefore, able to last a long time while keeping true to their roots and their values. Perhaps the biggest impact that the Egyptian and Greek civilizations had on our Western society was on the iconoclastic ideals and symbols. Many of our current religious as well as social symbols (such as the sun, the moon, etc) have been adopted from the ideas behind Egyptian religion and mythology.

The Ancient Egyptians believed that there was more to life than just the life on earth. Much of their architecture, including the pyramids and the houses they built were based on strict rules of mathematics and geography. They used mathematics to build the dwellings in very symmetrical designs. It has been noted that the numbers pi and phi have been greatly incorporated in the building and design of Ancient Egyptian architecture (Greenberg). Researchers have noted that dividing the perimeter of the dwellings made by Ancient Egyptians by their height gives a close approximation to 2pi, which is the same result one would get if one were to divide the circumference of a circle by its radius. This suggests that maybe the ancient Egyptians were trying to emulate the spherical nature of the Earth by presenting this relation (Smith et al).

These design techniques show that the Ancient Egyptians built their dwellings very symmetrically. It has also been noted by research that symmetrical dwellings tend to create harmony in its structure. This also allows the residents to remain in harmony amongst each other. One of the things that is also common in the dwellings structure of all three ancient civilization is the use of landscaping. The use of gardens was considered to be very important. “As early as the 3rd millennium bc, the Egyptians planted gardens within the walled enclosures surrounding their homes. In time these gardens came to be formally laid out around a rectangular fish pond flanked by orderly rows of fruit trees and ornamental plants, as seen in tomb paintings” (MSN Encarta). This use of plants and gardens gave the houses a very natural feel and it allowed the dwellers to find some sort of a peace of mind. Even in today's architecture, we find that the use of gardens, lawns, porches, and yards allow a more aesthetically pleasing look and feel to the houses. This not only helps in beautifying the houses, but also helps the residents to find their peace of mind. This allowed them to be in harmony not only with each other but also with nature.

Similarly, we find that people in ancient Greece had the same ideas of harmony and they incorporated them in their architecture as well. Just like the Egyptians, the Greeks also considered the mental well-being of their people and worked to provide residential units that were designed to provide harmony and peace. Even according to the Greek religion, trees and gardens were considered to be places where the divine visited often. This is why most of the Greek houses in Athens had courtyards and gardens that were surrounded by walls. This is what was called a colonnaded garden. Some of the houses that were built on the hill sides of Athens included terraced gardens. The rich Greeks were known to have extensive and lavish gardens or pleasure grounds. The Greeks considered beauty to be a very important part of harmony and this is why they gave a lot of attention on making their abodes as beautiful as possible. This was usually done by landscaping and including gardens and courtyards in their houses. In the houses in Athens, people used to have delightful little gardens with running fountains. The inmates of that home heard these very fountains splash their refreshing waters among the flowers (MSN Encarta). This is again consistent with the Greeks religion and how the use of gardens and fountains in dwellings worked to create harmony for the residents.

One of the main differences between these two civilization was in the realm of politics (Aird, 12). In Greece, the Greek polis was the focus of the classical era of Greece. The Greek polis was an ancient political community that took a rich variety of forms and worked to shape the Greek culture that was so prominent in the world by the eight century. Many historians also argue that the whole of the Greek power that ruled over mot of Europe was all because of the developments that were allowed by the Greek polis. The polis is often described as a complex hierarchical society that was built around the notion of citizenship. Hundred and thousands of peasant households were all part of the Greek polis and none of them were dependent on a central government. None of the household in the polis ever paid any kind of a tax nor did they have to revert to the government in order to provide them with the basic necessities, which is very much unlike the major forms of governments that we have today. This is one of the biggest factors that differentiates the Greek polis from other ancient states: the equation of the polis with the completed citizen body and the reservation of the governmental functions to a very small group. In the polis, every single citizen had his due share and the most developed form of polis reports the basis on the economic institutions such as that of chattel slavery. Any community whose citizens at any time became the subjects was automatically removed from the polis (Buckley, 17).

The polis was a society that was isolated from the rest of the world and it was not much influenced by the external forces. The Greek polis culture was made up of various and mixture of civilizations. The government was usually small, with various cities and states that were mostly self-governing. The polis culture, however, had great empires that were ruled by monarchs and kings. The wealthy and the rich class controlled many of the cities in the polis. The citizens went for various educational and physical fitness training at various gyms all over the Greek polis cultures. The trade was limited to the usual commercial activity, while they relied upon heavy and extensive trade, both on sea as well as on land. The status of women and slaves were very low in both the cultures and slavery was widely used in both the times. More attention was paid to philosophy and experimental methods in the polis, while there were great advancements in astronomy, mathematics, and medicine (Buckley, 18).

This is greatly different from Egyptian politics, as we find that the pharaohs had a more conservative approach (Grimal, 25). The pharaoh was the main ruler of Egypt and unlike the Greek politics, the general public did not have any say or representation in the government. This was also due to the religious differences in between ancient Egypt and ancient Greek. The Egyptian believed that the pharaoh was some sort of a god who was answerable to some higher gods. The Ancient Egyptians believed that there was more to life than just the life on earth. They believed in a very complex religion that involved the meeting up of the deceased with Osiris (the Egyptian god of re-birth) in the afterlife. There were certain aspects that were attributed to a human: the attributes of the physical body, the shadow, the name, the spirit (Ka), the personality, spirit or soul (Ba), and immortality or eternity (Akh) and the protection of these attributes was very necessary for the person was to achieve immortality in the afterlife. The Greeks also had a very complex religious system with many different gods in hierarchy with Zeus being the king and ruler of the other gods. Various other gods and goddesses were there for many other things, such as the god of war (Ares) and the goddess of love (Aphrodite). The Greeks also had the notion that the soul of the person still existed in the afterlife, as it went into the underworld to be ruled by the god of underworld (Hades). Thus, both the Egyptians as well as the Greeks placed a lot of importance to death and the afterlife. They were constantly being reminded about death and were very afraid of their fate after death.

These religious undertones were also apparent in the temples that the two civilization made. For the Egyptians, their pyramids and other temples such as the great Ramesseum had gret religious significance for the Egyptian. Similarly for ancient Greek, there is the great Acropolis. The Ramesseum is a temple complex that Ramesses II built between Qurna and the desert (Kitchen, 22). Various historians have referred to this complex of temple as one of the most gigantic and marvelous temples ever built in Egypt. The Ramesseum consisted of various courts, pylons, extremely large statues, and carvings of various war scenes depicted on the pylons. Overall, it was an extremely large and lavish piece of architecture that worked to show the grandeur of the great pharaoh. Even though Pericles did not actually built the Acropolis, he did conduct some major reforms to the architecture during his leadership. He built many new and large temples, and it was during the Age of Pericles that the Acropolis gained its final shape. It was also Pericles who commissioned the building of the Parthenon within the Acropolis.

One of the most apparent aspects of both these civilization that sets them apart at a glance is the differences in their art. In ancient Egypt, various art forms, such as painting, sculpturing, crafts, and architecture were practiced. Much of the art depicted in ancient Egypt has been found to be symbolic in nature and it is mostly found on their tombs and monuments. Animals have been found to be represented in much of Egyptian art and they used many different colors to paint their paintings. Their colors were more expressive than natural and some exaggerations, such as red and yellow colors used for skin meant to imply youth or old age. Ancient Egyptians used many art forms where they depicted detailed humans in nature. Most of the painting that they made were meant to provide company to the people who have died in their afterlife. The ancient Egyptians made many of their paintings on papyrus, which was a kind of paper that they made from the papyrus plant found near the Nile. Ancient Egyptians also made many different kinds of potteries throughout the various ages including soapstone, vases, amulets, and images of their gods and goddesses. Sculpture was also a prominent art form in ancient Egypt with the Egyptians making large sculptures of their gods, Pharaohs, and kings and queens. One of the most prominent of their sculptures is called The Sphinx and it is one of the most recognizable images that represent Egypt after the pyramids. Another very prominent art form that distinguishes the Egyptian art from other art is their use of hieroglyphics, which is a script based on pictures and symbols.

Art used in ancient Greek is also very significant, as it appears in many historic places and it also worked to pave way for other Westernized art forms. The ancient Greeks made all kinds of art, including paintings, sculpture, pottery, etc. Pottery was used for many different purposes, including the use in everyday chores, wine decanters, and as trophies for winners at the games. Other uses for pottery included drinking vessels such as kraters and hydria. Miniature pottery was also made in order to emulate the various gods and goddesses and many different colors were used in order to honor these gods. The ancient Greeks also worked with metals such as bronze to create many pieces of art work such as vases and other ornaments. The ancient Greeks also made various clay and terracotta figures, idols, and statuettes. Monumental sculptures is also a very significant aspect of ancient Greek art and various large sculptures made of marbles, stones, and metals like bronze were made during their era. The Greeks also used coins during their era and many coins from ancient Greece have been found with patterns and designs. This practice is still followed today by almost all the countries in the world. The Greeks also invented the art of panel painting, where the artists drew various scenes over different panels to depict stories. These were done on pillars and walls and often told epic tales of heroes and gods. Other forms of paintings that the ancient Greeks used included painting vases.

Thus, we find that ancient civilizations of Egypt and Greece had many similarities as well as differences. They both paid a lot of attention to having harmony in their residential quarters and it was very common to have extended family households, at least in rural areas. The conventional image is that of an enterprise of dozens of persons hierarchically governed by a paterfamilias who resides with several of his married adult children and their families. This was particularly true for the Egyptians and the Greeks, partly on account of polygamy and (especially) slavery, and households then might have included scores or hundreds of occupants (Ellickson 23). Other similarities and differences also existed in the art, architecture, geographical, and the political and social spheres of the two civilizations as discussed herein.

Work Cited

Aird, Hamish. Pericles: The Rise and Fall of Athenian Democracy. The Rosen Publishing Group: 2004

Buckley, Terry. Aspects of Greek History 750-323 BC. Routledge (UK): 1996

Ellickson, Robert C. “Unpacking the Household: Informal Property Rights around the Hearth,” Yale Law Journal, 116, (2): 2006

Grimal, Nicholas. A History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Blackwell. 1992

Greenberg, Ralph, “Pi and the Great Pyramid,” Online,

Kitchen, Kenneth. Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II, King of Egypt. London: Aris & Phillips: 1983

MSN Encarta, “Landscape Architecture,” Online, 2008,

Smith, Craig, B., Zahi Hawass, and Mark Lehner, How the Great Pyramid was Built, Smithsonian Books, 2004.