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Symbols used today that came from Ancient Greece and Rome Print E-mail

Monday, 09 January 2012 00:00

Written by Jacci DiCarlo

The two cultures that laid the groundwork for modern western civilization left us a legacy of symbols that is woven through every aspect of modern life. Many of these symbols were even used to build our modern world.

Where would math, science and engineering be today without the Greek alphabet? There are 25 Greek letters that are used today to represent individual concepts. Here are just a few:

Alpha is used to represent the angle opposite of side A in a triangle, one root of a quadratic equation, an alpha particle, and angular acceleration.Delta is used to represent a finite difference.Theta is used to represent a plane angle and potential temperature.Kappa is used to represent thermal conductivity.Mu is used to represent dynamic viscosity.Pi is used to represent Archimedes' constant, the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter.

From just these few samples, it's clear that modern mathematical and scientific expression is highly dependent on Greek symbols.

Greek mythological symbols have also come down through the ages.

Owl: Athena was the Goddess of wisdom. One of her symbols was an owl. Today, the owl is probably the most widely recognized symbol for wisdom.Grape vine: Dionysos was the god of wine. One of his symbols was the grape vine. We still use the grape vine today as a symbol of wine.Winged boots: Hermes was the messenger of Zeus. One of his symbols, the winged boot has made its way through the ages as a symbol for messengers.Thunderbolt, eagle and oak: These are all symbols that have survived the ages to represent power and strength, attributes of Zeus.

But what about our Roman legacy? Science as we know it would not have developed without Roman nomenclature. It is the single most organizing factor in modern science.

Biology: The binomial classification system uses Latin words to classify living organisms. It uses two Latin words for each organism, one to identify the genus and one to identify the species the organism belongs to.Chemicals: The names of the elements in the periodic table come from an array of languages. Many of them come from Latin and Greek.Prefixes, suffixes and base words: The English language is one of the "Romantic" languages. Most of its prefixes and suffixes are Latin based. Many of its based words are also Latin based.

The Roman contribution to modern culture is not limited to science. Like the Greeks, the Romans had symbols for their gods, many of them very similar to the symbols for their Greek counterparts.

Bow and quiver of arrows: This is a symbol we see every February. It's the symbol for Cupid, the Roman god of love.Deer: Diana was the goddess of hunting. Her symbol, the deer is often used as a hunting symbol today.Armor: Mars (god of war) and Minerva (goddess of war) were both represented by armor, a symbol still used today to represent war.Scales: Themis was the goddess of justice. She actually originated as Ma'at from Egyptian mythology. Her scales symbolize the weighing of the hearts of man. She now stands as a universal symbol of justice blindfolded and holding a sword in one hand and scales in the other.

Ancient Greek and Roman symbols surround us in the modern world. They are not likely to go away any time soon. Our written language is deeply rooted in ancient symbols that represent sounds. Our ideas are nearly parallel to the ideas that inspired the symbols used by the ancients. Why wouldn't they be? Their cultures laid the groundwork for modern western civilization.



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