Top 10 Most Important People in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece was a civilization of the 12th -9th centuries B.C. to the end of antiquity (c.600 A.D.). Founded on the shores of the Aegean Sea, about 4,000 years ago, it expanded to land as far west as Spain and as far east as India over a millennium.

Throughout this age of empire, the ancient Greeks manifested unparalleled prosperity in domains such as art, history, philosophy, war, and music.

It left an indelible mark in the years that followed and established itself as a seminal culture, providing a foundation for Western Culture as well as the contemporary world. 

It was also a civilization that birthed the most iconic personalities who gave us theology, mathematics, democracy, nature, science and overall, wisdom which resonates with us long after the fall of the empire. 

In this article, I have enlisted ten such personalities of the Ancient Greek period who are known for their courage, honour and ethos.

10. Solon (c. 630- c. 560 B.C.)

Solon (c. 630- c. 560 B.C.)
Solon – Portrait bust at the National Archaeological Museum, Naples
Source: Wikimedia Common

“Learn to obey before you command.”

He was one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece, a statesperson, lawyer, and also a poet of Athens. We remember him as the pioneer who laid the foundation of democracy by ramifying the Athenian polity. 

The Athenian government was at the hands of aristocratic few, who owned vast areas of land and imposed debts on the marginalized population of the city.

This system had burdened the enslaved and impoverished people. As a mediator, Solon dismissed the idea of indebtedness; the plan is better known as ‘shaking off of debts’. Moreover, to end the slippery slope to slavery, he prohibited the offering of one’s family member as security for a loan and emancipated those tied by the shackles of bondage. 

Similarly, he had divided the citizens into four classes on account of their ownership of land and property, which not only vested a few political rights to the plebeians but also ceased nepotism among the well to do.  

Solon replaced the Draconian law with a new set of law engraved on stones that abandoned previously stringent rules and new rules ranging from funeral, inheritance, adultery, etc. were formulated. These laws formulated by Solon sustained for 200 years and earned him a permanent reputation. 

9. Sophocles (c. 496-c. 406 B.C.)

Sophocles (c. 496-c. 406 B.C.)
Sophocles – Portrait bust at Pushkin Museum
Source: Wikimedia Common

“Without labour, nothing prospers.”

Sophocles was one of the three greatest tragedians of Ancient Greece; Aeschylus was his predecessor, and Euripides was his antecedent.

His work includes a remarkable collection of classics such as Oedipus the King, Antigone and Women of Trachis. His tragedies are windows into the worlds of the then Greek period: its society, polity and religion. 

Sophocles first innovated much of what we know today as gory and quirky elements peppered into dramas and movies today in his theatres such as in Oedipus.

He swerved the line of plays into a different direction that made them more compelling and urged the audience to see through the protagonists’ eyes and make difficult choices.

His innovations include the creation of a third character in his drama. He manifested a form of play where actors were masked and changed characters which yielded new and more sophisticated plots in the coming years.

Another typical characteristic of a Sophoclean drama is the exclusive use of metaphors: be it in Oedipus or Antigone, the characters by losing everything they had realized that tragedy was necessary to fathom the truth. 

Sophocles penned about 120 plays, but almost all of them have remained in a scattered form. The chunks of compiled remnants like the plays mentioned above find a stage in different parts of the world till today. 

8. Hippocrates (c. 460- c. 370 B.C.)

Hippocrates (c. 460- c. 370 B.C.)
19th-century engraving. Portrait bus.
Source: wikimedia common

“Cure sometimes, treat often, comfort always.” 

Often hailed as the ‘father of medicine’, Hippocrates was a philosopher and a physician who, along with his followers, forbade the idea that the causal factor or the curable factor of diseases were superstitions.

Instead, he practised the art of therapeutic methods to treat individuals’ ailments and established medicine as a profession, thereby revolutionizing the subject.

The most notable contribution of Hippocrates should be the ‘Hippocratic Corpus’ written in about 400 B.C. which comprises of a synthesis of the works of Hippocrates that delves on the ailments of different parts of the body and recommends both their diagnoses and treatments.

The magnum opus is an integration of previous works of Empedocles, Philiston and Diogenes about the body, mind and soul.

He devised a Hippocratic theory which advises us to exercise daily, sleep well and have a clean diet which holds even today. The contemporary practice of the ‘Hippocratic Oath’ is also said to be written by him. 

Deducing, Hippocrates steered clear from the common belief that diseases were inflicted by gods upon mortals as a form of punishment and conceptualized medicine as a distinct subject devoid of any philosophy or religion. 

7. Archimedes (c. 287- c. 212 B.C.)

Archimedes (c. 287- c. 212 B.C.)
Archimedes portrait painted by Domenico Fetti in 1620
Source: Wikimedia Common

“Don’t disturb my circles!”

Archimedes is one of the most important inventors and innovators not only of the Ancient Greek but of all times.

He holds the same position and respect as Newton and Einstein even in the modern-day world. Referred to as the ‘wise one’ or ‘the master’ in the Greek period itself, is credited for some of his theoretical formulae that changed the way things work and are still in work till date. 

His theories include ‘Archimedes Tomb’ which illustrates that the volume and surface of a sphere are two-thirds of that of a cylinder.

This proven theory had long gone into oblivion when it was revived by Cicero many years later. He is better known for his victory word ‘Eureka’ which he uttered after the discovery of Archimedes Principle.

He is also known for having found the purpose of levers, the Archimedes Claw, observations of solstices, hydrostatics, and so on.

Although his work hadn’t gained many appraisals in antiquity, the authenticity and magnitude of his life and actions were significantly impactful in the coming centuries. 

6. Pythagoras(c. 570- c. 500-490)

“Silence is better than insignificant words.” 

Our alphabet, the buildings that surround us, even the music we hear, owes a high debt to this brilliant philosopher, Pythagoras.

In his pursuit of wisdom, Pythagoras travelled broadly searching for lost occult knowledge, he found it in the mystery school scattered throughout many different cultures.

Pythagoras synthesized all the elements of these teachings into a new discipline: philosophy; his foundation as numbers. 

He believed that mathematics and philosophy and an understanding of divine all went together.

Although he didn’t originate anything, he condensed and boiled down the knowledge of the world and brought it down to a practical application.

He identified numbers as the fundamental elements of creation. He founded a school of philosophy called ‘Pythagoreanism’. 

5. Homer ( flourished 900 BCE- 701 BCE) 

Homer ( flourished 900 BCE- 701 BCE)
Portrait Bust of Homer in the British Museum, London
Source: Wikimedia Common

“Be still my heart; thou hast known worse than this.” 

Homer is the author of the classic literary works of The Iliad and The Odyssey and is the greatest epic poet in history. Homer’s epics have had an enormous influence on the history of literature. 

Although his poems were passed from generation to generation using oral communication, it is difficult to date his works, but ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ is said to be of around 8th century B.C.

The Iliad tells the legendary story of the first Trojan War, and The Odyssey revolves around the voyage of King Odysseus to Ithaca.

Not only did his epics broadened the literary horizon, but they also laid the foundation for culture and education of Greece right from the Classical Period to the Roman Empire. 

Whether or not Homer existed or the Trojan war ever took place is an unanswerable question.

However, the poems surfaced a wave of newly found cultural identity among the Greeks because for once, they were all united to fight the Trojan war blatantly.

Despite having discrepancies in the hundreds of city-states in Greece, the people found a deep sense of belonging and unification through the recitation of the poem. 

His works were far from mere epics; people in Greece knew most of them by heart and surpassing the confinement of pages, the words of the legends were sort of like an instructional device to them on moral and practical aspects. 

4. Alexander the Great (c. 356 BC- 323 BC)

Alexander the Great (c. 356 BC- 323 BC)
Alexander and Bucephalus – Battle of Issus mosaic – Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples
Source: Wikimedia Common

“Remember, upon the conduct of each depends on the fate of all.”

Macedonia consolidated itself day by day as the most significant military power in the European continent under the reign of King Phillip II who was succeeded by his son, King Alexander the Great at an early age of 20. 

Alexander the Great stood at the head of the world’s most feared army, using it to carve for himself a vast empire.

He crushed the Persian Empire and then thrust his way into Egypt and India to become the acknowledged king of kings. Eventually, he obliterated, leaving behind a legacy of heroism, divinity and tyranny. 

Aristotle trained him in philosophy, zoology, politics and medicine. His ability was also unparalleled, just like his bravery.

When his father brought in a horse called Bucephalus, there was nobody in the kingdom who could have tamed that horse.

It was only Alexander who with his deducing skills, was able to mount it and gallop around with it. The antics he possessed at such a tender age suggested that he was unbeatable.

In 334 BC, Alexander marched with a 400,00 army out of Macedonia. His focus was on taking possession of the entire Persia, which he considered to be a personal gift from the Gods.

His men split the Persian forces while Alexander attacked from the centre. He was hailed the King of Asia after the annexation of Persia.  He also snatched Babylon and Persepolis before conquering India.

He began to go after the whole continent, and that is when he succumbed to the heat of the desert, fell incurably ill and died shortly after. These, among other things, are some of the reasons why Alexander of Macedonia became Alexander the Great. 

3. Aristotle (384 BC- 322 BC)

Aristotle (384 BC- 322 BC)
Bust of Aristotle, original by Lysippos from 330 BC
Source: Wikimedia Common

“The educated differs from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead. “

Aristotle was known as the ‘ philosopher’ or ‘the master’. He grew up with his parents who were both in the medical field.

As his reputation had travelled far and wide, King Philip had employed him to teach his son, who is now known as Alexander the Great. Aristotle then headed off to Athens worked with Plato for a bit, then branched out on his own.

He founded a small school called the Lyceum. French secondary schools-the ‘ lycees’-are named in honour of this venture. He liked to walk about while teaching and discussing ideas. His followers are  ‘peripatetics’- the’ wanderers’.

His many books lecture notes. Aristotle was fascinated by how many things work and questioned every working mechanism of everything in the world. For him, philosophy was about practical wisdom. 

His works include about 200 manuscripts. However, only 31 have sustained the test of time. His published books were not considered as works of literature but rather as his teaching materials in his school.

His works include four types of percepts, which, when combined, provides a holistic approach into the questions of life: Organon, Metaphysics, Rhetoric, Poetics. 

Aristotle’s pervasive influence began to wane after the Renaissance period and the reformations that assumed subsequently.

Some of his theories debunked, modified or ultimately dismissed. However, his works remain staple beginnings for any argument based on philosophy, ethics, etc.  

2. Plato (c. 424 BC- c. 348 BC)

Plato (c. 424 BC- c. 348 BC)
Plato. Luni marble, copy of the portrait made by Silanion ca. 370 BC for the Academia in Athens
Source: Wikimedia Common

“Democracy passes into despotism.”

Plato was born and brought up in a well to do family in the city. Regardless of his materialistic possessions, he firmly believed that he should devote his life into helping people find a state called: Eudaimonia or fulfilment and thus renounced all his possessions.

Plato wrote profoundly: 36, all dialogues, beautifully crafted scripts of theoretical discussions such as The Republic, The Symposium, The Laws, The Meno, The Apology. Plato had various ideas invariably caterer to making life more fulfilled. 

He viewed that the world and people existed in a tripartite structure. He believed that each of us possesses an innate quality of reason, spirit and appetite and each of us should strive towards becoming what we are inherent: governing class, warriors and workers. 

He is also known for his allegorical cave story that people attribute him to. Speculations have it that he opened a school called Academy where even Aristotle had come to acquire knowledge. Thus, he is the father of idealism in philosophy. 

1. Socrates (c. 470 BC- c. 399 BC)

Socrates (c. 470 BC- c. 399 BC)
Portrait bush of Socrates
Source: Wikimedia Common

“One thing I know, and that is, I know nothing.”

Socrates is arguably the most influential philosopher of all time. His ideas not only changed the course of history but laid the groundwork for what is today considered Western philosophy. 

Socrates was born in around 469 BC, and spent nearly all of his life in Athens, Greece. The city was then at the centre of Greece’s ‘Golden Age’, a time of rapid development and democratization.

He was a soldier, then a stonecutter, before devoting his life to being a philosopher. A lesser-known fact is that he wrote no books.

Everything we know about him is through the writings of his contemporaries, most famously his student, Plato.

In one of his books, we find that Socrates was taught about love by a wise woman known as Diotama, who asserted that love is seeking for objects or beauty or children. Thus, he resorted to being a lover of philosophy. 

Although he was the most famous philosopher and the most learned man to have walked earth, he believes to know nothing.

He claimed that real knowledge was knowing that one knows nothing. Through this percept of philosophy, he has propounded a process of gradual questioning known as the Socratic Method, which is perhaps Socrates most significant contribution to the academic world. It is used as a form of critical discussion in English and Law classes even today. 

Socrates was so compelling that he led politicians and elites to question their truths. He also presented a criticism of democracy vehemently.

It paved ways for other criticizers of the political system such as Martin Luther King. 

With only the works of Plato being the little repository of his evidence, Socrates was a great teacher with innovative ideas and concepts in philosophy. 

Conclusion

Deducing, these imminent personalities of ancient Greece laid the groundwork for Western culture and civilization. Some of their discoveries, ideas, concepts, thoughts were revolutionary and being used to date. It feels like a pleasure to really write about them when there is so much that they have offered to the world. 

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Cite this article as: Sandhya Ghimire, "Top 10 Most Important People in Ancient Greece," in HistoryTen, March 30, 2020, https://historyten.com/greece/most-important-people-ancient-greece/.
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