Ancient Greece has had an enormous amount of impact on culture in the Western world. Some of the first works of literature in the west, of which we have record, come from Greece, and although they were created at a time after older works from Mesopotamia, such epic poems as the Iliad and Odyssey have exerted wide influence over generation after generation of western thinkers. Greeks have made huge contributions to the world in various aspects, however this is most noticeable in literature, architecture, Olympic games, science, mathematics and politics. Here is a list of some of the most influential and memorable ancient Greeks.
Hippocrates of Cos was an ancient Greek physician of the Age of Pericles (Classical Athens), and is considered one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine. He is referred to as the father of Western medicine in recognition of his lasting contributions to the field as the founder of the Hippocratic School of Medicine. This intellectual school revolutionized medicine in ancient Greece, establishing it as a discipline distinct from other fields that it had traditionally been associated with (notably theurgy and philosophy), thus establishing medicine as a profession.
Thales of Miletus was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher from Miletus, in Asia Minor, and one of the Seven Sages of Greece. Many, most notably Aristotle, regard him as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition. According to Bertrand Russell, “Western philosophy begins with Thales.” Thales attempted to explain natural phenomena without reference to mythology, and was tremendously influential in this respect.
In mathematics, Thales used geometry to solve problems, such as calculating the height of pyramids and the distance of ships from the shore. He is credited with the first use of deductive reasoning applied to geometry, by deriving four corollaries to Thales’ Theorem. As a result, he has been hailed as the first true mathematician, and is the first known individual to whom a mathematical discovery has been attributed. Also, Thales was the first person known to have studied electricity.
Phidias, or the great Pheidias, was a Greek sculptor, painter and architect, who lived in the 5th century BC, and is commonly regarded as one of the greatest of all sculptors of Classical Greece. Phidias’ Statue of Zeus, at Olympia, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Phidias also designed the statues of the goddess Athena on the Athenian Acropolis, namely the Athena Parthenos, inside the Parthenon and the Athena Promachos, a colossal bronze statue of Athena which stood between it and the Propylaea, a monumental gateway that served as the entrance to the Acropolis in Athens.
Prior to the Peloponnesian war, Phidias was accused of embezzling gold intended for the statue of Athena inside the Parthenon. Pericles’ enemies found a false witness against Phidias, named Menon. Phidias died in prison, although Pericles’ companion, Aspasia, was acquitted of her own charges.
“In making their own evaluation of Solon, the ancient sources concentrated on what were perceived to be the democratic features of the constitution. But…Solon was given his extraordinary commission by the nobles, who wanted him to eliminate the threat that the position of the nobles as a whole would be overthrown.” — Stanton, G.R. Athenian Politics c800-500BC: A Sourcebook, Routledge, London (1990), p. 76.
Solon was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker and poet. He is remembered particularly for his efforts to legislate against political, economic and moral decline in archaic Athens. His reforms failed in the short term, yet he is often credited with having laid the foundations for Athenian democracy.
Democritus was an Ancient Greek philosopher, born in Abdera, Thrace, Greece. He was an influential pre-Socratic philosopher and pupil of Leucippus, who formulated an atomic theory for the cosmos. His exact contributions are difficult to disentangle from his mentor Leucippus, as they are often mentioned together in texts. Their speculation on atoms, taken from Leucippus, bears a passing and partial resemblance to the 19th century understanding of atomic structure that has led some to regard Democritus as more of a scientist than other Greek philosophers; however, their ideas rested on very different bases. Largely ignored in ancient Athens, Democritus was, nevertheless, well-known to his fellow northern-born philosopher Aristotle. Plato is said to have disliked him so much that he wished all his books burned. Many consider Democritus to be the “father of modern science.”
Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria, and lived in the 5th century BC (c. 484 BC – c. 425 BC). He has been called the “Father of History,” and was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent, and arrange them in a well-constructed and vivid narrative. The Histories — his masterpiece and the only work he is known to have produced — is a record of his “inquiry” (or ἱστορία historía, a word that passed into Latin and took on its modern meaning of history), being an investigation of the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars and including a wealth of geographical and ethnographical information. Although some of his stories were not completely accurate, he claimed that he was reporting only what had been told to him. Little is known of his personal history, since ancient records are scanty, contradictory and often fanciful.
Leonidas I was a hero-king of Sparta, the 17th of the Agiad line, one of the sons of King Anaxandridas II of Sparta, who was believed in mythology to be a descendant of Heracles, possessing much of the latter’s strength and bravery. Leonidas I is notable for his leadership at the Battle of Thermopylae, which has long been the topic of cultural inspiration, as it is perhaps the most famous military last stand of all time. His “against all odds” story is passed to us from the writings of the Greek Herodotus. He relates the story of 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians defending the Pass of Thermopylae against almost “2 million” Persians for three days.
Although modern historians have questioned the numbers presented by Herodotus, with most at around 100,000 to 250,000 invaders, the story has resonated with authors and poets for centuries over the inspiring bravery and resolution of the Spartans.
The performance of the defenders at the battle of Thermopylae is often used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment, and good use of terrain to maximize an army’s potential and has become a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds. Even more, both ancient and modern writers used the Battle of Thermopylae as an example of the superior power of a volunteer army of freemen defending native soil. The sacrifice of the Spartans and the Thespians has captured the minds of many throughout the ages and has given birth to many cultural references as a result.
Archimedes of Syracuse was a Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor and astronomer. Although few details of his life are known, he is regarded as one of the leading scientists in classical antiquity. Among his advances in physics are the foundations of hydrostatics, statics and an explanation of the principle of the lever. He is credited with designing innovative machines, including siege engines and the screw pump that bears his name. Modern experiments have tested claims that Archimedes designed machines capable of lifting attacking ships out of the water and setting ships on fire using an array of mirrors.
Archimedes is generally considered to be the greatest mathematician of antiquity, and one of the greatest of all time. He used the method of exhaustion to calculate the area under the arc of a parabola with the summation of an infinite series, and gave a remarkably accurate approximation of pi. He also defined the spiral bearing his name, formulae for the volumes of surfaces of revolution and an ingenious system for expressing very large numbers.
Unlike his inventions, the mathematical writings of Archimedes were little-known in antiquity. Mathematicians from Alexandria read and quoted him, but the first comprehensive compilation was not made until c. 530 AD by Isidore of Miletus, while commentaries on the works of Archimedes, written by Eutocius in the 6th century AD, opened them to wider readership for the first time. The relatively few copies of Archimedes’ written work that survived through the Middle Ages were an influential source of ideas for scientists during the Renaissance, while the discovery, in 1906, of previously unknown works by Archimedes in the Archimedes Palimpsest has provided new insights into how he obtained mathematical results.
Pythagoras made influential contributions to philosophy and religious teaching in the late 6th century BC. He is often revered as a great mathematician, mystic and scientist, but he is best known for the Pythagorean theorem which bears his name. However, because legend and obfuscation cloud his work even more than with the other pre-Socratic philosophers, one can give account of his teachings to a little extent, and some have questioned whether he contributed much to mathematics and natural philosophy. Many of the accomplishments credited to Pythagoras may actually have been accomplishments of his colleagues and successors. Whether or not his disciples believed that everything was related to mathematics and that numbers were the ultimate reality is unknown. It was said that he was the first man to call himself a philosopher, or lover of wisdom and Pythagorean ideas exercised a marked influence on Plato, and through him, all of Western philosophy.
Pericles was a prominent and influential statesman, orator and general of Athens during the city’s Golden Age — specifically, the time between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars. Pericles had such a profound influence on Athenian society that Thucydides, his contemporary historian, acclaimed him as “the first citizen of Athens.” Pericles turned the Delian League into an Athenian empire and led his countrymen during the first two years of the Peloponnesian War. The period during which he led Athens, roughly from 461 to 429 BC, is sometimes known as the “Age of Pericles,” though the period thus denoted can include times as early as the Persian Wars, or as late as the next century.
Pericles promoted the arts and literature; this was a chief reason Athens holds the reputation of being the educational and cultural centre of the ancient world. He started an ambitious project that generated most of the surviving structures on the Acropolis (including the Parthenon). This project beautified the city, exhibited its glory, and gave work to the people. Furthermore, Pericles fostered Athenian democracy to such an extent that critics call him a populist.
Pericles’ most visible legacy can be found in the literary and artistic works of the Golden Age of Athens, most of which survive to this day. The Acropolis, though in ruins, still stands and is a symbol of modern Athens. A famous modern Greek historian wrote that these masterpieces are “sufficient to render the name of Greece immortal in our world.” Pericles also is lauded as “the ideal type of the perfect statesman in ancient Greece”, and his Funeral Oration is nowadays synonymous with the struggle for participatory democracy and civic pride.
Plato, was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the foundations of Western philosophy and science. In the famous words of A.N. Whitehead: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them.” Plato’s dialogues have been used to teach a range of subjects, including philosophy, logic, ethics, rhetoric and mathematics.
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology and zoology. Together with Plato and Socrates, Aristotle is one of the most important founding figures in Western philosophy. Aristotle’s writings were the first to create a comprehensive system of Western philosophy, encompassing morality and aesthetics, logic and science, politics and metaphysics.
Aristotle’s views on the physical sciences profoundly shaped medieval scholarship, and their influence extended well into the Renaissance, although they were ultimately replaced by Newtonian physics. In the zoological sciences, some of his observations were confirmed to be accurate only in the 19th century. His works contain the earliest known formal study of logic, which was incorporated in the late 19th century into modern formal logic. In metaphysics, Aristotelianism had a profound influence on philosophical and theological thinking in the Islamic and Jewish traditions in the Middle Ages, and it continues to influence Christian theology, especially the scholastic tradition of the Catholic Church. His ethics, though always influential, gained renewed interest with the modern advent of virtue ethics. All aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy continue to be the object of active academic study today. Though Aristotle wrote many elegant treatises and dialogues (Cicero described his literary style as “a river of gold”), it is thought that the majority of his writings are now lost and only about one-third of the original works have survived.
In the Western classical tradition, Homer is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.
The formative influence played by the Homeric epics in shaping Greek culture was widely recognized, and Homer was described as the teacher of Greece.
The Iliad and the Odyssey reveal much about the values of the ancient Greeks. The heroes display honor, courage, and eloquence, as when Achilles rallies his troops. For almost 3,000 years, the epic of Homer have inspired writers and artists around the world.
Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, and the plays of his contemporary Aristophanes. Many would claim that Plato’s dialogues are the most comprehensive accounts of Socrates to survive from antiquity.
Through his portrayal in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates has become renowned for his contribution to the field of ethics, and it is this Platonic Socrates who also lends his name to the concepts of Socratic irony and the Socratic method, or elenchus. The latter remains a commonly used tool in a wide range of discussions, and is a type of pedagogy in which a series of questions are asked not only to draw individual answers, but also to encourage fundamental insight into the issue at hand. It is Plato’s Socrates that also made important and lasting contributions to the fields of epistemology and logic, and the influence of his ideas and approach remains strong in providing a foundation for much western philosophy that followed.
As one recent commentator has put it, Plato, the idealist, offers “an idol, a master figure, for philosophy. A Saint, a prophet of the ‘Sun-God,’ a teacher condemned for his teachings as a heretic.”
Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great (Greek: Ἀλέξανδρος ὁ Μέγας), was a king of Macedon, a state in northern ancient Greece. Born in Pella, Greece in 356 BC, Alexander was tutored by Aristotle until the age of 16. By the age of thirty, he had created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from the Ionian Sea to the Himalayas. He was undefeated in battle, and is considered one of history’s most successful commanders.
Alexander succeeded his father, Philip II of Macedon, to the throne in 336 BC after Philip was assassinated. Upon Philip’s death, Alexander inherited a strong kingdom and an experienced army. He was awarded the generalship of Greece and used this authority to launch his father’s military expansion plans. In 334 BC he invaded Persian-ruled Asia Minor and began a series of campaigns that lasted ten years. Alexander broke the power of Persia in a series of decisive battles, most notably the battles of Issus and Gaugamela. He subsequently overthrew the Persian King Darius III and conquered the entirety of the Persian Empire. At that point his empire stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River.
Seeking to reach the “ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea,” he invaded India in 326 BC, but was eventually forced to turn back at the demand of his troops. Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BC, without executing a series of planned campaigns that would have begun with an invasion of Arabia. In the years following his death a series of civil wars tore his empire apart, resulting in several states ruled by the Diadochi – Alexander’s surviving generals and heirs.
Alexander’s legacy includes the cultural diffusion his conquests engendered. He founded some twenty cities that bore his name, most notably Alexandria in Egypt. Alexander’s settlement of Greek colonists and the resulting spread of Greek culture in the east resulted in a new Hellenistic civilization, aspects of which were still evident in the traditions of the Byzantine Empire in the mid-15th century. Alexander became legendary as a classical hero in the mold of Achilles, and features prominently in the history and myth of Greek and non-Greek cultures. He became the measure against which military leaders compared themselves and military academies throughout the world still teach his tactics.