Ancient Greece is one of the greatest civilizations in human history and it had an enormous impact on subsequent cultures that emerged after its fall. It is impossible to talk about the rich history of ancient Greece without bringing in some of the most famous Greek personalities.
From creating the first works of literature and inventing huge events such as the Olympics Games, to groundbreaking theories and experimentation in mathematics and science, the importance of these personalities cannot be overstated.
Here is a list of the top 10 most important people in ancient Greece, whose actions and contributions went on to have a great influence on the generations that followed:
Th famous ancient Greek physician Hippocrates lived during the age of Pericles in classical Greece and was undoubtedly one of the earliest influential figures in the history of medicine. His remarkable contributions to early medical discoveries have helped to set medical standards to this day, and he is often regarded as the father of Western medicine.
He founded the Hippocratic School of Medicine, which, in due course, established medicine as a distinct field and revolutionized medical practice in ancient Greece.
It was his initiatives that helped medicine to attain the status it has today, separating it from other practices such as philosophy and theurgy. He is also thought to be the first person to clearly state that diseases were the result of natural causes, and not caused by superstition and the wrath of the gods, a belief that was widespread in ancient times.
From the earliest descriptions of severe health conditions such as clubbed fingers (also called Hippocratic fingers), lung cancer, and cyanotic heart disease to the eventual professionalization of medicine, Hippocrates had a lasting impact in the field of medicine.
9. Leonidas I
Leonidas I was the famous Spartan king whose heroics at the Battle of Thermopylae were the stuff of legend. At that time, every Spartan citizen was trained for battle and their daily routine from childhood was pretty much completely taken up with practicing their fighting.
As a consequence, Leonidas was destined for glory when the Persians came knocking on the doors of ancient Greece. It was said that Leonidas, one of the sons of King Anaxandridas II of Sparta, was a descendant of Heracles (more popularly known as Hercules), and possessed much of his strength and skill.
Leonidas left a notable mark on the face of history with his impressive leadership against the might of the Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae. His unbelievable last stand against all odds has been retold down the generations through the writings of the famous Greek historian Herodotus.
He told the story of how 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians defended Sparta for three days from an invading Persian army that was two million strong. Modern historians have amended that number to 250,000 Persians, but this does not detract from the bravery Leonidas and his men showed while defending the small pass of Thermopylae. His story is used to this very day to show how training, experience, and the tactical use of terrain can be used to maximize the potential of even the smallest of forces.
One of the earliest mathematicians to have ever lived, Euclid of Alexandria, is often regarded as the father of geometry. Due to the lack of early records, and the fact that most of the documents on the life of Euclid have perished with time, very little is known about his life. However, he was mentioned by the ancient Greek philosopher Proclus in a report aptly named the Summary of Greek Mathematicians. According to this, Euclid was an influential and active mathematician involved in the library of Alexandria around the time of Ptolemy I. This puts him at a much earlier time than another famous Greek – Archimedes.
Despite the fact that little is known about his life, his contributions have had a great impact on the history of geometry and mathematics as a whole. His main work is the Elements, which gave birth to basic geometry in concept and essence.
Originally written as a set of 13 books, his famous work is used even today as a textbook in mathematics and is second only to the Bible in terms of the number of reprints sold. His collection of definitions, postulations, propositions, and proofs created the basis of today’s modern mathematics.
Archimedes was the famous Greek mathematician who is said to have run down the streets of Syracuse naked yelling “Eureka! Eureka!” because he had just discovered the principle of buoyancy while taking a bath. But he was not just a mathematician, he was also a competent engineer, physicist, philosopher, inventor, and astronomer.
His major contributions in science include some profound advances in physics. His tactical mind, along with his mechanical engineering genius, helped Syracuse put up such a strong defense when the Romans came knocking at their door.
Archimedes is considered to be the greatest mathematician of the ancient Greek era, and he definitely makes it on to the list of one of the greatest mathematics geniuses to have ever lived. His precise calculations led to the remarkably accurate approximation of the value of Pi, and he also defined the geometry and volumes of different shapes such as the sphere and cylinder.
Often called the first of the Greek philosophers, Pythagoras was born in 570 BC on the island of Samos off the coast of present-day Turkey. Legend has it that his earliest days were spent as a disciple of some of the greatest mathematicians and astronomers of that time. During this time, he absorbed their secret teachings, taught himself to play the lyre and was able to recite epics by Homer just from memory.
He then went on to travel to the few centers of knowledge and philosophy in the ancient world and armed himself with knowledge from the most powerful contemporary civilizations. Such was his influence that en route to the town of Kroton, he was joined by more than 300 people who formed an insane cult, worshiping him as an incarnation of the god Apollo.
Together with his cult, he went on to create dozens of mathematical and philosophical principles. They proved the Pythagorean theorem for calculating the area of a triangle and even proposed the concept of the earth revolving around the sun almost 2,000 years before it would be proved by the likes of Galileo and Copernicus. For obvious reasons, such activities upset many people in Greece, and he was killed by an angry mob who burnt him to death.
Homer was the composer of the Iliad and Odyssey, arguably two of the greatest poems ever written. Even more astonishing is the fact that he created these powerful epics more than 2,800 years ago, way back somewhere between the eighth and ninth centuries BC (although other historians think that he may have lived much earlier, around the 12th century BC).
Since not much was documented about him at the time, the exact whereabouts or date of his birth and details about his life still remain a mystery. However, this does not detract from his poems for they are the symbolic roadmap to world mythology.
From the narration of the Iliad, which was a city within the state of Troy during the time of the Trojan War, to the specific focus on the 10-year journey Odysseus made from Troy to Ithaca after the end of the Trojan War in the Odyssey, Homer did create two classic epics that lie at the very heart of Western literature. And we cannot ignore the legend of the Trojan horse and the heroics of Achilles and Hector that have inspired writers and artists around the world.
These epics went on to have a massive impact and influence on the history of literature, giving readers a valuable insight into life in ancient Greece.
One of the most influential figures in ancient philosophy, Plato, was born somewhere around 428 BC or 423 BC in Athens. A student of Socrates, another philosophy legend from ancient Greece, he was named Aristocles by birth, but later earned the nickname of Platon (meaning broad) courtesy of his broad build.
His family was deeply involved in Athenian politics, and Plato too seemed headed for a similar career. However, amid certain political crises, most noticeably the execution of his teacher Socrates, Plato needed no more encouragement to leave Athenian politics behind him.
Together with his master Socrates and his disciple Aristotle, Plato had already done heaps of work in laying the foundations of Western philosophy and science. He then went on to found The Academy in Athens, the first institution for higher education in the Western world, and write a number of books on philosophy, his most noticeable work being the Republic.
His dialogues have covered a wide range of topics such as philosophy, mathematics, logic, and ethics. His influence was summed up by the famous words of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it contains a series of footnotes to Plato.”
There were three pillars who laid the foundation for what we know as Western philosophy, and Aristotle was the youngest of them. A famous Greek philosopher and polymath, he gained all his knowledge and wisdom under the mentorship of Plato and later on tutored the likes of Alexander the Great.
When it comes to quintessential figures in the history of Western philosophy, Aristotle did indeed surpass his master Plato, being the first person to create a comprehensive system of philosophy, encompassing several essential aspects and virtues.
Apart from revolutionizing the concepts of morality and aesthetics, logic, science, politics, and metaphysics, he was also an avid writer who covered a number of topics through poetry, theater, music, rhetoric and more.
His views on physical science had an enormous influence on the scholarship of the Middle Ages, and their impact lasted as late as the Renaissance, when these concepts were replaced by Newtonian physics. Some of his now popular concepts and assumptions in zoology were so far ahead of the science of the time that these observations were not proved to be accurate until the 19th century.
2. Alexander the Great
Alexander III of Macedon, more commonly and fittingly known as Alexander the Great, was born in Pella, Greece, in 356 BC. He was an illegitimate child, and his heroic deeds have led to legends stating that he was actually the son of Zeus himself, and that he shared a bloodline with Hercules and Perseus.
He was tutored by Aristotle up to the age of 16, and when his father, Philip II of Macedon, was assassinated in 336 BC, he inherited the Macedonian throne and ended up commanding a strong kingdom and a skillful army.
Once he was made General of Greece, he used his power to launch his father’s military expansion plans, starting with the invasion of Persia. Throughout his 10-year campaign, he showed his caliber as a battle-hardened general who accomplished greater things in his short 33 years of life than whole armies could ever dream of.
He broke the might of Persia in a series of battles, eventually overthrowing King Darius III and bringing the entire Persian Empire to its knees. Seeking to conquer the world, he invaded far into the east into Asia and India, and had only to fall back because his army could not take it anymore.
Although he eventually died on his way back from war in Babylon at the young age of 33, he still remains a powerful figure that military leaders look up to and measure their own strength against.
Learn more amazing facts about Alexander The Great.
Born between 470 and 469 BC in Deme Alopece, Athens, Socrates is a forerunner in classical Greek philosophy and has been credited as one of the most influential founders of Western philosophy.
This renowned classical philosopher, famous for his wisdom and knowledge, has been widely documented by historians and writers such as Plato and Xenophon. It is evident from these writings, more specifically through the works of Plato, that Socrates has made some major contributions to the field of ethics.
His new philosophical views and ideas on ethics were not entertained by the society and authority of the time. He was eventually put on trial for two different charges: the corruption of youth, and impiety.
In terms of his philosophical beliefs, he was always at odds with many of his fellow Athenians, be it morally, ethically, intellectually, or even politically. Disregarding any possible retributions that he may have to face for his philosophical stand, he stood by his beliefs. He was ultimately sentenced to death by poisoning, a fate he happily accepted.
Learn more about the top contributions of Socrates.
Ancient Greek civilization represents the beginning of philosophical, political, social, ethical, and scientific advances in society. The people listed above have had an enormous impact on subsequent Western civilizations and it would not be an overstatement to say that some of them had far-reaching influences beyond the Western world.
Be it revolutionary philosophers like Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato or the earliest of faces of Western literature such as Homer, Herodotus, and Pericles, the Greek influence on philosophy and literature is phenomenal.
The theories proposed by Archimedes, Euclid, and Pythagoras are still studied to this day and have laid the foundations of modern science and mathematics. And one can never dismiss the cultural impact that Alexander the Great brought about when he invaded nation after nation, bringing them all under his single rule.
Needless to say, this list is limited to 10 people and does not do full justice to all the ancient Greeks who have had a significant impact in their own time and times to come.