Famous & Influential Ancient Greeks: From Herodotus & Aristotle, To Sappho & Homer – BBC History Magazine
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Get to know some of the civilisation’s most influential people, as Emma Slattery Williams introduces 14 famous individuals of ancient Greece, and their accomplishments – from politicians and great thinkers, to artists and mathematicians…
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Published: September 21, 2021 at 8:47 am
One of the innovations the ancient Greeks are most famed for is democracy – a political system of ruling by the people as opposed to by a monarch or dictator – and its grandfather is considered to be the Athenian magistrate Solon.
Born in the late seventh century BC, Solon was chosen to become a governor or archon of Athens. Through his economic reforms, he freed those who had been forced into debt-slavery for not being able to pay their creditors, and encouraged people to take up trades to avoid poverty. Thanks to Solon, all Athenian male citizens could also attend the general assembly for the first time, and rule was taken from being solely in the hands of the city-state’s aristocratic families.
Many of the lawmaker’s reforms failed initially, as Athens was temporarily ruled by the tyrant Peisistratos a few years after Solon left the city. His efforts, however, would lay the foundations for the reforms brought in by Cleisthenes a few decades later, which formally established democracy in Athens.
Unusually for the ancient world, physician and philosopher Hippocrates believed that illnesses had rational rather than supernatural explanations. At the time, the gods and magical curses were often blamed for causing disease. Instead, Hippocrates’ pupils were encouraged to observe their patients, note their symptoms, and analyse how their illnesses progressed. He established medicine as a formal profession, and the Hippocratic Oath – a code of conduct for doctors – still inspires the one taken by physicians around the world today. He was also a believer in exercising and eating a healthy diet as a way of preventing and treating disease. The work of Hippocrates later inspired the physician Galen (AD 129– c210), and the ideas of both men were treated as fact until the late medieval period.
As much as we love a laugh when we go to the theatre, there’s something about a tragic story that appeals and pulls at the heartstrings, and we have the Athenians to thank for the genre of tragedy. Watching a play in ancient Greece was a favourite pastime, and festivals held to honour the god Dionysus saw three dramatic genres emerge: tragedy, comedy and satyr drama (the latter combining both). The works of Sophocles are some of the earliest-surviving tragic plays, and include Oedipus Rex and Antigone.
Born just outside Athens in the early fifth century BC, Sophocles’ talents first came to prominence when he won first prize for tragedy in the Dionysian festival, beating the Athenian king of drama, Aeschylus. As well as his work as a dramatist, Sophocles worked as a treasurer, diplomat and general, and is thought to have written more than 120 plays, though only seven complete works survive. He also did much to revolutionise drama, with perhaps his most important innovation being the addition of a third actor to a play. Previously two actors would play several roles, but with the addition of one more, more characters could be written, and the plot could become more varied and exciting.
Thought to have been born in the late seventh century BC on the island of Lesbos, poet Sappho was from an aristocratic family. On Lesbos, she ran an academy for young unmarried women devoted to Eros and Aphrodite – the god and goddess of love. Sappho was considered one of the greatest lyric poets of her day and mainly wrote on the themes of love, family and friendship. While some say she died of old age, other stories claim that she threw herself off a cliff after having her heart broken. Three centuries after her death, Sappho became the source of parody and was characterised as a promiscuous homosexual – the term ‘lesbian’ is derived from the island where she was born and ‘sapphic’ refers to love between women, as well as the four-line form that Sappho’s poetry usually took. There is little concrete evidence about her true sexuality, though, and she wrote as passionately about men as she did women.
We only know the ideas of Socrates – the founding father of western philosophy – thanks to his pupil, Plato: Socrates didn’t write anything down, but luckily Plato did. Before pursuing philosophy, Socrates fought in the Peloponnesian War and worked as a stonemason. His philosophical ideas were extremely radical for the time – he believed that people should focus on their behaviour and morality rather than wealth and power. Although he attracted many scholars to his discussions, Socrates wasn’t widely liked in Athens and was an outspoken opponent of democracy. In 399 BC, he was sentenced to death after being charged with corrupting the city’s youth and disrespecting the gods.
To the ire of many students, the theories of mathematician Pythagoras are still taught today. We have little concrete knowledge about his life, though it’s thought he was born in Samos in the early-sixth century BC. After travelling, Pythagoras settled in Italy where he formed a secret group of students who lived by a philosophy based around mathematics – appropriately known as the Pythagoreans. He is credited with discovering the functional significance of numbers, as well as the Pythagoras theorem, used to calculate the length of the sides in a right-angled triangle.
Join us as we explore one of the world’s greatest civilisations – from the birth of democracy and the ancient Olympics to warfare, the rights of women and the whims of the gods.
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General and statesmen Pericles oversaw Athens during its golden age and was so well respected that he was lauded as the city’s ‘first citizen’. He led Athens during the first few years of the Peloponnesian War and expanded the Delian League – a group of Greek states – into an empire. A lover of the arts and literature, his ambitious building programme, which included the Acropolis, helped Athens become the cultural and educational centre of the ancient world. He succumbed to the Plague of Athens in 429 BC.
Without Herodotus, we might not know as much as we do about the events of ancient Greece. He’s believed to have hailed from Halicarnassus, a Greek city that was under Persian rule at his birth in the early fifth century. In around 425 BC, he published The Histories – an account of the Greco-Persian Wars. This was the first time that a writer had attempted to explain the cause of an event, or study it in such detail – and so historical analysis was born. Herodotus’ work was based on his travels across the Persian and Greek territories and the stories he collected on the way. What we know about the battle of Marathon is all thanks to Herodotus. Other writers criticised his weaving of fiction into his narratives, but he is widely considered the first true historian.
Despite his short rule, Alexander the Great transformed the ancient world in just over a decade. In 336 BC, after the assassination of his father, Alexander ascended the Macedonian throne at the age of 20; educated by the great philosopher Aristotle, he was an adept leader and strategist. Under his rule, Macedonia continued asserting its power within Greece. Even more impressively, Alexander conquered territories that were formerly part of the Persian empire without losing a single major battle, including Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt. At 25, he was leader of Greece, pharaoh of Egypt and overlord of Asia Minor, and for the next decade he consolidated his sprawling empire, which spanned three continents. His death at the age of 32 saw his empire broken up, and many historians have since questioned how much more he could have achieved had he lived longer. Today he is still considered one of history’s greatest military commanders.
If you’ve ever had a brilliant idea and shouted “Eureka!”, you have Greek scientist and inventor Archimedes to thank for that. According to an anecdotal story, Archimedes allegedly discovered that the amount of water displaced when he entered his bathtub was equal to the amount of upward force put on the body. He was so delighted that he apparently ran down the street naked, shouting “Eureka!” – Greek for “I have found it!”. Whether or not the story is true, Archimedes, who hailed from Syracuse in Sicily, is one of ancient Greece’s most famous scientists, inventors and mathematicians. He discovered the law of hydrostatics, the principles of the lever and created siege engines. It’s thought that he even designed machines that could lift ships out of the water, and found an accurate approximation of pi – the ratio of the circumference of any circle to the diameter of that circle. Despite this, Archimedes’ mathematical writings were little known in his own time – it wasn’t until the sixth century AD that they gained a wide readership.
If you were to take an epic journey or voyage – physical or spiritual – some may describe it as an odyssey. The use of this term goes all the way back to a poem written during the early days of the ancient Greeks. Few concrete facts are known about the life of Homer, but legends claim he was a blind bard from the island of Chios and that his poems would have been spread orally before being written down. His work is presumed to include the Iliad – one of the most important sources about the legendary Trojan War – and the Odyssey – an account of the epic journey taken by Odysseus after the fall of Troy.
The works were the foundation of ancient Greek literature and are still considered some of the most important in the western canon. There is some debate over exactly who wrote the poems attributed to Homer, but experts agree they were written around the late eighth to early seventh century BC. Whether Homer did write them or not, the epics shaped Greek culture, highlighted popular values of the time (such as honour and courage), and remain some of the oldest surviving works of literature still widely read today.
Philosopher and polymath Aristotle came from a tradition of great thinkers – he was a pupil of Plato who was himself a student of Socrates. Aristotle founded a school of philosophy at the Lyceum in Athens and was considered influential enough to be the teacher of the young Alexander the Great. Aristotle’s writings were some of the first to create a system of western philosophy that included logic, science, morality, politics and metaphysics. He heavily influenced Christian theology, as well as medieval Islamic and Jewish traditions, and his work is still studied and analysed today.
Pheidias was one of the most famous artists of the ancient world whose greatest works have unfortunately not stood the test of time. Little of his life is known, but he worked mainly in Athens before creating a workshop at Olympia. Here, he created his greatest masterpiece – a gold and ivory seated statue of Zeus that became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. He also created three monuments to Athena, as well the Parthenon carvings – these survive today, and those in the British Museum are known as the Elgin Marbles. Pheidias’ later years took a dramatic turn when he was thrown in prison after being accused of embezzling gold intended for a statue of Athena; it’s thought he died while incarcerated.
Anyte was so celebrated as a poet in the third century BC that she was widely known as the female Homer. Born in Arcadia in the Peloponnese, she stood out from the crowd as one of the first poets to focus on the natural world rather than the gods or the supernatural. Ancient Greek poets were often commissioned to write epitaphs and epigrams to celebrate battle victories and heroes, but Anyte instead memorialised loved ones and favourite pets. More of her work survives than any other ancient Greek female writer, except for Sappho.
Emma Slattery Williams is Staff Writer on BBC History Revealed
This article first appeared in BBC History Revealed’s essential guide to ancient Greece
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