From ancient times to today, Greeks have contributed, in way or another, to global civilization. The Greek spirit has survived through the ages and continues to reach new heights. Many Greeks have set an example through their art, philosophy or profession, and have created new paths for everyone to follow. This list presents some of the most famous and influential Greeks in history.
20 Famous Greeks to Know
Homer was an ancient Greek epic poet of the Archaic period. He lived around 800-700 BC and is widely considered the author of two of the greatest epic poems of antiquity, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which also serve as the foundation of ancient Greek literature. It is conjectured that he was born near the island of Chios, although seven other cities claimed to have been his birthplace.
Furthermore, historians believe that Homer himself was blind. There is an ongoing debate concerning the authorship of the two epic poems, with some scholars claiming that they are the works of a single genius or that ‘Homer’ must be seen as a label for an entire literary tradition. In any case, it is undeniable that these works had a huge influence not merely on the poets of ancient times but also on the later epic poets of Western literature.
Socrates was a Greek philosopher from Athens who lived during the 5th century BC (470-399 BC), and who is widely considered as one of the founders of Western philosophy. He also credited with being the first moral philosopher of the Western ethical tradition of thought. Socrates himself remains an enigmatic figure, due to the fact that he authored no texts, and all we know about him derives from accounts of classical writers, mainly from his students Plato and Xenophon.
He is credited with the concepts of Socratic irony, and the Socratic method, or elenchus, and was committed to a simple life and to interrogating the everyday views and popular opinions of those in his home city of Athens.. At the age of 70, he was put to death at the hands of his fellow citizens on charges of impiety and corruption of the youth. One thing is certain: the influence of Socrates on western philosophy remains unmatched.
Plato was an Athenian philosopher, a student of Socrates, the founder of the Platonist school of thought and the Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. He lived during the 5th and 4th centuries BC (428-348 BC), and he is widely considered one of the pivotal figures in the history of Ancient Greek and Western philosophy, along with Socrates and his most famous student, Aristotle. Some of his most famous and important contributions are his theory of Forms, the Platonic Republic, and Platonic love.
His philosophical interests spanned many subjects and he was mostly influenced by Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Socrates. It is undeniable that he is one of the most influential authors in the history of philosophy since the so-called Neoplatonism of philosophers like Plotinus and Proclus greatly influenced Christian, Muslim and Jewish thought of the medieval period, and in extension, modern philosophy.
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath who lived during the Classical period of Ancient Greece (384-322 BC). He was the greatest student of Plato, who then went on to found his own school, the Lyceum, and the Peripatetic school of philosophy.
Born in Stagira, in Northern Greece, he joined Plato’s Academy at the age of seventeen and remained there for twenty years. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, music, psychology, linguistics, rhetoric, economics, and politics.
Aristotle created a complex synthesis of the various philosophies that existed before him, as well as an intellectual lexicon and a methodology that was later used in the West. In terms of influence, he is rivaled only by his teacher, Plato, and by Socrates, as his thought had a huge impact on almost every form of knowledge in the West and it continues to be a subject of contemporary philosophical discussion.
Solon is considered one of the greatest lawmakers of antiquity. Born in Athens around 630 BC, he was part of a noble family and a merchant and a poet by profession. In 594 BC, he was elected an Archon, (governor), in the city of Athens, thus commencing a great political career. He is famous for his efforts to legislate against the political, economic, and moral decline in archaic Athens.
During that time, Athens was facing an economic and moral depression due to an agricultural crisis. Solon is remembered for the legislation of seisachtheia, which forbidden any freeman of Athens to enslave himself if he was unable to repay his debts. Although his reforms failed in the long-term, as the tyrant Peisistratos soon took power after Solon’s departure from the city, he is credited as having laid the foundations for Athenian democracy.
Pericles was arguably the most influential Greek statesman of his time. Born in Athens around 495 BC in an aristocratic family, he led the city as a general for many years, thus earning the title of ‘the first citizen’ by Thucydides. Pericles managed to turn the Delian League into an Athenian empire, while he also promoted the arts and literature.
It is principally through his efforts that the city of Athens acquired the reputation of being the educational and cultural center of ancient Athens. At the same time, he was the one who started the ambitious project that created most of the surviving structures on the Acropolis, including the Parthenon. Overall, Pericles exerted a profound influence over the Athenian society, while his reforms laid the groundwork for the development of the later democratic political systems of the Western civilization.
Hippocrates was a Greek physician of the Classical era of Greece. Born on the island of Kos in 460BC, he is considered one of the most important figures in the history of medicine. His contributions to the field earned him the title ‘the Father of Medicine’ since he revolutionized Ancient Greek medicine and founded the Hippocratic School.
At a time when people used to attribute sickness to superstition and the wrath of the gods, Hippocrates taught that behind every illness existed a natural cause, thus placing the field of medicine into a scientific path. Although very little is known about what he actually wrote, he is widely credited for summing up the medical knowledge of previous schools and prescribing practices for physicians through the Hippocratic Corpus and other works.
It is widely agreed that Archimedes of Syracuse is one of the greatest mathematicians and scientists in history. Born on the island of Sicily in 287BC, he moved to Alexandria of Egypt for his education. Upon returning to his hometown, he devoted himself to the study of mathematics. His contributions to the field are numerous, ranging from an accurate approximation of pi, to the anticipation of modern calculus and analysis by applying concepts of infinitesimals and the method of exhaustion to derive and rigorously prove a range of geometrical theorems.
He is also credited with the design of innovative machines such as levers, screw pumps, and defensive war machines, while he is most famous for discovering the law of hydrostatics, sometimes known as ‘Archimedes’ principle’, stating that a body immersed in fluid loses weight equal to the weight of the amount of fluid it displaces.
Pythagoras was an ancient Ionian Greek philosopher and the founder of the philosophical school of Pythagoreanism. Born around 570BC on the island of Samos, he traveled to Croton, Sicily, around 530 BC where he founded a school in which initiates were sworn in secrecy and followed an ascetic, communal lifestyle. Pythagoras is particularly famous for the idea of metempsychosis, or the “transmigration of souls”, which holds that every soul is immortal and, upon death, enters into a new body.
He is also known for many other mathematical and scientific discoveries, such as the musica universalis, the Pythagorean theorem, the five regular solids, and the sphericity of the Earth. It is also said that he was the first man to call himself a philosopher (“lover of wisdom”). Overall, his philosophy had an immense impact on Plato and Aristotle, and, through them, on Western philosophy.
Leonidas I is perhaps the most famous of the Spartan kings. He was born in 540 BC and ascended on the Spartan throne around 489 BC. He was the 17th king of the Again line, a dynasty that claimed descent from the mythological figures of Heracles and Cadmus. Leonidas’ most important contribution is without a doubt the defense of the pass of Thermopylae in 480 BC, against a numerically superior Persian force.
While the Greeks under his command ultimately lost this battle, their sacrifice offers the Greek city-states valuable time to organize their collective defense, while also serving as an inspirational example for the Greek hoplites who wished to defend their homeland against the invading forces, proving that no price is so high to pay in order to maintain their freedom from foreign oppression. The next year, the Greeks managed to expel the Persians from Greece, while Leonidas passed into myth and history as the leader of the 300 Spartans.
Alexander the Great
Widely considered as one of the most successful military commanders in history, Alexander’s influence cannot be overestimated. Born in Pella, Macedon, in 356 BC, and tutored by Aristotle himself until the age of 16, he succeeded his father Philip II to the throne of the Kingdom of Macedon at the age of 20.
In 334 BC he invaded the Achaemenid Empire, beginning a series of campaigns that lasted 10 years, and thus creating one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from Greece to northwestern India.
He was also undefeated in battle, while his tactics are still being taught in military schools to this day. Alexander’s legacy includes, among others, the cultural diffusion and syncretism, which his conquests engendered, such as Greco-Buddhism, and the founding of many cities, most notably Alexandria in Egypt.
His conquests managed to spread the Greek culture in Asia and create a new Hellenistic civilization, aspects of which were still evident in the traditions of the Byzantine Empire in the mid-15th century AD.
Domenikos Theotokopoulos, most widely known as El Greco (‘The Greek’), was a Greek painter, sculptor, architect, and one of the leading figures of the Spanish Renaissance that defined the 15th and 16th centuries. Born in Crete in 1541, he lived and worked in Venice, and Rome, before moving to Toledo, Spain, where he remained until his death.
He is widely considered by modern scholars as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism, and as a true visionary that lived well ahead of his time, which belongs to no conventional school.
He is particularly famous for his elongated figures, his often phantasmagorical or visionary pigmentation, and his skillful blending of the Byzantine tradition with Western painting. El Greco’s work and personality served as a rich source of inspiration for poets and writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Nikos Kazantzakis.
Widely considered as one of the giants of Modern Greek literature, Nikos Kazantzakis was born on the island of Crete in 1883. He studied law in Athens and then philosophy under Henri Bergson in Paris. He then traveled extensively in Spain, England, Russia, Egypt, Palestine, and Japan.
He was a prolific writer whose work contributed significantly to Greek literature. His novels include Zorba the Greek (1946), Christ Recrucified (1948), Captain Michalis (1950), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1955).
He also wrote many plays, memoirs, and philosophical essays, such as The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises. He even translated a number of notable works into Modern Greek, such as the Divine Comedy, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and the Iliad. For his work, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature nine times.
Konstantinos Kavafis was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1863 and he is best known as one of the most important poets of Modern Greek literature. He lived in Alexandria his whole life, and he worked there as a clerk in the Ministry of Public Works. He wrote 155 poems, all of them in Greek, while dozens more remained incomplete or in sketch form.
He refused to formally publish any of his work, and his poetry remained unrecognized in Greece until after the publication of his first anthology in 1935, two years after his death. Kavafis is well known for his prosaic use of metaphors, his genius usage of historical imagery, and his aesthetic perfectionism. The unique character of his art made him well known outside of Greece as well, with his poems having being translated to many foreign languages.
Giorgos Seferis was a Greek poet and diplomat, and one of the most important poets of modern Greece. He was born in Smyrna, Asia Minor, in 1900 and studied law at the University of Paris. He then returned to Greece and was admitted to the Royal Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He had a long and successful diplomatic career, during which he held diplomatic posts in Turkey, in the Middle East, and in the United Kingdom.
His extensive travels provided the backdrop and inspiration for much of his writing, which is filled with the themes of alienation, wandering, and death. For his important contribution, Seferis was awarded the Nobel prize in Literature in 1963, while he also received many honors and prizes, among them honorary doctoral degrees from the universities of Cambridge (1960), Oxford (1964), Salonika (1964), and Princeton (1965).
Widely regarded as a major exponent of romantic modernism in Greece and in the world, Odysseas Elytis was one of the most important poets of 20th century Greece. He was born in Heraclion, Crete in 1911 and studied law in Athens. His poems made their first appearance in 1935 through the magazine ‘Nea Grammata’ and they were met with a positive mood, as the new style he introduced contributed immensely to the poetical reform which commenced on the eve of WWII and it is still going up to our day.
Elytis’s poetry deals exclusively with the Hellenism of today and tries to construct new mythology for the modern era. He was really interested in the nature of light and in ethical questions. His work titled ‘Axion Esti’, thanks to its setting to music by Mikis Theodorakis was widely spread among Greeks and grew to be a kind of a new gospel. During the second half of the 20th century, his fame reached every corner of the earth, and in 1979 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Maria Callas is often credited with changing the history of opera. Born to a Greek family in New York in 1923, she received her musical education in Greece at age 13 and later established a career in Italy. She is widely considered one of the most renowned and influential opera singers of the 20th century. She was particularly praised for her bel canto technique, wide-ranging voice, and dramatic interpretations.
Her career was launched in 1947 when she performed the title role in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda at the Arena di Verona in Italy. Her most famous roles came to be Bellini’s Norma and Amina (La sonnambula) and Verdi’s Violetta (La Traviata), among others. The 1950s marked the height of Callas’s career when she became the prima donna assoluta of Milan’s legendary La Scala. Her artistic achievements were such that she was called ‘the Bible of opera’ and ‘The Divine One’.
Melina Merkouri was a Greek actress, singer and politician. She was born to a politically prominent family in 1920 and graduated from the Drama School of the National Theatre of Greece. Her first major role, at the age of 20, was Lavinia in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. Se was projected into international stardom for her role as the good-hearted prostitute in the film Never on Sunday (1960). For her performance in that film, she received an Academy Award nomination and won a Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award.
Merkouri was also nominated for three Golden Globes and two BAFTA Awards during her acting career. As a politician, she was a member of the PASOK party and the Hellenic Parliament. In October 1981, Merkouri became the first female Minister of Culture and Sports. While in office, one of her major efforts was an attempt to persuade the British government to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece; she also increased government subsidies for the arts.
Aristotelis Onassis was a Greek shipping magnate who accumulated the world’s largest privately-owned shipping fleet, thus becoming one of the world’s richest and most famous men. Born in Smyrna in 1906, he immigrated with his family to Argentina after the recapture of the city by the Turks in 1922. There he began a tobacco-importing business which was very successful.
By the time he was 25, he managed to make his first million. During WWII, he became a shipping owner and leased his tankers and other vessels to the Allies. From 1957 to 1974 he also owned and operated Olympic Airways, the Greek national airlines, by concession from the Greek government. Onassis’s love life was also very often under the spotlight.
He was married to Athina Mary Livanos (daughter of shipping tycoon Stavros G. Livanos), had an enduring affair with famous opera singer Maria Callas and was married to Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of American President John F. Kennedy. His luxurious yacht Christina, named for his daughter, served for many years as his permanent residence.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a Greek professional basketball player for the Milwaukee Bucks of the National Basketball Association (NBA). He was born in Greece to Nigerian parents in 1994, and he began playing basketball for the youth teams of Filathlitikos in Athens. His talent soon gained the attention of American scouts and he was picked up by Milwaukee Bucks as a preliminary draft. His career so far in NBA has been astonishing.
In 2016–17 he led the Bucks in all five major statistical categories and became the first player in NBA history to finish a regular season in the top 20 in all five statistics of total points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. Antetokounmpo is a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player and was named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2020. For his size, speed, and exceptional ball-handling skills he earned the nickname ‘Greek Freak’.