Most Important Figures in Ancient History

When dealing with ancient/classical History, the difference between history and legend is not always clear. The evidence is scant for many people from the start of writing to the fall of Rome (476 CE). It is even harder in areas to the east of Greece.

With this reminder, here is our list of the most important people in the ancient world. In general, we exclude Biblical figures before Moses, legendary founders of Greco-Roman cities, and participants in the Trojan war or Greek mythology. Also, note the firm date 476 is violated by "the last of the Romans," Roman Emperor Justinian.

This list was assembled to be as inclusive as possible and to limit the number of Greeks and Romans, especially those found on other lists, like the Roman emperors. We have tried to put together people whom non-specialists might run into in movies, reading, museums, liberal arts educations, etc., and have absolutely no qualms about including villains—to the contrary, since they're some of the most colorful and written about.

Some of the people included were presented with strong, reasoned arguments. One, in particular, stands out, Agrippa, the man usually buried deeply in the shadows behind Augustus.

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Aeschylus (c. 525–456 BCE) was the first great tragic poet. He introduced dialogue, the characteristic tragic boot (cothurnus) and mask. He established other conventions, like the performance of violent acts offstage. Before he became a tragic poet, Aeschylus, who wrote a tragedy about the Persians, fought in the Persian War in the battles of Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea.

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Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa.

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (c. 60–12 BCE) was a renowned Roman general and close friend of Octavian (Augustus). Agrippa was consul first in 37 BCE. He was also governor of Syria. As general, Agrippa defeated the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. Upon his victory, Augustus awarded his niece Marcella to Agrippa for a wife. Then, in 21 BCE, Augustus married his own daughter Julia to Agrippa. By Julia, Agrippa had a daughter, Agrippina, and three sons, Gaius and Lucius Caesar and Agrippa Postumus (so named because Agrippa was dead by the time he was born).

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Akhenaten and Nefertiti
Akhenaten and Nefertiti.

Akhenaten or Amenhotep IV (d. c. 1336 BCE) was an 18th dynasty pharaoh of Egypt, son of Amenhotep III and his Chief Queen Tiye, and the husband of the beautiful Nefertiti. He is best known as the heretic king who tried to change the religion of the Egyptians. Akhenaten established a new capital at Amarna to go along with his new religion that focused on the god Aten, whence the pharaoh's preferred name. Following his death, much of what Akhenaten had constructed was destroyed deliberately. Shortly afterward, his successors returned to the old Amun god. Some count Akhenaten as the first monotheist.

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Alaric the Visigoth

From an 1894 photogravure of Alaric I Taken From a Painting by Ludwig Thiersch.
From an 1894 Photogravure of Alaric I Taken From a Painting by Ludwig Thiersch. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Alaric was king of the Visigoths from 394–410 CE. In that last year, Alaric took his troops near Ravenna to negotiate with Emperor Honorius, but he was attacked by a Gothic general, Sarus. Alaric took this as a token of Honorius' bad faith, so he marched on Rome. This was the major sack of Rome mentioned in all the history books. Alaric and his men sacked the city for three days, ending on August 27. Along with their plunder, the Goths took Honorius' sister, Galla Placidia, when they left. The Goths still didn't have a home and before they acquired one, Alaric died of a fever very soon after the sacking.

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Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great.

Alexander the Great, King of Macedon from 336–323 BCE, may claim the title of the greatest military leader the world has ever known. His empire spread from Gibraltar to the Punjab, and he made Greek the lingua franca of his world. At the death of Alexander a new Greek age began. This was the Hellenistic period during which Greek (or Macedonian) leaders spread Greek culture to the areas Alexander had conquered. Alexander's colleague and relative Ptolemy took over Alexander's Egyptian conquest and created a city of Alexandria that became famous for its library, which attracted the leading scientific and philosophical thinkers of the age.

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Amenhotep III

A mortuary temple located in Thebes in Egypt guarded by two statues of about 20 meters in height.
Kanwal Sandhu / Getty Images

Amenhotep was the 9th king of the 18th Dynasty in Egypt. He reigned (c.1417–c.1379 BCE) during a time of prosperity and building when Egypt was at its height. He died at about age 50. Amenhotep III made alliances with the leading territorial state power brokers of Asia as documented in the Amarna Letters. Amenhotep was the father of the heretic king, Akhenaten. Napoleon's army found Amenhotep III's tomb (KV22) in 1799.

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Anaximander From Raphael's The School of Athens.
Anaximander From Raphael's The School of Athens. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Anaximander of Miletus (c. 611–c. 547 BCE) was a pupil of Thales and teacher of Anaximenes. He is credited with inventing the gnomon on the sundial and with drawing the first map of the world in which people live. He may have drawn a map of the universe. Anaximander may also have been the first to write a philosophical treatise. He believed in an eternal motion and a boundless nature.

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Anaximenes. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Anaximenes (d. c. 528 BCE) accounted for natural phenomena like lightning and earthquakes though his philosophical theory. A student of Anaximander, Anaximenes did not share his belief that there was an underlying boundless indeterminateness or apeiron. Instead, Anaximenes thought the underlying principle behind everything was air/mist, which had the advantage of being empirically observable. Different densities of air (rarified and condensed) accounted for different forms. Since everything is made of air, Anaximenes' theory of the soul is that it is made of air and holds us together. He believed the earth was a flat disk with fiery evaporations becoming heavenly bodies.

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Archimedes Thoughtful by Domenico Fetti (1620)
Archimedes Thoughtful by Domenico Fetti (1620). Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Archimedes of Syracuse (c.287–c.212 BCE), a Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer, determined the exact value of pi and is also known for his strategic role in the ancient war and the development of military techniques. Archimedes put up a good, almost single-handed defense of his homeland. First, he invented an engine that threw stones at the enemy, then he used glass to set the Roman ships on fire—maybe. After he was killed, the Romans had him buried with honor.

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Aristophanes (c. 448–385 BCE) is the only representative of Old Comedy whose work we have in complete form. Aristophanes wrote political satire and his humor is often coarse. His sex-strike and anti-war comedy, Lysistrata, continues to be performed today in connection with war protests. Aristophanes presents a contemporary picture of Socrates, as a sophist in the Clouds, that is at odds with Plato's Socrates.

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Aristotle painted by Francesco Hayez in 1811.
Aristotle painted by Francesco Hayez in 1811. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Aristotle (384–322 BCE) was one of the most important western philosophers, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. Aristotle's philosophy, logic, science, metaphysics, ethics, politics, and system of deductive reasoning have been of inestimable importance ever since. In the Middle Ages, the Church used Aristotle to explain its doctrines.

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Edict of Ashoka - Bilingual Edict of Ashoka
Edict of Ashoka - Bilingual Edict of Ashoka. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ashoka (304–232 BCE), a Hindu convert to Buddhism, was king of the Mauryan Dynasty in India from 269 until his death. With his capital at Magadha, Ashoka's empire extended into Afghanistan. Following bloody wars of conquest, when Ashoka was considered a cruel warrior, he changed: He eschewed violence, promoting tolerance and the moral welfare of his people. He also established contact with the Hellenistic world. Ashoka posted "the edicts of Ashoka" on great animal-topped pillars, chiseled in the ancient Brahmi script. Mostly reforms, the edicts also list public works projects, including universities, roads, hospitals, and irrigation systems.

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Attila the Hun

Miniature of Attila meeting Pope Leo the Great. 1360.
Miniature of Attila meeting Pope Leo the Great. 1360. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Attila the Hun was born around 406 CE and died 453. Called the "Scourge of God" by the Romans, Attila was the fierce king and general of the barbarian group known as the Huns who struck fear in the hearts of the Romans as he plundered everything in his path, invaded the Eastern Empire, and then crossed the Rhine into Gaul. Attila successfully led his forces to invade the Eastern Roman Empire in 441. In 451, on the Plains of Chalons, Attila suffered a setback against the Romans and Visigoths, but he made progress and was on the verge of sacking Rome when in 452 the pope dissuaded Attila from sacking Rome.

The Hun Empire extended from the Steppes of Eurasia through most of modern Germany and south into Thermopylae.

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Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine Bishop of Hippo
St. Augustine Bishop of Hippo.

St. Augustine (13 November 354–28 August 430 CE) was an important figure in the history of Christianity. He wrote about topics like predestination and original sin. Some of his doctrines separate Western and Eastern Christianity. Augustine lived in Africa during the time of the attack of the Vandals.

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Augustus (Octavian)


Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus (63 BCE–14 CE) and known as Octavian, was the grand-nephew and primary heir of Julius Caesar, who began his career by serving under Julius Caesar in the Spanish expedition of 46 BCE. Upon his grand-uncle's assassination in 44 BCE, Octavian went to Rome to be recognized as the (adopted) son of Julius Caesar. He dealt with the assassins of his father and the other Roman power contenders, and made himself the one-man head of Rome—inventing the role we know of as emperor. In 27 BCE, Octavian became Augustus, restored order and consolidated the principate (the Roman Empire). The Roman Empire that Augustus created lasted for 500 years.

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Boudicca and Her Chariot
Boudicca and Her Chariot. C.C. From Aldaron at

Boudicca was the queen of the Iceni, in ancient Britain. Her husband was the Roman client-king Prasutagus. When he died, the Romans assumed control of his area of eastern Britain. Boudicca conspired with other neighboring leaders to rebel against Roman interference. In 60 CE, she led her allies first against the Roman colony of Camulodunum (Colchester), destroyed it, and killed thousands living there, and afterward, in London and Verulamium (St. Albans). After her massacre of the urban Romans, she met their armed forces, and, inevitably, defeat and death, perhaps by suicide.

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Bust of Caligula from the Getty Villa Museum in Malibu, California.
Bust of Caligula from the Getty Villa Museum in Malibu, California. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Caligula or Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (12–41 CE) followed Tiberius to be the third Roman emperor. He was adored at his accession, but after an illness, his behavior changed. Caligula is remembered as sexually perverted, cruel, insane, extravagant, and desperate for funds. Caligula had himself worshiped as a god while still alive, instead of after death as had been done before. Several assassination attempts are thought to have been made before the successful conspiracy of the Praetorian Guard did him in, on January 24, 41.

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Cato the Elder

Cato the Elder or Cato the Censor
Cato the Elder or Cato the Censor. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Marcus Porcius Cato (234–149 BCE), a novus homo from Tusculum, in Sabine country, was an austere leader of the Roman Republic known for coming into conflict with his contemporary, the more flamboyant Scipio Africanus, winner of the Second Punic War.

Cato the Younger is the name of one of Julius Caesar's staunchest opponents. Cato the Elder is his ancestor.

Cato the Elder served in the military, especially in Greece and Spain. He became consul at 39 and later, censor. He influenced Roman life in law, foreign and domestic policy, and morality.

Cato the Elder despised luxury, especially of the Greek variety his enemy Scipio favored. Cato also disapproved of Scipio's leniency towards the Carthaginians at the conclusion of the Second Punic War.

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Catullus (c. 84–54 c. BCE) was a popular and talented Latin poet who wrote invective poetry about Julius Caesar and love poetry about a woman thought to be a sister of Cicero's nemesis Clodius Pulcher.

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Ch'in - The First Emperor

Terracotta Army in the mausoleum of the first Qin emperor.
Terracotta Army in the mausoleum of the first Qin emperor. Public Domain, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

King Ying Zheng (Qin Shing) unified the warring states of China and became the First Emperor or Emperor Ch'in (Qin) in 221 BCE. This ruler commissioned the gigantic terracotta army and subterranean palace/mortuary complex found, via pottery sherds, by farmers digging in their fields, two millennia later, during the tenure of one his greatest admirers, Chairman Mao.

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Cicero at 60. Marble bust of Cicero.
Cicero at 60. Photogravure from a marble bust in the Prado Gallery at Madrid. Public Domain

Cicero (106–43 BCE), best known as an eloquent Roman orator, rose remarkably to the top of the Roman political hierarchy where he received the accolade Pater patriae "father of his country;" then he fell precipitously, went into exile because of his hostile relations with Clodius Pulcher, made a permanent name for himself in Latin literature, and had relations with all the contemporary big names, Caesar, Pompey, Mark Antony, and Octavian (Augustus).

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Cleopatra and Mark Antony on Coins
Cleopatra and Mark Antony on Coins.

Cleopatra (69–30 BCE) was the last pharaoh of Egypt to rule during the Hellenistic era. After her death, Rome controlled Egypt. Cleopatra is known for her affairs with Caesar and Mark Antony, by whom she had respectively one and three children, and her suicide by snake bite after her husband Antony took his own life. She was engaged in battle (with Mark Antony) against the winning Roman side headed by Octavian (Augustus) at Actium.

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Confucius. Project Gutenberg

The sagacious Confucius, Kongzi, or Master Kung (551–479 BCE) was a social philosopher whose values became dominant in China only after he died. Advocating living virtuously, he put emphasis on socially appropriate behavior.

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Constantine the Great

Constantine at York
Constantine at York. N.S. Gill

Constantine the Great (c. 272–337 CE) was famed for winning the battle at the Milvian Bridge, reuniting the Roman Empire under one emperor (Constantine himself), winning major battles in Europe, legalizing Christianity, and establishing a new eastern capital of Rome at the city, Nova Roma, formerly Byzantium, that was to be named Constantinople.

Constantinople (now known as Istanbul) became the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which lasted until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

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Cyrus the Great

Image ID: 1623959 Cyrus captures Babylon.
Image ID: 1623959 Cyrus captures Babylon. © NYPL Digital Gallery.

The Persian king Cyrus II, known as Cyrus the Great is the first ruler of the Achaemenids. Around 540 BCE he conquered Babylonia, becoming ruler of Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean to Palestine. He ended the period of exile for the Hebrews, allowing them back to Israel to rebuild the Temple, and was called the Messiah by Deutero-Isaiah. The Cyrus Cylinder, which some view as an early human rights charter, confirms the Biblical history of the period.

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Darius the Great

Achaemenid Bas-Relief Art From Persepolis
Achaemenid Bas-Relief Art From Persepolis.

The successor of the founder of the Achaemenid Dynasty, Darius I (550–486 BCE) united and improved the new empire, by irrigating, building roads, including the Royal Road, a canal, and refining the governmental system known as satrapies. His great building projects have memorialized his name.

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Aischenes and Demosthenes
Aischenes and Demosthenes. Alun Salt

Demosthenes (384/383–322 550 BCE–486 BCE) was an Athenian speech-writer, orator, and statesman, although he started out having a great deal of difficulty speaking in public. As an official orator, he warned against Philip of Macedon, when he was beginning his conquest of Greece. Demosthenes' three orations against Philip, known as the Philippics, were so bitter that today a severe speech denouncing someone is called a Philippic.

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Denarius of Domitian
Denarius of Domitian. Public Domain

Titus Flavius Domitianus or Domitian (51–96 CE) was the last of the Flavian emperors. Domitian and the Senate had a mutually hostile relationship, so although Domitian may have balanced the economy and done other good works, including rebuilding the fire-damaged city of Rome, he is remembered as one of the worst Roman emperors, since his biographers were mainly of the senatorial class. He strangled the Senate's power and executed some of its members. His reputation among Christians and Jews was tainted by his persecution.

Following Domitian's assassination, the Senate decreed damnatio memoriae for him, meaning that his name was removed from records and coins minted for him were re-melted.

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Empedocles as portrayed in the Nuremberg Chronicle
Empedocles as portrayed in the Nuremberg Chronicle. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikpedia.

Empedocles of Acragas (c. 495–435 BCE) was known as a poet, statesman, and physician, as well as philosopher. Empedocles encouraged people to look upon him as a miracle worker. Philosophically he believed there were elements that were the building blocks of everything else: earth, air, fire, and water. These are the four elements that are paired with the four humors in Hippocratic medicine and even modern typologies. The next philosophical step would be to realize a different type of universal element -- atoms, as the Pre-socratic philosophers known as Atomists, Leucippus and Democritus, reasoned.

Empedocles believed in transmigration of the soul and thought that he would be come back as a god, so he jumped into the Mt. Aetna volcano.

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Eratosthenes. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276–194 BCE) was the second chief librarian at Alexandria. He calculated the circumference of the earth, created latitude and longitude measurements, and made a map of the earth. He was acquainted with Archimedes of Syracuse.

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Euclid, detail from "The School of Athens" painting by Raphael.
Euclid, detail from "The School of Athens" painting by Raphael. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Euclid of Alexandria (fl. 300 BCE) is the father of geometry (hence, Euclidean geometry) and his "Elements" is still in use.

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Euripides. Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons

Euripides (c. 484–407/406 BCE) was the third of the three great Greek tragic poets. He won his first first prize in 442. Despite winning only limited acclaim during his lifetime, Euripides was the most popular of the three great tragedians for generations after his death. Euripides added intrigue and the love-drama to Greek tragedy. His surviving tragedies are:

  • Orestes
  • Phoenician Woman
  • Trojan Women
  • Ion
  • Iphigenia
  • Hecuba
  • Heracleidae
  • Helen
  • Suppliant Women
  • Bacchae
  • Cyclops
  • Medea
  • Electra
  • Alcestis
  • Andromache
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Galen. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Galen was born in 129 CE in Pergamum, an important medical center with a sanctuary to the healing god. There Galen became an attendant of Asclepius. He worked at a gladiatorial school which gave him experience with violent injuries and trauma. Later, Galen went to Rome and practiced medicine at the imperial court. He dissected animals because he couldn't directly study humans. A prolific writer, of 600 books Galen wrote 20 survive. His anatomical writing became medical school standards until the 16th century Vesalius, who could perform human dissections, proved Galen inaccurate.

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The upper part of the stela of Hammurabi's Law Code
The upper part of the stela of Hammurabi's Law Code. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Hammurabi (r.1792–1750 BCE) was an important Babylonian king responsible for what is known as the Code of Hammurabi. It is generally referred to as an early law code, although it's actual function is debated. Hammurabi also improved the state, building canals and fortifications. He united Mesopotamia, defeated Elam, Larsa, Eshnunna, and Mari, and made Babylonia an important power. Hammurabi started the "Old Babylonian period" that lasted for about 1500 years.

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Hannibal With Elephants
Hannibal With Elephants.

Hannibal of Carthage (c. 247–183 BCE) was one of antiquity's greatest military leaders. He subdued the tribes of Spain and then set about to attack Rome in the Second Punic War. He faced incredible obstacles with ingenuity and courage, including decimated manpower, rivers, and the Alps, which he crossed during the winter with his war elephants. The Romans greatly feared him and lost battles because of Hannibal's skills, which included carefully studying the enemy and an effective spy system. In the end, Hannibal lost, as much because of the people of Carthage as because the Romans had learned to turn Hannibal's own tactics against him. Hannibal ingested a poison to end his own life.

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Thutmose III and Hatshepsut from the Red Chapel at Karnak
Thutmose III and Hatshepsut from the Red Chapel at Karnak. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Hatshepsut was a long-ruling regent and female pharaoh of Egypt (r. 1479–1458 BCE) during the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom. Hatshepsut was responsible for successful Egyptian military and trading ventures. The added wealth from trade permitted the development of high caliber architecture. She had a mortuary complex built at Deir el-Bahri near the entrance of the Valley of the Kings.

In official portraiture, Hatshepsut wears the kingly insignia—like the false beard. After her death, there was a deliberate attempt to remove her image from monuments.

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Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse.
Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Heraclitus (fl. 69th Olympiad, 504–501 BCE) is the first philosopher known to use the word kosmos for world order, which he says ever was and ever will be, not created by god or man. Heraclitus is thought to have abdicated the throne of Ephesus in favor of his brother. He was known as Weeping Philosopher and Heraclitus the Obscure.

Heraclitus uniquely put his philosophy into aphorisms, like "On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow" (DK22B12), which is part of his confusing theories of Universal Flux and the Identity of Opposites. In addition to nature, Heraclitus made human nature a concern of philosophy.

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Herodotus (c. 484–425 BCE) is the first historian proper, and so is called the father of history. He traveled around most of the known world. On one trip Herodotus probably went to Egypt, Phoenicia, and Mesopotamia; on another he went to Scythia. Herodotus traveled to learn about foreign countries. His Histories sometimes read like a travelogue, with information on the Persian Empire and the origins of the conflict between Persia and Greece based on mythological prehistory. Even with the fantastic elements, Herodotus' history was an advance over the previous writers of quasi-history, known as logographers.

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Hippocrates of Cos, the father of medicine, lived from about 460–377 BCE. Hippocrates may have trained to become a merchant before training medical students that there are scientific reasons for ailments. Before the Hippocratic corpus, medical conditions were attributed to divine intervention. The Hippocratic medicine made diagnoses and prescribed simple treatments like diet, hygiene, and sleep. The name Hippocrates is familiar because of the oath that doctors take (Hippocratic Oath) and a body of early medical treatises that are attributed to Hippocrates (Hippocratic corpus).

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Marble Bust of Homer
Marble Bust of Homer. Public Domain Courtesy of Wikipedia

Homer is the father of poets in the Greco-Roman tradition. We don't know when and if Homer lived, but someone wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey about the Trojan War, and we call him Homer or the so-called Homer. Whatever his real name, he was a great epic poet. Herodotus says Homer lived four centuries earlier than himself. This is not a precise date, but we can date "Homer" to some time following the Greek Dark Age, which was the period after the Trojan War. Homer is described as a blind bard or rhapsode. Ever since, his epic poems have been read and used for various purposes, including teaching about the gods, morality, and great literature. To be educated, a Greek (or Roman) had to know his Homer.

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Imhotep Statue
Imhotep Statue. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Imhotep was a famous Egyptian architect and physician from the 27th century BCE. The step pyramid at Saqqara is thought to have been designed by Imhotep for 3rd Dynasty Pharaoh Djoser (Zoser). The medicine of the 17th century B.C. Edwin Smith Papyrus is also attributed to Imhotep.

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Jesus - 6th-century mosaic in Ravenna, Italy
Jesus - 6th-century mosaic in Ravenna, Italy. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Jesus is the central figure of Christianity. For believers, he is the Messiah, the son of God and the Virgin Mary, who lived as a Galilean Jew, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was resurrected. For many non-believers, Jesus is a source of wisdom who provided the seeds of a reformed Jewish philosophy. Some non-Christians believe he worked healing and other miracles. At its start, the new messianic religion was considered one of numerous mystery cults.

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Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar Illustration
Julius Caesar Illustration. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Julius Caesar (102/100–44 BCE) may have been the greatest man of all times. By age 39/40, Caesar had been a widowed and divorced, governor (propraetor) of Further Spain, captured by pirates, hailed as imperator by adoring troops, quaestor, aedile, consul, and elected pontifex maximus. He formed the Triumvirate, enjoyed military victories in Gaul, became dictator for life, and started a civil war. When Julius Caesar was assassinated, his death set the Roman world in turmoil. Like Alexander who began a new historical era, Julius Caesar, the last great leader of the Roman Republic, set in motion the creation of the Roman Empire.

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Justinian the Great

Justinian Mosaic in Ravenna.
Justinian Mosaic in Ravenna. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Roman Emperor Justinian I or Justinian the Great (Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus) (482/483–565 CE) is known for his reorganization of the government of the Roman Empire and his codification of the laws, the Codex Justinianus, in 534 CE. Some call Justinian "the last Roman," which is why this Byzantine emperor makes it to this list of important ancient people that otherwise ends in 476 CE. Under Justinian, the Hagia Sophia Church was built and a plague devastated the Byzantine Empire.

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Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 98–55BCE) was a Roman Epicurean epic poet who wrote De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things). De rerum natura is an epic, written in six books, which explains life and the world in terms of Epicurean principles and the theory of Atomism. Lucretius had a significant influence on western science and has inspired modern philosophers, including Gassendi, Bergson, Spencer, Whitehead, and Teilhard de Chardin, according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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Mithridates (Mithradates) of Pontus

Mithridates VI of Pontus
Mithridates VI of Pontus. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Mithridates VI (114–63 BCE) or Mithridates Eupator is the king who caused Rome so much trouble during the time of Sulla and Marius. Pontus had been awarded the title of a friend of Rome, but because Mithridates kept making incursions on his neighbors, the friendship was strained. Despite the great military competence of Sulla and Marius and their personal confidence in their ability to check the Eastern despot, it was neither Sulla nor Marius who put an end to the Mithridatic problem. Instead, it was Pompey the Great who earned his honorific in the process.

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Moses and the Burning Bush and Aaron's Staff Swallows the Magicians. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Moses was an early leader of the Hebrews and probably the most important figure in Judaism. He was raised in the court of the Pharaoh in Egypt, but then led the Hebrew people out of Egypt. Moses is said to have talked with God, who gave him tablets inscribed with laws or commandments referred to as the 10 Commandments.

Moses' story is told in the Biblical book Exodus and is short on archaeological corroboration.

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Nebuchadnezzar II

Possibly Nebuchadnezzar
Possibly Nebuchadnezzar. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Nebuchadnezzar II was the most important Chaldean king. He ruled from 605–562 BCE. Nebuchadnezzar is best remembered for turning Judah into a province of the Babylonian empire, sending the Jews into Babylonian captivity, and destroying Jerusalem. He is also associated with his hanging gardens, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

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Nefertiti. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

We know her as the New Kingdom Egyptian queen who wore a tall blue crown, lots of colored jewelry and held up a neck like a swan—as she appears on a bust in a Berlin museum. She was married to an equally memorable pharaoh, Akhenaten, the heretic king who moved the royal family to Amarna, and was related to the boy king Tutankhamen, known mostly for his sarcophagus. Nefertiti may have served as pharaoh under a pseudonym, but at the least she assisted her husband in the governing of Egypt and may have been co-regent.

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Nero - Marble Bust of Nero
Nero - Marble Bust of Nero.

Nero (37–68 CE) was the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, the most important family of Rome that produced the first five emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero). Nero is famed for watching while Rome burned and then using the devastated area for his own luxurious palace and blaming the conflagration on the Christians, whom he then persecuted.

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Publius Ovidius Naso in the Nuremberg Chronicle
Publius Ovidius Naso in the Nuremberg Chronicle. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE) was a prolific Roman poet whose writing influenced Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton. As those men knew, to understand the corpus of Greco-Roman mythology requires familiarity with Ovid's Metamorphoses.

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Parmenides From The School of Athens by Raphael.
Parmenides From The School of Athens by Raphael. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Parmenides (b 510 BCE) was a Greek philosophy from Elea in Italy. He argued against the existence of a void, a theory used by later philosophers in the expression "nature abhors a vacuum," which stimulated experiments to disprove it. Parmenides argued that change and motion are only delusions.

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Paul of Tarsus

Saint Paul's Conversion, by Jean Fouquet.
Saint Paul's Conversion, by Jean Fouquet. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Paul (or Saul) of Tarsus in Cilicia (d. 67 CE) set the tone for Christianity, including an emphasis on celibacy and theory of divine grace and salvation, as well as eliminating the circumcision requirement. It was Paul who called the New Testament evangelion, "the gospel."

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Pericles from the Altes Museum in Berlin. A Roman copy of a Grek work sculpted after 429.
Pericles from the Altes Museum in Berlin. A Roman copy of a Grek work sculpted after 429. Photo taken by Gunnar Bach Pedersen. Public Domain; Courtesy of Gunnar Bach Pedersen/Wikipedia.

Pericles (c. 495–429 BCE) brought Athens to its peak, turning the Delian League into the empire of Athens, and so the era in which he lived is named the Age of Pericles. He helped the poor, set up colonies, built the long walls from Athens to the Piraeus, developed the Athenian navy, and built the Parthenon, the Odeon, the Propylaea, and the temple at Eleusis. The name of Pericles is also attached to the Peloponnesian War. During the war, he ordered the people of Attica to leave their fields and come into the city to stay protected by the walls. Unfortunately, Pericles didn't foresee the effect of disease on the crowded conditions and so, along with many others, Pericles died of the plague near the start of the war.

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Bust of Pindar at the Capitoline Museums
Bust of Pindar at the Capitoline Museums. Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

Pindar is considered the Greatest Greek lyric poet. He wrote poetry that provides information on Greek mythology and on Olympic and other Panhellenic Games. Pindar was born c. 522 BCE at Cynoscephalae, near Thebes.

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Plato - From Raphael's School of Athens (1509).
Plato - From Raphael's School of Athens (1509). Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Plato (428/7–347 BCE) was one of the most famous philosophers of all time. A type of love (Platonic) is named for him. We know about the famous philosopher Socrates through Plato's dialogues. Plato is known as the father of idealism in philosophy. His ideas were elitist, with the philosopher king the ideal ruler. Plato is perhaps best known to college students for his parable of a cave, which appears in Plato's Republic.

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Plutarch (c. 45–125 CE) is an ancient Greek biographer who used material that is no longer available to us for his biographies. His two main works are called Parallel Lives and Moralia. The Parallel Lives compare a Greek and a Roman with a focus on how the character of the famous person influenced his life. Some of the 19 completely parallel lives are a stretch and many of the characters are ones we would consider mythological. Other parallel lives have lost one of their parallels.

The Romans made many copies of the Lives and Plutarch has been popular since. Shakespeare, for instance, closely used Plutarch in creating his tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra.

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Pharaoh Ramses II of Egypt.
Pharaoh Ramses II of Egypt. Public Domain Courtesy of Image Library of Christian Theological Seminary

The Egyptian 19th Dynasty New Kingdom pharaoh Ramses II (Usermaatre Setepenre) (lived 1304–1237 BCE) is known as Ramses the Great and, in Greek, as Ozymandias. He ruled for about 66 years, according to Manetho. He is known for signing the first known peace treaty, with the Hittites, but he was also a great warrior, especially for fighting in the Battle of Kadesh. Ramses may have had 100 children, with several wives, including Nefertari. Ramses restored the religion of Egypt close to what it was before Akhenaten and the Amarna period. Ramses installed many monuments to his honor, including the complex at Abu Simbel and the Ramesseum, a mortuary temple. Ramses was buried in the Valley of the Kings in tomb KV47. His body is now in Cairo.

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Alcaeus and Sappho, Attic red-figure kalathos, c. 470 B.C., Staatliche Antikensammlungen
Alcaeus and Sappho, Attic red-figure kalathos, c. 470 B.C., by the Brygos Painter. Public Domain. Courtesy of Bibi Saint-Pol at Wikipedia.

The dates of Sappho of Lesbos are not known. She is thought to have been born around 610 BCE and to have died in about 570. Playing with the available meters, Sappho wrote moving lyric poetry, odes to the goddesses, especially Aphrodite (the subject of Sappho's complete surviving ode), and love poetry, including the wedding genre of epithalamia, using vernacular and epic vocabulary. There is a poetic meter named for her (Sapphic).

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Sargon the Great of Akkad

Bronze Head of an Akkadian Ruler -- Possibly Sargon the Great
Bronze Head of an Akkadian Ruler -- Possibly Sargon of Akkad. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sargon the Great (aka Sargon of Kish) ruled Sumer from about 2334–2279 BCE. or perhaps a quarter of a century later. Legend sometimes says he ruled the whole world. While the world is a stretch, his dynasty's empire was the whole of Mesopotamia, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Sargon realized it was important to have religious support, so he installed his daughter, Enheduanna, as a priestess of the moon god Nanna. Enheduanna is the world's first known, named author.

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Scipio Africanus

Profile of a young Scipio Africanus the Elder from a gold signet ring
Profile of a young Scipio Africanus the Elder from a gold signet ring from Capua (late 3rd or early 2nd century B.C.) signed by Herakliedes. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Scipio Africanus or Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Major won the Hannibalic War or Second Punic War for Rome by defeating Hannibal at Zama in 202 BCE. Scipio, who came from an ancient Roman patrician family, the Cornelii, was the father of Cornelia, the famous mother of the social reforming Gracchi. He came into conflict with Cato the Elder and was accused of corruption. Later, Scipio Africanus became a figure in the fictional "Dream of Scipio". In this surviving section of De re publica, by Cicero, the dead Punic War general tells his adoptive grandson, Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus (185–129 BCE), about the future of Rome and the constellations. Scipio Africanus' explanation worked its way into medieval cosmology.

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Seneca (d. 65 CE) was an important Latin writer for the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and beyond. His themes and philosophy should even appeal to us today. In accordance with the philosophy of the Stoics, Virtue (virtus) and Reason are the basis of a good life, and a good life should be lived simply and in accordance with Nature.

He served as an advisor to Emperor Nero but eventually was obliged to take his own life.

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Siddhartha Gautama Buddha


Siddhartha Gautama was a spiritual teacher of enlightenment who acquired hundreds of followers in India and founded Buddhism. His teachings were preserved orally for centuries before they were transcribed on palm-leaf scrolls. Siddhartha may have been born c. 538 BCE. to Queen Maya and King Suddhodana of the Shakya in ancient Nepal. By the third century BCE Buddhism appears to have spread to China.

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Socrates. Alun Salt

Socrates, an Athenian contemporary of Pericles (c. 470–399 BCE), is a central figure in Greek philosophy. Socrates is known for the Socratic method (elenchus), Socratic irony, and the pursuit of knowledge. Socrates is famous for saying that he knows nothing and that the unexamined life is not worth living. He is also well known for stirring up sufficient controversy to be sentenced to a death that he had to carry out by drinking a cup of hemlock. Socrates had important students, including the philosopher Plato.

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First coming to prominence, in about 600 BCE, for his patriotic exhortations when the Athenians were fighting a war with Megara for possession of Salamis, Solon was elected eponymous archon in 594/3 BCE. Solon faced the daunting task of improving the condition of debt-ridden farmers, laborers forced into bondage over debt, and the middle classes who were excluded from government. He had to help the poor while not alienating the increasingly wealthy landowners and aristocracy. Because of his reform compromises and other legislation, posterity refers to him as Solon the lawgiver.

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Fall of Spartacus
Fall of Spartacus. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Thracian born Spartacus (c. 109–71 BCE) was trained in a gladiator school and led a revolt by enslaved people that was ultimately doomed. Through Spartacus' military ingenuity, his men evaded Roman forces led by Clodius and then Mummius, but Crassus and Pompey got the best of him. Spartacus' army of disaffected gladiators and enslaved people were defeated. Their bodies were strung up on crosses along the Appian Way.

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Sophoclesat the British Museum. Probably from Asia Minor (Turkey). Bronze, 300-100 B.C. Was previously thought to represent Homer, but now thought to be Sophocles in middle age. CC Flickr User Son of Groucho

Sophocles (c. 496–406 BCE), the second of the great tragic poets, wrote over 100 tragedies. Of these, there are fragments for more than 80, but only seven complete tragedies:

  • Oedipus Tyrannus
  • Oedipus at Colonus
  • Antigone
  • Electra
  • Trachiniae
  • Ajax
  • Philoctetes

Sophocles' contributions to the field of tragedy include introducing a third actor to the drama. He is well-remembered for his tragedies about Oedipus of Freud's complex-fame.

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Cornelius Tacitus (c. 56–120 CE) is considered the greatest of the ancient historians. He writes about maintaining neutrality in his writing. A student of the grammarian Quintilian, Tacitus wrote:

  • De vita Iulii Agricolae 'The Life of Julius Agricola
  • De origine et situ Germanorum 'The Germania'
  • Dialogus de oratoribus 'Dialogue on Oratory' 'Histories'
  • Ab excessu divi Augusti 'Annals'
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Thales of Miletus
Thales of Miletus. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Thales was a Greek Pre-Socratic philosopher from the Ionian city of Miletus (c. 620–546 BCE). He predicted a solar eclipse and was considered one of the 7 Ancient Sages. Aristotle considered Thales the founder of natural philosophy. He developed the scientific method, theories to explain why things change, and proposed a basic underlying substance of the world. He started the field of Greek astronomy and may have introduced geometry into Greece from Egypt.

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Themistocles Ostracon
Themistocles Ostracon. CC NickStenning @ Flickr

Themistocles (c. 524–459 BCE) persuaded the Athenians to use the silver from state mines at Laurion, where new veins had been found, to finance a port at Piraeus and a fleet. He also tricked Xerxes into making errors that led to his loss of the Battle of Salamis, the turning point in the Persian Wars. A sure sign that he was a great leader and had therefore provoked envy, Themistocles was ostracized under Athens' democratic system.

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Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia. Thucydides

Thucydides (born c. 460–455 BCE) wrote a valuable first-hand account of the Peloponnesian War (History of the Peloponnesian Wa) and improved the way in which history was written.

Thucydides wrote his history based on information about the war from his days as an Athenian commander and interviews with people on both sides of the war. Unlike his predecessor, Herodotus, he didn't delve into the background but laid out the facts as he saw them, chronologically. We recognize more of what we consider the historical method in Thucydides than we do in his predecessor, Herodotus.

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Trajan. © Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The second of the five men in the late first to second century CE who are now known as the "good emperors," Trajan was named optimus 'best' by the Senate. He extended the Roman Empire to its furthest extent. Hadrian of Hadrian's Wall fame succeeded him to the imperial purple.

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Vergil (Virgil)


Publius Vergilius Maro (70–19 BCE), aka Vergil or Virgil, wrote an epic masterpiece, the Aeneid, for the glory of Rome and especially Augustus. He also wrote poems called Bucolics and Eclogues, but he is chiefly known now for his story of the Trojan prince Aeneas' adventures and the founding of Rome, which is patterned on the Odyssey and Iliad.

Not only was Vergil's writing continuously read throughout the Middle Ages, but even today he exerts an influence on poets and the college-bound because Vergil is on the Latin AP exam.

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Xerxes the Great

Xerxes the Great
Xerxes the Great. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Achaemenid Persian King Xerxes (520–465 BCE) was the grandson of Cyrus and the son of Darius. Herodotus states that when a storm damaged the bridge Xerxes had built across the Hellespont, Xerxes got mad, and ordered the water be lashed and otherwise punished. In antiquity, bodies of water were conceived of as gods (see Iliad XXI), so while Xerxes may have been deluded in thinking himself strong enough to scathe the water, it is not as insane as it sounds: The Roman Emperor Caligula who, unlike Xerxes, is generally considered to have been mad, ordered Roman troops to gather seashells as spoils of the sea. Xerxes fought against the Greeks in the Persian Wars, winning a victory at Thermopylae and suffering defeat at Salamis.

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Section From The School of Athens, by Raphael. Bearded Zoroaster holds a globe.
Section From The School of Athens, by Raphael (1509), showing bearded Zoroaster holding a globe talking with Ptolemy. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Like Buddha, the traditional date for Zoroaster (Greek: Zarathustra) is the 6th century BCE, although Iranians date him to the 10th/11th century. Information about the life of Zoroaster comes from the Avesta, which contains Zoroaster's own contribution, the Gathas. Zoroaster saw the world as a struggle between truth and lie, making the religion he founded, Zoroastrianism, a dualistic religion. Ahura Mazda, the uncreated creator God is truth. Zoroaster also taught that there is free will.

The Greeks thought of Zoroaster as a sorcerer and astrologer.

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Gill, N.S. "Most Important Figures in Ancient History." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). Most Important Figures in Ancient History. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Most Important Figures in Ancient History." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).