The Heroes of Ancient Greece and Rome

Oil painting of Perseus holding the head of Medusa.

Jean-Marc Nattier/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Heroes feature prominently in the wars, myths, and literature of the ancient world. Not all of these people would be heroes by today's standards, and some wouldn't be by Classical Greek standards, either. What makes a hero changes with the era, but it's often tied up with concepts of bravery and virtue.

The ancient Greeks and Romans were among the best at documenting the adventures of their heroes. These tales tell the stories of many of the biggest names in ancient history, as well as its greatest triumphs and tragedies.

The Great Greek Heroes of Mythology

Painting of Achilles riding a chariot.
"The Triumph of Achilles".

Painter: Franz Matsch (died 1942)/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 1.0

Heroes in Greek legends usually performed dangerous feats, killed villains and monsters, and won the hearts of local maidens. They may also have been guilty of numerous acts of murder, rape, and sacrilege.

Names like Achilles, Hercules, Odysseus, and Perseus are among the best-known in Greek mythology. Their stories are ones for the ages, but do you remember Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, or Atalanta, one of the few women heroes? 

Persian War Heroes

Leonidas at Thermopylae oil painting.
This oil painting depicts Leonidas at Thermopylae.

Jacques-Louis David/Web Gallery of Art/Wikimedia Commons/Pubic Domain

The Greco-Persian Wars lasted from 492 through 449 B.C. During this time, the Persians tried to invade the Greek states, leading to many great battles and equally notable heroes.

King Darius of Persia was the first to try. He was pitted against the likes of the Athenian Miltiades, who was instrumental in the battle of Marathon.

More famously, Persian King Xerxes also tried to take over Greece, but this time he had men like​ Aristides and Themistocles to contend with. Yet, it was King Leonidas and his 300 Spartan soldiers who gave Xerxes the biggest headache during the unforgettable Battle at Thermopylae in 480 B.C.

Spartan Heroes

Statue of Lycurgus of Sparta.
This statue of Lycurgus of Sparta honors the famous Greek.

Mattpopovich/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Sparta was a military state where the boys were trained from an early age to become soldiers fighting for the common good. There was less individualism among the Spartans than the Athenians and because of this, fewer heroes stand out.

Well before the time of King Leonidas, Lycurgus the lawgiver was a bit of a trickster. He had given the Spartans a set of laws to follow until his return from a journey. However, he never did come back, so the Spartans were left to honor their agreement.

In more classical hero style, Lysander became known during the Peloponnesian War in 407 B.C. He was famed for commanding the Spartan fleets and was later killed when Sparta went to war with Thebes in 395.

Early Heroes of Rome

Oil painting of Aeneas fleeing Troy.
This painting depicts Aeneas fleeing Troy.

Pompeo Batoni/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The quintessential early Roman hero was the Trojan prince Aeneas, a figure from both Greek and Roman legend. He embodied the virtues important to the Romans, including familial piety and proper behavior towards the gods.

In early Rome, we also saw the likes of the farmer-turned-dictator and consul Cincinnatus and Horatius Cocles, who successfully defended the first major bridge of Rome. Yet, for all their might, few could stand up to the legend of Brutus, who was instrumental in establishing the Roman Republic.

The Great Julius Caesar

Statue of Julius Caesar against a blue sky.

Jule_Berlin/Getty Images

Few leaders in Ancient Rome are as well-known as Julius Caesar. In his short life from 102 to 44 B.C., Caesar left a lasting impression on Roman history. He was a general, statesman, lawgiver, orator, and historian. Most famously, he did not fight a war he did not win.

Julius Caesar was the first of the 12 Caesars of Rome. Yet, he was not the only Roman hero of his time. Other notable names in the final years of the Roman Republic included Gaius Marius, "Felix" Lucius Cornelius Sulla, and Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great).

On the flip side, this period in Roman history also saw the great rebellion of enslaved people led by the heroic Spartacus. This gladiator was once a Roman legionnaire and in the end, he led an army of 70,000 men against Rome.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "The Heroes of Ancient Greece and Rome." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, December 6). The Heroes of Ancient Greece and Rome. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "The Heroes of Ancient Greece and Rome." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).