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75 Ancient People You Should Know

Most important names in Ancient / Classical History

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When dealing with Ancient/Classical History, the difference between history and legend is not always clear. Evidence is scant for many people from the start of writing to the Fall of Rome (A.D. 476). It is even harder in areas to the East of Greece.

With this reminder, here is my list of the most important people in the ancient world. In general, I 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.

For those who want to know more about my approach, I am attempting 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. I 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 I have included were presented to me with strong, reasoned arguments. One in particular stands out, Agrippa, the man usually buried deeply in the shadows behind Augustus. This is my list. You can decide whether to include any or all of them in your own.

See Defining Ancient History, Ancient History Caveats, and Challenge Quiz.

For those names that interest you, click on the "more info" to read the full article.

1. Aeschylus

Aeschylus
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Aeschylus (c.525 - 456 B.C.) 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 at Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea.

2. Agrippa

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa
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Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (60?-12 B.C.) was a renowned Roman general and close friend of Octavian (Augustus). Agrippa was consul first in 37 B.C. 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 B.C., 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).

3. Akhenaten

Akhenaten and Nefertiti
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Akhenaten or Amenhotep IV (d. c. 1336 B.C.) 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 had constructed was destroyed deliberately. Shortly afterwards, his successors returned to the old Amun god. Some count Akhenaten as the first monotheist.

Artifact identifies King Tut's father says that Zahi Hawass has found evidence that Tutankhamen was the son of Akhenaten.

4. Alaric the Visigoth

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 A.D. 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 3 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.

5. Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great
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Alexander the Great, King of Macedon from 336 - 323 B.C., 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 area 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.

6. Amenhotep III

Colossi of Amenhotep III
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Amenhotep was the 9th king of the 18th Dynasty in Egypt. He reigned (c.1417-c.1379 B.C.) 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.

7. Anaximander

Anaximander From Raphael's The School of Athens.
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Anaximander of Miletus (c. 611 - c. 547 B.C.) 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.

8. Anaximenes

Anaximenes
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Anaximenes (d. c. 528 B.C.) 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.

9. Archimedes

Archimedes Thoughtful by Domenico Fetti (1620)
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Archimedes of Syracuse (c.287 - c.212 B.C.), a Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer, determined the exact value of pi and is also known for his strategic role in 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.

10. Aristophanes

Aristophanes
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Aristophanes (c. 448-385 B.C.) 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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