10 Ancient Greek intellectuals you should know about

BY Charles Freeman

9th Nov 2023 Life

3 min read

10 Ancient Greek intellectuals you should know about
No doubt you've heard of Plato and Socrates, but what about these lot? Charles Freeman reveals ten key minds of Ancient Greece that you may not have heard of
Ever since my schooldays, I have believed that the intellectual achievements of the Greeks were something special. The Greek mind flourished above all in the Classical period, the fifth and fourth centuries BC, a remarkable age of theatre and philosophy. Great advances in scientific understanding followed in the third and second centuries BC.
What I did not expect was that the traditions of intellectual thought continued after the brutal takeover of Greece by the Romans in the second century BC. Recent books by Mary Beard and Tom Holland concentrate on the Roman emperors and Latin authors but there were important and influential Greeks living in the same period and my book Children of Athena covers 20 of them. So here are eight that you may never have heard of.

Strabo (c.63 BC—c.AD 25)

Strabo was a lively and sociable geographer who wrote a survey of the ancient Mediterranean. It took him 40 years and is the longest Greek text to survive. It proved fascinating for those who rediscovered it in the Renaissance.
Strabo believed that the central Mediterranean had the ideal climate with the result that its people were the most civilised! Those in more remote areas had never developed civilisation. Typical of an arrogant ancient Greek!

Dioscorides (c.AD 40–c.90)

"Animal, vegetable or mineral?" They are all in Dioscorides’ extraordinary De Matera Medica.
He lists 4,740 ailments and the plants or minerals that "cure" them. So he advises that cardamon is best gathered in Armenia and "cures" sciatica, hernias and rectal worms while testicles of beavers bring about abortions.
"Dioscorides remained an authority well into the Renaissance"
Despite Dioscorides describing many bizarre treatments, some are still regarded as trustworthy. Dioscorides remained an authority well into the Renaissance.  

Plutarch (c.AD 46–after 119)

Plutarch was a philosopher and historian from a landed family in Boeotia, central Greece. His most famous work was the Parallel Lives which compared one Roman to a Greek equivalent, so the Roman orator Cicero was discussed alongside the Greek orator Demosthenes. The Parallel Lives is full of anecdotes from sources now lost and was enormously influential in later ages.

Epictetus (c. AD 50–c.135)

Epictetus was rare among my subjects in having been born a slave. Freed by a Roman master, he studied Stoic philosophy and set up his own school in western Greece. He is a champion of what would today be called "mindfulness", stressing what can be changed in one’s life and what must be endured.

Ptolemy (c.AD 100–c.170)

Claudius Ptolemy was the genius who composed the most sophisticated ancient treatise on astronomy, the Almagest. Despite placing the Earth at the centre of the universe, he gave plausible explanations of the movements of the planets.
"Ptolemy was the genius who composed the most sophisticated ancient treatise on astronomy"
The Almagest remained authoritative until Copernicus recognised that a sun-centred universe offered better explanations. Ptolemy also composed a geography which could be used to create fairly accurate maps of the Mediterranean and Asia.

Lucian (AD 125–after 180)

A wonderful satirist: a philosopher who ridiculed the pretensions of philosophers, an orator who lampooned other orators. Every text of his sparkles with absurdities and even today they are a joy to read.

Galen (AD 139–216)

The most famous doctor of the ancient world, and arrogant besides. Galen studied philosophy as well as medicine and was renowned for using logic in his careful observation of his patients. He often achieved cures when other doctors had failed.
"Galen was the most famous doctor of the ancient world, and arrogant besides"
His distasteful party trick was cutting the squealing nerves of pigs and restoring them in front of an audience. Many of his works survive which gave him an authority lasting until the 19th century.

Herodes Atticus (AD 101–177)

No one left more evidence of his patronage than the immensely wealthy Herodes Atticus: the Odeion and stadium in Athens, the wonderful fountain in Olympia dedicated to his wife and other buildings scattered throughout Greece. His Odeion is still used today as a concert venue.

Origen (c. AD 185–c.253)

The most brilliant biblical scholar of his day, famous for his analysis of sacred texts. The Renaissance scholar Erasmus said he learned more from one page of Origen than ten pages of Augustine. His originality meant that, as Christian dogma evolved, he was declared heretical for his belief that all would be saved. 

Hypatia (c. AD 355–415)

A brilliant philosopher and mathematician who died when she was murdered by a Christian mob in Alexandria. She remains a symbol of pagan learning and a feminist icon. A crater on the moon is named after her. 
And there are another twelve of these remarkable scholars to come. The Children of Athena marks an extraordinary era in intellectual life which is often underrated. I hope to have championed it through the achievements of my erudite subjects.
The Children of Athena by Charles Freeman (Head of Zeus, £30) is available to buy now
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