Selecting the most innovative Greeks from ancient times to modernity is not an easy task. From Plato to Eleftherios Venizelos, Greek history is filled with people who thought and acted differently than their contemporaries. They were innovative giants of thought that shaped western civilization and created modern Greece.
Innovative Greeks in ancient times
Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC)
Plato founded the Platonist school of thought and the Academy, the first institution of higher learning on the European continent.
The Republic (c. 375 BCE), featuring Plato’s teacher, Socrates, in dialogue with several friends, is unquestionably central to Plato’s thought.
There are few subjects that Plato’s masterpiece does not touch or play on, but political theory, education, myth, psychology, ethics, epistemology, cultural criticism, drama and comedy are all themes of his literary work.
It comes as little surprise then that The Republic continues to be claimed by people with the most diverse convictions and agendas.
The Nazis pointed to the text’s seeming advocacy of eugenics. Yet, Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated The Republic as the one book he would have taken to a deserted island alongside the Bible.
Aristotle (384–322 BC)
Taught by Plato, his philosophy has exerted a unique influence on almost every form of knowledge in the West and it continues to be a subject of contemporary philosophical discussion.
Aristotle provided a complex synthesis of the various philosophies existing prior to him. It was above all from his teachings that the West inherited its intellectual lexicon, as well as problems and methods of inquiry.
As a result, his philosophy has exerted a unique influence on almost every form of knowledge in the West and it continues to be a subject of contemporary philosophical discussion.
Thucydides (c. 460 – c. 400 BC)
Thucydides has been dubbed the father of “scientific history” by those who accept his claims to have applied strict standards of impartiality and evidence-gathering and analysis of cause and effect, without reference to intervention by the gods, as outlined in his introduction to his work.
He also has been called the father of the school of political realism, which views the political behavior of individuals and the subsequent outcomes of relations between states as ultimately mediated by, and constructed upon, fear and self-interest.
His History of the Peloponnesian War which recounts the fifth-century BC war between Sparta and Athens until the year 411 BC is regarded even today as a historical masterpiece.
Alexander the Great (20/21 July 356 BC – 10/11 June 323 BC)
The “Basileus of Macedon”, the “Hegemon of the Hellenic League”, the “Shahanshah” of Persia, the “Pharaoh” of Egypt and the “Lord of Asia” — better known as Alexander the Great — was one of the most significant figures in human history.
Alexander taught by Aristotle spent most of his ruling years conducting a lengthy military campaign throughout Western Asia and Egypt.
By the age of thirty, he had created one of the largest empires in history, stretching from Greece to northwestern India. He was undefeated in battle and is widely considered to be one of history’s greatest and most successful military commanders.
Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos (1815 – April 14, 1891)
Paparrigopoulos was a Greek historian who is characterized by modern historians as the “father” of Greek historiography. He was the founder of the concept of the historical continuity of Greece from antiquity to the present day.
He sought to negate the prevailing views at the time that the Byzantine empire was a period of decline and degeneration that was not recognized as part of Greek history. It is believed that he laid the foundations for the formation of the national identity of modern Greek society.
Ioannis Kapodistrias (11 February 1776 – 9 October 1831)
Kapodistrias was a Greek statesman who served as the Foreign Minister of the Russian Empire and was one of the most distinguished politicians and diplomats of Europe.
After a long and distinguished career in European politics and diplomacy, he was elected as the first head of state of independent Greece (1827–31). He is considered the founder of the modern Greek state, and the architect of Greek independence.
He was assassinated in Nafplio in 1831. His murder robbed the country of the chance to become a modern state sooner.
Charilaos Trikoupis (11 July 1832 – 30 March 1896)
Charilaos Trikoupis who served as a Prime Minister of Greece seven times from 1875 until 1895 was an admirer of parliamentary politics and introduced democratic checks and balances in the country.
He is best remembered for introducing the vote of confidence in the Greek constitution, proposing and funding such ambitious and modern projects as the construction of the Corinth Canal, but also eventually leading the country to bankruptcy. Nowadays, he is commonly considered one of the greatest Greek Prime Ministers to ever have served.
Eleftherios Venizelos (23 August 1864 – 18 March 1936)
Venizelos was the Greek statesman who under his leadership Greece doubled its size. As the leader of the Liberal Party, he held office as prime minister of Greece for over 12 years, spanning eight terms between 1910 and 1933.
Venizelos had a such profound influence on the internal and external affairs of Greece that he is credited with being “The Maker of Modern Greece”, and is still widely known as the “Ethnarch” (leader of the nation).
George Papanicolaou (13 May 1883 – 19 February 1962)
George Papanicolaou, the Greek doctor who invented the Pap smear in 1928, has saved the lives of countless women.
The Pap smear has become a cornerstone of early cancer detection, allowing physicians to detect signs of cervical cancer, the second most common cancer in women, and other illnesses at a treatable stage.
Routine Pap testing has prevented the suffering and death of millions of women worldwide.
Mikis Theodorakis (29 July 1925 – 2 September 2021)
The Greek composer and lyricist who passed away in 2021 is regarded as the greatest Greek composer in history, whose music has touched generations.
Greece lost part of its soul on his death as Mikis, as he is affectionately known by millions of Greeks around the world revolutionalized Greek music and became famous throughout the world.
Theodorakis scored for the films Zorba the Greek (1964), Z (1969), and Serpico (1973). He composed the “Mauthausen Trilogy”, also known as “The Ballad of Mauthausen”, which has been described as the “most beautiful musical work ever written about the Holocaust” and possibly his best work.