The origins of Western literature and of the main branches of Western learning may be traced to the era of Greek greatness that began before 700 BC with the epics of Homer (possibly born in Asia Minor), the Iliad and the Odyssey. Hesiod (fl.700 BC ), the first didactic poet, put into epic verse his descriptions of pastoral life, including practical advice on farming, and allegorical myths. The poets Alcaeus (620?–580? BC ), Sappho (612?–580? BC ), Anacreon (582?–485? BC ), and Bacchylides (fl.5th cent. BC ) wrote of love, war, and death in lyrics of great feeling and beauty. Pindar (522?–438? BC ) celebrated the Panhellenic athletic festivals in vivid odes. The fables of the slave Aesop (b. Asia Minor, 620?–560? BC ) have been famous for more than 2,500 years. Three of the world's greatest dramatists were Aeschylus (525–456 BC ), author of the Oresteia trilogy; Sophocles (496?–406? BC ), author of the Theban plays; and Euripides (485?–406? BC ), author of Medea, The Trojan Women, and The Bacchae. Aristophanes (450?–385? BC ), the greatest author of comedies, satirized the mores of his day in a series of brilliant plays. Three great historians were Herodotus (b. Asia Minor, 484?–420? BC ), regarded as the father of history, known for The Persian Wars; Thucydides (460?–400? BC ), who generally avoided myth and legend and applied greater standards of historical accuracy in his History of the Peloponnesian War; and Xenophon (428?–354? BC ), best known for his account of the Greek retreat from Persia, the Anabasis. Outstanding literary figures of the Hellenistic period were Menander (342–290? BC ), the chief representative of a newer type of comedy; the poets Callimachus (b. Libya, 305?–240? BC ), Theocritus (b. Italy, 310?–250? BC ), and Apollonius Rhodius (fl.3d cent. BC ), author of the Argonautica; and Polybius (200?–118? BC ), who wrote a detailed history of the Mediterranean world. Noteworthy in the Roman period were Strabo (b. Asia Minor, 64? BC – AD 24?), a writer on geography; Plutarch ( AD 46?–120?), the father of biography, whose Parallel Lives of famous Greeks and Romans is a chief source of information about great figures of antiquity; Pausanias (b. Asia Minor, fl. AD 150), a travel writer; and Lucian ( AD 120?–180?), a satirist.
The leading philosophers of the period preceding Greece's golden age were Thales (b. Asia Minor, 625?–547? BC ), Pythagoras (570?–500? BC ), Heraclitus (b. Asia Minor, 540?–480? BC ), Protagoras (485?–410? BC ), and Democritus (460?–370? BC ). Socrates (469?–399 BC ) investigated ethics and politics. His greatest pupil, Plato (429?–347 BC ), used Socrates' question-and-answer method of investigating philosophical problems in his famous dialogues. Plato's pupil Aristotle (384–322 BC ) established the rules of deductive reasoning but also used observation and inductive reasoning, applying himself to the systematic study of almost every form of human endeavor. Outstanding in the Hellenistic period were Epicurus (341?–270 BC ), the philosopher of moderation; Zeno (b. Cyprus, 335?–263? BC ), the founder of Stoicism; and Diogenes (b. Asia Minor, 412?–323 BC ), the famous Cynic. The oath of Hippocrates (460?–377 BC ), the father of medicine, is still recited by newly graduating physicians. Euclid (fl.300 BC ) evolved the system of geometry that bears his name. Archimedes (287?–212 BC ) discovered the principles of mechanics and hydrostatics. Eratosthenes (275?–194? BC ) calculated the earth's circumference with remarkable accuracy, and Hipparchus (190?–125? BC ) founded scientific astronomy. Galen ( AD 129?–199?) was an outstanding physician of ancient times.
The sculptor Phidias (490?–430? BC ) created the statue of Athena and the figure of Zeus in the temple at Olympia and supervised the construction and decoration of the Parthenon. Another renowned sculptor was Praxiteles (390?–330? BC ).
The legal reforms of Solon (638?–559? BC ) served as the basis of Athenian democracy. The Athenian general Miltiades (554?–489? BC ) led the victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC , and Themistocles (528?–460? BC ) was chiefly responsible for the victory at Salamis 10 years later. Pericles (495?–429? BC ), the virtual ruler of Athens for more than 25 years, added to the political power of that city, inaugurated the construction of the Parthenon and other noteworthy buildings, and encouraged the arts of sculpture and painting. With the decline of Athens, first Sparta and then Thebes, under the great military tactician Epaminondas (418?–362 BC ), gained the ascendancy; but soon thereafter, two military geniuses, Philip II of Macedon (382–336 BC ) and his son Alexander the Great (356–323 BC ), gained control over all of Greece and formed a vast empire stretching as far east as India. It was against Philip that Demosthenes (384–322 BC ), the greatest Greek orator, directed his diatribes, the Philippics.
The most renowned Greek painter during the Renaissance was El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos, 1541–1614), born in Crete, whose major works, painted in Spain, have influenced many 20th-century artists. An outstanding modern literary figure is Nikos Kazantzakis (1883–1957), a novelist and poet who composed a vast sequel to Homer's Odyssey. Leading modern poets are Kostes Palamas (1859–1943), Georgios Drosines (1859–1951), and Constantine Cavafy (1868–1933), as well as George Seferis (Seferiades, 1900–1972), and Odysseus Elytis (Alepoudhelis, 1911–96), winners of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1963 and 1979, respectively. Musicians of stature are the composers Nikos Skalkottas (1904–49), Iannis Xenakis (b. Romania, 1922–2001), and Mikis Theodorakis (b.1925); the conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos (1896–1960); and the soprano Maria Callas (Calogeropoulos, b. US, 1923–77). Contemporary filmmakers who have won international acclaim are Michael Cacoyannis (b.1922) and Constantin Costa-Gavras (b.1933). Actresses of note are Katina Paxinou (1900–1973); Melina Mercouri (1925–94), who was appointed minister of culture and science in the Socialist cabinet in 1981; and Irene Papas (Lelekou,b.1926).
Outstanding Greek public figures in the 20th century include Cretan-born Eleutherios Venizelos (1864–1936), prominent statesman of the interwar period; Ioannis Metaxas (1871–1941), dictator from 1936 until his death; Constantine Karamanlis (1907–98), prime minister (1955–63, 1974–80) and president (1980–85) of Greece; George Papandreou (1888–1968), head of the Center Union Party and prime minister (1963–65); and his son Andreas Papandreou (1919–96), the PASOK leader who became prime minister in 1981.