Ancient Greek literature

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Ancient Greek literature refers to literature written in the Ancient Greek language from the earliest texts until roughly the rise of the Byzantine Empire.

Classical and Pre-Classical Antiquity[edit]

This period of Greek literature stretches from Homer until the 4th century BC and the rise of Alexander the Great. English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once claimed that all of philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. To suggest that all of Western literature is no more than a footnote to the writings of ancient Greece is an exaggeration, but it is never the less true that the Greek world of thought was so far-ranging that there is scarcely an idea discussed today not already debated by the ancient writers.

The earliest known Greek writings are Mycenaean, written in the Linear B syllabary on clay tablets. These documents contain prosaic records largely concerned with trade (lists, inventories, receipts, etc.); no real literature has been discovered. Several theories have been advanced to explain this curious absence. One is that Mycenaean literature, like perhaps the works of Homer, was passed on orally, since the Linear B syllabary is not well-suited to recording the sounds of Greek (see phonemic principle). Another is that the Linear B syllabary was not Greek.

Greek literature was divided in well-defined literary genres, each one having a compulsory formal structure, about both dialect and metrics. The first division was between prose and poetry. Fictional literature was written in verse, while scientific literature was in prose. Within the poetry we could separate three super-genres: epic, lyric and drama. We can observe here that the Greek terminology has became the common European terminology about literary genres. Lyric and drama were further divided into more genres: lyric in four (elegiac, iambic, monodic lyric and choral lyric); drama in three (tragedy, comedy and pastoral drama). About literature in prose there was more freedom; the main areas were historiography, philosophy and political rhetoric.

Epic Poetry[edit]

At the beginning of Greek literature stand the two monumental works of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The figure of Homer is shrouded in mystery. Although the works as they now stand are credited to him, it is certain that their roots reach far back before his time (see Homeric Question). The Iliad is the famous story about the Trojan War. It centers on the person of Achilles, who embodied the Greek heroic ideal.

While the Iliad is pure tragedy, the Odyssey is a mixture of tragedy and comedy. It is the story of Odysseus, one of the warriors at Troy. After ten years fighting the war, he spends another ten years sailing back home to his wife and family. Penelope was considered the ideal female, Homer depicted her as the ideal female based on her commitment, modesty, purity, and respect during her marriage with Odysseus. During his ten-year voyage, he loses all of his comrades and ships and makes his way home to Ithaca disguised as a beggar. Both of these works were based on ancient legends. The stories are told in language that is simple, and direct. The Homeric dialect was an archaic language based on Ionic dialect mixed with some element of Aeolic dialect and Attic dialect, the latter due to the Athenian edition of 6th century BC. The epic verse was the hexameter.

The other great poet of the preclassical period was Hesiod. Unlike Homer, Hesiod speaks of himself in his poetry; it remains true that nothing is known about him from any external source. He was a native of Boeotia in central Greece, and is thought to have lived and worked around 700 BC. His two works were Works and Days and Theogony. The first is a faithful depiction of the poverty-stricken country life he knew so well, and it sets forth principles and rules for farmers. Theogony is a systematic account of creation and of the gods. It vividly describes the ages of mankind, beginning with a long-past Golden Age. Together the works of Homer and Hesiod comprised a kind of Bible for the Greeks; Homer told the story of a heroic relatively near past, which Hesiod bracketed with a creation narrative and an account of the practical realities of contemporary daily life.

Lyric poetry[edit]

Main article: Greek lyric

The type of poetry called lyric got its name from the fact that it was originally sung by individuals or a chorus accompanied by the instrument called the lyre. Although, despite the name, the lyric poetry in this general meaning was divided in four genres, two of which were not accompanied by cithara, but by flute. These two latters genres were the elegiac poetry and the iambic poetry. Both were written in ionic dialect, elegiac poetry was in elegiac couplets and iambic poems in iambic trimeter. The first of the lyric poets was probably Archilochus of Paros, circa 700 BC, the most important iambic poet. Only fragments remain of his work, as is the case with most of the poets. The few remnants suggest that he was an embittered adventurer who led a very turbulent life. The lyric in narrow sense was written in aeolic dialect and meters were really varied. The most famous authors were the so-called Nine lyric poets, and particularly Alcaeus and Sappho for monodic lyric and Pindarus for choral lyric.

Drama[edit]

Ancient Greek drama developed around Greece's theater culture. Drama was particularly developed in Athens, so works are written in Attic dialect. The dialogues are in iambic trimeter, while chorus are in the meters of choral lyric.

In the age that followed the Greco-Persian Wars, the awakened national spirit of Athens was expressed in hundreds of superb tragedies based on heroic and legendary themes of the past. The tragic plays grew out of simple choral songs and dialogues performed at festivals of the god Dionysus. In the classic period, performances included three tragedies and one pastoral drama, depicting four different episodes of the same myth. Wealthy citizens were chosen to bear the expense of costuming and training the chorus as a public and religious duty. Attendance at the festival performances was regarded as an act of worship. Performances were held in the great open-air theater of Dionysus in Athens. All of the greatest poets competed for the prizes offered for the best plays.

The three best authors are Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. From Aeschylus, we still have seven tragedies, among which the only surviving series of three tragedies performed together, the so-called Oresteia. Seven works of Sophocles have survived, the most important of which are Oedipus rex and Antigone. From Euripides, seventeen tragedies have survived, among them Medea and The Bacchae.

Like tragedy, comedy arose from a ritual in honor of Dionysus, but in this case the plays were full of frank obscenity, abuse, and insult. At Athens, the comedies became an official part of the festival celebration in 486 BC, and prizes were offered for the best productions. As with the tragedians, few works still remain of the great comedic writers. Of the works of earlier writers, only some plays by Aristophanes exist. These are a treasure trove of comic presentation. He poked fun at everyone and every institution. For boldness of fantasy, for merciless insult, for unqualified indecency, and for outrageous and free political criticism, there is nothing to compare to the comedies of Aristophanes. In The Birds, he held up Athenian democracy to ridicule. In The Clouds, he attacked the philosopher Socrates. In Lysistrata, he denounced war. Only 11 of his plays have survived.

The third dramatic genre was the satyr play. Although the genre was popular, only one example has survived in its entirety, Euripides' Cyclops.

Historiography[edit]

Two of the most famous historians who have ever written flourished during Greece's classical age: Herodotus and Thucydides. Herodotus is commonly called the father of history, and his "History" contains the first truly literary use of prose in Western literature. Of the two, Thucydides was the more careful historian. His critical use of sources, inclusion of documents, and laborious research made his History of the Peloponnesian War a significant influence on later generations of historians.

A third historian of ancient Greece, Xenophon, began his Hellenica where Thucydides ended his work about 411 BC and carried his history to 362 BC. His writings were superficial in comparison to those of Thucydides, but he wrote with authority on military matters. He therefore is at his best in the Anabasis, an account of his participation in a Greek mercenary army that tried to help the Persian Cyrus expel his brother from the throne. Xenophon also wrote three works in praise of the philosopher Socrates: Apology, Symposium, and Memorabilia. Although both Xenophon and Plato knew Socrates, their accounts are very different, and it is interesting to compare the view of the military historian to that of the poet-philosopher.

Philosophy[edit]

The greatest achievements of the 4th century was in philosophy. There were many Greek philosophers, but Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle tower above the rest and had enormous influence on Western society. Socrates himself wrote nothing, but his thought (or a reasonable presentation of it) is believed to be given by Plato's early socratic dialogues. Aristotle is virtually without rivals among scientists and philosophers. The first sentence of his Metaphysics reads: "All men by nature desire to know." He has, therefore, been called the "Father of those who know." His medieval disciple Thomas Aquinas referred to him simply as "the Philosopher." Aristotle was a student at Plato's Academy, and it is known that like his teacher he wrote dialogues, or conversations. None of these exist today. The body of writings that has come down to the present probably represents lectures that he delivered at his own school in Athens, the Lyceum. Even from these books the enormous range of his interests is evident. He explored matters other than those that are today considered philosophical. The treatises that exist cover logic, the physical and biological sciences, ethics, politics, and constitutional government. There are also treatises on The Soul and Rhetoric. His Poetics has had an enormous influence on literary theory and served as an interpretation of tragedy for more than 2,000 years. With his death in 322 BC, the classical era of Greek literature drew to a close.

Hellenistic Age[edit]

By 338 BC all of the Greek city-states except Sparta had been conquered by Philip II of Macedon. Philip's son Alexander the Great extended his father's conquests greatly. Athens lost its preeminent status as the leader of Greek culture, and it was replaced temporarily by Alexandria, Egypt.

The city of Alexandria in northern Egypt became, from the 3rd century BC, the outstanding center of Greek culture. It also soon attracted a large Jewish population, making it the largest center for Jewish scholarship in the ancient world. In addition, it later became a major focal point for the development of Christian thought. The Museum, or Shrine to the Muses, which included the library and school, was founded by Ptolemy I. The institution was from the beginning intended as a great international school and library. The library, eventually containing more than a half million volumes, was mostly in Greek. It served as a repository for every Greek work of the classical period that could be found.

Hellenistic poetry[edit]

Poetry flourished in Alexandria in the third century BC. The chief Alexandrian poets were Theocritus, Callimachus, and Apollonius of Rhodes. Theocritus, who lived from about 310 to 250 BC, invented a new genre of poetry—bucolic, a genre that the Roman Virgil would later imitate in his Eclogues.

Callimachus, who lived at the same time as Theocritus, worked his entire adult life at Alexandria and compiled a prose treatise entitled the Pinakes which catalogued the great works held in the library. Aside from a collection of hymns, only fragments of his poetry survive. The most famous work was Aetia (Causes). In four books of elegiac couplets it explained the legendary origin of obscure customs, festivals, and names. Its structure became a model for the work of the Roman poet Ovid. Of his elegies for special occasions, the best known is the Lock of Berenice, a piece of court poetry which formed part of the Aetia and was later adapted by the Roman Catullus. Callimachus also wrote short poems for special occasions and at least one short epic, the Ibis, which was directed against his former pupil Apollonius.

Apollonius of Rhodes was born about 295 BC. He is best remembered for his epic the Argonautica, about Jason and his shipmates in search of the golden fleece. Apollonius studied under Callimachus, with whom he later quarreled. He also served as librarian at Alexandria for about 13 years. Apart from the Argonautica, he wrote poems on the foundation of cities as well as a number of epigrams. The Roman poet Virgil was strongly influenced by the Argonautica in writing his Aeneid. Lesser 3rd-century poets include Aratus of Soli and Herodas. Aratus wrote the Phaenomena, a poetic version of a treatise on the stars by Eudoxus of Cnidus, who had lived in the 4th century. Herodas wrote mimes reminiscent of those of Theocritus. His works give a hint of the popular entertainment of the times. Mime and pantomime were a major form of entertainment during the early Roman Empire

The Hellenistic and Roman Periods[edit]

While the transition from city-state to empire affected philosophy a great deal, shifting the emphasis from political theory to personal ethics, Greek letters continued to flourish both under the Successors (especially the Ptolemies) and under Roman rule. Romans of literary or rhetorical inclination looked to Greek models, and Greek literature of all types continued to be read and produced both by native speakers of Greek and later by Roman authors as well. A notable characteristic of this period was the expansion of literary criticism as a genre, particularly as exemplified by Demetrius, Pseudo-Longinus and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. The Greek novel, typified by Chariton's Callirhoe and the Hero and Leander of Pseudo-Musaeus, also emerged. The New Testament, written by various authors in varying qualities of Koine Greek also hails from this period, the most important works being the Gospels and the Epistles of Saint Paul.

Historiography[edit]

The significant historians in the period after Alexander were Timaeus, Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Appian of Alexandria, Arrian, and Plutarch. The period of time they cover extended from late in the 4th century BC to the 2nd century AD.

Timaeus was born in Sicily but spent most of his life in Athens. His History, though lost, is significant because of its influence on Polybius. In 38 books it covered the history of Sicily and Italy to the year 264 BC, which is where Polybius began his work. Timaeus also wrote the Olympionikai, a valuable chronological study of the Olympic Games. Polybius was born about 200 BC. He was brought to Rome as a hostage in 168. At Rome he became a friend of the general Scipio Aemilianus. He probably accompanied the general to Spain and North Africa in the wars against Carthage. He was with Scipio at the destruction of Carthage in 146. The history on which his reputation rests consisted of 40 books, five of which have been preserved along with various excerpts. They are a vivid recreation of Rome's rise to world power. A lost book, Tactics, was on military matters.

Diodorus Siculus lived in the 1st century BC, the time of Julius Caesar and Augustus. He wrote a universal history, Bibliotheca historica, in 40 books. Of these, the first five and the 11th through the 20th remain. The first two parts covered history through the early Hellenistic era. The third part takes the story to the beginning of Caesar's wars in Gaul, now France. Dionysius of Halicarnassus lived late in the 1st century BC. His history of Rome from its origins to the First Punic War (264 to 241 BC) is written from a Roman point of view, but it is carefully researched. He also wrote a number of other treatises, including On Imitation, Commentaries on the Ancient Orators, and On the Arrangement of Words.

Appian and Arrian both lived in the 2nd century AD. Appian wrote on Rome and its conquests, while Arrian is remembered for his work on the campaigns of Alexander the Great. Arrian served in the Roman army. His book therefore concentrates heavily on the military aspects of Alexander's life. Arrian also wrote a philosophical treatise, the Diatribai, based on the teachings of his mentor Epictetus. Best known of the late Greek historians to modern readers is Plutarch, who died about AD 119. His Parallel Lives of great Greek and Roman leaders has been read by every generation since the work was first published. His other surviving work is the Moralia, a collection of essays on ethical, religious, political, physical, and literary topics.

Science and mathematics[edit]

Eratosthenes of Alexandria, who died about 194 BC, wrote on astronomy and geography, but his work is known mainly from later summaries. He is credited with being the first person to measure the Earth's circumference. Much that was written by the mathematicians Euclid and Archimedes has been preserved. Euclid is known for his Elements, much of which was drawn from his predecessor Eudoxus of Cnidus. The Elements is a treatise on geometry, and it has exerted a continuing influence on mathematics. From Archimedes several treatises have come down to the present. Among them are Measurement of the Circle, in which he worked out the value of pi; The Method of Mechanical Theorems, on his work in mechanics; The Sand Reckoner; and On Floating Bodies. A manuscript of his works is currently being studied.

The physician Galen, in the history of ancient science, is the most significant scientist who laid the foundation of medicine in the 5th century BC. Galen lived during the 2nd century AD. He was a careful student of anatomy, and his works exerted a powerful influence on medicine for the next 1,400 years . Strabo, who died about AD 23, was a geographer and historian. His Historical Sketches in 47 volumes has nearly all been lost. His Geographical Sketches remain as the only existing ancient book covering the whole range of people and countries known to the Greeks and Romans through the time of Augustus. Pausanias, who lived in the 2nd century AD, was also a geographer. His Description of Greece is an invaluable guide to what are now ancient ruins. His book takes the form of a tour of Greece, starting in Athens. The accuracy of his descriptions has been proved by archaeological excavations. The scientist of the Roman period who had the greatest influence on later generations was undoubtedly the astronomer Ptolemy. He lived during the 2nd century AD, though little is known of his life. His masterpiece, originally entitled The Mathematical Collection, has come to the present under the title Almagest, as it was translated by Arab astronomers with that title. It was Ptolemy who devised a detailed description of an Earth-centered universe, a notion that dominated astronomical thinking for more than 1,300 years. The Ptolemaic view of the universe endured until Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and other early modern astronomers replaced it with heliocentrism.

Philosophy[edit]

Epictetus, who died about AD 135, was associated with the moral philosophy of the Stoics. His teachings were collected by his pupil Arrian in the Discourses and the Encheiridion (Manual of Study). Diogenes Laertius, who lived in the 3rd century, wrote Lives, Teachings, and Sayings of Famous Philosophers, a useful, though often unreliable, sourcebook. Another major philosopher of his period was Plotinus. He transformed Plato's philosophy into a school called Neoplatonism. His Enneads had a wide-ranging influence on European thought until at least the 17th century.

Legacy[edit]

The influence of Ancient Greek Literature on Western Literature has been enormous. In fact, the frame of Greek literary genres has been almost perfectly adopted by Latin literature, firstly, and then by the European literatures, until the 18th century. The Greek works were well known by Roman writers, as well as by European writers since Renaissance. So, these works, particularly the Homeric poems and the tragedies were the model for the successive writers of the same genres.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Beye, Charles Rowan (1987). Ancient Greek Literature and Society. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-1874-7. 
  • Easterling, P.E., and Knox, B.M.W., [editors] (1985). The Cambridge History of Classical Literature: Volume 1: Greek literature. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-21042-9. 
  • Flacelière, Robert (1964). A Literary History of Greece. (Translated by Douglas Garman). Chicago: Aldine Pub. Co. 
  • Gutzwiller, Kathryn (2007). A guide to Hellenistic literature. Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-23322-9. 
  • Hadas, Moses (1950). A History of Greek Literature. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 
  • Lesky, Albin (1966). A history of Greek literature. Translated by James Willis and Cornelis de Heer. Indianapolis / Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. ISBN 0-87220-350-6. 
  • Schmidt, Michael (2004). The first poets: lives of the ancient Greek poets. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-64394-0. 
  • C. A. Trypanis (1981). Greek Poetry from Homer to Seferis. University of Chicago Press. 
  • Whitmarsh, Tim (2004). Ancient Greek Literature. Cambridge: Polity Press. ISBN 0-7456-2792-7. 

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