Literature written in the Ancient Greek language refers to Ancient Greek Literature which belongs to Classical literature. The world got introduced to genres such as poetry, tragedy, comedy and western philosophy because of Greek writers. These Greek authors did not solely take birth on their native land Greece but also in Asia Minor, the islands of the Aegean, Sicily and southern Italy. Greek Literature had its influence not only on its Roman neighbours and but also on infinite generations across the European continent.
The two epic poems, Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey set in the Mycenaean are the earliest surviving works of ancient Greek literature, dating back to the early Archaic period. They are among the earliest texts until the time of the Byzantine Empire. The major foundation of the Greek Literary tradition comprises of two epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey along with the Homeric Hymns. Also the two poems of Hesiod, Theogony and Works and Days. These continued into the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods.
Though relatively only a small proportion of the ancient Greek literature survives, yet it remains important due to its supreme quality. It was so impactful that even until the mid 19th century writers belonging to the Western world kept up the Greek tradition of writing. They knew that the forms they used were of Greek invention.
Starting from school going student, everyone must have heard about Alexander the Great. Greece had a rich history of both war and peace which left an inerasable imprint on its people and culture. To get a clear view and appreciate Greek Literature, one must divide the oral epics from the tragedies and comedies. Also the histories from the philosophies. Greek literature can be divided into distinct periods namely: Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic.
Before moving into further detail, lets have a short overview. Literature belonging to the Archaic era mostly centred on myth; part history and part folklore. Some of the significant examples of this period are Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey and Hesiod’s Theogony. Much of what was created in this period were communicated orally and got its written form years later.
The Classical era (4th and 5th century BCE) centred on the tragedies of writers such as Sophocles Oedipus Rex, Euripides Hippolytus, and the comedies of Aristophanes. Unfortunately, except few exceptions, much literary works of the Archaic and Classical period remains only in fragments.
Lastly the Hellenistic era, saw the face of Greek poetry, prose and culture expand across the Mediterranean influencing Roman writers such as Horace, Ovid and Virgil.
The Archaic Period
During the Archaic period, the poets’ works were in the form of oral tradition delivered at festivals. A product of Greece’s Dark Ages, Homer’s epic The Iliad centred on the last days of the Trojan War. A war initiated by the love of a beautiful woman, Helen. It brought an array of heroes such as Achilles, Hector, and Paris to generations of Greek youth. It was a poem of contrasts: gods and mortals, divine and human, war and peace. The action of the play not only takes place on earth but also in the heavens and underworld. The events are often affected by the events on Mount Olympus and Gods and nature spirits all help and hinder the human characters in various ways throughout the poem. Alexander the Great slept with a copy of the book under his pillow and even believed he was related to Achilles. Read heroism and leadership in Homer’s Iliad.
The Odyssey, Homer’s second work revolved around the ten-year “Odyssey” of the Trojan War hero Odysseus and his attempt to return home.
In the Archaic period, the several types of Greek lyric poetry originated among the poets of the Aegean Islands and of Ionia on the coast of Asia Minor. Archilochus of Paros, of the 7th century BC, was the earliest Greek poet to employ the forms of elegy and of personal lyric poetry. His work was very highly rated by the ancient Greeks but survives only in fragments. His forms and metrical patterns, elegiac couplet and a variety of lyric metres were taken up by Ionian poets. At the beginning of the 6th century Alcaeus and Sappho produced lyric poetry composing in the Aeolic dialect of Lesbos. They mostly named the metres after them, namely, the alcaic and the sapphic. No other poets of ancient Greece could enter into so close a personal relationship with the reader like Alcaeus, Sappho, and Archilochus.
They were succeeded by Anacreon of Teos, in Ionia. Choral lyric, with musical accompaniment, belonged to the Dorian tradition. Alcman in Sparta and Stesichorus in Sicily were its representative poets in the period.
Lastly, Sappho was one of the few female lyric poets of the period, often called the tenth Muse. Born on the Aegean island of Lesbos, her poems were hymns to the gods and influenced Romans poets such as Horace, Catullus, and Ovid. Much of her poetry remains in fragments or quoted in the works of others.
Classical period was about oral recitation of poetry, morphed into drama. The purpose of drama was not only to entertain but a means to educate the Greek citizens. Plays were usually a part of religious festivals, performed outdoors on theatres. A chorus of singers used to explain the action. The Classical era mainly centred around tragedies and comedies. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are considered among the great tragic writers of the world.
Aeschylus (c. 525 – c. 456 BCE) was the earliest among these three.
His first play was performed in 499 BCE. His surviving works include Persians, Seven Against Thebes, Suppliants (a play that beat out Sophocles in a competition), Prometheus Bound, Oresteia. Part of the Oresteia trilogy, his most famous work was probably Agamemnon. Agamemnon is a play centering on the return of the Trojan War commander Agamemnon to his wife Clytemnestra, who eventually kills him.
Most of Aeschylus’ plays centred on Greek myth, portraying the suffering of man and the justice of gods. His works were among the first to have a dialogue between the play’s characters.
Sophocles (c. 496 – c. 406 BCE) was the second among the great tragic playwrights of his time. Of his 120 plays performed in competition, only 20 were victorious. Losing far too many to Aeschylus. Only three of his seven surviving plays are complete. His most famous work is Oedipus Rex, part of a trilogy. The tragedy of King Oedipus centred on a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. By trying to escape the bitter destiny, unfortunately they fulfilled the latter. However, the tragedy of the play is not that he killed his father and married his mother but that he found out about it; it was an exploration of the tragic character of a now blinded hero. Oedipus Rex works as the greatest example under Aristotle’s theory of tragedy till date.
Euripides (c. 484 – 407 BCE), an Athenian, was the third great author of Greek tragedians. His plays were often based on myth. But unfortunately, his plays were not very successful at the competitions. He was the author of 92 plays. Some of his notable works include Hippolytus, The Trojan Women, Bacchae, Medea, Electra and Orestes. His play Medea speaks of a bitter woman who took revenge against her lover by killing her children. He became “the most tragic of poets”, by focusing on the inner lives and motives of his characters in a way previously unknown. Euripides was known for introducing a second act to his plays, which were concerned with kings and rulers as well as disputes and dilemmas. He died shortly after traveling to Macedon where he was to write a play about the king’s coronation.
Aeschylus still looked back to the Archaic period, Sophocles was in transition between periods, and Euripides was fully injected with the new spirit of the Classical age.
This was also a golden age for rhetoric and oratory, first taught by Corax of Syracuse in the 5th century. The study of rhetoric and oratory raised questions of truth and morality in argument. Thus for the philosopher, advocate and politician, it was a matter of concern.
The Hellenistic period produced its share of poets, prose writers, and historians. Among them were Callimachus, his student Theocritus, Apollonius Rhodius, and the highly respected historian Plutarch. Unfortunately, like the previous eras, much literary works of this period remains in fragments or quoted in the works of others.
The poet Callimachus (310 – 240 BCE) was originally from Cyrene but migrated to Egypt and spent most of his life in Alexandria. He served as a librarian under both Ptolemy II and III. Of his over 800 books, 6 hymns, and 60 epigrams, only fragments remain. His most famous work was Aetia (Causes), which revealed his fascination for the great Greek past. His work heavily influenced the poetry of Catullus and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Callimachus‘ student Theocritus (315 – 250 BCE) originally from Syracuse also worked in the library at Alexandria, producing a number of works. He is said to be the originator of pastoral poetry. Like his tutor, his work influenced future Roman authors such as Ovid.
Apollonius Rhodius (born c. 295 BCE) served as a librarian and tutor. His major work was the four books of the Argonautica. It is a retelling of the story of Jason’s travels to reclaim the fabled Golden Fleece. Likewise Callimachus and Theocritus, his work influenced Catullus and Virgil.
Besides poetry and prose, the Athenian Menander (342 – 290 BCE) was the best-known playwright of the era. Menander was a student of philosophy and leading proponent of New Comedy. He authored over 100 plays which includes Dyscolus, Perikeiromene, and Epitrepontes. He was the master of suspense. His plays were later adapted by the Roman authors Plautus and Terence.
The Hellenistic period lasted from the end of the 4th to the end of the 1st century BC. For the next three centuries, until Constantinople became the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Greek writers were conscious of belonging to a world of which Rome was the centre. To know more about Greek philosophers and historians, subscribe and keep an eye for our next post.
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