Greek literature, ancient
Greek literature, ancient,the writings of the ancient Greeks. The Greek Isles are recognized as the birthplace of Western intellectual life.
The earliest extant European literary works are the Iliad and the Odyssey, both written in ancient Greek probably before 700 B.C., and attributed to HomerHomer,
principal figure of ancient Greek literature; the first European poet. Works, Life, and Legends
Two epic poems are attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
..... Click the link for more information. . Among other early epic poems, most of which have perished, those of HesiodHesiod
, fl. 8th cent.? B.C., Greek poet. He is thought to have lived later than Homer, but there is no absolute certainty about the dates of his life. Hesiod portrays himself as a Boeotian farmer.
..... Click the link for more information. , the first didactic poet, remain. The poems dealing with mythological subjects and known as the Homeric Hymns are dated 800–300 B.C. Only fragments survive of the works of many early Greek poets, including the elegiasts TyrtaeusTyrtaeus
, fl. 7th cent. B.C. at Sparta, Greek elegiac poet. Fragments of his martial elegies in Dorian Greek, which were written to spur Spartan soldiers to victory, are extant.
..... Click the link for more information. , TheognisTheognis
, fl. 6th cent. B.C., Greek didactic poet of Megara. An aristocrat with fierce partisan feelings, he wrote for his young friend Cyrnus a series of elegies, often passionate in hate and in love, counseling moderation, faithfulness, and duty.
..... Click the link for more information. , SolonSolon
, c.639–c.559 B.C., Athenian statesman, lawgiver, and reformer. He was also a poet, and some of his patriotic verse in the Ionic dialect is extant. At some time (perhaps c.600 B.C.) he led the Athenians in the recapture of Salamis from the Megarians.
..... Click the link for more information. , Semonides of AmorgosSemonides of Amorgos
, fl. c.650 B.C., Greek iambic poet, b. Samos. He led a colony to the island of Amorgos in the SE Cyclades c.630 B.C. In one of the few extant fragments of his work, he satirizes women and likens their natures to the sea, mud, and various animals.
..... Click the link for more information. , ArchilochusArchilochus
, fl. c.700 or c.650 B.C., Greek poet, b. Paros. As an innovator in the use and construction of the personal lyric, his language was intense and often violent. Many fragments of his verse survive. Bibliography
See H. D. Rankin, Archilochus of Paros (1978).
..... Click the link for more information. , and HipponaxHipponax
, fl. 540 B.C., Greek iambic poet. Banished from Ephesus after insulting the tyrants there, he went to live in Clazomenae. He is believed to have been the inventor of the choliambic, or "limping" iambic verse. He wrote spirited satire, fragments of which are extant.
..... Click the link for more information. . The most personal Greek poems are the lyrics of AlcaeusAlcaeus
, c.620–c.580 B.C., Greek lyric poet of Lesbos. An aristocrat, he was often embroiled in political battles with the ruling tyrants. He wrote drinking songs, hymns, love songs, and political odes. He was, according to tradition, a close associate of Sappho.
..... Click the link for more information. , SapphoSappho
, fl. early 6th cent. B.C., greatest of the early Greek lyric poets (Plato calls her "the tenth Muse"), b. Mytilene on Lesbos. Facts about her life are scant. She was an aristocrat, who wrote poetry for her circle of friends, mostly but not exclusively women, and like
..... Click the link for more information. and AnacreonAnacreon
, c.570–c.485 B.C., Greek lyric poet, b. Teos in Ionia. He lived at Samos and at Athens, where his patron was Hipparchus. His poetry, graceful and elegant, celebrates the joys of wine and love. Little of his verse survives.
..... Click the link for more information. . The Dorian lyric for choral performance, developed with AlcmanAlcman
, fl. 620 B.C., Greek lyric poet of Sparta. He was the earliest writer of Dorian choral poetry whose work has survived. Short choral fragments and a longer one (part of a parthenion or choir song for girls) are extant.
..... Click the link for more information. , IbycusIbycus
, fl. before 500 B.C., Greek lyric poet, b. Rhegium, S Italy. The extant fragments of his work contain the earliest-known example of the triadic choral lyric. He spent some time at the court of Polycrates of Samos.
..... Click the link for more information. , and StesichorusStesichorus
, fl. c.600 B.C., Greek lyric poet. He lived at Himera, Sicily, and seems to have been originally named Tisias or Teisias. Legend says he invented the choral "heroic hymn" and added the epode to the Greek strophe and antistrophe, thenceforth much used (e.g.
..... Click the link for more information. , achieved perfection in PindarPindar
, 518?–c.438 B.C., Greek poet, generally regarded as the greatest Greek lyric poet. A Boeotian of noble birth, he lived principally at Thebes. He traveled widely, staying for some time at Athens and in Sicily at the court of Hiero I at Syracuse and also at Acragas
..... Click the link for more information. , Simonides of CeosSimonides of Ceos
, c.556–468? B.C., Greek lyric poet, b. Ceos. At Athens for a time under the patronage of Hipparchus, he seems then to have gone to Thessaly, returning to Athens at the time of the Persian Wars. He was a friend of most prominent Athenians.
..... Click the link for more information. , and BacchylidesBacchylides
, fl. c.470 B.C., Greek lyric poet, b. Ceos; nephew of Simonides of Ceos. A contemporary of Pindar, he was patronized by Hiero I. His poetry is noted for its narrative powers, clarity, and lucidity.
..... Click the link for more information. .
The Classical Period
Greek drama evolved from the song and dance in the ceremonies honoring Dionysus at Athens. In the 5th cent. B.C. tragedy was developed by three of the greatest dramatists in the history of the theater, AeschylusAeschylus
, 525–456 B.C., Athenian tragic dramatist, b. Eleusis. The first of the three great Greek writers of tragedy, Aeschylus was the predecessor of Sophocles and Euripides.
Aeschylus fought at Marathon and at Salamis. In 476 B.C.
..... Click the link for more information. , SophoclesSophocles
, c.496 B.C.–406 B.C., Greek tragic dramatist, younger contemporary of Aeschylus and older contemporary of Euripides, b. Colonus, near Athens. A man of wealth, charm, and genius, Sophocles was given posts of responsibility in peace and in war by the Athenians.
..... Click the link for more information. , and EuripidesEuripides
, 480 or 485–406 B.C., Greek tragic dramatist, ranking with Aeschylus and Sophocles. Born in Attica, he lived in Athens most of his life, though he spent much time on Salamis. He died in Macedon, at the court of King Archelaus.
..... Click the link for more information. . Equally exalted was the foremost exponent of Attic Old Comedy, AristophanesAristophanes
, c.448 B.C.–c.388 B.C., Greek playwright, Athenian comic poet, greatest of the ancient writers of comedy. His plays, the only full extant samples of the Greek Old Comedy, mix political, social, and literary satire.
..... Click the link for more information. . Other writers who developed this genre included CratinusCratinus
, d. c.419 B.C., Athenian comic dramatist. He won the prize at the Athenian drama contest when Aristophanes competed with The Clouds and was regarded with Aristophanes and Eupolis as one of the greatest comic dramatists.
..... Click the link for more information. and EupolisEupolis
, fl. 430–411 B.C., Athenian comic poet. He seems to have collaborated with Aristophanes, whom he also attacked; another of his victims was Alcibiades. His plays, satirical and malicious, were greatly admired by the ancients. Fragments of his work survive.
..... Click the link for more information. , of whom little is known. The rowdy humor of these early works gave way to the more sedate Middle Comedy and finally to New Comedy, which set the form for this type of drama. The best-known writer of Greek New Comedy is MenanderMenander
, 342?–291? B.C., Greek poet, the most famous writer of New Comedy. He wrote ingenious plays using the love plot as his theme; his style is elegant and elaborate and his characters are highly developed.
..... Click the link for more information. .
The writing of history came of age in Greece with the rich and diffuse work of HerodotusHerodotus
, 484?–425? B.C., Greek historian, called the Father of History, b. Halicarnassus, Asia Minor. Only scant knowledge of his life can be gleaned from his writings and from references to him by later writings, notably the Suda.
..... Click the link for more information. , the precise and exhaustive accounts of ThucydidesThucydides
, c.460–c.400 B.C., Greek historian of Athens, one of the greatest of ancient historians. His family was partly Thracian. As a general in the Peloponnesian War he failed (424 B.C.
..... Click the link for more information. , and the rushing narrative of XenophonXenophon
, c.430 B.C.–c.355 B.C., Greek historian, b. Athens. He was one of the well-to-do young disciples of Socrates before leaving Athens to join the Greek force (the Ten Thousand) that was in the service of Cyrus the Younger of Persia.
..... Click the link for more information. . Philosophical writing of unprecedented breadth was produced during this brief period of Athenian literature; the works of PlatoPlato
, 427?–347 B.C., Greek philosopher. Plato's teachings have been among the most influential in the history of Western civilization. Life
After pursuing the liberal studies of his day, he became in 407 B.C. a pupil and friend of Socrates. From about 388 B.
..... Click the link for more information. and AristotleAristotle
, 384–322 B.C., Greek philosopher, b. Stagira. He is sometimes called the Stagirite. Life
Aristotle's father, Nicomachus, was a noted physician. Aristotle studied (367–347 B.C.
..... Click the link for more information. have had an incalculable effect in the shaping of Western thought.
Greek oratory, of immense importance in the ancient world, was perfected at this time. Among the most celebrated orators were AntiphonAntiphon
, c.479–411 B.C., Athenian orator. He rarely spoke in public but wrote defenses for others to speak. Of his 15 extant orations 3 were for use in court, the rest probably for the instruction of his pupils. A few fragments of other speeches survive.
..... Click the link for more information. , AndocidesAndocides
, c.440–390 B.C., one of the Ten Attic Orators (see oratory). In 415 B.C. he was accused of mutilating the hermae (sacred pillars topped by busts of the gods) and, in association with Alcibiades, of other sacrilege.
..... Click the link for more information. , LysiasLysias
, c.459–c.380 B.C., Attic orator; son of Cephalus, a Syracusan. After the capture (404 B.C.) of Athens by the Spartans, the Thirty Tyrants caused the arrest of Lysias and his brother Polemarchus, who was put to death.
..... Click the link for more information. , IsocratesIsocrates
, 436–338 B.C., one of the Ten Attic Orators. He was a pupil of Socrates and of the Sophists. Perhaps the greatest teacher in Greek history, he taught every younger orator of his time.
..... Click the link for more information. , Isaeus, LycurgusLycurgus,
c.396–c.325 B.C., one of the Ten Attic Orators of the Alexandrian canon; pupil of Isocrates. A capable and honored public official, he administered the state finances from 338 to 326 B.C. and led (with Demosthenes) the anti-Macedonian party.
..... Click the link for more information. , AeschinesAeschines
, c.390–314? B.C., Athenian orator, rival of Demosthenes. Aeschines rose from humble circumstances and became powerful in politics because of his oratorical gifts.
..... Click the link for more information. , and, considered the greatest of all, DemosthenesDemosthenes
, 384?–322 B.C., Greek orator, generally considered the greatest of the Greek orators. He was a pupil of Isaeus, and—although the story of his putting pebbles in his mouth to improve his voice is only a legend—he seems to have been forced to
..... Click the link for more information. . "Classical" Greek literature is said to have ended with the deaths of Aristotle and Demosthenes (c.322 B.C.). The greatest writers of the classical era have certain characteristics in common: economy of words, direct expression, subtlety of thought, and attention to form.
Later Greek Literature
The next period of Greek literature reached its zenith in Hellenistic Alexandria, where a number of major philosophers, dramatists, poets, historians, critics, and librarians wrote and taught. New genres such as bucolic poetry emerged during the Hellenistic period, a time also characterized by scholarly editions of classics from earlier periods. The poems of CallimachusCallimachus,
fl. c.280–45 B.C., Hellenistic Greek poet and critic, b. Cyrene. Educated at Athens, he taught before obtaining work in the Alexandrian library. There he drew up a catalog, with such copious notes that it constituted a full literary history.
..... Click the link for more information. , the bucolics of TheocritusTheocritus
, fl. c.270 B.C., Hellenistic Greek poet, b. Syracuse. The history of the pastoral begins with him, and in him the form seems to have reached its height. His poetic style is finished and at times artificial, but the bucolic characters in his idyls seem alive.
..... Click the link for more information. , and the epic of Apollonius RhodiusApollonius Rhodius
, fl. 3d cent. B.C., epic poet of Alexandria and Rhodes. He became librarian at Alexandria. His extant work, the Argonautica, is a Homeric imitation in four books on the story of the Argonaut heroes.
..... Click the link for more information. are recognized as major works of world literature.
The production of literary works at the time of the establishment of Roman control of the Mediterranean was enormous, a vast heterogeneous mixture ranging from the sublime to the pedantic and turgid. A great portion of the works produced have been lost. With the Roman political subjugation of Greece, Greek thought and culture, introduced largely by slave-tutors to the Roman aristocracy, came to exert enormous influence in the Roman world. Among the greatest writers of this period were the historians PolybiusPolybius
, 203? B.C.–c.120 B.C., Greek historian, b. Megalopolis. As one of the leaders of the Achaean League and a friend of Philopoemen, he was influential in Greek politics.
..... Click the link for more information. , JosephusJosephus, Flavius
, A.D. 37–c.A.D. 100, Jewish historian and soldier, b. Jerusalem. Josephus' historical works are among the most valuable sources for the study of early Judaism and early Christianity.
..... Click the link for more information. , and Dio CassiusDio Cassius
(Cassius Dio Cocceianus) , c.155–235?, Roman historian and administrator, b. Nicaea in Bithynia. He was a grandson of Dio Chrysostom. His rise in civil and military office was steady; he became a senator (c.
..... Click the link for more information. ; the biographer PlutarchPlutarch
, A.D. 46?–c.A.D. 120, Greek essayist and biographer, b. Chaeronea, Boeotia. He traveled in Egypt and Italy, visited Rome (where he lectured on philosophy) and Athens, and finally returned to his native Boeotia, where he became a priest of the temple of Delphi.
..... Click the link for more information. ; the philosophers PhiloPhilo
or Philo Judaeus
[Lat.,=Philo the Jew], c.20 B.C.–c.A.D. 50, Alexandrian Jewish philosopher. His writings have had an enormous influence on both Jewish and Christian thought, and particularly upon the Alexandrian theologians Clement and Origen.
..... Click the link for more information. and Dio ChrysostomDio Chrysostom
, d. after A.D. 112, Greek Sophist and orator [Chrysostom=golden-mouthed], b. Prusa (modern Bursa) in Bithynia. He lived at Rome under Emperor Domitian, who subsequently banished him.
..... Click the link for more information. ; and the novelist LucianLucian
, b. c.120, d. after 180, Greek writer, also called Lucianus, b. Samosata, Syria. In late life he held a government position in Egypt. Lucian wrote an easy, masterly Attic prose, which he turned to satirical use.
..... Click the link for more information. . One great Roman work produced under Greek influence was the philosophical meditations of Marcus AureliusMarcus Aurelius
(Marcus Aelius Aurelius Antoninus) , 121–180, Roman emperor, named originally Marcus Annius Verus. He was a nephew of Faustina, the wife of Antoninus Pius, who adopted him. Marcus married Antoninus' daughter, another Faustina.
..... Click the link for more information. .
With the spread of Christianity, Greek writing took a new turn, and much of the writing of the Greek Fathers of the Church is eloquent. Religion dominated the literature of the Byzantine Empire, and a vast treasury of writing was produced that is not generally well known to the West The most notable exception is the work of some historians (e.g., ProcopiusProcopius
, d. 565?, Byzantine historian, b. Caesarea in Palestine. He accompanied Belisarius on his campaigns as his secretary, and later he commanded the imperial navy and served (562) as prefect of Constantinople.
..... Click the link for more information. , Anna ComnenaAnna Comnena
, b. 1083, d. after 1148, Byzantine princess and historian; daughter of Emperor Alexius I. She plotted, during and after her father's reign, against her brother, John II, in favor of her husband, Nicephorus Bryennius, whom she wished to rule as emperor.
..... Click the link for more information. , George Acropolita, and Emperor John VIJohn VI
(John Cantacuzene) , c.1292–1383, Byzantine emperor (1347–54). He was chief minister under Andronicus III, after whose death he proclaimed himself emperor and made war on the rightful heir, John V. He was aided by the Ottoman Turks.
..... Click the link for more information. ) and some anthologists (e.g., Photius).
The Loeb Classical Library offers text and translations of most of the extant ancient Greek literature. See T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra, The Oxford Book of Greek Verse (1938); C. M. Bowra, Ancient Greek Literature (1960); C. M. Bowra, Greek Lyric Poetry from Alcman to Simonides (rev. ed. 1961); H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Literature from Homer to the Age of Lucian (4th ed. 1961); H. D. F. Kitto, Poiesis: Structure and Thought (1966); P. E. Easterling and B. M. W. Knox, ed., Cambridge History of Classical Literature, Vol. I (1985); C. R. Beye, Ancient Greek Literature and Society (1987); R. Scodel, An Introduction to Greek Tragedy (2010).