Ancient Greek literature

A Greek manuscript of the beginning of Hesiod's Works and Days

Ancient Greek literature refers to literature written in the Ancient Greek language from the earliest texts until the time of the Byzantine Empire. The earliest surviving works of ancient Greek literature, dating back to the early Archaic period, are the two epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, set in the Mycenaean era. These two epics, along with the Homeric Hymns and the two poems of Hesiod, Theogony and Works and Days, comprised the major foundations of the Greek literary tradition that would continue into the Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods.

The lyric poets Sappho, Alcaeus, and Pindar were highly influential during the early development of the Greek poetic tradition. Aeschylus is the earliest Greek tragic playwright for whom any plays have survived complete. Sophocles is famous for his tragedies about Oedipus, particularly Oedipus the King and Antigone. Euripides is known for his plays which often pushed the boundaries of the tragic genre. The comedic playwright Aristophanes wrote in the genre of Old Comedy, while the later playwright Menander was an early pioneer of New Comedy. The historians Herodotus of Halicarnassus and Thucydides, who both lived during the fifth century BC, wrote accounts of events that happened shortly before and during their own lifetimes. The philosopher Plato wrote dialogues, usually centered around his teacher Socrates, dealing with various philosophical subjects, whereas his student Aristotle wrote numerous treatises, which later became highly influential.

Important later writers included Apollonius of Rhodes, who wrote The Argonautica, an epic poem about the voyage of the Argonauts; Archimedes, who wrote groundbreaking mathematical treatises; and Plutarch, who wrote mainly biographies and essays. The second-century AD writer Lucian of Samosata was a Hellenized Syrian, who wrote primarily works of satire. Ancient Greek literature has had a profound impact on later Greek literature and also western literature at large. In particular, many ancient Roman authors drew inspiration from their Greek predecessors. Ever since the Renaissance, European authors in general, including Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare, John Milton, and James Joyce, have all drawn heavily on classical themes and motifs.

Pre-classical and classical antiquity

Linear B tablet from the Archaeological Museum of Mycenae
Tablet MY Oe 106 (obverse) exhibited at the Greek National Archaeological Museum

This period of Greek literature stretches from Homer until the fourth century BC and the rise of Alexander the Great. 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.[1][2] Michael Ventris and John Chadwick, the original decipherers of Linear B, state that literature almost certainly existed in Mycenaean Greece,[2] but it was either not written down or, if it was, it was on parchment or wooden tablets, which did not survive the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces in the twelfth century BC.[2]

Greek literature was divided in well-defined literary genres, each one having a compulsory formal structure, about both dialect and metrics.[3] The first division was between prose and poetry. Within poetry there were three super-genres: epic, lyric and drama. The common European terminology about literary genres is directly derived from the ancient Greek terminology.[4] 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).[5] Prose literature can largely be said to begin with Herodotus.[6] Over time, several genres of prose literature developed,[6] but the distinctions between them were frequently blurred.[6]

Epic poetry

At the beginning of Greek literature stand the two monumental works of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey.[7]:1-3 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).[7]:15 The Iliad is a narrative of a single episode spanning over the course of a ten-day-period from near the end of the ten years of the Trojan War. It centers on the person of Achilles,[8] who embodied the Greek heroic ideal.[9][7]:3

A painting by the French Neoclassical painter Thomas Degeorge depicting the climactic final scene from Book Twenty-Two of The Odyssey in which Odysseus, Telemachus, Eumaeus, and Philoetius slaughter the suitors of Penelope

The Odyssey is an account of the adventures of Odysseus, one of the warriors at Troy.[7]:3 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.[7]:15 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,[10] the latter due to the Athenian edition of the 6th century BC. The epic verse was the hexameter.[11]

The other great poet of the preclassical period was Hesiod.[7]:23-24[12] Unlike Homer, Hesiod refers to himself in his poetry.[13] Nonetheless, 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.[14] Hesiod's two extant poems are Works and Days and Theogony. Works and Days 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.[15]

The writings of Homer and Hesiod were held in extremely high regard throughout antiquity[12] and were viewed by many ancient authors as the foundational texts behind ancient Greek religion;[16] Homer told the story of a heroic past, which Hesiod bracketed with a creation narrative and an account of the practical realities of contemporary daily life.[7]:23-24

Lyric poetry

A nineteenth-century painting by the English painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema depicting the poetess Sappho gazing on in admiration as the poet Alcaeus plays the lyre

Lyric poetry received its name from the fact that it was originally sung by individuals or a chorus accompanied by the instrument called the lyre. Despite the name, however, 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 latter genres were elegiac poetry and iambic poetry. Both were written in the Ionic dialect. Elegiac poems were written in elegiac couplets and iambic poems were written in iambic trimeter. The first of the lyric poets was probably Archilochus of Paros, 7th century BC, the most important iambic poet.[17] 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.[18]

Many lyric poems were written in the Aeolic dialect. Lyric poems often employed highly varied poetic meters. The most famous of all lyric poets were the so-called "Nine Lyric Poets".[19] Of all the lyric poets, Sappho of Lesbos (c. 630 – c. 570 BC) was by far the most widely revered. In antiquity, her poems were regarded with the same degree of respect as the poems of Homer.[20] Only one of her poems, "Ode to Aphrodite", has survived to the present day in its original, completed form.[21] In addition to Sappho, her contemporary Alcaeus of Lesbos was also notable for monodic lyric poetry. The poetry written by Alcman was considered beautiful, even though he wrote exclusively in the Doric dialect, which was normally considered unpleasant to hear.[22] The later poet Pindar of Thebes was renowned for his choral lyric poetry.[23]

Drama

Medea kills her son (a scene from Euripides's Medea), Campanian red-figure amphora, c. 330 BC, Louvre (K 300)

All surviving works of Greek drama were composed by playwrights from Athens and are written exclusively in the Attic dialect.[24] Choral performances were a common tradition in all Greek city-states.[25] The Athenians credited a man named Thespis with having invented drama[26] by introducing the first actor, whose primary purpose was to interact with the leader of the chorus.[27] Later playwrights expanded the number of actors to three, allowing for greater freedom in storytelling.[28]

In the age that followed the Greco-Persian Wars, the awakened national spirit of Athens was expressed in hundreds of 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 classical 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. The poets competed for the prizes offered for the best plays.[29]

All fully surviving Greek tragedies are conventionally attributed to Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides. The authorship of Prometheus Bound, which is traditionally attributed to Aeschylus,[30] and Rhesus, which is traditionally attributed to Euripides, are still questioned.[31] There are seven surviving tragedies attributed to Aeschylus. Three of these plays, Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers, and The Eumenides, form a trilogy known as The Oresteia.[32] One of these plays, Prometheus Bound, however, may actually be the work of Aeschylus's son Euphorion.[33]

Seven works of Sophocles have survived, the most acclaimed of which are the three Theban plays, which center around the story of Oedipus and his offspring.[34] The Theban Trilogy consists of Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. Although the plays are often called a "trilogy," they were actually written many years apart. Antigone, the last of the three plays sequentially, was actually first to be written, having been composed in 441 BC, towards the beginning of Sophocles's career.[35] Oedipus the King, the most famous of the three, was written around 429 BC at the midpoint of Sophocles's career.[Notes 1] Oedipus at Colonus, the second of the three plays chronologically, was actually Sophocles's last play and was performed in 401 BC, after Sophocles's death.[36]

There are nineteen surviving plays attributed to Euripides. The most well-known of these plays are Medea, Hippolytus, and Bacchae.[37] Rhesus is sometimes thought to have been written by Euripides' son, or to have been a posthumous reproduction of a play by Euripides.[38] Euripides pushed the limits of the tragic genre and many of the elements in his plays were more typical of comedy than tragedy.[39] His play Alcestis, for instance, has often been categorized as a "problem play" or perhaps even as a work of tragicomedy rather than a true tragedy due to its comedic elements and the fact that it has a happy ending.[40][41]

Illustration for Aristophanes's Lysistrata by Aubrey Beardsley (1896)

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. The only complete surviving works of classical comedy are eleven plays written by the playwright Aristophanes.[42] These are a treasure trove of comic presentation. He poked fun at everyone and every institution. In The Birds, he ridicules Athenian democracy. In The Clouds, he attacks the philosopher Socrates. In Lysistrata, he denounces war.[43] Aristophanes has been praised highly for his dramatic skill and artistry. John Lemprière's Bibliotheca Classica describes him as, quite simply, "the greatest comic dramatist in world literature: by his side Molière seems dull and Shakespeare clownish."[44] Of all Aristophanes's plays, however, the one that has received the most lasting recognition is The Frogs, which simultaneously satirizes and immortalizes the two giants of Athenian tragedy: Aeschylus and Euripides. When it was performed for the first time at the Lenaia Festival in 405 BC, just one year after the death of Euripides, the Athenians awarded it first prize.[45] It was the only Greek play that was ever given an encore performance, which took place two months later at the City Dionysia.[46] Even today, The Frogs still appeals to modern audiences. A commercially successful modern musical adaptation of it was performed on Broadway in 2004.[47]

The third dramatic genre was the satyr play. Although the genre was popular, only one complete example of a satyr play has survived: Cyclops by Euripides.[48] Large portions of a second satyr play, Ichneutae by Sophocles, have been recovered from the site of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.[49]

Historiography

A second century AD Roman copy of a Greek bust of Herodotus from the first half of the fourth century BC

Two notable historians who lived during the Classical Era were Herodotus of Halicarnassus and Thucydides. Herodotus is commonly called "The Father of History."[50] His book The Histories is among the oldest works of prose literature in existence. Thucydides's book History of the Peloponnesian War greatly influenced later writers and historians, including the author of the book of Acts of the Apostles and the Byzantine Era historian Procopius of Caesarea.[51]

A third historian of ancient Greece, Xenophon of Athens, began his Hellenica where Thucydides ended his work about 411 BC and carried his history to 362 BC.[52] Xenophon's most famous work is his book The Anabasis, a detailed, first-hand 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: The Apology of Socrates to the Jury, The Symposium, and Memorabilia. Although both Xenophon and Plato knew Socrates, their accounts are very different. Many comparisons have been made between the account of the military historian and the account of the poet-philosopher.[53]

Philosophy

Many important and influential philosophers lived during the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Among the earliest Greek philosophers were the three so-called "Milesian philosophers": Thales of Miletus, Anaximander, and Anaximenes.[54] Of these philosophers' writings, however, only one fragment from Anaximander preserved by Simplicius of Cilicia has survived.[Notes 2][55]

Very little is known for certain about the life of the philosopher Pythagoras of Samos and no writings by him have survived to the present day,[56] but an impressive corpus of poetic writings written by his pupil Empedocles of Acragas has survived, making Empedocles one of the most widely attested Pre-Socratic philosophers.[57] A large number of fragments written by the philosophers Heraclitus of Ephesus[58] and Democritus of Abdera have also survived.[59]

Of all the classical philosophers, however, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are generally considered the most important and influential. Socrates did not write any books himself and modern scholars debate whether or not Plato's portrayal of him is accurate. Some scholars contend that many of his ideas, or at least a vague approximation of them, are expressed in Plato's early socratic dialogues.[60] Meanwhile, other scholars have argued that Plato's portrayal of Socrates is merely a fictional representation intended to expound Plato's own opinions who has very little to do with the historical figure of the same name.[61] The debate over the extent to which Plato's portrayal of Socrates represents the actual Socrates's ideas is known as the Socratic problem.[62][63]

Plato expressed his ideas through dialogues, that is, written works purporting to describe conversations between different individuals. Some of the best-known of these include: The Apology of Socrates, a purported record of the speech Socrates gave at his trial;[64] Phaedo, a description of the last conversation between Socrates and his disciples before his execution;[65] The Symposium, a dialogue over the nature of love;[66] and The Republic, widely regarded as Plato's most important work,[67][68] a long dialogue describing the ideal government.[69]

Aristotle of Stagira is widely considered to be one of the most important and influential philosophical thinkers of all time.[70] 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 like his teacher, he wrote dialogues, or conversations. However, 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.[71] Even from these books, the enormous range of his interests is evident: He explored matters other than those that are today considered philosophical; the extant treatises cover logic, the physical and biological sciences, ethics, politics, and constitutional government. Among Aristotle's most notable works are Politics, Nicomachean Ethics, Poetics, On the Soul, and Rhetoric.[72]

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