Ancient Greek literature spanned more than a thousand years, from prehistoric times to the A.D. 300s. To most people today, Greek literature means epic* poems and tragic dramas, but the ancient Greeks also expressed themselves in many other literary forms, including lyric* poems, comedies, essays, and novels. Historians turn to Greek literature for insights into the beliefs, customs, and ways of life of the ancient Greeks, but its importance goes far beyond its historical value. Some of the works of the Greek writers rank among the finest contributions to the world’s literary heritage. The influence of ancient Greek literature was one of the strongest forces in European culture for centuries, long after the decline of the civilization that had produced it.
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
* lyric poem expressing personal feelings, often similar in form to a song
The Greeks acquired the alphabet and the art of writing in the 700s B.C. Long before that time, however, they had folklore and epic as part of their oral literature, which was communicated by word of mouth rather than in writing. Poems were passed from generation to generation and from place to place by poets who were also storytellers. The performances of each poet were not word-for-word reproductions of an “original” poem. Instead, each performance was a new variation on a familiar tale.
Examples of this ancient oral literature survive in the Iliad and the Odyssey, two epic poems believed to be the work of the poet Homer. Although these lengthy poems were probably first written down in the 700s B.C., they are about events that occurred hundreds of years earlier, and some modern scholars believe that the poems existed for a long time— perhaps for several centuries—before they first appeared in written form. The two epics display many features of oral literature. They are rhythmic, and they repeat certain descriptive phrases, called epithets, which made it easier for poets to remember them. All storytellers knew certain standard phrases, such as “the rosy-fingered dawn” and “the wine-dark sea,” that could be inserted into the poem wherever it was metrically convenient.
Another of the earliest Greek authors was Hesiod, who was active around 700 B.C. His two surviving works, the Theogony and Works and Days, are examples of didactic* poetry. Like the epic poems, Hesiod’s works were passed on orally before they were written down in about 600 B.C. By that time, writing was becoming widespread in Greece. Literature shifted from works that were recited or sung to works that were written and read. The tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—the chief playwrights of the “golden age” of Greek drama in the 400s B.C.— were staged at the great musical festivals of Athens, and copies were made of their texts.
The shift from the spoken to the written word introduced two important new elements to Greek literature. One was the notion of an author, a person who created a specific literary work. Unlike Homer and the anonymous storyteller-poets, authors of written poems had definite identities. They wrote lyric poetry, which included autobiographical details and expressed personal feelings. The great lyric poet Sappho made herself the subject of her own poems.
The second change brought about by writing was the development of prose*, which was a new literary style. Earlier literary works, based on the oral tradition that relied on memorization, had all been poems. Prose, a purely written use of language, enabled people to keep records and to organize their ideas in a logical way. Prose made possible new forms of literature, such as the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, the dialogues* of the philosopher* Plato, and the scientific works of Aristotle.
The writers of Greek literature lived not only in Greece but also in Greek colonies in Asia Minor, the islands of the Aegean Sea, and southern Italy. In the 300s B.C., the conquests of Alexander the Great introduced the Hellenistic* age, during which Greeks ruled Egypt and other lands of the eastern Mediterranean. Greek became the literary language of the entire region. Many authors who did not speak Greek as their native language wrote in Greek to attract a wider audience for their works. Alexandria, a Greek city at the mouth of the Nile River in Egypt, was the site of the great Library and an important center of Hellenistic literary activity. After Greece came under Roman rule in 146 B.C., a new culture that combined Greek and Roman elements developed. Although Greek literature from this period contained few outstanding poems or plays, many scholarly writings—such as histories and works of philosophy and science— were produced.
* didactic intended to instruct
* prose writing without meter or rhyme, as distinguished from poetry
* dialogue text presenting an exchange of ideas between people
* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science
SEEING THE WORLD AS OPPOSITES
Greek thinking, especially In myth, tended to be organized around opposites. The Pythagorean table of opposites associated men with the right side of the body, with light, and with good, and women with the left side, with darkness, and with disaster. Ancient Greek writers frequently represented or associated women with the opposite of the cultural ideal: irrational as opposed to reasoning; deceitful as opposed to honorable. Playwrights sometimes challenged these cultural stereotypes in their works, but at other times maintained them. Of all Greek literature, Aeschylus, in his triology Oresteia, perhaps most often depicted women as possessing qualities that were the opposite of the Greek ideal.
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
Much of ancient Greek literature did not survive. Many lost works are known only from fragments or from passing references to them in surviving texts. Most surviving Greek literature is known from copies made long after the author composed the original—in some cases, hundreds of years later. Over the centuries, as works were copied and recopied by hand, changes and mistakes were introduced into the text. Indeed, some surviving works exist in several different versions. Often, it is impossible to know exactly what an ancient author wrote, what an audience heard, or what a reader read.
The Greek literature that survived had an enormous influence on European culture in general. The myths and stories of Greek literature became part of the shared heritage of educated people in the Western world. Until the late A.D. 1800s, most Western authors were familiar with Greek literature and expected their readers to be knowledgeable about it as well. When an author wrote that a character was “between Scylla and Charyb- dis,” for example, educated readers recognized the reference to an episode in the Odyssey. They knew that the character was in a dangerous position between two deadly perils or between two difficult choices. (See also Alphabets and Writing; Drama, Greek; Hellenistic Culture; Iliad; Letter Writing; Literature, Roman; Novel, Greek and Roman; Odyssey; Poetry, Greek and Hellenistic.)