Aside from drama, ancient Greek poetry can be divided into epic poetry and lyric poetry. Epics are long, serious poems that tell a story. They are composed in a grand style and usually describe the deeds of heroes* or gods. The greatest Greek epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were composed by Homer in the 700s B.C. The ancient Greeks considered the epic the highest form of literature.
Most lyric poems were sung, usually to the accompaniment of an instrument. They were often about love or other personal themes. Lyric poetry reached its peak during the 600s to the early 400s B.C., with the works of such great poets as Sappho and Pindar. Greek lyric poetry is considered an important ancestor of much modern Western poetry.
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability often descended from a god
Epic poetry had its roots in traditional, oral narrative verse, which told of the mighty exploits of war heroes. Homer composed his epics in the 700s B.C., and in the A.D. 400s the poet Nonnus wrote the last significant ancient Greek epic, the Epic of Dionysus.
Homeric Epic. Out of traditional narrative verse, Homer created his two great epics. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, he introduced several poetic techniques that were adopted by later epic poets. These techniques came to be the defining features of the Greek epic.
One of the most important features of Homeric epic was dactylic hexameter. In this verse line, one long syllable is followed either by two short ones or by a second long syllable, and this pattern is repeated six times in each verse. After Homer, virtually all epic poets wrote in dactylic hexameter. In addition, because Homer used the Ionic dialect* of the Greek language, Ionic was considered the only suitable dialect for the epic.
Homer used the technique of direct speech extensively. Even in sections of his work that are filled with action, about a third of the verses are written as the actual words of the characters. Dialogue makes Homer’s narrative seem more vivid, and it reveals much about the characters and their motives. Modeling themselves after Homer, later epic poets also used direct speech. Other features of Homer’s works that were adopted by later epic poets include invocations (prayers) to the Muse, dreams that foretell the future, visits to the underworld*, extended similes*, and gods that guide the course of action.
Didactic Poetry, a type of poetry that was closely related to epic poetry was the didactic poetry of Hesiod, who wrote around the same time as Homer. Unlike Homer’s epic poetry, which was intended to tell a story, Hesiod’s didactic poetry taught a moral lesson or instructed the reader in some other way. In his poems Works and Days and Theogony, Hesiod provided advice to the workingman and explained how mythical heroes were related to the gods.
The idea that poetry was a means of teaching important truths influenced how the Greeks regarded all epic poetry and epic poets. Some Greeks considered Homer an authority on everything from medicine to military tactics, and they believed his poems had political authority. So influential was Homer’s work in Greek culture that it has been called the “Bible of the Greeks.”
* dialect form of speech characteristic of a region that differs from the standard language in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar
* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades
* simile figure of speech that compares two unlike things; often introduced by the word like or as
Hellenistic Epic. Epics continued to be written in the Homeric* style until the middle of the 400s B.C., when epic poets adopted more sophisticated literary techniques. Antimachus, one of the best-known poets of this time, was greatly respected, both as a scholar and as a poet. Because of his influence, technical skill and elegance of form became essential features of fine epic poetry.
The poet and critic Callimachus, who lived during the 200s B.C., criticized Antimachus’s work and the epic in general. According to Callimachus, the epic was too long to be written with the care that was expected of literary works during the Hellenistic* age. In response to Callimachus’s criticism, poets wrote short epic fragments, called epyllia, which remained popular for centuries.
The long Homeric epic did not completely fall out of fashion, and many epics were written during the Hellenistic age. This may have reflected an interest in distant places, which was especially great after the conquests of Alexander the Great. However, the audience for the epic had changed. While the Homeric epic had reached almost everyone, epics written in the Hellenistic age were intended for an educated audience, which was largely of men from the highest social classes.
* Homeric referring to the Greek poet Homer the time in which he lived, or his works
* 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.
Bucolic Poetry. Around 275 B.C., Theocritus invented a new form of poetry, called bucolic poetry. Like the epic, bucolic poetry was written in dactylic hexameter. Unlike the Homeric epic, however, bucolic poems were comparatively short. Moreover, this form did not feature heroes and gods in distant lands but focused instead on the common people in the Greek countryside. In Greek, the word bucolic means “pertaining to cowherds,” and the style was called bucolic because the main character was often a herdsman. Greek poets continued to write bucolic poetry for another 200 years after Theocritus.
Lyric poetry may actually be older than epic poetry because it arose from ancient folk and religious songs. It first appeared in written form during the 600s B.C. For the next 200 years, many of the best poets of Greece expressed themselves in lyric poetry. Such poetry remained important until the 400s B.C., when drama replaced the lyric as the most significant form of Greek literature.
There are three different forms of Greek lyric poetry. The lyric itself was sung to the accompaniment of a lyre*. Another type of lyric, the elegy, was not sung but spoken, often to the accompaniment of a flute. Iambic lyric, the third type of lyric, was spoken without accompaniment. Either an individual or a chorus performed Greek lyric poetry. Lyric that was performed by an individual is called monodic lyric, and lyric that was performed by a chorus is called choral lyric. Monodic and choral lyric differ in form and content, as well as in style of performance.
* lyre stringed instrument similar to a small harp
* ode lyric poem often addressed to a person or an object
SIMILES IN GREEK EPIC POETRY
Greek epic poets made great use of a literary device that came to be called a Homeric simile. More extensive than a simple comparison, a Homeric simile vividly describes a character or an event. For example, a hero in Homer's Iliad did not go to battle merely "like a lion," but like a mountain-bred lion, who for a long time has been starved of meat, and his proud heart urges him to go for the flocks and get inside the well- built fold. And should he find the herdsmen there guarding their flock with spears and dogs, he has no thought to leave the fold without attacking but leaps in and seizes his prey or else is himself wounded among the foremost by a dart from some swift hand.
Monodic Lyric. A monodic lyric is a short poem that usually describes the personal experiences and feelings of the poet. Typically, it is written in the first person. The leading practitioners of the monodic lyric were Sappho and Alcaeus, both of whom wrote around 600 B.C., and Anacreon, who wrote around 500 B.C.
Although only fragments of Sappho’s poetry have survived, she was without doubt the greatest of the monodic lyric poets. She had no equal in the eloquence, imagery, and metrical skill of her verse. She also wrote with great intensity and feeling, yet with delicacy. The only completely preserved poem of Sappho is her famous “Ode to Aphrodite.” As is true of most of Sappho’s poems, this ode* is about love.
Like Sappho, the poet Alcaeus also wrote about love. However, he also wrote on political topics and wrote several drinking songs. Only fragments of Alcaeus’s work survive. Anacreon wrote poems that were less personal than those of Sappho or Alcaeus. His wit and wordplay distanced his poetry from his personal feelings. Several centuries later, this approach characterized Greek literature throughout the Hellenistic age.
Choral Lyric. Longer and more complex than monodic lyric, choral lyric is less concerned with the personal experiences and feelings of the poet. Instead, it focuses on group values and attitudes and is often based on shared myths and common knowledge. The earliest known example of choral lyric is a poem by Aleman of Sparta that was written in the 600s B.C. Aleman’s work is quite long and complex in its structure, suggesting that a long tradition of choral lyric already existed by that time. After Aleman, the length and complexity of choral lyric increased even more. Stesicho- rus, who wrote choral lyrics around 600 B.C., was the earliest Greek poet to come from the Greek colonies in Italy. The poet Simonides, who wrote around 500 B.C., may have been the first ancient Greek poet to charge fees for his work.
The final period of choral lyric lasted from 500 B.C. to 450 B.C., when Pindar and Bacchylides composed their victory odes. Pindar, the more brilliant poet of the two, composed victory odes for the Olympic Games and the other great athletic contests of Greece. After Pindar, the writing of victory odes seems to have come to a halt, perhaps because his work was considered to be the high point of this literary form. (See also Alphabets and Writing; Books and Manuscripts; Drama, Greek; Iliad; Languages and Dialects; Literacy; Literature, Greek; Odyssey.)