Greek Literature Essay Research Paper Greek LiteratureGREEK

Greek Literature Essay, Research Paper Greek Literature GREEK LITERATURE. The great British philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once

Greek Literature Essay, Research Paper

Greek Literature


The great British philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once

commented that all philosophy is but a footnote to Plato . A similar point can

be made regarding Greek literature as a whole.

Over a period of more than ten centuries, the ancient Greeks created a

literature of such brilliance that it has rarely been equaled and never

surpassed. In poetry, tragedy, comedy, and history, Greek writers created

masterpieces that have inspired, influenced, and challenged readers to the

present day.

To suggest that all Western literature is no more than a footnote to the

writings of classical Greece is an exaggeration, but it is nevertheless true

that the Greek world of thought was so far-ranging that there is scarcely an

idea discussed today that was not debated by the ancient writers. The only body

of literature of comparable influence is the Bible.

The language in which the ancient authors wrote was Greek. Like English,

Greek is an Indo-European language; but it is far older. Its history can be

followed from the 14th century BC to the present. Its literature, therefore,

covers a longer period of time than that of any other Indo-European language .

Scholars have determined that the Greek alphabet was derived from the

Phoenician alphabet. During the period from the 8th to the 5th century BC, local

differences caused the forms of letters to vary from one city-state to another

within Greece. From the 4th century BC on, however, the alphabet became uniform

throughout the Greek world.


There are four major periods of Greek literature: preclassical, classical,

Hellenistic-Roman, and Byzantine. Of these the most significant works were

produced during the preclassical and classical eras.

Epic Tradition

At the beginning of Greek literature stand the two monumental works of Homer,

the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’. 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 Legend). The ‘Iliad’ is

the famous story about the Trojan War. It centers on the person of Achilles, who

embodied the Greek heroic ideal.

While the ‘Iliad’ is pure tragedy, the ‘Odyssey’ is a mixture of tragedy and

comedy. It is the story of Odysseus, one of the warriors at Troy. After ten

years fighting the war, he spends another ten years sailing back home to his

wife and family. 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. The stories are told in

language that is simple, direct, and eloquent. Both are as fascinatingly

readable today as they were in ancient Greece.

The other great poet of the preclassical period was Hesiod. He is more

definitely recorded in history than is Homer, though very little is known about

him. He was a native of Boeotia in central Greece, and he lived and worked in

about 800 BC. His two works were ‘Works and Days’ and ‘Theogony’.

The first is a faithful depiction of the dull and 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.

Together the works of Homer and Hesiod made a kind of bible for the Greeks.

Homer told the story of a heroic past, and Hesiod dealt with the practical

realities of daily life.

Lyric Poetry

The type of poetry called lyric got its name from the fact that it was

originally sung by individuals or a chorus accompanied by the instrument called

the lyre. The first of the lyric poets was probably Archilochus of Paros about

700 BC. 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.

The two major poets were Sappho and Pindar. Sappho, who lived in the period

from 610 to 580 BC, has always been admired for the beauty of her writing. Her

themes were personal. They dealt with her friendships with and dislikes of other

women, though her brother Charaxus was the subject of several poems.

Unfortunately, only fragments of her poems remain.

With Pindar the transition has been made from the preclassical to the

classical age. He was born about 518 BC and is considered the greatest of the

Greek lyricists. His masterpieces were the poems that celebrated athletic

victories in the games at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and the Isthmus of Corinth.


The Greeks invented the epic and lyric forms and used them skillfully. They

also invented drama and produced masterpieces that are still reckoned as drama’s

crowning achievement. In the age that followed the defeat of Persia (490 to 479

BC), the awakened national spirit of Athens was expressed in hundreds of superb

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. 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. All of the

greatest poets competed for the prizes offered for the best plays.

Of the hundreds of dramas written and performed during the classical age,

only a limited number of plays by three authors have survived: Aeschylus,

Sophocles, and Euripides. The earliest of the three was Aeschylus, who was born

in 525 BC. He wrote between 70 and 90 plays, of which only seven remain. Many of

his dramas were arranged as trilogies, groups of three plays on a single theme.

The ‘Oresteia’ (story of Orestes) consisting of ‘Agamemnon’, ‘Choephoroi’

(Libation-bearers), and ‘Eumenides’ (Furies) is the only surviving trilogy. The

‘Persai’ is a song of triumph for the defeat of the Persians . ‘Prometheus

Bound’ is a retelling of the legend of the Titan Prometheus, a superhuman who

stole fire from heaven and gave it to mankind.

For about 16 years, between 484 and 468 BC, Aeschylus carried off prize after

prize. But in 468 his place was taken by a new favorite, Sophocles of Colonus

(496-406). Sophocles’ life covered nearly the whole period of Athens’ “golden

age.” He won more than 20 victories at the Dionysian festivals and produced more

than 100 plays, only seven of which remain. His drama ‘Antigone’ is typical of

his work: its heroine is a model of womanly self-sacrifice. He is probably

better known, though, for ‘Oedipus Rex’ and its sequel, ‘Oedipus at Colonus’.

The third of the great tragic writers was Euripides (484-406). He wrote at

least 92 plays. Sixty-seven of these are known in the 20th century some just in

part or by name only. Only 19 still exist in full. One of these is ‘Rhesus’,

which is believed by some scholars not to have been written by Euripides. His

tragedies are about real men and women instead of idealized figures.

The philosopher Aristotle called Euripides the most tragic of the poets

because his plays were the most moving. His dramas are performed on the modern

stage more often than those of any other ancient poet. His best-known work is

probably the powerful ‘Medea’, but his ‘Alcestis’, ‘Hippolytus’, ‘Trojan Women’,

‘Orestes’, and ‘Electra’ are no less brilliant


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.

Of the works of earlier writers, only some plays by Aristophanes exist. These

are a treasure trove of comic presentation. He poked fun at everyone and every


For boldness of fantasy, for merciless insult, for unqualified indecency, and

for outrageous and free political criticism, there is nothing to compare to the

comedies of Aristophanes. In ‘The Birds’ he held up Athenian democracy to

ridicule. In ‘The Clouds’ he attacked the philosopher Socrates. In ‘Lysistrata’

he denounced war. Only 11 of his plays have survived.

During the 4th century BC, there developed what was called the New Comedy.

Menander is considered the best of its writers. Nothing remains from his

competitors, however, so it is difficult to make comparisons. The plays of

Menander, of which only the ‘Dyscolus’ (Misanthrope) now exists, did not deal

with the great public themes about which Aristophanes wrote. He concentrated

instead on fictitious characters from everyday life stern fathers, young lovers,

intriguing slaves, and others. In spite of his narrower focus, the plays of

Menander influenced later generations. They were freely adapted by the Roman

poets Plautus and Terence in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. The comedies of the

French playwright Moliere are reminiscent of those by Menander .


Two of the most excellent historians who have ever written flourished during

Greece’s classical age: Herodotus and Thucydides. Herodotus is commonly called

the father of history, and his ‘History’ contains the first truly literary use

of prose in Western literature.

Of the two, Thucydides was the better historian. His critical use of sources,

inclusion of documents, and laborious research made his ‘History of the

Peloponnesian War’ a significant influence on later generations of historians.

A third historian, Xenophon, began his ‘Hellenica’ where Thucydides ended his

work about 411 BC and carried his history to 362 BC. His writings were

superficial in comparison to those of Thucydides, but he wrote with authority on

military matters. He therefore is at his best in the ‘Anabasis’, an 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 ‘Apology’, ‘Symposium’, and ‘Memorabilia’

(Recollections of Socrates). Although both Xenophon and Plato knew Socrates,

their accounts are very different, and it is interesting to compare the view of

the military historian to that of the poet-philosopher.


The greatest prose achievement of the 4th century was in philosophy. There

were many Greek philosophers, but three names tower above the rest: Socrates,

Plato, and Aristotle. It is impossible to calculate the enormous influence these

thinkers have had on Western society . Socrates himself wrote nothing, but his

thought (or a reasonable presentation of it) has been preserved in the

‘Dialogues’ of Plato. Even in translation, Plato’s style is one of matchless

beauty. All human experience is within its range. Best known of the ‘Dialogues’

is the ‘Republic’, a fairly long work. There are also many shorter books such as

the ‘Apology’, ‘Protagoras’, and ‘Gorgias’ that contain the penetratingly

insightful conversations of Socrates and his friends on every matter relating to

human behavior.

In the history of human thought, Aristotle is virtually without rivals. 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 it is known that like his

teacher he wrote dialogues, or conversations. None of these exists 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. Even from these books

the enormous range of his interests is evident. He explored matters other than

those that are today considered philosophical. The treatises that exist cover

logic, the physical and biological sciences, ethics, politics, and

constitutional government. There are also treatises on ‘The Soul’ and ‘Rhetoric’.

His ‘Poetics’ has had an enormous influence on literary theory and served as an

interpretation of tragedy for more than 2,000 years.

With the death of Aristotle in 322 BC, the classical era of Greek literature

drew to a close. In the successive centuries of Greek writing there was never

again such a brilliant flowering of genius as appeared in the 5th and 4th

centuries BC.

For today’s readers there are excellent modern translations of classical

Greek literature. Most are available in paperback editions.


By 338 BC all of the Greek city-states except Sparta had been conquered by

Philip II of Macedon. Greece was not independent again until the early 19th

century, a period of more than 2,000 years. Philip’s son Alexander the Great

extended his father’s conquests greatly. In so doing he inaugurated what is

called the Age of Hellenism.

The Greek word for Greece was Hellas. Hellenism, therefore, signifies the

spread of Greek language, literature, and culture throughout the Mediterranean

world. Alexander’s conquests were in the East, and Greek culture shifted first

in that direction. Athens lost its preeminent status as the leader of Greek

culture, and it was replaced temporarily by Alexandria, Egypt. After the rise of

Rome, all the Mediterranean area was brought within one far-flung empire. Greek

civilization then spread westward as well. Educated Romans learned to speak and

write Greek, and they looked to Greece’s golden age for inspiration in

philosophy, poetry, and drama. So dependent did Roman writers become, in fact,

that they produced very little that was not based upon Greek works, especially

in drama and philosophy.

Library of Alexandria

The city of Alexandria in northern Egypt became, from the 3rd century BC, the

outstanding center of Greek culture. It also soon attracted a large Jewish

population, making it the largest center for Jewish scholarship in the ancient

world. In addition, it later became a major focal point for the development of

Christian thought.

The Museum, or Shrine to the Muses, which included the library and school,

was founded by Ptolemy I. The institution was from the beginning intended as a

great international school and library. The library, eventually containing more

than a half million volumes, was mostly in Greek. It served as a repository for

every Greek work of the classical period that could be found. Had the library

lasted, it would have presented to modern scholars nearly every ancient book for

study. The library lasted for several centuries but was destroyed during the

reign of the Roman emperor Aurelian late in the 3rd century AD. A smaller

library was destroyed by the Christians in 391 because it harbored so many non-

Christian works.

Hellenistic Poetry

Later Greek poetry flourished primarily in the 3rd century BC. The chief

poets were Theocritus, Callimachus, and Apollonius of Rhodes.

Theocritus, who lived from about 310 to 250 BC, was the creator of pastoral

poetry, a type that the Roman Virgil mastered in his ‘Eclogues’. Of his rural-

farm poetry, ‘Harvest Home’ is considered the best work. He also wrote mimes

poetic plays set in the country as well as minor epics and lyric poetry.

Callimachus, who lived at the same time as Theocritus, worked his entire

adult life at Alexandria, where he was cataloger of the library. Only fragments

of his poetry survive. The most famous work was ‘Aetia’ (Causes). It is a kind

of poem called an elegy and in four books explains the legendary origin of

obscure customs, festivals, and names. Its structure became a model for the work

of the Roman poet Ovid. Of his elegies for special occasions, the best known is

the ‘Lock of Berenice’, a piece of court poetry that was later adapted by the

Roman Catullus. Callimachus also wrote short poems for special occasions and at

least one short epic, the ‘Ibis’, which was directed against his former pupil


Apollonius of Rhodes was born about 295 BC. He is best remembered for his

epic the ‘Argonautica’, about Jason and his shipmates in search of the golden

fleece. Apollonius studied under Callimachus, with whom he later quarreled. He

also served as librarian at Alexandria for about 13 years. Apart from the

‘Argonautica’, he wrote poems on the foundation of cities as well as a number of

epigrams. The Roman poet Virgil was strongly influenced by the ‘Argonautica’ in

writing his ‘Aeneid’ .

Lesser 3rd-century poets include Aratus of Soli and Herodas. Aratus wrote the

‘Phaenomena’, a poetic version of a treatise on the stars by Eudoxus of Cnidos,

who had lived in the 4th century. Herodas wrote mimes reminiscent of those of

Theocritus. His works give a hint of the popular entertainment of the times.

Mime and pantomime were a major form of entertainment during the early Roman


Hellenistic Prose

History. The significant historians in the period after Alexander were

Timaeus, Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Appian of

Alexandria, Arrian, and Plutarch. The period of time they cover extended from

late in the 4th century BC to the 2nd century AD.

Timaeus was born in Sicily but spent most of his life in Athens. His

‘History’, though lost, is significant because of its influence on Polybius. In

38 books it covered the history of Sicily and Italy to the year 264 BC, which is

where Polybius began his work. Timaeus also wrote the ‘Olympionikai’, a valuable

chronological study of the Olympic Games.

Polybius was born about 200 BC. He was brought to Rome as a hostage in 168.

At Rome he became a friend of the general Scipio Aemilianus. He probably

accompanied the general to Spain and North Africa in the wars against Carthage.

He was with Scipio at the destruction of Carthage in 146. The history on which

his reputation rests consisted of 40 books, five of which have been preserved

along with various excerpts. They are a vivid recreation of Rome’s rise to world

power. A lost book, ‘Tactics’, was on military matters.

Diodorus Siculus lived in the 1st century BC, the time of Julius Caesar and

Augustus. He wrote a universal history, ‘Bibliotheca historica’, in 40 books. Of

these, the first five and the 11th through the 20th remain. The first two parts

covered history through the early Hellenistic era. The third part takes the

story to the beginning of Caesar’s wars in Gaul, now France.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus lived late in the 1st century BC. His history of

Rome from its origins to the First Punic War (264 to 241 BC) is written from a

Roman point of view, but it is carefully researched. He also wrote a number of

other treatises, including ‘On Imitation’, ‘Commentaries on the Ancient Orators’,

and ‘On the Arrangement of Words’.

Appian and Arrian both lived in the 2nd century AD. Appian wrote on Rome and

its conquests, while Arrian is remembered for his work on the campaigns of

Alexander the Great. Arrian served in the Roman army. His book therefore

concentrates heavily on the military aspects of Alexander’s life. Arrian also

wrote a philosophical treatise, the ‘Diatribai’, based on the teachings of his

mentor Epictetus .

Best known of the late Greek historians to modern readers is Plutarch, who

died about AD 119. His ‘Parallel Lives’ of great Greek and Roman leaders has

been read by every generation since the work was first published. His other

surviving work is the ‘Moralia’, a collection of essays on ethical, religious,

political, physical, and literary topics.

Science and mathematics. Eratosthenes of Alexandria, who died about 194 BC,

wrote on astronomy and geography, but his work is known mainly from later

summaries. He is credited with being the first person to measure the Earth’s


Much that was written by the mathematicians Euclid and Archimedes has been

preserved. Euclid is known for his ‘Elements’, much of which was drawn from his

predecessor Eudoxus of Cnidus. The ‘Elements’ is a treatise on geometry, and it

has exerted a continuing influence on mathematics.

From Archimedes several treatises have come down to the present. Among them

are ‘Measurement of the Circle’, in which he worked out the value of pi; ‘Method

Concerning Mechanical Theorems’, on his work in mechanics; ‘The Sand-Reckoner’;

and ‘On Floating Bodies’.

The physician Galen, in the history of ancient science, is the most

significant person in medicine after Hippocrates, who laid the foundation of

medicine in the 5th century BC. Galen lived during the 2nd century AD. He was a

careful student of anatomy, and his works exerted a powerful influence on

medicine for the next 1,400 years .

Strabo, who died about AD 23, was a geographer and historian. His ‘Historical

Sketches’ in 47 volumes has nearly all been lost. His ‘Geographical Sketches’

remain as the only existing ancient book covering the whole range of people and

countries known to the Greeks and Romans through the time of Augustus.

Pausanias, who lived in the 2nd century AD, was also a geographer. His

‘Description of Greece’ is an invaluable guide to what are now ancient ruins.

His book takes the form of a tour of Greece, starting in Athens. The accuracy of

his descriptions has been proved by archaeological excavations.

The scientist of the Roman period who had the greatest influence on later

generations was undoubtedly the astronomer Ptolemy. He lived during the 2nd

century AD, though little is known of his life. His masterpiece, originally

entitled ‘The Mathematical Collection’, has come to the present under the title

‘Almagest’, as it was translated by Arab astronomers with that title.

It was Ptolemy who devised a detailed description of an Earth-centered

universe, an erroneous notion that dominated astronomical thinking for more than

1,300 years. The Ptolemaic view of the universe endured until the early modern

astronomers Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler overturned it.

The Septuagint. One of the most valuable contributions of the Hellenistic

period was the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The work was done at

Alexandria and completed by the end of the 2nd century BC. The name Septuagint

means “seventy,” from the tradition that there were 72 scholars who did the work.

Since the language of the early Christian community was Greek, the Septuagint

became its Bible. Other books not in the Hebrew Bible were also written in Greek

and included what is called the Apocrypha

Philosophy. Later philosophical works were no match for Plato and Aristotle.

Epictetus, who died about AD 135, was associated with the moral philosophy of

the Stoics. His teachings were collected by his pupil Arrian in the ‘Discourses’

and the ‘Encheiridion’ (Manual of Study). Diogenes Laertius, who lived in the

3rd century, wrote ‘Lives, Teachings, and Sayings of Famous Philosophers’, a

useful sourcebook. Another major philosopher was Plotinus. He, too, lived in the

3rd century. He transformed Plato’s philosophy into a school called Neoplatonism.

His ‘Enneads’ had a wide-ranging influence on European thought until at least

the 17th century.


Constantine the Great moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium

(now Istanbul) in about AD 330 and renamed the city Constantinople. The Eastern,

or Byzantine, Empire lasted until it was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 .

The civilization of this empire was Greek in language and heritage, but it was

Christian in religion.

In religion the crowning literary achievement was considered to be the New

Testament portion of the Christian Bible. This, coupled with a reverence for the

great literary traditions of the past, combined to make Byzantine literature

very conservative. The written language had to preserve the forms of speech of

the New Testament and the Church Fathers. Being heirs to such a great literary

tradition excluded any interest in outside ideas.

This undue emphasis on form smothered any likelihood of originality and

invention. The literary creations of the period have, therefore, bequeathed few

memorable works to the present.

Much of the writing was necessarily religious: sermons, hymns, theological

works, and descriptions of the lives of the martyrs and saints. Of the few

authors who are still read may be mentioned Eusebius (died 340), who wrote the

first church history; St. Basil the Great (died 379), who organized Eastern

monasticism; his brother Gregory of Nyssa (died 394), who wrote many works in

which he combined Platonic philosophy with Christian teaching; and Gregory of

Nazianzus (died 389), who is noted for his poems, sermons, letters, and writings

on theological controversies.

The writings of the historians, geographers, philosophers, scientists, and

rhetoricians are read today largely as curiosities or as sources of historical

information. A work such as ‘Byzantine History’, a 37-volume study by Nicephorus

Gregoras (died 1360), for example, constitutes a valuable primary source for the

14th century.

In philosophy only Proclus (died 485) deserves mention. He was the last major

Greek philosopher and was influential in spreading the ideas of Neoplatonism

throughout the Mediterranean world.

The only literature that showed any real originality was that written in the

vernacular, the language of the common people. This literature including poems,

romances, and epics was only written from the 12th century onward. Of the epics,

the most memorable is the story of Digenis Akritas, based on a historical figure

who died in about 788. It presents Akritas as the ideal medieval Greek hero.

After the capture of Constantinople by the Turks, Greek national life and

culture ended for centuries, as did literary production. It was only revived

when Greece became independent in 1829