Ancient Greek Literature

Ancient Greek literature refers to literature written
in the Ancient Greek language until the 4th century.

Classical and Pre-Classical Antiquity

This period of Greek literature stretches from Homer until the 4th century BC and the rise of Alexander the Great. English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once claimed that all of philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. To suggest that all of Western literature is no more than a footnote to the writings of ancient 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 not already debated by the ancient writers.

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. Several theories have been advanced to explain this curious absence. One is that Mycenaean literature, like the works of Homer and other epic poems, was passed on orally, since the Linear B syllabary is not well-suited to recording the sounds of Greek (see phonemic principle).

Greek literature was divided in well-defined literary genres, each one having a compulsory formal structure, about both dialect and metrics. The first division was between prose and poetry. Trendly, fictional literature was written in verse, while scientific literature was in prose. Within the poetry we could separate three super-genres: epic, lyric and drama. We can observe here that the Greek terminiology has became the common European terminology about literary genres. Lyric and drama were divided in more genres: lyric in four (elegiac, giambic, monodic lyric and choral lyric); drama in three (tragedy, comedy and pastoral drama). About literature in prose there was more freedom; the main areas were historiography, philosophy and political rhetoric.

Epic Poetry

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 Question). 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, and direct. The Homeric dialect was an archaic language based on Ionic dialect mixed with some element of Aeolic dialect and Attic dialect, the latter due to the Athenian edition of 6th century BC. The epic verse was the hexameter.

The other great poet of the preclassical period was Hesiod. Unlike Homer, Hesiod speaks of himself in his poetry; it remains true that 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. His two works were Works and Days and Theogony. The first 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. Together the works of Homer and Hesiod comprised a kind of Bible for the Greeks; Homer told the story of a heroic relatively-near past, which Hesiod bracketed with a creation narrative and an account of the practical realities of contemporary 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. Although, despite the name, 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 genres were the elegiac poetry and the iambic poetry. Both were written in ionic dialect, elegiac poetry was in elegiac couplets and iambic poems in iambic trimeter. The first of the lyric poets was probably Archilochus of Paros, circa 700 BC, the most important iambic poet. 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 lyric in narrow sense was written in aeolic dialect and meters were really varied. The most famous authors were the so-called Nine lyric poets, and particularly Alcaeus and Sappho for monodic lyric and Pindarus for choral lyric.

List of Greek Poets


Ancient Greek drama developed around Greece's theater culture. Drama was particularly developed in Athens, so works are written in Attic dialect. The dialogues are in iambic trimeter, while chorus are in the meters of choral lyric.

In the age that followed the Greco-Persian Wars, 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. In the classic 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. All of the greatest poets competed for the prizes offered for the best plays.

The three best authors are Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. From Aeschylus, we still have seven tragedies, among which the only surviving series of three tragedies performed together, the so-called Oresteia. Seven works of Sophocles have survived, the most important of which are Oedipus rex and Antigone. From Euripides, seventeen tragedies have survived, among them Medea and The Bacchae.

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 institution. 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.

The third dramatic genre was the satyr play. Although the genre was popular, only one example has survived in its entirety, Euripides' Cyclops.









Two of the most famous 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 more careful 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 of ancient Greece, 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. 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.



Manetho - King List




The influence of Ancient Greek Literature on Western Literature has been enormous. In fact, the frame of Greek literary genres has been almost perfectly adopted by Latin literature, firstly, and then by the European literatures, until the 18th century. The Greek works were well known by Roman writers, as well as by European writers since Renaissance. So, these works, particularly the Homeric poems and the tragedies were the model for the successive writers of the same genres. In this influence was determining the fact that, since Renaissance, the Greek Literature was taught in the European high schools, along with Latin literature, and still is in some country, like Germany, Austria and Italy. So, the influence of Greek literature exceeded literature proper and also hit, for instance, philosophy (like in the thought of S¿ren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche) and psychology (like in the theories of Sigmund Freud).