Greek Literature

Greek literature, ancient

ancient Greek literature, the writings of the ancient Greeks. The Greek Isles are recognized as the birthplace of Western intellectual life.

Early Writings

The earliest extant European literary works are the Iliad and the Odyssey, both written in ancient Greek probably before 700 BC, and attributed to Homer. Among other early epic poems, most of which have perished, those of Hesiod, the first didactic poet, remain. The poems dealing with mythological subjects and known as the Homeric Hymns are dated 800–300 BC Only fragments survive of the works of many early Greek poets, including the elegiasts Tyrtaeus, Theognis, Solon, Semonides of Amorgos, Archilochus, and Hipponax. The most personal Greek poems are the lyrics of Alcaeus, Sappho and Anacreon. The Dorian lyric for choral performance, developed with Alcman, Ibycus, and Stesichorus, achieved perfection in Pindar, Simonides of Ceos, and Bacchylides.

The Classical Period

Greek drama evolved from the song and dance in the ceremonies honoring Dionysus at Athens. In the 5th cent. BC tragedy was developed by three of the greatest dramatists in the history of the theater, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Equally exalted was the foremost exponent of Attic Old Comedy, Aristophanes. Other writers who developed this genre included Cratinus and Eupolis, of whom little is known. The rowdy humor of these early works gave way to the more sedate Middle Comedy and finally to New Comedy, which set the form for this type of drama. The best-known writer of Greek New Comedy is Menander.

The writing of history came of age in Greece with the rich and diffuse work of Herodotus, the precise and exhaustive accounts of Thucydides, and the rushing narrative of Xenophon. Philosophical writing of unprecedented breadth was produced during this brief period of Athenian literature; the works of Plato and Aristotle have had an incalculable effect in the shaping of Western thought.

Greek oratory, of immense importance in the ancient world, was perfected at this time. Among the most celebrated orators were Antiphon, Andocides, Lysias, Isocrates, Isaeus, Lycurgus, Aeschines, and, considered the greatest of all, Demosthenes. "Classical" Greek literature is said to have ended with the deaths of Aristotle and Demosthenes (c.322 BC). The greatest writers of the classical era have certain characteristics in common: economy of words, direct expression, subtlety of thought, and attention to form.

Later Greek Literature

The next period of Greek literature reached its zenith in Hellenistic Alexandria, where a number of major philosophers, dramatists, poets, historians, critics, and librarians wrote and taught. New genres such as bucolic poetry emerged during the Hellenistic period, a time also characterized by scholarly editions of classics from earlier periods. The poems of Callimachus, the bucolics of Theocritus, and the epic of Apollonius Rhodius are recognized as major works of world literature.

The production of literary works at the time of the establishment of Roman control of the Mediterranean was enormous, a vast heterogeneous mixture ranging from the sublime to the pedantic and turgid. A great portion of the works produced have been lost. With the Roman political subjugation of Greece, Greek thought and culture, introduced largely by slave-tutors to the Roman aristocracy, came to exert enormous influence in the Roman world. Among the greatest writers of this period were the historians Polybius, Josephus, and Dio Cassius; the biographer Plutarch; the philosophers Philo and Dio Chrysostom; and the novelist Lucian. One great Roman work produced under Greek influence was the philosophical meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

With the spread of Christianity, Greek writing took a new turn, and much of the writing of the Greek Fathers of the Church is eloquent. Religion dominated the literature of the Byzantine Empire, and a vast treasury of writing was produced that is not generally well known to the West The most notable exception is the work of some historians (e.g., Procopius, Anna Comnena, George Acropolita, and Emperor John VI) and some anthologists (e.g., Photius).


The Loeb Classical Library offers text and translations of most of the extant ancient Greek literature. See T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra, The Oxford Book of Greek Verse (1938); C. M. Bowra, Ancient Greek Literature (1960); C. M. Bowra, Greek Lyric Poetry from Alcman to Simonides (rev. ed. 1961); H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Literature from Homer to the Age of Lucian (4th ed. 1961); H. D. F. Kitto, Poiesis: Structure and Thought (1966); P. E. Easterling and B. M. W. Knox, ed., Cambridge History of Classical Literature, Vol. I (1985); C. R. Beye, Ancient Greek Literature and Society (1987); R. Scodel, An Introduction to Greek Tragedy (2010).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Greek Literature: Selected full-text books and articles

A Companion to Hellenistic Literature By James J. Clauss; Martine Cuypers Wiley-Blackwell, 2010
Greek Literature for the Modern Reader By H. C. Baldry Cambridge University Press, 1951
FREE! A History of Ancient Greek Literature By Gilbert Murray D. Appleton, 1897
FREE! Essays on Greek Literature By Robert Yelverton Tyrrell MacMillan, 1909
Oxford Readings in the Greek Novel By Simon Swain Oxford University Press, 1999
Political Interpretations in Greek Literature By T. B. L. Webster Manchester University Press, 1948
Ancient Epistolary Fictions: The Letter in Greek Literature By Patricia A. Rosenmeyer Cambridge University Press, 2001
Greek Rhetoric and Literary Criticism By W. Rhys Roberts Longmans, Green and Co., 1928
Ancient Greek Literature By K. J. Dover; E. L. Bowie; Jasper Griffin; M. L. West Oxford University Press, 1997 (2nd edition)
Silence in the Land of Logos By Silvia Montiglio Princeton University Press, 2000
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