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Greek literature
Ancient Greek literature (until 4th century AD)
Byzantine literature (4th – 15th century)
Modern Greek literature (post 11th century)
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Ancient Greek literature refers to literature written in the Ancient Greek language until the 4th century AD.

Contents

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. 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). Another is that literary works, being the preserve of an elite, were written on finer materials such as parchment, which have not survived.

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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, 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. 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. The first of the lyric poets was probably Archilochus of Paros, circa 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.

Tragedy

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 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. 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.

Comedy

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.

Historiography

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.

Philosophy

The greatest 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) is believed to be given by Plato's early socratic dialogues. Aristotle is virtually without rivals among scientists and philosophers. 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 his death in 322 BC, the classical era of Greek literature drew to a close.

Hellenistic Age

By 338 BC all of the Greek city-states except Sparta had been conquered by Philip II of Macedon. Philip's son Alexander the Great extended his father's conquests greatly. In so doing he inaugurated what is called the Hellenistic Ages. 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.

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.

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 Feast 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, compiling a catalogue 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.

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 Cnidus, 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 Empire

The Hellenistic and Roman Periods

While the transition from city-state to empire affected philosophy a great deal, shifting the emphasis from political theory to personal ethics, Greek letters continued to flourish both under the Successors (especially the Ptolemies) and under Roman rule. Romans of literary or rhetorical inclination looked to Greek models, and Greek literature of all types continued to be read and produced both by native speakers of Greek and later by Roman authors as well. A notable characteristic of this period was the expansion of literary criticism as a genre, particularly as exemplified by Demetrius, Pseudo-Longinus and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. The Greek novel, typified by Chariton's Callirhoe and the Hero and Leander of Pseudo-Musaeus, also emerged. The New Testament, written by various authors in varying qualities of Koine Greek also hails from this period, the most important works being the Gospels and the Epistles of Saint Paul.

Historiography

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.

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 of his period was Plotinus. 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

See also

Further reading

  • Beye, Charles Rowan (1987). Ancient Greek Literature and Society. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801418747. 
  • Easterling, P.E., and Knox, B.M.W., [editors] (1985). The Cambridge History of Classical Literature: Greek literature: Volume 1. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] ; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521210429. 
  • Flacelière, Robert (1964). A Literary History of Greece.. (Translated by Douglas Garman). Chicago: Aldine Pub. Co.. 
  • Gutzwiller, Kathryn (2007). A guide to Hellenistic literature. Blackwell. ISBN 0631233229. 
  • Hadas, Moses (1950). A History of Greek Literature. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 
  • Lesky, Albin (1966). A history of Greek literature. Translated by James Willis andyrea7646 Cornelis de Heer. New York: Crowell. 
  • Schmidt, Michael (2004). The first poets: lives of the ancient Greek poets. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-64394-0. 
  • C. A. Trypanis (1981). Greek Poetry from Homer to Seferis. University of Chicago Press. 
  • Whitmarsh, Tim (2004). Ancient Greek Literature. Cambridge: Polity Press. ISBN 0745627927. [[hu:Ókori görösu5zfhWT3je2jmak754atuz4a,l747zxtfyayj767ieztwyayya,k65hjskes5xri'ss5y6r

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