This period of Greek literature stretches from Homer until the 4th century BC and the rise of Alexander the Great. 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. Within poetry there were three super-genres: epic, lyric and drama. The common European terminology about literary genres is directly derived from the ancient Greek terminology. Lyric and drama were further divided into more genres: lyric in four (elegiac, iambic, 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.
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.
The Odyssey is an account of the adventures 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. Penelope was considered the ideal female, Homer depicted her as the ideal female based on her commitment, modesty, purity, and respect during her marriage with Odysseus. 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 the 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. Nonetheless, 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. Hesiod's two extant poems are Works and Days and Theogony. Works and Days 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.
The writings of Homer and Hesiod were held in extremely high regard throughout antiquity and were viewed by many ancient authors as the foundational texts behind ancient Greek religion; Homer told the story of a heroic past, which Hesiod bracketed with a creation narrative and an account of the practical realities of contemporary daily life.
Lyric poetry received its name from the fact that it was originally sung by individuals or a chorus accompanied by the instrument called the lyre. Despite the name, however, 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 latter genres were elegiac poetry and iambic poetry. Both were written in the Ionic dialect. Elegiac poems were written in elegiac couplets and iambic poems were written 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.
Lyric poetry in the narrowest sense was written in the Aeolic dialect using heavily varied poetic meters. The most famous of all lyric poets were the so-called "Nine Lyric Poets." Of all the lyric poets, Sappho of Lesbos (c. 630-c. 570 B.C.) was by far the most widely revered. In antiquity, her poems were regarded with the same degree of respect as the poems of Homer. Only one of her poems, "Ode to Aphrodite," has survived to the present day in its original, completed form. In addition to Sappho, her contemporary Alcaeus of Lesbos was also notable for monodic lyric poetry. The later poet Pindar of Thebes was renowned for his choral lyric poetry.
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 classical 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.
All fully surviving Greek tragedies are conventionally attributed to Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides. The authorship of Prometheus Bound, which is traditionally attributed to Aeschylus, and Rhesus, which is traditionally attributed to Euripides, are still questioned. There are seven surviving tragedies attributed to Aeschylus. Three of these plays, Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers, and The Eumenides, form a trilogy known as The Oresteia. One of these plays, (Prometheus Bound), however, may actually be the work of Aeschylus's son Euphorion.
Seven works of Sophocles have survived, the most acclaimed of which are the three Theban plays, which center around the story of Oedipus and his offspring.
There are nineteen surviving plays attributed to Euripides. The most well-known of these plays are Medea, Hippolytus, and Bacchae. Rhesus is sometimes thought to have been written by Euripides' son, or to have been a posthumous reproduction of a play by Euripides.
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. The only complete surviving works of classical comedy are eleven plays written by the playwright Aristophanes. 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 attacks the philosopher Socrates. In Lysistrata, he denounces war.
The third dramatic genre was the satyr play. Although the genre was popular, only one example of a satyr play has survived: Cyclops by Euripides.
Two notable historians who lived during the Classical Era were Herodotos of Halicarnassus and Thucydides. Herodotus is commonly called "The Father of History." His book The Histories is among the oldest works of prose literature in existence. Thucydides's book History of the Peloponnesian War greatly influenced later writers and historians, including the author of the book of Acts of the Apostles and the Byzantine Era historian Procopius of Caesarea.
A third historian of ancient Greece, Xenophon of Athens, began his Hellenica where Thucydides ended his work about 411 BC and carried his history to 362 BC. Xenophon's most famous work is his book The Anabasis, a detailed, first-hand 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: The Apology of Socrates to the Jury, The Symposium, and Memorabilia. Although both Xenophon and Plato knew Socrates, their accounts are very different. Many comparisons have been made between the account of the military historian and the account of the poet-philosopher.
Many important and influential philosophers lived during the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Of all these philosophers, however, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are generally considered the most important and influential. Although Socrates did not write any books, many of his ideas, or at least a vague approximation of them, are expressed in Plato's early socratic dialogues. Plato expressed his ideas through dialogues, that is, written works purporting to describe conversations between different individuals. Some of the best-known of these include: The Apology of Socrates, a purported record of the speech Socrates gave at his trial; Phaedo, a description of the last conversation between Socrates and his disciples before his execution; The Symposium, a dialogue over the nature of love; and The Republic, widely regarded as Plato's most important work, a long dialogue describing the ideal government.
Aristotle of Stagira is widely considered to be one of the most important and influential philosophical thinkers of all time. 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 like his teacher, he wrote dialogues, or conversations. However, none of these exist 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 extant treatises cover logic, the physical and biological sciences, ethics, politics, and constitutional government. Among Aristotle's most notable works are Politics, Nicomachean Ethics, Poetics, On the Soul, and Rhetoric.
By 338 BC all of the Greek city-states except Sparta had been united by Philip II of Macedon. Philip's son Alexander the Great extended his father's conquests greatly. 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.
Poetry flourished in Alexandria in the third century BC. The chief Alexandrian poets were Theocritus, Callimachus, and Apollonius of Rhodes. Theocritus, who lived from about 310 to 250 BC, invented a new genre of poetry—bucolic, a genre that the Roman Virgil would later imitate in his Eclogues.
Callimachus, who lived at the same time as Theocritus, worked his entire adult life at Alexandria and compiled a prose treatise entitled the Pinakes which catalogued the great works held in the library. Aside from a collection of hymns, only fragments of his poetry survive. The most famous work was Aetia (Causes). In four books of elegiac couplets it explained 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 which formed part of the Aetia and 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 poem The Argonautica, about Jason and his shipmates, the Argonauts, 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.
During the Hellenistic Era, the Old Comedy of the Classical Era was replaced by New Comedy. The most notable writer of New Comedy was the Athenian playwright Menander. None of Menander's plays have survived to the present day in their complete form, but one play, The Bad-Tempered Man, has survived to the present day in a near-complete form. Large portions of another play entitled The Girl from Samos have also survived.
The historian 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 begins his work. Timaeus also wrote the Olympionikai, a valuable chronological study of the Olympic Games.
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 circumference. 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; The Method of Mechanical Theorems, on his work in mechanics; The Sand Reckoner; and On Floating Bodies. A manuscript of his works is currently being studied.
Very little has survived of prose fiction from the Hellenistic Era. The Milesiaka by Aristides of Miletos was probably written during the second century B.C. The Milesiaka itself has not survived to the present day in its complete form, but various references to it have survived, along with numerous fragments from the book itself.
The ancient Greek novels Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton and Metiochus and Parthenope were probably both written during the late first century B.C. or early first century A.D., during the latter part of the Hellenistic Era.
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 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.
The poet Quintus of Smyrna, who probably lived during the late fourth century A.D., wrote Posthomerica, an epic poem narrating the story of the fall of Troy, beginning where The Iliad left off.
The poet Nonnus of Panopolis wrote The Dionysiaca, the longest surviving epic poem from antiquity. He also wrote a poetic paraphrase of The Gospel of John. Nonnus probably lived sometime during the late fourth century A.D. or early fifth century A.D.
The historian Polybius was born about 200 BC. He was brought to Rome as a hostage in 168. In 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 was a Greek historian who lived in the 1st century BC, around 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 first 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.
The historians Appian of Alexandria and Arrian of Nicomedia both lived in the second century A.D. 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 of Chaeronea, 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.
During later times, so-called "commonplace books," usually describing historical anecdotes, became quite popular. Surviving examples of this popular genre include works such as Aulus Gellius's Attic Nights, Athenaeus of Naucratis's Deipnosophistae, and Claudius Aelianus's De Natura Animalium and Varia Historia.
The physician 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, a notion that dominated astronomical thinking for more than 1,300 years. The Ptolemaic view of the universe endured until Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and other early modern astronomers replaced it with heliocentrism.
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, though often unreliable, 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.
The Roman Period was the time when the majority of extant works of Greek prose fiction were composed. The ancient Greek novels Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius and Daphnis and Chloe by Longus were both probably written during the early second century A.D. The Wonders Beyond Thule by Antonius Diogenes may have also been written during the early second century A.D., although scholars are unsure of its exact date. The Wonders Beyond Thule has not survived in its complete form, but a very lengthy summary of it written by Photios I of Constantinople has survived. The Ephesian Tale by Xenophon of Ephesus was probably written during the late second century A.D.
The satirist Lucian of Samosata lived during the late second century A.D. Lucian's works were incredibly popular during antiquity. Over eighty different writings attributed to Lucian have survived to the present day. Almost all of Lucian's works are written in the heavily Atticized dialect of ancient Greek language prevalent among the well-educated at the time. His book The Syrian Goddess, however, was written in a faux-Ionic dialect, deliberately imitating the dialect and style of Herodotus. Lucian's most famous work is the novel A True Story, which some authors have described as the earliest surviving work of science fiction.
The Aethiopica by Heliodorus of Emesa was probably written during the third century A.D.
Ancient Greek literature has had an enormous impact on western literature. Ancient Roman writers adopted the ancient Greek literary genre. Later, this same genre was adopted throughout the Middle Ages and well into the nineteenth century. Ancient Greek literature especially influenced later Greek literature. For instance, the Greek novels influenced the later work Hero and Leander, written by Musaeus Grammaticus. Ancient Roman writers were acutely aware of the ancient Greek literary legacy and so were most other western writers from the Renaissance period onwards.