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 ritings 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, he ‘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 he 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. 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 defeat of Persia (490 to 479 BC), the awakened national spirit of Athens was expressed in hundreds of superb ragedies 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, nly 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 tole 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 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 re 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. 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 ompetitors, 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 . History 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.