Greek literature

Greek literature

Greek literature, ancient, 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 B.C., 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 B.C. 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. B.C. 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 B.C.). 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); Cambridge History of Classical Literature; Vol. I (1985); and C. R. Beye, Ancient Greek Literature and Society (1987).

Greek literature, modern, literature written in Greek in the modern era, primarily beginning during the period of rebellion against the rule of the Ottoman Empire.

The Rebirth of Greek Literature

Under Turkish rule, Greek literature virtually ceased, except in Crete. In the late 18th cent. two patriots, the poet Rhigas Pheraios (1751-98) and the intellectual Adamantios Koraës (1748-1833), sought to encourage a revival of Greek letters. The revolutionary society Philike Hetairea, founded in 1816, reflected the growing influence in Greece of the French Enlightenment and the rise of European romanticism; both furnished the intellectual framework for the War of Independence (1821-27) and spurred the postwar nationalist revival that awakened a modern Greek literature.

The Language Debate

Literature was hampered, however, by conflict between supporters of the demotic, or popular, literary style, and adherents of a reformed classical style. The Greeks had been completely cut off from the classical tradition by centuries of Turkish occupation and the successful revolution had created such pride in the new nation that there were many champions of a demotic style. Others hoped to restore the classical language which, until the 15th cent., had had an unbroken tradition. Throughout the rest of the 19th cent. and also in the 20th cent., the reformed classical and demotic styles were upheld by uncompromising adherents.

Displaying the impact of Byron's romanticism, the poetry of Alexandros Rangabe (1810-92) offered the finest example of the classical style. Demetrios Vernadakis (1834-1907) and Spyridon Vasiliadis (1845-74) were 19th-century dramatists who wrote romantic plays in classical speech forms. While only recognized as the official language in 1976, demotic Greek won increasing acceptance in all literary genres, particularly in poetry, which flourished above all other forms in modern Greek literature.

The Ionian poets of the middle and late 19th cent. freely used the vernacular. Their leader was Dionysios Solomos (1798-1857), a poet strongly under the influence of German idealism, whose "Ode to Liberty" became the national anthem. Others were Andreas Kalvos (1796-1869), Andreas Lascaratos (1811-1901), the poet Aristotle Valaoritis (1824-79), and the critic Jacob Polylas (1824-96). The Greek-French Jean Psichari (1854-1929) aroused a storm with his satire of the purists, The Voyage (1888), and the publication in 1901 of a demotic translation of the New Testament caused a riot in Athens among university students.

The demotic had the staunch support of such outstanding poets as Kostes Palamas; the classicist Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933); the popular George Drossinis (1859-1951); and the collector of folk poetry, Apostolos Melachrinos. The short stories of Alexandros Papadiamandis (1851-1911) and Argyris Eftaliotis (1849-1923) expressed indigenous themes in the vernacular. Demotic dramatists include the naturalists Ioannis Kambisis (1872-1902) and the psychological dramatist Gregorios Xenopoulos (1867-1951), also an outstanding novelist. In 1927 the poet Angelos Sikelianos and his wife furthered the demotic cause with presentations at Delphi of classic Greek drama in the vernacular.

The Twentieth Century

In general, 20th-century Greek literature reflects the evolution of European modernism in such various forms as French symbolism and surrealism or British-American experiments in narrative technique. Symbolism appears in the work of George Seferis and George Kostiras, surrealism in that of Odysseus Elytis. Recognized as masters of modern Greek letters, Seferis and Elytis each received the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1963 and 1979, respectively. The poet Maria Polydouri (1902-30) gained renown through her intense, erotic love lyrics. The effort of modern Greek writers to achieve a synthesis of the rich traditions of the Greek heritage is well represented in the work of Nikos Kazantzakis.

Novelists such as Stratis Tsirkas (1911-81), Costas Taktsis (1927-), and Vassilis Vassilikos (1934-) have combined formal innovation with a close analysis of postwar Greek society. Meanwhile, a group of women lyric poets have gained distinction, including Victoria Theodorou (1928-), Angeliki Paulopoulou (1930-), Eleni Fourtouni (1933-), and Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke (1934-). In 1967 the government of King Constantine II was overthrown in a bloodless coup by a group of army colonels; despite strict censorship, antigovernment works still found their way into print. With the fall of the military government in 1974, civil liberties were restored and censorship ceased.


See W. Barnstone, ed., Eighteen Texts: Writings by Contemporary Greek Authors (1972); E. Keeley and P. Bien, ed., Modern Greek Writers (1972); C. A. Trypanis, Greek Poetry from Homer to Sefaris (1981).

Greek literature refers to those writings autochthonic to the areas of Greek influence, typically though not necessarily in one of the Greek dialects, throughout the whole period in which the Greek-speaking peoples have existed.

Ancient Greek literature (Before AD 300)

Ancient Greek literature refers to literature written in Ancient Greek from the oldest surviving written works in the Greek language until approximately the fifth century AD and the rise of the Byzantine Empire. The Greek language arose from the proto-Indo-European language, though roughly one-third of its words cannot be derived from various reconstructions of that tongue. A number of alphabets and syllabaries had been used to render Greek, but surviving Greek literature was written in a Phoenician-derived alphabet that arose primarily in Greek Ionia and was fully adopted by Athens by the fifth century BC.


At the beginning of Greek literature stand the two monumental works of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Though dates of composition vary, these works were fixed around 800 BC or after. The other great poet of the preclassical period was Hesiod. His two surviving works are Works and Days and Theogony. Some ancients thought Homer and Hesiod roughly contemporaneous, even rivals in contests, but modern scholarship raises doubts on these issues.


In the classical period many of the genres of western literature became more prominent. Lyrical poetry, odes, pastorals, elegies, epigrams; dramatic presentations of comedy and tragedy; histories, rhetorical treatises, philosophical dialectics, and philosophical treatises all arose in this period. As the genres evolved, various expectations arose, such that a particular poetic genre came to require the Doric or Lesbos dialect.

The two major lyrical poets were Sappho and Pindar. The Classical era also saw the dawn of drama. Of the hundreds of tragedies written and performed during the classical age, only a limited number of plays by three authors have survived: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Like tragedy, the comedy arose from a ritual in honor of Dionysus, but in this case the plays were full of frank obscenity, abuse, and insult. The surviving plays by Aristophanes are a treasure trove of comic presentation. Menander is considered the best of the writers of the New Comedy.

Two of the most influential historians who had yet lived flourished during Greece's classical age: Herodotus and Thucydides. A third historian, Xenophon, began his "Hellenica" where Thucydides ended his work about 411 BC and carried his history to 362 BC.

The greatest prose achievement of the 4th century was in philosophy. Among the tide of Greek philosophy, three names tower above the rest: Socrates —even though he didn't write anything himself, Plato, and Aristotle.


By 338 BC many of the key Greek city-states had been conquered by Philip II of Macedon. Philip II's son Alexander extended his father's conquests greatly. The Greek colony of Alexandria in northern Egypt became, from the 3rd century BC, the outstanding center of Greek culture.

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.

One of the most valuable contributions of the Hellenistic period was the translation of the Old Testament into Greek. The work was done at Alexandria and completed by the end of the 2nd century BC. The name Septuagint means "seventy," from the tradition that there were 72 scholars who did the work.

Roman Age

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.

Eratosthenes of Alexandria, who died about 194 BC, wrote on astronomy and geography, but his work is known mainly from later summaries. The physician Galen, in the history of ancient science, is the most significant person in medicine after Hippocrates, who laid the foundation of medicine in the 5th century BC.

The New Testament, written by various authors in varying qualities of Koine Greek hails from this period (1st to early 2nd century AD), the most important works being the Gospels and the Epistles of Saint Paul.

Patristic literature was written in the Hellenistic Greek of this period. Syria and Alexandria, especially, flourished.

Byzantine (AD 290-1453)

Byzantine literature refers to literature of the Byzantine Empire written in Atticizing, Medieval and early Modern Greek.

If Byzantine literature is the expression of the intellectual life of the Byzantine Greeks during the Christian Middle Ages, then it is a multiform organism, combining Greek and Christian civilization on the common foundation of the Roman political system, set in the intellectual and ethnographic atmosphere of the Near East. Byzantine literature partakes of four different cultural elements: the Greek, the Christian, the Roman, and the Oriental, the character of which commingling with the rest. To Hellenistic intellectual culture and Roman governmental organization are added the emotional life of Christianity and the world of Oriental imagination, the last enveloping all the other three.

Aside from personal correspondence, literature of this period was primarily written in the Atticizing style. Some early literature of this period was written in Latin; some of the works from the Latin Empire were written in French.

Chronicles, distinct from histories, arose in this period. Encyclopedias also flourished in this period.

Modern Greek (post 1453)

Modern Greek literature refers to literature written in common Modern Greek, emerging from late Byzantine times in the 11th century AD. During this period, spoken Greek became more prevalent in the written tradition, as demotic Greek came to be used more and more over the Attic idiom and the katharevousa reforms.

Erotokritos is undoubtedly the masterpiece of this period, and perhaps the supreme achievement of modern Greek literature. It is a verse romance written around 1600 by Vitsentzos Kornaros (1553-1613).

The Korakistika (1819), a lampoon written by Jakovakis Rizos Neroulos and directed against the Greek intellectual Adamantios Korais, is a major example of the Greek Enlightenment and emerging nationalism.

Contemporary Greek literature

Contemporary Greek literature is typically written in the monotonic Greek alphabet. Some of the most renowned representatives of modern Greek literature include:

See also


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