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Greek literature

Greek literature, earliest and most important literature known to the Western world. It is completely original and natural in that there were no earlier literary models that the Greeks could look to for guidance. The distinguishing characteristic of classical Greek literature is that it was oral, meant to be delivered by mouth and heard by the ears.

Early literature

Epic poetry, long narratives depicting heroic deeds of both gods and mortals, was the first important form of Greek literature. Homer, the greatest Greek poet, composed 2 epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, in the 8th century B.C. The Iliad tells the story of the Trojan War. The Odyssey records the adventures of the Greek hero, Odysseus, upon his return home after the fall of Troy. Both emphasize the importance of honor and bravery. Hesiod, the first major poet to follow Homer, flourished during the 7th century B.C. Hesiod founded the didactic epic, which celebrated the hard work, thrift, and good judgment of the Greek peasant.

Lyric poetry, sung to the music of the lyre, evolved about 650 B.C. and dealt with human emotions. Sappho, a poet of the 6th century B.C., composed a special type of lyric poem called the melic poem, which was sung, not recited. The melic poems are characterized by highly emotional, non-didactic text. Sappho's love poetry is without parallel in Greek literature and is noted for its expression of passion and tragedy. Choral lyrics, sung by groups accompanied by music and dancing, were another form of lyric poetry. The victory odes of Pindar are choral masterpieces.

Elegiac poetry, which is related to lyric poetry, consisted of couplets that alternated a line of hexameter (6 feet) with a line of pentameter (5 feet).

The Golden Age

For a period of about 200 years, beginning in the late 500s B.C., Athens was the center of Greek culture. The height of this period, from 461 B.C. to 431 B.C., is often called the Golden Age. During this period, largely as a result of the emergence of democracy, literature flourished.

Drama in the form of tragedy became the most important literary form. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are the 3 greatest tragic playwrights. Aeschylus's plays are noted for seriousness, majestic language, and complexity of thought. Those of Sophocles are noted for characterization, graceful language, and sense of proportion. Euripides, the “philosopher of the stage,” explored human emotions and passions.

Comedy was also prominent in the 400s B.C. The plays of Aristophanes, a writer of bawdy and satiric comedy, reflected the sense of freedom, vitality, and spirit that pervaded Athens at the time.

Herodotus, called the “father of history,” traveled throughout the civilized world in the mid-400s B.C., recording the manners and customs of nations and peoples. He and the other historians wrote in prose. Thucydides, in his account of the Peloponnesian War, attempted to explain the effects of politics on history.

Philosophical literature evolved about 450 B.C. with a group of philosophers called sophists. Scholars and teachers of theories of knowledge, they invented rhetoric, the art of persuasive speaking. Literature was essentially oral and spoken in prose.The ideas of Socrates are preserved in the writing of his student, Plato.

The Hellenistic Age

During the reign of Alexander the Great in the 300s B.C., Greek ideas and culture spread throughout the civilized world to the East. The period following his death in 323 B.C. is called the Hellenistic Age. During this time, Athens gave way to Alexandria, Egypt, as the center of Greek civilization. Theocritus, an important poet of this period, introduced pastoral poetry, which expressed an appreciation for nature. Callimachus and others produced short, witty poems called epigrams. Apollonius of Rhodes continued to write the traditional long epic poetry.

The Greco-Roman Age

The period of the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 B.C. saw prose as the prominent literary form. Plutarch wrote biographies contrasting Greek and Roman leaders. Lucian of Samosata satirized the philosophers of his day. Epictetus founded the stoic school of philosophy, which stressed acceptance and endurance. Pausanias wrote an important history of ancient Greece in the A.D. 100s. Galen's medical writings appeared in this period. Ptolemy, an astronomer, mathematician, and geographer, produced scientific writings. Longus wrote Daphnis and Chloë, the forerunner of the novel, in this period. Plotinus founded the Neoplatonic school, the last great creation of ancient philosophy.

Medieval literature

From 395 until 1453 Greece was a part of the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople (Istanbul) was the center of Greek culture and literature. Christian religious poetry became the dominant form. Romanos the Melode, who composed long metrical hymns called kontakia, was the greatest Greek poet of the medieval period.

Modern Greek literature

In the 1800s Dionysios Solomos wrote his poems in demotic Greek, the language of the common people. Prior to World War I Greek prose was limited to short stories depicting provincial life. The period after the war saw the rise of the psychological and sociological novel. Greek poets achieved renown in this period. In 1963 George Seferis, a lyric poet, became the first Greek to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Odysseus Elytis, also a poet, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1979.

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