Ancient Greek Literature

The ancient Greeks were incredible poets. Also, they invented tragedy and comedy.

The Greek authors used the events and characters from their rich history and mythology, and covered the topics that still interest us: life and death, war and peace, victory and failure, individual and society, and so on.

Greek literature can be divided into different periods: Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic.

Archaic Period in Greek Literature

  • Poems were not written down during this period. They were spoken at feasts and festivals, and they were transferred orally.

  • Most famous examples of archaic literature are Homer’s epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Aesop’s fables, Sappho’s lyrical poetry, and The Theogony (on the origin of gods) by Hesiod.

  • The Iliad depicts the end of the Trojan War and features legendary heroes such as Achilles and Hector, as well as the ancient femme fatale – beautiful Helen.

  • The Odyssey is the story of the Greek hero Odysseus who attempts to return home after the Trojan War has ended.

  • No one knows whether a man named Homer actually existed. The Homeric epics may have been created collectively. Nevertheless, these epics eventually inspired the Roman poet Virgil to create Aeneid.

  • Likewise, Aesop – a freed slave who traveled throughout Greece and made a collection of stories – maybe didn’t exist.

  • Hesiod’s work was dedicated to Greek gods and the way they emerged, according to the myth.

  • Sappho’s poems were hymns to the gods, but at the same time they were deeply personal.

Classical Period in Greek Literature

  • In the Classical period (4th and 5th centuries BCE) Greek literature evolved into drama – both tragedy and comedy.

  • The drama was literature with purpose – it was meant to be both entertaining and educational.

  • Most important authors – and the only ones whose works are preserved in their entirety – were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. While they wrote tragedies, the fourth famous author was the comediographer Aristophanes.

  • Aeschylus’s most famous work is the Oresteia trilogy, in which the Trojan War commander gets killed by his wife, and the story focuses on their son Orestes.

  • Sophocles is well known for his tragedies Oedipus Rex and Antigone.

  • Euripides was the author of Medea – a drama about a coldblooded woman who killed her own children to take revenge to her lover.

  • Aristophanes ridiculed contemporary politicians and philosophers – including Socrates – in his comedies, such as The Frogs, Clouds, Lysistrata, and others.

  • Many important non-fiction books were written during the classical era, including the works of the philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and historiographic work of Herodotus and Thucydides.

Hellenistic Period in Greek Literature

  • During the Hellenistic era, Greek poetry, drama, and culture spread all through the Mediterranean and influenced Roman writers such as Virgil, Ovid, and Horace.

  • The most famous Hellenistic writers were the poets Callimachus and Theocritus, and Apollonius Rhodius.

  • Callimachus’s works inspired the Roman poet Ovid to create the Metamorphoses.

  • Theocritus invented pastoral poetry.

  • Apollonius Rhodius wrote about the hero Jason and his attempts to return the legendary Golden Fleece.

  • Menander of Athens was the most famous Hellenistic playwright and the master of suspense.

  • In addition to classical genres, Greek authors wrote first novels. Apuleius wrote Metamorphoses, also known as The Golden Ass, and the Roman novelist Lucian wrote a similar book.

  • The Hellenistic age also gave us a lot of non-fictional works, such as the histories by Polybius and Dio Cassius, biographies of notable people by Plutarch, and many works of philosophy.

  • Greek writings deeply influenced Roman literature during this age. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote a book of philosophical meditations that is inspired by the ideas of Hellenistic (and classical) Greek philosophy.


Who wrote Homeric epics the Iliad and Odyssey?

No one knows for sure. Those are traditionally attributed to Homer, but we know nothing about that man.

The archaic poetry was part of the Greek oral tradition. Homer might have been one of the most famous people who recited those poems on public events.

Did Greeks in the classical era produce novels?

No, they wrote poetry, drama, and non-fiction.

What was the ancient Greek drama like? Was it similar to today’s plays?

Not quite, but we can compare the ancient Greek tragedies and comedies to the works of Shakespeare.

Why are some Roman authors listed along with Greek ones in the Hellenistic Era?

The Greek world tremendously impacted the Roman cultural life. The Romans read the Greeks, and they mirrored their ideas and forms.

Young Romans from wealthier families had Greek teachers and tutors, and they all spoke Greek.

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