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Sappho: Greek red-figure vase painting

Greek literature: the poet Sappho

There’s a lot of it

The Greeks wrote a great deal, and a surprising amount of what they wrote is still available to us today, 2500 years later.

The alphabet comes to Greece
All our ancient Greece articles

We traditionally divide Greek literature into types:

1) the epic (EH-pick):

Around 700 BC, soon after the alphabet came to Greece, Homer wrote two connected epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Epics are long poems which tell the story of a hero. Greek poets wrote other epics, but the Iliad and the Odyssey are the main ones that we still have complete.

Who was Homer?
Summary of the Iliad
What’s the Odyssey about?

2) the poem:

Two early Greek examples are Hesiod‘s Theogony and Works and Days, both from around 700 BC. There are also a number of shorter poems by Archilochus (Are-KILL-oh-cuss) and Sappho (SA-foe) from the 600s BC, among others. Sappho’s poems are unusual in being written by a Greek woman¬† – but there are other Greek women writers too.

Who was Hesiod?
More about Archilochus
And about Sappho

Menander, in a fresco painting

A later portrait of the playwright Menander

3) the play:

Greek people divided plays into tragedies and comedies. Tragedies are generally sad, while comedies are funny. The oldest tragedies that we still have were written by Aeschylus around 500 BC.

Aeschylus
Sophocles
Euripides
All about Greek theaters

We also have tragedies written by Sophocles (around 450 BC) and Euripides (around 425 BC).

The oldest comedies that we still have are by Aristophanes, and were also written around 425 BC. Some later comedies were written by Menander around 350 BC.

Aristophanes
Menander

The Greeks wrote plays in verse, like poems. The plays we have are mostly the ones kids read in school (because there were more copies of them, so they were more likely to get preserved), so they’re generally about serious themes, and appropriate for school – they don’t have any sexy parts. Probably Greek theater also had lots of funny, R-rated plays too, but they’re lost now.

4) the history:

Two major histories that we still have are those by Herodotus and Thucydides. About 450 BC, Herodotus wrote a history of the Persian Wars. About 400 BC, Thucydides wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War. After the Peloponnesian War, Xenophon wrote about his adventures as a mercenary soldier for the Persians. During the Roman takeover of Greece,Polybius wrote a History of Rome in Greek. Greeks wrote history in prose (not in verse).

Who was Herodotus?
What about Thucydides?
And Xenophon?
Who was Polybius?

5) philosophical dialogues and treatises:

The first written philosophy was written by Plato around 380 BC in the form of a kind of play, two or more people talking to each other. Later on both Plato and his student Aristotle wrote regular philosophical books, in prose without dialogues.

What about Socrates?
Plato the philosopher
Who was Aristotle?

6) legal speeches and political speeches:

The first speeches we have surviving are from the 300s BC. The three most famous speechwriters were Lysias , Isocrates, and Demosthenes.

Demosthenes

Learn by doing: putting on a Greek play
More about Greek philosophy

Bibliography and further reading about Greek literature:

 

History of Greek Literature, by Albin Lesky (reprinted 1996).

Greek Theatre, by Stewart Ross (1999). Easy reading.

Greek and Roman Theater, by Don Nardo. For teenagers.

More Greek stories – Greek myths
Ancient Greece
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