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A Brief History of Greek Literature

Few literary traditions have been as influential to Western society as Greek literature. From the works of Homer to the musings of Aristotle, ancient Greek literature forms the foundation of Western thought. Greek literature and thought has continued to influence Western society, as the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire spread Greek thinking throughout the Western world. The Greek literary tradition is deep and rich, with a profound impact felt throughout all civilization. 

Preclassical Era

Greek literature traces its roots to the preclassical period, beginning around 800 B.C. The great poets, Homer and Hesiod, worked during this time period. Homer’s two great works, the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” are the foundation of Greek literature. These two epic poems set the tone, scope and form for Greek literature for centuries to come. 

Classical Era

The classical era of Greek literature was an explosion of forms, ideas and techniques that have formed the basis of Western literature. The classical period is particularly noteworthy for the emergence of Western philosophy and the invention of drama. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the three great philosophers of ancient Greece, lived during the classical period. These three Greeks have had an immeasurable impact on the development of civilization. Socrates is notable for being the muse of Greek philosophy, the original thinker who inspired all who followed after him. His teachings are preserved in many of Plato’s “Dialogues.” Plato was a student of Socrates who went on to found the Academy of Athens, the first institution of higher learning. Aristotle was himself a student of Plato’s; his status is such that he is often simply called “The Philosopher.” He composed many of the bedrock works of Western literature, including “Physics,” “Metaphysics,” “Politics,” and more.

Greek drama also had its own trio of giants - Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. These three playwrights are the only dramatists from the classical age whose works have survived. They are widely considered to be the equal of Shakespeare. Their works, including “Agamemnon,” “Antigone” and “Medea,” are the forerunners of modern drama and are still studied and performed today.

Hellenistic Era

By the conquest of Greece by Phillip II and later by Alexander the Great, the influence of Greek literature had begun to spread around the world. Poetry was the main literary product of the Hellenistic period, with the trio of Theocritus, Callimachus and Apollonius leading the way. Theocritus invented the pastoral poem, while Apollonius is famous for his “Argonautica,” the story of Jason and the search for the Golden Fleece. Callimachus worked at the Library of Alexandria and is famous for his “Aetia,” an elegy exploring the origins of many things. Callimachus was also the model for the Roman poet Ovid.

Greek literature has a storied history, full of towering names and prominent works. The history of Greek literature is in many ways the history of Western literature as a whole. The world owes Greece a great debt for its contribution to the development of human civilization.

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