Western Literature
  The Beginnings of Literature. Myths and Legends

Classical Myth

Myth and Mystery

Bible. Hebrew literature

Ancient Greek literature

Ancient Greek literature. Greek theatre

Ancient Greek literature. Philosophical prose

Latin (Roman) literature

Latin (Roman) Literature. The Silver Age

Latin (Roman) Literature. Renaissance

Modern Italian Literature
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The Middle Ages. Elizabethan England

The Restoration

The Rise of the Novel

Cervantes and Spanish literature

The Enlightenment


Classicism and Naturalism

The 19th century - Prose

The 20th century - Modernism

The 20th century - The Political Novel

Lawrence Alma-Tadema
A Reading from Homer

Ancient Greek literature








We can be certain that people told stories almost as soon as they learned how to speak, but stories could not be recorded until they could be written down. Pictures came before writing - the cave paintings at Altamira are nearly 20,000 years old — and pictures, like words, are a form of communication. Marks that identified objects are at least as old, although a full system of writing did not develop until about 5,000 years ago.


Ancient literature

The stark fact about ancient Western literature is that the greater part of it has perished. Some of it had been forgotten before it was possible to commit it to writing; fire, war, and the ravages of time have robbed posterity of most of the rest; and the restitutions that archaeologists and paleographers achieve from time to time are small. Yet surviving writings in Greek and far more in Latin have included those that on ancient testimony marked the heightsreached by the creative imagination and intellect of the ancient world.

Five ancient civilizations—Babylon and Assyria, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the culture of the Israelites in Palestine—each came into contact with one or more of the others. The two most ancient, Assyro-Babylonia, with its broken clay tablets, and Egypt, with its rotted papyrus rolls, make no direct literary signal to the modern age; yet Babylon produced the first full code of laws and two epics of archetypal myth, which came to be echoed and re-echoed in distant lands, and Egypt's mystical intuition of a supernatural world caught the imagination of the Greeks and Romans. Hebrew culture exerted its greatest literary influence on the West because of the place held by its early writings as the Old Testament of the Christian Bible; and thisliterature profoundly influenced Western consciousness through translation from about the time of St. Augustine onward into every vernacular language as well as into Latin. Until then, Judaism's concentrated spirituality set it apart from the Greek and Roman world.

Though influenced by the religious myths of Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Egypt, Greek literature has no direct literary ancestry and appears self-originated. Roman writers looked to Greek precept for themes, treatment, and choice of verse and metre. Rome eventually passed the torch on to the early Middle Ages, by which time Greek had been subsumed under a wholly Latin tradition and was only rediscovered in its own right at the Renaissance—the “classical” tradition afterward becoming a threat to natural literary development, particularly when certain critics of the 17th century began to insist that the subjects and style of contemporary writing should conform with those employed by Greece and Rome.

All of the chief kinds of literature—epic, tragedy, comedy, lyric, satire, history, biography, and prose narrative—were established by the Greeks and Romans, and later developments have for the most part been secondary extensions. The Greek epic of Homer was the model for the Latin of Virgil; the lyric fragments of Alcaeus and Sappho were echoed in the work of Catullus and Ovid; the history of Thucydides was succeeded by that of Livy and Tacitus; but the tragedy of the great Athenians of the 5th century BC had no worthy counterpart in Roman Seneca nor had the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle in those of any ancient Roman, for the practical Romans were not philosophers. Whereas Greek writers excelled in abstraction, the Romans had an unusually concrete vision and, as their art of portraiture shows, were intensely interested in human individuality.

In sum, the work of these writers and others and perhaps especially that of Greek authors expresses the imaginative and moral temper of Western man. It has helped to create his values and to hand on a tradition to distant generations. Homer's epics extend their concern from the right treatment of strangers to behaviour in situations of deep involvement among rival heroes, their foes, and the overseeing gods; the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles are a sublime expression of man's breakthrough into moral awareness of his situation. Among Roman authors an elevated Stoicism stressing the sense of duty is common to many, from Naevius, Ennius, and Cato to Virgil, Horace, and Seneca. A human ideal is to be seen in the savage satire of Juvenal and in Anacreon's songs of love and wine, as it is in the philosophical thought of Plato and Aristotle. It is given voice by a chorus of Sophocles, “Wonders are many, but none is more wonderful than man, the power that crosses the white sea. . . .” The human ideal held up in Greek and Latin literature, formed after civilization had emerged from earlier centuries of barbarism, was to be transformed, before the ancient world came to its close, into the spiritual ideal of Judeo-Christianity, whose writers foreshadowed medieval literature.



Greek literature


Ancient Greek literature

Of the literature of ancient Greece only a relatively small proportion survives. Yet it remains important, not only because much of it is of supreme quality but also because until the mid-19th century the greater part of the literature of the Western world was produced by writers who were familiar with the Greek tradition, either directly or through the medium of Latin, who were conscious that the forms they used were mostly of Greek invention, and who took for granted in their readers some familiarity with Classical literature.

The periods

The history of ancient Greek literature may be divided into three periods:

(to the end of the 6th century bc);

(5th and 4th centuries bc);

Hellenistic and Greco-Roman
(3rd century bc onward).


Archaic period

(to the end of the 6th century bc)

The Greeks created poetry before they made use of writing for literary purposes, and from the beginning their poetry was intended to be sung or recited. (The art of writing was little known before the 7th century bc. The script used in Crete and Mycenae during the 2nd millennium bc [Linear B] is not known to have been employed for other than administrative purposes, and after the destruction of the Mycenaean cities it was forgotten.)

Its subject was myth—part legend, based sometimes on the dim memory of historical events; part folktale; and part religious speculation. But since the myths were not associated with any religious dogma, even though they often treated of gods and heroic mortals, they were not authoritative and could be varied by a poet to express new concepts.

Thus, at an early stage Greek thought was advanced as poets refashioned their materials; and to this stage of Archaic poetry belonged the epics ascribed to Homer "Iliad", "Odyssey", retelling intermingled history and myth of the Mycenaean Age. These two great poems, standing at the beginning of Greek literature, established most of the literary conventions of the epic poem. The didactic poetry of Hesiod "Works And Days" "The Theogony", "Shield of Heracles" (c. 700 bc) was probably later in composition than Homer’s epics and, though different in theme and treatment, continued the epic tradition.

The several types of Greek lyric poetry originated in the Archaic period among the poets of the Aegean Islands and of Ionia on the coast of Asia Minor. Archilochus of Paros, of the 7th century bc, was the earliest Greek poet to employ the forms of elegy (in which the epic verse line alternated with a shorter line) and of personal lyric poetry. His work was very highly rated by the ancient Greeks but survives only in fragments; its forms and metrical patterns—the elegiac couplet and a variety of lyric metres—were taken up by a succession of Ionian poets. At the beginning of the 6th century Alcaeus and Sappho, composing in the Aeolic dialect of Lesbos, produced lyric poetry mostly in the metres named after them (the alcaic and the sapphic), which Horace was later to adapt to Latin poetry. No other poets of ancient Greece entered into so close a personal relationship with the reader as Alcaeus, Sappho, and Archilochus do. They were succeeded by Anacreon of Teos, in Ionia, who, like Archilochus, composed his lyrics in the Ionic dialect. Choral lyric, with musical accompaniment, belonged to the Dorian tradition and its dialect, and its representative poets in the period were Alcman in Sparta and Stesichorus in Sicily.

Both tragedy and comedy had their origins in Greece. “Tragic” choruses are said to have existed in Dorian Greece around 600 bc, and in a rudimentary dramatic form tragedy became part of the most famous of the Dionysian festivals, the Great, or City, Dionysia at Athens, about 534. Comedy, too, originated partly in Dorian Greece and developed in Attica, where it was officially recognized rather later than tragedy. Both were connected with the worship of Dionysus, god of fruitfulness and of wine and ecstasy.

Written codes of law were the earliest form of prose and were appearing by the end of the 7th century, when knowledge of reading and writing was becoming more widespread. No prose writer is known earlier than Pherecydes of Syros (c. 550 bc), who wrote about the beginnings of the world; but the earliest considerable author was Hecataeus of Miletus, who wrote about both the mythical past and the geography of the Mediterranean and surrounding lands.

Aesopus, a semi-historical, semi-mythological character of the mid-6th century, have been attributed the moralizing beast fables inherited by later writers.

Archilochus of Paros

flourished c. 650 bc, Paros [Cyclades, Greece]

poet and soldier, the earliest Greek writer of iambic, elegiac, and personal lyric poetry whose works have survived to any considerable extent. The surviving fragments of his work show him to have been a metrical innovator of the highest ability.

Archilochus’s father was Telesicles, a wealthy Parian who founded a colony on the island of Thasos. Archilochus lived on both Paros and Thasos. Fragments of his poetry mention the solar eclipse of April 6, 648 bc, and the wealth of the Lydian king Gyges (c. 680–645 bc). The details of Archilochus’s life, in the ancient biographical tradition, are derived for the most part from his poems—an unreliable source because the events he described may have been fictitious, or they may have involved imaginary personae or ritual situations.

Modern discoveries, however, have supported the picture given in the poetry. Two inscriptions dedicated to Archilochus were discovered in a sacred area on Paros; they are named, after the men who dedicated them, the Mnesiepes inscription (3rd century bc) and the Sosthenes inscription (1st century bc). Archilochus’s self-presentation was taken seriously as early as the late 5th century bc by the Athenian politician and intellectual Critias, who denounced him for presenting himself as an impoverished, quarrelsome, foul-mouthed, lascivious lower-class bastard. Some scholars feel that the Archilochus portrayed in his poems is too scurrilous to be real.

Archilochus probably served as a soldier. According to ancient tradition, he fought against Thracians on the mainland near Thasos and died when the Thasians were fighting against soldiers from the island of Naxos. In one famous poem, Archilochus tells, without embarrassment or regret, of throwing his shield away in battle. (“I saved my life. What do I care about my shield? The hell with it! I’ll buy another just as good.”) The motif of the abandoned shield appears again in the lyric poems of Alcaeus and Anacreon, in a parody by Aristophanes (Peace), and in a learned variation by the Latin poet Horace (Carmina).

Although the truth is difficult to discern with certainty from the poems and other evidence, Archilochus may have been disreputable. He was particularly famous in antiquity for his sharp satire and ferocious invective. It was said that a man named Lycambes betrothed his daughter Neobule to the poet and then later withdrew the plan. In a papyrus fragment published in 1974 (the “Cologne Epode”)—the longest surviving piece of Archilochus’s poetry—a man, who is apparently the poet himself, tells in alternately explicit and hinting language how he seduced the sister of Neobule after having crudely rejected Neobule herself. According to the ancient accounts, Lycambes and his daughters committed suicide, shamed by the poet’s fierce mocking.

Archilochus was the first known Greek poet to employ the elegiac couplet and various iambic and trochaic metres, ranging from dimeter to tetrameter, as well as epodes, lyric metres, and asinarteta (a mixture of different metres). He was a master of the Greek language, moving from Homeric formulas to the language of daily life in a few lines. He was the first European author to make personal experiences and feelings the main subject of his poems: the controlled use of the personal voice in his verse marks a distinct departure from other surviving Greek verse, which is typically more formulaic and heroic. For his technical accomplishments Archilochus was much admired by later poets, such as Horace, but there was also severe criticism, especially of a moralistic character, by writers such as the poets Pindar and Critias (both 5th century bc).



born c. 620 bce, Mytilene, Lesbos [Greece]
died c. 580 bce

Greek lyric poet whose work was highly esteemed in the ancient world. He lived at the same time and in the same city as the poet Sappho. A collection of Alcaeus’s surviving poems in 10 books (now lost) was made by scholars in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 2nd century bce, and he was a favourite model of the Roman lyric poet Horace (1st century bce), who borrowed the alcaic stanza. Only fragments and quotations from Alcaeus’s work survived into the Byzantine Middle Ages and into the modern world, but papyrus texts discovered and published in the 20th century considerably expanded knowledge of his poetry, enabling scholars to evaluate his major themes and his quality as a poet.

Alcaeus’s poems may be classed in four groups: hymns in honour of gods and heroes, love poetry, drinking songs, and political poems. Many of the fragments reflect the vigour of the poet’s involvement in the social and political life of Mytilene. They express a closed world of aristocratic values and conservatism, in which realism and idealism coexist—although the idealism is limited by the norms and goals of the poet’s political faction.

At the end of the 7th century bce and the beginning of the 6th century, aristocratic families on Lesbos contended for power, among them the family of Alcaeus and his brothers, Antimenidas and Cicis. These families enrolled in hetaireiai (“factions”), societies of nobles united by an oath of loyalty and a community of ethical and political views. In the years 612–609 a conspiracy organized by Alcaeus’s brothers and their ally Pittacus overthrew the tyrant Melanchrus. Alcaeus was probably too young to participate in the overthrow, but later he fought next to Pittacus in a war between Mytilene and Athens over the control of Sigeum, a promontory on the Troad near the Hellespont. He reportedly told his friend Melanippus how he had to abandon his shield to the enemy to save his own life.

A new tyrant, Myrsilus, came to power in Lesbos, and Alcaeus became his fierce opponent. After the failure of a conspiracy, Alcaeus went into exile in Pyrrha, a small town near Mytilene. During his exile Alcaeus wrote bitter polemics against Pittacus, who had joined another faction. The poet greeted Myrsilus’s death with fierce joy: “Now we must get drunk and drink whether we want to or not, because Myrsilus is dead!” With this death, Alcaeus was able to return to his home.

To replace Myrsilus, the city appointed Pittacus as aisymnētēs (“organizer”); he held power for a decade (590–580 bce). Pittacus enjoyed a reputation for benevolence and was later included among the Seven Sages (the 6th-century grouping of representative wise and clever men from all parts of Greece). For Alcaeus, however, Pittacus’s rise to power meant a return to exile. (An ancient critic reported that he was exiled three times.) Alcaeus’s poetry in this period dwells on his misfortunes, battles, and tireless rancour against Pittacus, whom he mocks for disloyalty, physical defects (including flat feet and a big stomach), rudeness, and low origins. There is little evidence regarding the poet’s exile; he may have visited Egypt and perhaps Thrace and Boeotia. Pittacus may have recalled him from his second exile. His death is likewise a mystery, although he implied in his poetry that he was old, and some believe that he died in battle.

Alcaeus’s most influential image is his allegory of the ship of state, found in a number of fragments. Another common topic is wine, the gift of Dionysus, “the mirror of a man,” which in every season offers the poet a remedy against his woes. This theme supports the theory that much of his verse was composed for symposia, a context that would explain his allusive language, full of references that presuppose the shared experiences, values, and aspirations of political partisans (hetairoi) gathered together for drink and song. Horace reported that Alcaeus also wrote hymns and erotic verse for handsome young men.

Other fragments of Alcaeus’s work convey the atmosphere of everyday life in 6th-century Mytilene. He wrote of ships and rivers, of a girls’ beauty contest, of a flock of wigeon in flight, and of the flowers that herald the spring. He managed to convey the spirit and the values of the city-states of the Aegean, as, for example, when he declares that true greatness lies “not in well-fashioned houses, nor in walls, canals, and dockyards, but in men who use whatever Fortune sends them.”


Anacreon of Teos

born c. 582 bc, Teos, Ionia [now Siğacık, Tur.]
died c. 485

ancient Greek lyric poet who wrote in the Ionic dialect. Only fragments of his verse have survived. The edition of Anacreon’s poetry known to later generations was probably prepared in Alexandria by Aristarchus in the 2nd century bc and divided into 9 or 10 books on the basis of metrical criteria.

Anacreon immigrated to the newly founded city of Abdera, on the coast of Thrace, after Teos was conquered by the Persians in 546 bc. His working life was spent largely at the courts of tyrants, who were important patrons of art and literature in the 6th century. The first was Polycrates of Samos. After Polycrates was murdered by the Persians, Anacreon moved to Athens, writing under the patronage of Hipparchus. Even after Hipparchus’s assassination in 514 bc, the poet continued to enjoy popularity in Athens, as is shown by his appearances in works of art of the period. After Hipparchus’s death Anacreon may have moved to Thessaly; he may have died at Teos, where his tomb was said to have been found.

Anacreon wrote both serious and light poetry. A serious fragment on politics, for example, names the opponents of Polycrates. The poems quoted by later sources, however, are in praise of love, wine, and revelry. Anacreon’s treatment of these subjects is formal and elegant, since he disliked excess and vulgarity. His tone conveys ironic enjoyment, and his language and use of metre are smooth and simple but creative.

From his erotic verse there survive striking images of beloved young men: the peaceful character of Megistes, the eyes of Cleobulus, the blond locks of the Thracian Smerdies. Girls also appear, such as the girl from Lesbos and a shy and subdued Thracian girl. (Both are probably hetairai, or courtesans, attending a symposium.) For Anacreon love is light, fantastic, and bizarre—but never dramatic—as shown in his various images of Eros. The poet recommends the same approach, joyous and carefree rather than licentious and violent, for the dinner party. As ancient critics had already observed, Anacreon’s poetry finds room for the same human types that would populate Greek mime and New Comedy, such as the nouveau riche rascal Artemon and the bald and tiresomely pretentious Alexis.

Anacreon’s poetic sentiments and style were widely imitated by Hellenistic and Byzantine Greek writers, though they tended to exaggerate the strain of drunken eroticism and frivolity present in his work. There thus arose the Anacreontea, a collection of about 60 short poems composed by post-Classical Greek writers at various dates and first published by Henri Estienne as the work of Anacreon in 1554. These had a great influence on Renaissance French poetry. The word Anacreontics was first used in England in 1656 by Abraham Cowley to denote a verse metre supposedly used by the ancient Greek poet and consisting of seven or eight syllables with three or four main stresses. Anacreon himself, it should be noted, composed verse in a variety of Greek lyric metres. Robert Herrick, William Oldys, and William Shenstone wrote original Anacreontics in English, and Thomas Moore provided perhaps the finest translation of the Anacreontea in 1800, under the title Odes of Anacreon. The Anacreontea also influenced Italian and German literature.


Alcman in Sparta

flourished 7th century bc, Sparta [Greece]

Greek poet who wrote choral lyrics in a type of Doric related to the Laconian vernacular, used in the region that included Sparta.

Alcman’s work was divided by the editors of Hellenistic Alexandria (3rd and 2nd centuries bc) into six books, or papyrus rolls, but the poems survived into modern times only in fragments. The longest is a partheneion (a choral song for girls) discovered on a 1st-century papyrus in Egypt in 1855. This ode was probably written to celebrate a rite of passage, and the poem is characterized by sensuous imagery and erotic implications. The Women Divers, the plot of which is unknown, may have taken up an entire papyrus roll.

The Suda, a Byzantine lexicon (late 10th century ad), describes Alcman as a man “of an extremely amorous disposition and the inventor of love poems.” His learned verse is full of geographic detail. One fragment, telling of the sleeping world at the end of the day, was imitated by Virgil, Ludovico Ariosto, Torquato Tasso, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (in his Wanderers Nachtlied, 1776–80). The fragment’s sympathy with nature is unusual in Greek poetry. In two other fragments the poet attributes his poetic creativity to his imitation of nature; he says that he knows how all birds sing and that he composed his song by using human language to reproduce the voice of the partridge.

Alcman’s lighthearted manner, so different from the later Spartan style, gave rise to the traditional notion that he was not a Spartan but a native of Sardis in Lydia. In fact, contemporary scholars know that Sparta in the 7th century bc had a brilliant cultural life, a context into which Alcman fit perfectly.


Stesichorus in Sicily

born 632/629 bc, Mataurus, Bruttium, Magna Graecia [now in southern Italy]
died 556/553 bc, Catania [or Himera], Sicily

Greek poet known for his distinctive choral lyric verse on epic themes. His name was originally Teisias, according to the Byzantine lexicon Suda (10th century ad). Stesichorus, which in Greek means “instructor of choruses,” was a byname derived from his professional activity, which he practiced especially in Himera, a town on the northern coast of Sicily.

Scholars at Alexandria in the 3rd or 2nd century bc divided Stesichorus’s work into 26 books, or papyrus rolls; although many titles survive, there exist only a few fragments of the actual poetry. Late 20th-century publications of papyrus finds have furthered the study of his work. The titles suggest that he took the themes of his poems from the traditional epic heritage found in mainland Greece and Asia Minor as well as in Italy and Sicily. Helen, Wooden Horse, Sack of Troy, Homecomings of the Heroes, and Oresteia are based on stories about the Trojan War. Cerberus, Geryoneis, and Cycnus are about Heracles. Funeral Games for Pelias is part of the legend of the Argonauts. Yet the poetry broke with the epic tradition, in which a single performer declaimed verse in dactylic hexameters, as Stesichorus’s lyric verses in the Doric dialect were accompanied by a stringed instrument. The Roman educator Quintilian (1st century ad) wrote that Stesichorus supported the weight of the epic with his lyre. Some ancient sources placed Stesichorus in a line of solo kithara (lyre) performers.

Stesichorus was credited with the three-part articulation of choral lyric—strophic lines followed by antistrophic lines in the same metre, concluding with a summary line, called an epode, in a different metre—that became canonical. The apparent length of some of his poems (Geryoneis seems to have reached more than 1,300 verses, and the Oresteia is in two books) has caused some scholars to doubt that a chorus could have performed them. The ancient testimony, however, is unanimous in classifying his poetry as choral lyric; it is possible that the choruses performed appropriate movements while the solo performer (perhaps the poet) sang the words.

According to a story that was famous in the ancient world, Stesichorus was blinded by Helen after he blamed her in a poem for causing the Trojan War. He regained his sight by composing a double retraction, the Palinode. Scholars have doubted the poet’s authorship of works such as Calyce, Rhadine, and Daphne, which seem to anticipate themes popular in the romantic poetry of the Hellenistic age (323–30 bc).


Pherecydes of Syros

flourished c. 550 bc

Greek mythographer and cosmogonist traditionally associated with the Seven Wise Men of Greece (especially Thales).

Pherecydes is credited with originating metempsychosis, a doctrine that holds the human soul to be immortal, passing into another body, either human or animal, after death. He is also known as the author of Heptamychos, a work, extant in fragments only, describing the origin of the world from a divine trinity: Zas (Zeus), Chronos or Kronos, and Chthonie or Ge (Mother Earth). Pherecydes was characterized by Aristotle in Metaphysics, Book XIV, as a theologian who mixed philosophy and myth. Tradition says that he was the teacher of Pythagoras. He is not to be confused with Pherecydes of Athens, a genealogist who lived about a century later.


Hecataeus of Miletus

flourished early 5th century bc, Ionia [now in Turkey]

groundbreaking Greek author of an early history and geography. When the Persian Empire ruled Asia Minor, Hecataeus tried to dissuade the Ionians from revolt against Persia (500 bc), and in 494, when they were obliged to sue for terms, he was one of the ambassadors to the Persian satrap, whom he persuaded to restore the constitution of the Ionic cities. He was presumably mature by this time; such tasks were not entrusted to young men.

One of Hecataeus’s two known works, the Genealogia (also known as Historiai or Heroologia), seems to have been a systematic account in four books of the traditions and mythology of the Greeks, but comparatively few fragments of it survive. More than 300 fragments (most of them place names), however, remain of the Periodos gēs or Periēgēsis (“Tour Round the World”); it was written in two parts—one covering Europe, the other “Asia” (which included Egypt and North Africa). The work describes the peoples who would be met in voyages around the Mediterranean and Black seas, in a clockwise direction, beginning with the Strait of Gibraltar and ending at Morocco. In diversions he also mentions Scythia, Persia, India, Egypt, and Nubia.

Hecataeus was in general the pioneer in those geographic and ethnographic fields that remained attractive to the Greek historians. His work was used freely by the 5th-century-bc historian Herodotus, who acknowledged it only when he found occasion to complain. That Hecataeus’s literary style was good, though simple, was allowed by the 1st-century-bc rhetorician Dionysius of Halicarnassus and other critics.


By the end of the Archaic period, there were signs that literary traditions were becoming
centred on Athens. Athens's leading role in the Persian Wars, in which the Greek city states
successfully defended their independence against the Persian empire, opened a glorious period of
expansion and prosperity, with such a flowering of literature and the arts as has perhaps never
since been equalled. Although defeat in the Peloponnesian War (431-04 B.C.) ended
Athenian dominance, its literary creativity continued until the end of the Classical era,
conveniently marked by the Macedonian conquest of 338 B.C.

Classical period

5th and 4th centuries bc

True tragedy was created by
Aeschylus "Prometheus Bound" and continued with Sophocles and Euripides in the second half of the 5th century. Aristophanes "Lysistrata", the greatest of the comedic poets, lived on into the 4th century, but the Old Comedy did not survive the fall of Athens in 404.

The sublime themes of Aeschylean tragedy, in which human beings stand answerable to the gods and receive awe-inspiring insight into divine purposes, are exemplified in the three plays of the Oresteia. The tragedy of Sophocles "Antigone" made progress toward both dramatic complexity and naturalness while remaining orthodox in its treatment of religious and moral issues. Euripides "Electra", "Medea" handled his themes on the plane of skeptical enlightenment and doubted the traditional picture of the gods. Corresponding development of dramatic realization accompanied the shift of vision: the number of individual actors was raised to three, each capable of taking several parts.

The Old Comedy of Aristophanes was established later than tragedy but preserved more obvious traces of its origin in ritual; for the vigour, wit, and indecency with which it keenly satirized public issues and prominent persons clearly derived from the ribaldry of the Dionysian festival. Aristophanes ’ last comedies show a transition, indicated by the dwindling importance of the chorus, toward the Middle Comedy, of which no plays are extant. This phase was followed toward the beginning of the 3rd century by the New Comedy, introduced by Menander, which turned for its subjects to the private fictional world of ordinary people. Later adaptations of New Comedy in Latin by Plautus and Terence carried the influence of his work on to medieval and modern times.

In the 5th century, Pindar, the greatest of the Greek choral lyrists, stood outside the main Ionic-Attic stream and embodied in his splendid odes a vision of the world seen in terms of aristocratic values that were already growing obsolete. Greek prose came to maturity in this period. Earlier writers such as Anaxagoras the philosopher and Protagoras the Sophist used the traditional Ionic dialect, as did Herodotus the historian. His successors in history, Thucydides and Xenophon, wrote in Attic.

The works of Plato "Ion", "Phaedo", "Cratylus", "Meno", "Philebus" and Aristotle "Poetics", "The Categories", of the 4th century, are the most important of all the products of Greek culture in the intellectual history of the West. They were preoccupied with ethics, metaphysics, and politics as humankind’s highest study and, in the case of Aristotle, extended the range to include physics, natural history, psychology, and literary criticism. They have formed the basis of Western philosophy and, indeed, they determined, for centuries to come, the development of European thought.

This was also a golden age for rhetoric and oratory, first taught by Corax of Syracuse in the 5th century. The study of rhetoric and oratory raised questions of truth and morality in argument, and thus it was of concern to the philosopher as well as to the advocate and the politician and was expounded by teachers, among whom Isocrates was outstanding. The orations of Demosthenes, a statesman of 4th-century Athens and the most famous of Greek orators, are preeminent for force and power.

Hellenistic and Greco-Roman periods

3rd century bc onward

In the huge empire of Alexander the Great, Macedonians and Greeks composed the new governing class; and Greek became the language of administration and culture, a new composite dialect based to some extent on Attic and called the Koine, or common language. Everywhere the traditional city-state was in decline, and individuals were becoming aware of their isolation and were seeking consolidation and satisfaction outside corporate society. Artistic creation now came under private patronage, and, except for Athenian comedy, compositions were intended for a small, select audience that admired polish, erudition, and subtlety.

An event of great importance for the development of new tendencies was the founding of the Museum, the shrine of the Muses with its enormous library, at Alexandria. The chief librarian was sometimes a poet as well as tutor of the heir apparent. The task of accumulating and preserving knowledge begun by the Sophists and continued by Aristotle and his adherents was for the first time properly endowed. Through the researches of the Alexandrian scholars, texts of ancient authors were preserved.

The Hellenistic period lasted from the end of the 4th to the end of the 1st century bc. For the next three centuries, until Constantinople became the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Greek writers were conscious of belonging to a world of which Rome was the centre.

The genres

Epic narrative



In the late 8th century B.C., Greek literature began to be written down. As in other ancient literatures, the subjects concerned gods and heroes: the religious myths that people invent to explain phenomena for which they have no scientific explanation, and the exploits of famous men. They too are largely mythical though perhaps based more closely on real events than we can be sure of now. Archaeology has shown, for example, that the story of the siege of Troy was almost certainly based on an actual war between the Mycaeneans, forerunners of the Greeks, and their neighbours. These were stories that were, in one form or another, well known, having been repeated orally for many generations. They were brought together in two magnificent works of epic poetry,
Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey".

These works formed the basis, almost the 'Bible', of Greek culture, and if any one person can be called the founder of Western literature, it is
Homer. But was Homer one person? Tradition says he was a blind bard, who recited his epic verse at social gatherings, but there are no facts about him and most scholars believe that the Iliad and the Odyssey were written or reworked to varying degrees by different people. The structure changes, and there are signs of additions, and odd discrepancies: the author of the Odyssey seemed to like dogs, but the author of the Iliad did not.

The Iliad relates events during the ten-year siege of Troy, originally provoked by the abduction of the beautiful Helen by the Trojan prince Paris, and in particular the incidents arising from the wrath of Achilles, the premier Greek hero who was antagonized by the commander, Agamemnon. It ends with the capture of the city by Greek warriors smuggled into Troy in a wooden horse. The deviser of the wooden horse was Odysseus, a hero with brains as well as brawn, and the Odyssey is the story of his return home, a journey that lasted even longer than the siege and included encounters with the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, the enchantress Circe, the Lotus eaters, the Sirens, the monsters Scylla and Charybdis and others whose names are part of our culture.

Every educated person in ancient Greece grew up with
Homer, regarded as the greatest of all poets. Being in Greek, his tales were not read in medieval Europe, but regained immense popularity in the 19th century. The British statesman W. E. Gladstone, among others, wrote several books on him.


"Zeus had spoken. His Messenger (Hermes) obeyed at once and bound under his feet the lovely sandals of untarnishable gold that carried him with the speed of the wind over the water or the boundless earth; and he picked up the wand which he can use at will to cast a spell upon our eyes or wake us from the soundest sleep. With this wand in his hand ... he swooped down on the sea, and skimmed the waves like a sea-mew [gull] drenching the feathers of its wings with spray as it pursues the fish down desolate gulfs of the unhar-vested deep. So Hermes rode the unending waves . . ."

Homer Odyssey
(prose translation by E.V. Rieu).


Homer was not of course the only writer in Archaic Greece (roughly 8th-6th centuries B.C.). Ionia produced the first Greek philosophers and scientists (as well as, possibly, Homer himself). On the island of Lesbos, the mysterious Sappho wrote her poems about love. The beginnings of Greek drama appeared in Attica, and distinctive forms of verse, notably lyric poetry, established their identities. Excluding Homer, the best-known writer of the period is Hesiod , who seems to have lived soon after him. He was the first Greek poet to find his subject matter in sources other than mythology. His "Works And Days" reflected his knowledge of farming and provided practical advice for peasants, as well fascinating information on rural life of the time.

"Works And Days"
"The Theogony",
"Shield of Heracles"

At the beginning of Greek literature stand the two great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Some features of the poems reach far into the Mycenaean age, perhaps to 1500 bc, but the written works are traditionally ascribed to Homer; in something like their present form they probably date to the 8th century.

The Iliad and the Odyssey are primary examples of the epic narrative, which in antiquity was a long narrative poem, in an elevated style, celebrating heroic achievement. The Iliad is the tragic story of the wrath of Achilles, son of a goddess and richly endowed with all the qualities that make men admirable. With his readiness to sacrifice all to honour, Achilles embodies the Greek heroic ideal; and the contrast between his superb qualities and his short and troubled life reflects the sense of tragedy always prevalent in Greek thought. Whereas the Iliad is tragedy, the Odyssey is tragicomedy. It is an enriched version of the old folktale of the wanderer’s return and of his triumph over those who were usurping his rights and importuning his wife at home. Odysseus too represents a Greek ideal. Though by no means inadequate in battle, he works mainly by craft and guile; and it is by mental superiority that he survives and prevails.

Both poems were based on plots that grip the reader, and the story is told in language that is simple and direct, yet eloquent. The Iliad and the Odyssey, though they are the oldest European poetry, are by no means primitive. They marked the fulfillment rather than the beginning of the poetic form to which they belong. They were essentially oral poems, handed down, developed, and added to over a vast period of time, a theme upon which successive nameless poets freely improvised. The world they reflect is full of inconsistencies; weapons belong to both the Bronze and Iron Ages, and objects of the Mycenaean period jostle others from a time five centuries later. Certain mysteries remain: the date of the great poet or poets who gave structure and shape to the two epics; the social function of poems that take several days to recite; and the manner in which these poems came to be recorded in writing probably in the course of the 6th century bc.

In the ancient world the Iliad and the Odyssey stood in a class apart among Archaic epic poems. Of these, there were a large number known later as the epic cycle. They covered the whole story of the wars of Thebes and Troy as well as other famous myths. A number of shorter poems in epic style, the Homeric Hymns, are of considerable beauty.

A subgenre was represented by epics that recounted not ancient mythical events but recent historical episodes, especially colonization and the foundation of cities. Examples include Archaeology of the Samians by Semonides of Amorgos (7th century bc; in elegiac couplets), Smyrneis by Mimnermus of Colophon (7th century bc; in elegiac couplets), Foundation of Colophon and Migration to Elea in Italy by Xenophanes of Colophon (6th century bc; metre unknown), none of which are extant.

Epic narrative continued and developed in new forms during the Classical, Hellenistic, and Greco-Roman periods; works represented both subgenres. Notable mythical epics included the lost Thebais of Antimachus of Colophon (4th century bc), the surviving Argonautica in 4 books by Apollonius of Rhodes (3rd century bc), and the surviving Dionysiaca in 48 books by Nonnus of Panopolis (5th century ad). The historical epics do not survive, but among them were Persica, on the Persian Wars, by Choerilus of Samos (5th century bc); an epic on the deeds of Alexander the Great by Choerilus of Iasus (4th century bc); an epic on the deeds of Antiochus Soter (3rd century bc) by Simonides of Magnesia; and Thessalic History, Achaean History, and Messenian History by Rhianus of Crete (3rd century bc). As the greatest epic poet, however, Homer continued to be performed in rhapsodic contexts and was read in schools through the Classical, Hellenistic, and Greco-Roman periods.

Didactic poetry was not regarded by the Greeks as a form distinct from epic. Yet the poet Hesiod belonged to an altogether different world from Homer. He lived in Boeotia in central Greece about 700 bc. In his Works and Days he described the ways of peasant life and incidentally described the dreary Boeotian plain afflicted by heat, cold, and the oppression of a “gift-devouring” aristocracy. He believed passionately in a Zeus who cared about right and wrong and in Justice as Zeus’s daughter. Hesiod’s other surviving poem, the Theogony, attempts a systematic genealogy of the gods and recounts many myths associated with their part in the creation of the universe.

Lyric poetry



Homer, only fragments of epic poetry survive from before the 6th century B.C. Lyric poetry, originally poetry sung to the lyre and written in a variety of metres, was then coming into its own, in drinking songs and songs of love and personal feeling.

Lesbos, the island of
Sappho "Poems", seems to have been its place of birth.

The greatest lyric poet was Pindar, unusually not an Athenian, but a native of Boeotia. After Pindar's death (c.440 B.C.), the finest lyric poetry was to be found in the works of dramatists. As in so many subjects, the great expert on poetry was
Aristotle, whose Poetics is the origin of the dramatic unities, a particular influence on French Classical drama of the 17th century.


born probably 518 bc, Cynoscephalae, Boeotia, Greece
died after 446, probably c. 438, Argos

the greatest lyric poet of ancient Greece and the master of epinicia, choral odes celebrating victories achieved in the Pythian, Olympic, Isthmian, and Nemean games.

Early training
Pindar was of noble birth, possibly belonging to a Spartan family, the Aegeids, though the evidence for this is inconclusive. His parents, Daiphantus and Cleodice, survive only as names; his uncle Scopelinus, a skilled aulos player, doubtless helped with Pindar’s early musical training. The family possessed a town house in Thebes (to be spared by express command of Alexander the Great in the general destruction of that city by the Macedonians in 335 bc). Such a background would have given Pindar a ready entrée into aristocratic circles in other Greek cities.

Pindar’s poetry borrowed certain fundamental characteristics from the cultural traditions of his native Boeotia, a region that remained rather at the margins of political and economic trends of the Archaic (c. 650–480) and Classical (c. 450–323) periods. His poetry evinces a conservative attitude of absolute adherence to aristocratic values, a rigorous sense of piety, and a familiarity with the great mythological heritage that descended from the Mycenaean period (c. 16th–12th century bc) and achieved a first systematic presentation, significantly, in the work of Pindar’s Boeotian predecessor Hesiod at the end of the 8th century. Ancient authorities make Pindar the contemporary of the Boeotian poet Corinna, who was supposed to have beaten him in poetic competitions and to have advised him, in reference to his tendency to overuse myth, “to sow with the hand and not with the whole sack.” Pindar was said to have insulted Corinna by calling her a pig.

The ancient biographical tradition reports that as a young man Pindar went to Athens to complete and refine his poetic education. It is unclear whether he studied there with Lasus of Hermione, who had introduced important innovations into the dithyramb, or whether he learned from him at second hand. At any rate, in 497 or 496 Pindar, scarcely more than 20 years of age, won first place in the dithyrambic competition at the Great Dionysia, an event that had been introduced in 508.

Professional career
Seventeen volumes of Pindar’s poetry, comprising almost every genre of choral lyric, were known in antiquity. Only four books of epinicia have survived complete, doubtless because they were chosen by a teacher as a schoolbook in the 2nd century ad. They are supplemented by numerous fragments, and 20th-century finds of papyri have contributed to a deeper understanding of Pindar’s achievement, especially in paeans and dithyrambs.

All the evidence, however, suggests that the epinicia were Pindar’s masterpieces. These are divided as Olympic, Pythian, Isthmian, or Nemean—the games in which the victories he celebrated were held; the epinicia number 44 odes in all. The earliest surviving epinicion (Pythian ode 10) dates from 498, and Pindar already had an assured mastery of his medium when he wrote it. It would have been quite possible for him to evolve into a cosmopolitan artist like Simonides, welcome all over the Greek world and moving easily from city to city. No doubt Pindar visited the Panhellenic festivals, at Delphi (where the Pythian games were held) and Olympia in particular, to absorb the atmosphere of the games and celebrate his victories. He would also have seen in person the homes of the aristocrats and the courts of the tyrants whose triumphs he sang. But in general he preferred to remain loyal to his native land and reside in Thebes; characteristically, Pindar’s standards and values, like his poetry, changed little if at all over the years.

Such patriotism meant sacrifices. Thebes, like Delphi, collaborated with the enemy in the Persian War—though admittedly Thebes had little alternative. But whereas Delphi’s prestige was quickly restored after the retreat of the Persians, Thebes’s defection was not lightly forgiven or forgotten. Athens was to dominate the history of the 5th century, and, for the first two-thirds of it, Athens had very much the better of its long drawn-out quarrel with Thebes. From 457 to 447 bc, Boeotia was virtually an Athenian dependency, and almost everywhere in the region the aristocratic way of life—integral to Pindar’s personality and art alike—was threatened. Politically and economically, the monopolies of power by the noble families were broken. The aristocratic code (summed up in a famous line of Homer, “ever to excel and to surpass other men”) was undermined by the radical rationalism of a new age. Choral lyric itself had little future as a separate art form, and tragedy absorbed into itself what was most vital in the tradition; Pindar had no worthy successors. It is a tribute to the quality of Pindar’s poetry that, although he must have regarded these contemporary cultural and political developments with disdain, or at best with indifference (apart perhaps from his reinterpretation of some of the traditional stories concerning the gods), he was universally respected and accepted as a major creative artist.

Pindar’s early poems have almost all been lost; it is probable, however, that what gave him a growing reputation beyond the borders of Boeotia were hymns in honour of the gods. Pindar was born at the time of the Pythian festival, and from his youth he had a close connection with the Pythian priesthood, which served the oracular shrine of Apollo at Delphi. Pindar and his descendants, indeed, enjoyed special privileges at Delphi, where his memory was cherished in later times and where an iron chair, in which it was said he had sat to sing, was exhibited. The first commissions for epinicia came mostly from aristocratic connections: the Aleuads in Thessaly (Pythian ode 10; 498 bc), the Alcmaeonids in Athens (Pythian ode 7; 486), and, above all, the Aeacids of the island of Aegina (the series begins with paean 6, dating from 490, and continues with Nemean ode 7). Progress in winning recognition seems to have been steady, if slow.

A significant breakthrough came when Pindar established a link with the court of Theron of Acragas through the tyrant’s brother Xenocrates, whose chariot won the Pythian contest (Pythian odes 6 and 12, composed for the victory of the aulete Midas in musical competitions; 490). But the Persian invasion of Greece came before the promise of this new connection could be fulfilled. Pindar faced a crisis of divided loyalties, torn between a sense of solidarity with the aristocracy of Boeotia, who followed a pro-Persian policy, and a growing appreciation of Spartan and Athenian heroic resistance. Pindar was first and foremost a Theban, and he stood by his friends, many of whom paid for their policy with their lives. But it was Simonides, not Pindar, who wrote the poems of rejoicing at Greece’s victories and of mourning for its glorious dead.

It took Pindar some years to reestablish himself; fortunately, his friends in Aegina were staunch (Isthmian ode 8; 478). It is virtually certain that he visited Sicily in 476–474 and was made welcome at the courts of Theron of Acragas and Hieron I of Syracuse. They were to elicit much of his greatest poetry, and it was through these connections that Pindar’s reputation spread throughout the Greek world and commissions flowed in from the mainland, the islands, and also from the remoter outposts of Hellenism. Promising new contacts were made with the royal houses of Macedon and Cyrene (Alexander of Macedon, fragment 120; Arcesilas of Cyrene, Pythian odes 4 and 5; 462 bc).

Theron and Hieron respected and admired Pindar, but his aristocratic temper made him dangerously outspoken. Diplomatic tact and finesse were not among his qualities, and his adroit rivals, Simonides and Bacchylides, were more pliant and adaptable (Bacchylides, not Pindar, celebrated Hieron’s Olympic victory in the chariot race in 468). Echoes of Pindar’s bitter resentment sound in his poetry. So too Pindar’s intervention on behalf of Damophilus, a noble exile from Cyrene (Pythian ode 4), seems to have been taken amiss, and he was not invited to commemorate Arcesilas’s triumph at Olympia in 460. Nevertheless, these were the years of supreme achievement, and Pindar found a growing demand for his poetry and a growing appreciation of his skill. His debt to Athens was amply paid in a famous tribute (fragment 76) that the Athenians never tired of citing, one that earned the poet special honours in that city (and, according to ancient tradition, a fine at Thebes). It was probably in this period that Pindar married.

The subsequent decade of Athenian domination in central Greece coincided with a period when Delphi was controlled by Phocis in northern Greece. These were dark years for Pindar, and his poetic output dwindled. But he continued to celebrate Theban victories (Isthmian odes 1 and 7), and he found inspiration in the achievements of his Aeacid friends of Aegina, though their days of nominal independence were clearly numbered (Isthmian odes 5 and 6 and Nemean odes 3–8; all celebrate Aeginetan successes). Pindar’s last extant poem (Pythian ode 8) appropriately commemorates an Aeacid victory. The last datable epinicion is from 446 bc. According to the ancient biographical tradition, Pindar died in Argos at age 80, in the arms of a handsome boy, Theoxenus, whose name appears in a fragment of an encomium the poet dedicated to him.

The figure of the poet assumed a new role in the 6th and 5th centuries bc under the influence of the city-based economy, which was encouraged by colonial expansion and by the possibilities of trade opened up with the circulation of money. The poet achieved a higher social position in connection with his role as praiser of rulers and communities; the poet and the subject of the poem became connected by a precise relationship of commission and remuneration. Money could buy a place in posterity, and the notion that poetry mediated between the memorable achievement and the deserved glory is a recurrent motif in epinician poetry—especially in Pindar’s epinicia, where the consciousness of his own poetic talent assumes an attitude of vigorous pride. The poet’s songs spread their legacy ever further through the community and into the future; in that way, Pindar argued, poems were superior to the other popular medium of praise, the statue, which transmitted its message only to those who could see it.

The epinicion form, which in Simonides’ hands seems to have evolved into a relatively simple poem of rejoicing enhanced by touches of realism and humour, was assimilated by Pindar to the religious hymn. The praise and worship of the god whose festival is being celebrated set the tone, and thanksgiving is an integral part of the structure. A second constituent element is the myth, impressionistically treated in a series of short sharply visualized scenes and meant to link the glorious present to the yet more glorious past and to give a new dimension to the transient moment of victory. Pindar used stories from the epic tradition or the local oral tradition, choosing the episode most appropriate to the ceremony for which he was composing and then explicitly connecting the person, the family, and the city or divinity to be celebrated. He emphasized the heroic achievement most relevant to the occasion while omitting other aspects and episodes of the story. A third element is the aphoristic moralizing, often in Pindar resulting in passages of extreme beauty, even sublimity. Aphorisms link the present reality with the mythic narrative and repeatedly stress the dangers of excessive pride in achievement. The emotional impulse stems from the aristocratic ideal of self-assertion, competition, and leadership—an ideal expressing itself most finely in battle but also finding fulfillment in athletic contests, in which the palm goes to superior physique and morale, believed to derive from superior birth and the favour of the gods.

Pindar’s metrical range is exceptionally wide, with no two poems being identical in metre, and he controls difficult and involuted techniques with consummate professional mastery. His dialect is literary and eclectic, with Boeotian elements; the vocabulary is enriched, poetic, and highly personal. Each poem is fused into a unity by the fire of Pindar’s poetic inspiration, by a sweep and soar of imagination that give his poetry power and magnificence, and by the shaping and controlling discipline of a fastidious art expressed in an intensely personal style.

One distinctive trait in Pindar’s poetry is the piling up of disparate topics, with unexpected and sudden transitions; these at first seem to be unmotivated digressions, apparently unconnected. Such episodes, which came to be known misleadingly as “Pindaric flights,” are rapid associations of ideas, sometimes expressed very concisely, which when carefully examined are shown to be intelligible. The more enduring difficulty of interpreting Pindar derives from the fact that his poetry was composed for special occasions and is rich with references to persons, places, mythical figures, and historical events that were known to the original audience but are obscure for modern readers. Nonetheless, careful evaluation of the ancient testimonies can provide useful indications.

Delphic religious teaching found in Pindar a ready pupil, and he constantly spiritualized his material, turning away from the cruder traditional stories of the gods, avoiding the mundane details of the contest, and striving to catch the fleeting radiance that plays about the moment of supreme endeavour when a man transcends his own limitations of physique and character and so proves worthy of his birth and ancestry. Delphi also profoundly influenced his style, which is frequently cryptic and oracular. He regarded himself as the Muse’s prophet.

Pindar’s fellow Boeotian Hesiod, although very different from Pindar in background and temperament, shared with him a deep religiosity, a groping toward something more profound and satisfying than contemporary cults could offer, a fondness for abrupt and violent transitions in thought and mood, and a forthright pungency of speech. A somewhat muted epitaph preserved in the Greek Anthology (7, 35) describes Pindar as the servant of the Muses, welcomed by strangers and beloved by his fellow citizens.

Pindar’s odes make great demands on the modern reader, and it is only in recent times that his art has begun to be appreciated for what it is. (The so-called Pindaric ode has had a long and distinguished history in English literature, but it derives from an almost total misunderstanding and misapprehension of Pindar’s own style and technique.) Even so, much essential evidence is missing. The musical settings that he composed to accompany his words are lost forever, though in view of the quality of the poetry it is probable that the words dominated the setting (as must have been the case in most Greek lyric). It is therefore impossible to re-create even in the imagination the approximate sound of a Pindaric ode or indeed to reconstruct visually the appearance and constitution of the choir: how many participated, what range of voices was employed, whether the singers were static, moved in procession, or danced—these are questions that cannot now be answered. Nor is it possible to picture at all clearly the festive occasion that was the background for the poetry. Yet efforts to understand the odes are rewarded by at least a glimpse of the poet behind them. The aristocratic society and standards, which meant everything to Pindar, were dead or dying. But in his art he re-created them, giving them new and permanent existence and value.

The tradition of Greek choral lyric culminated with the odes of Pindar. These are not easy to evaluate and appreciate, but it is still more difficult to comprehend and assess the poet who composed them. Even to his contemporaries, Pindar must have seemed an aloof and somewhat enigmatic figure. A modern reader needs a sympathetic insight into the nature and traditions of Greek aristocratic society to begin to understand how Pindar’s subject matter—victory in an athletic contest or in a chariot race—could inspire poetry characterized by high seriousness and deep feeling. Pindar cannot, indeed, speak across the centuries with the directness of Homeric epic poetry or Sophoclean tragedy, but he does create, with disciplined mastery of a sophisticated and complex art form, a choral lyric of unsurpassed splendour and sustained nobility.

Donald Ernest Wilson Wormell


Hesiod , unlike Homer, told something of himself, and the same is true of the lyric poets. Except for Pindar and Bacchylides at the end of the Classical period, only fragments of the works of these poets survive. There had always been lyric poetry in Greece. All the great events of life as well as many occupations had their proper songs, and here too the way was open to advance from the anonymous to the individual poet.

The word lyric covers many sorts of poems. On the one hand, poems sung by individuals or chorus to the lyre, or sometimes to the aulos (double-reed pipe), were called melic; elegiacs, in which the epic hexameter, or verse line of six metrical feet, alternated with a shorter line, were traditionally associated with lamentation and an aulos accompaniment; but they were also used for personal poetry, spoken as well as sung at the table. Iambics (verse of iambs, or metrical units, basically of four alternately short and long syllables) were the verse form of the lampoon. Usually of an abusive or satirical—burlesque and parodying—character, they were not normally sung.

If Archilochus of Paros in fact was writing as early as 700 bc, he was the first of the post-epic poets. The fragments reflect the turbulent life of an embittered adventurer. Scorn both of men and of convention is the emotion that seems uppermost, and Archilochus was possessed of tremendous powers of invective. Of lesser stature than Archilochus were his successors, Semonides (often mistakenly identified with Simonides) of Amorgos and Hipponax of Ephesus.

Like the iambic writers, the elegiac poets came mostly from the islands and the Ionian regions of Asia Minor. Chief among them were Callinus of Ephesus and Mimnermus of Colophon. On the mainland of Greece, Tyrtaeus roused the spirit of the Spartans in their desperate struggle with the Messenian rebels in the years after 650. His martial poems are perhaps of more historical than literary interest. The same is to some extent true of the poems in elegiac, iambic, and trochaic (the latter a metre basically of four alternately long and short syllables) metres by Solon, an Athenian statesman, who used his poetry as a vehicle for propaganda. Xenophanes (born about 560 bc) rather in the same way used his poems to propagate his revolutionary religious and ethical ideas. The elegiacs attributed to Theognis seem to be poems of various dates suitable for use at drinking parties. Many of them were actually by Theognis himself (about 540 bc). Some give uninhibited expression to his hatred of the lower class rulers who had ousted the aristocracy of Megara; others are love poems to the boy Cyrnus; still others are gnomic commonplaces of Greek wisdom and morality.

About the beginning of the 6th century a new kind of poetry made its appearance in the island of Lesbos. It was composed in the local Aeolic dialect by members of the turbulent and factious aristocracy. Alcaeus (born about 620 bc), absorbed in political feuds and in civil war, expressed with striking directness searing hate and blind exultation. With the same directness and stunning grace, Sappho, a contemporary who seems to have enjoyed a freedom unknown to the women of mainland Greece, told of her love for girls named in her poems. The surviving works by their successor in personal lyric, Anacreon of Teos, suggest a more convivial amorousness.

Choral lyric was associated with the Dorian parts of the Greek mainland and the settlements in Sicily and south Italy, whereas poetry for solo performance was a product of the Ionian coast and the Aegean Islands. Thus choral song came to be conventionally written in a Doric dialect.

Choral lyric, which had lyre and aulos accompaniments, was highly complicated in structure. It did not use traditional lines or stanzas; but the metre was formed afresh for each poem and never used again in exactly the same form, though the metrical units from which the stanzas, or strophes, were built up were drawn from a common stock and the form of the strophe was usually related to the accompanying dance. This elaborate art form was connected mainly with the cult of the gods or, as in the case of Pindar, the celebration of the victors in the great Hellenic games.

The earliest poet of choral lyrics of whose work anything has survived was Alcman of Sparta (about 620 bc). Somewhat later Stesichorus worked in Sicily, and his lyric versions of the great myths marked an important stage in the development of these stories. Simonides of Ceos, in Ionia, was among the most versatile of Greek poets. He was famed for his pathos, but today he is best known for his elegiac epitaphs, especially those on the Greek soldiers who fell in the struggle against Persia.

The supreme poet of choral lyric was Pindar from Thebes in Boeotia (born 518 or possibly 522–died after 446 bc), who is known mainly by his odes in honour of the victors at the great games held at Olympia, Delphi, the Isthmus of Corinth, and Nemea. The last of the lyric poets was Bacchylides (flourished 5th century bc), whose works too were largely victory odes, characterized by an exquisite taste for mythical digression.



born c. 510 bc, Ceos [Cyclades, Greece]

Greek lyric poet, nephew of the poet Simonides and a younger contemporary of the Boeotian poet Pindar, with whom he competed in the composition of epinician poems (odes commissioned by victors at the major athletic festivals).

The 3rd-century-bc scholars at the great library at Alexandria, Egypt, listed Bacchylides among the canonical nine lyric poets, and they produced an edition of his poems. The poems remained popular until at least the 4th century ad, when the emperor Julian was said by the Latin historian Ammianus Marcellinus to have enjoyed them. The works were lost (except as they were quoted by others) until the discovery of papyrus texts that reached the British Museum in 1896 and were published in 1897. The papyri contained the texts of 21 poems in whole or in part; 14 are epinicia, and the remainder are dithyrambs (choral songs in honour of Dionysus). Fragments derived from quotations by ancient authors and later papyrus finds include passages from paeans (hymns in honour of Apollo and other gods) and encomiums (songs in honour of distinguished men).

Hieron I, ruler of Syracuse, commissioned several epinician odes to celebrate his victories in horse and chariot races in 476, 470, and 468 bc. For the first two, Hieron obtained odes from both Bacchylides and Pindar; but for his most prestigious victory, the four-horse chariot race at Olympia in 468, Hieron commissioned an epinicion only from Bacchylides. The victory of Pitheas of Aegina in the pancratium at the Nemean Games was also celebrated by both Pindar (Nemean ode 5) and Bacchylides (ode 13). Ancient scholars took seriously Pindar’s remarks about rival poets in the first Pythian ode, concluding that Pindar actively disliked Simonides and Bacchylides; later scholars, however, viewed such remarks as poetic convention more than personal truth.

Bacchylides, who described himself as “the Caen nightingale,” wrote in a style that was simpler and less sublime than Pindar’s. He excelled in narrative, pathos, and clarity of expression. A good example of all three is the encounter of Heracles with the ghost of Meleager in the underworld (ode 5), an episode treated also by Pindar (fragment 249a). Another memorable narrative is the story of the miraculous rescue of Croesus from the burning pyre (ode 3).

Like his uncle Simonides, Bacchylides wrote dithyrambs for the Dionysian festival at Athens—notably the unique semidramatic ode 18, which takes the form of a dialogue between Theseus’s father, Aegeus, and an answering chorus of Athenians. Literary historians differ about the relationship of ode 18 to the development of Attic drama. Older scholars, following statements in Aristotle’s Poetics, saw in the dithyramb the foundations of Attic tragedy. Present-day scholars, however, believe that ode 18 was influenced by contemporary Attic drama and that ode 16, “Heracles” or “Deianeira,” was influenced by Sophocles’ tragedy Trachinian Women. In another dithyramb (ode 17), Bacchylides gives a spirited account of a contest between Minos and Theseus: Theseus dives into the sea to recover a ring that Minos has thrown there as a challenge; Theseus emerges from the water with the ring, dry-haired and surrounded by enthusiastic Naiads. Bacchylides’ poetic activity led him to Sicily, Aegina, Thessaly, Macedonia, the Peloponnesus, Athens, and Metapontum. His last dated poems (odes 6 and 7) were composed in 452 bc.



Greek poet and philosopher

born c. 560 bc, Colophon, Ionia
died c. 478

Greek poet and rhapsode, religious thinker, and reputed precursor of the Eleatic school of philosophy, which stressed unity rather than diversity and viewed the separate existences of material things as apparent rather than real.

Xenophanes was probably exiled from Greece by the Persians who conquered Colophon about 546. After living in Sicily for a time and wandering elsewhere in the Mediterranean, he evidently settled at Elea in southern Italy. In one of his poems, which survive only in fragments, he declared that his travels began 67 years earlier, when he was 25; if this is so, he would have been at least 92 at his death.

Xenophanes’ philosophy found expression primarily in the poetry that he recited in the course of his travels. Fragments of his epics reflect his contempt for contemporary anthropomorphism and for popular acceptance of Homeric mythology. Most celebrated are his trenchant attacks on the immorality of the Olympian gods and goddesses. In his elegiac fragments he ridicules the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, condemns the luxuries introduced from the nearby colony of Lydia into Colophon, and advocates wisdom and the reasonable enjoyment of social pleasure in the face of prevalent excess.

Some critics consider Parmenides (fl. c. 450 bc) as the founder of the Eleatic school, but Xenophanes’ philosophy probably anticipated his views. The tradition that Xenophanes founded the school is based primarily on the testimony of Aristotle, whose views Xenophanes also anticipated. Among the few other Greek writers who subsequently mentioned Xenophanes are Plato, who said that “The Eleatic school, beginning with Xenophanes and even earlier, starts from the principle of the unity of all things,” and Theophrastus, who summed up Xenophanes’ teaching in the formula “The all is one and the one is God.”

Xenophanes was less a philosopher of nature in the manner of Parmenides, who looked for abstract principles underlying natural change, than a poet and religious reformer who applied generally philosophical and scientific notions to popular conceptions. His system and critiques of the works of other thinkers appear primitive in comparison with later Eleaticism, which developed its philosophy of appearance and reality into a sophisticated system.



Simonides of Ceos


born c. 556 bc, Iulis, Ceos [now Kéa, Greece]
died c. 468 bc, Acragas [now Agrigento, Sicily, Italy]

Greek poet, noted for his lyric poetry, elegiacs, and epigrams; he was an uncle of the Greek lyric poet Bacchylides.

Simonides began writing poetry on Ceos, but he was soon called to the court of the Peisistratids (the tyrants of Athens), which was a lively cultural and artistic centre in the 6th century bc. (See ancient Greek civilization: The later Archaic periods.) He later visited other powerful figures in Thessaly, in northern Greece, such as Scopas, ruler of Crannon.

Simonides lived in Athens after the fall of the Peisistratid tyranny and the founding of the democracy. He was close to important people there, including the politician and naval strategist Themistocles, and he achieved numerous successes in dithyrambic competitions. (A later poet credited Simonides with 57 victories.) In the competition, Simonides was selected (above such celebrated poets as Aeschylus) to compose the elegiac verses commemorating those who fell in the battle of Marathon. He celebrated the Greek victories of the Persian Wars, including a famous encomium for the Spartan dead at Thermopylae. Simonides maintained close ties with the Spartan general and regent Pausanias. He traveled to Sicily as a guest of the courts of Hieron I, tyrant of Syracuse, and Theron, tyrant of Acragas; tradition there made him and Bacchylides the rivals of Pindar. He is said to have reconciled the two tyrants when they quarreled.

Of Simonides’ extensive literary corpus, only fragments remain, most of them short. There are many epigrams written in elegiac couplets intended to be carved on monuments to celebrate a death, a victory, or other deeds worthy of memory. (However, scholars suspect that many of the epigrams attributed to Simonides were not composed by him.) Simonides’ threnoi, songs of lamentation used for funerals, were particularly famous in antiquity—as the praise of the poets Catullus and Horace and the educator Quintilian demonstrates—because they showed genius in combining affecting poetry with praise of the deceased. Simonides played an important role in the development of the epinicion, a song in honour of an athletic victory. He is the author of the earliest epinicion for which the date (520 bc) and the victor (Glaucus of Carystus, for boy’s boxing) are certain. The fragments display an epinician tone that contrasts with Pindar’s high seriousness, as Simonides praises the victor with ironic and humorous references. Simonides was known for his tendency toward concision and his rejection of prolixity. He defined poetry as a speaking picture and painting as mute poetry.

There emerges from his longer fragments, such as the encomium of Scopas, an original and nonconformist personality that questions the innate and absolute values of the aristocratic ethic, which are the basis of Pindar’s worldview. Simonides’ worldview, in contrast, is in sympathy with the social setting determined by the rise of the new mercantile classes. His moral outlook is pragmatic, realistic, and relativistic; he is conscious of the imperfection and frailty of human accomplishments.

Simonides changed the conception and practice of poetic activity by insisting that a patron who commissioned a poem owed the poet fair remuneration. Simonides’ professional policy gave rise to many anecdotes about his greed. The most famous in antiquity concerned a poem he was commissioned to write for Scopas of Thessaly. When Simonides delivered the poem, Scopas paid him only half the sum they had agreed on, telling him to get the rest from the Dioscuri, to whose praise the poet had devoted much of the poem. During the banquet at the palace to celebrate Scopas’s victory, Simonides was summoned outside at the request of two young men; when he went outside, the young men were gone. When the palace then collapsed and he alone survived, he realized that the young men had been the Dioscuri. Having insisted on being paid and having been credited with the invention of a (lost) method of memorization, Simonides can be seen as a precursor of the 5th-century Sophists.

In 1992 new papyrus fragments of his elegies were published; among them are parts of a long composition on the battle of Plataea (479 bc), in which the decisive role of the Spartans is emphasized. The fragments also include pederastic works and poems that were of the type meant for symposia (dinner parties).