Home  »  library  »  course  »  Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: Greek Literature

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: Greek Literature

By Carroll Neidé Brown (1869–1938)

NO literature of any age or of any people better deserves and repays study than that of Greece. There are many causes for this. In the first place, this literature is unusually rich in works of admittedly first-rate importance and excellence. As the oldest European literature, it has been subjected to a longer and more searching scrutiny than any other, and the selective processes that have eliminated the commonplace or the second-rate began earlier and were more effective in the days of the toilsome copying of manuscripts than in these later ages, in which the press perpetuates much that merely cumbers the earth. Further, if we leave out of account as a unique phenomenon the Greek epic, no other literature has passed through all the varied phases of its existence in so short a time—the period, let us say, from 550 B.C. to 300 B.C. In a historical and cultural setting, narrowly limited in time as well as geographical extent, we see a great literature bourgeoning and blossoming in lyric and dramatic poetry, reaching its full fruition in Greek oratory and philosophy, to fade away into decay in the scholastic and pedantic vaporings and imaginings of the later Alexandrian writers. Only the Greek novel—a latent bud—was to appear long after as an autumnal flower.

No other literature has so intimately and perfectly mirrored the whole life of a people, and no people has been so directly interested in literature and so deeply affected by it; the intellectual life of the Greek world centred in Athens; the age was a simple one, and the average intelligence of all except the servile part of the population was unusually high. Of no other people can it so truly be said that the history of its art and literature is the history of its achievement as a race, and of its contribution to the civilization of the world. Another fact that we must not forget is that Greek literature is to a very unusual degree truly indigenous, showing little, if any, traces of foreign influence; hence its delightful spontaneity, its charming naturalness, and its freshly vigorous directness.

This live influence of Greek has been felt throughout the ages. Whenever a people has rediscovered Greek, it has reached out to take a new hold on the world and its problems. Rome, Italy, France, England, and Germany have successively felt the fructifying influence of Greek literature and philosophy. We are able to trace back to their Greek sources the literary movements of subsequent centuries, and we are forced to recognize that the literary forms in which man’s spirit has thus far found its best and richest expression have their sources and prototypes in Greek literature. Just as a knowledge of the constituent elements of the English language is impossible without some study of Germanic and Romance languages, so modern literatures cannot be fully understood and appreciated even in their external form and structure without some familiarity with their predecessors in Greece and Rome; and as for that wealth of classical allusion, literary, historical, or mythological, with which the pages of the writers of a century or two ago were almost literally packed, it passes unnoticed, or at least very imperfectly understood, by one who has never dipped into the Castalian founts of Greek and Roman literature.

The very remoteness of these writings lends to them an objectivity of view that is in many ways of great advantage to the student. Man’s common passions, the eternally living motive forces of all human activity, are caught up in the fresh consciousness of this gifted people, and brought before us in wonderfully clear detail, in a setting which is so simple and statuesque, and at the same time so far removed from the complications of the life and sentiment of to-day, that we see these motives in their entirety and in their true relations. Thus we have in Greek literature a norm or fixed canon by which to test what may most truly be called the essential characteristics of all literature.

The Homeric Epic

In the fairy-tale days a thousand years and more before our era, there began to arise on the shores of the Ægean an Epic literature which the world would greatly miss, if, in the course of the ages, it had utterly perished. A vigorous northern people burst into the sunshine of the Mediterranean where their wild habits of rapine and pillage gave way under contact with older civilizations to more peaceful pursuits. They entered into trade rivalry with Phœnicians in the east and with Carthaginians in the west; accumulations of wealth, and of that material and military power which wealth brings with it, gave rise to walled towns with permanent royal courts, and along with increasing security of life and property came an intellectual and æsthetic awakening that produced as its culmination the Iliad and the Odyssey.

From various indications in these epics, we know that shorter and simpler poems must have gone before. Songs of love and war, of joy in life, and sorrow in the presence of death, festive hymns in honor of the gods, as well as shorter epic lays, are referred to again and again. Achilles, to the accompaniment of his lyre, comforts himself with songs about the heroic deeds of men, and Helen, with a certain ironical prescience, foresees that she will become a subject for future lays. Among passages that cast light on the intellectual pleasures of those early times are the scenes in which Homer depicts the bard’s part in the daily life in the palaces of the nobles. Thus, in the home of Odysseus, as the crowning grace of the banquet, Phemius plays the lyre and sings while the suitors dance, and later, while they sit listening in silence, he sings as a new and popular song the story of the pitiful return of the Achæans from Troy; Penelope hears it in her upper chamber and, saddened by the strain, descends and entreats him to select another from the many songs he knows. In like manner, Odysseus, while a guest among the Phæacians, conceals his face and weeps at Demodocus’s tale of a quarrel between Achilles and himself and stops only, as the bard pauses now and again, to uncover his face and find solace in wine. In palaces like these did Homer sing his master-songs in the more quiet days that followed the strenuous period of trade expansion and colonization in early Greece.

We are to think of this poetry as retained by memory, and handed down orally, often, doubtless, from father to son and grandson, through long periods of time, until in the age of Pisistratus, with the wider diffusion of the ability to read and an increase in the use of manuscript books, the poems were committed to writing. Men began then to be conscious that much that claimed to come from Homer was not his at all. Thus arose the so-called Homeric question, which, in its modern form, at least, tries to decide whether Homer wrote both Iliad and Odyssey, or, if the former alone, whether even this came in its entirety and in its present form from the single mind of Homer.

At that time, the last half of the sixth century, B.C., interest in the Homeric poems was such that at state festivals, such as the Panathenæa in Athens, contests were held between the rhapsodists, as the reciters of the poems were then called, and prizes were awarded to the winners. Pisistratus, in order to keep the poems from further contamination and interpolation by these professional reciters, made certain regulations as to the distribution of the parts of the poems which were to be recited by the contestants or as to the order in which they were to succeed one another, thus fixing more definitely the form of the poems. Their general structure shows that this action of Pisistratus was in no sense a combining of separate pre-existent lays into poems of the present form of either Iliad or Odyssey, as Wolf thought. If this were so, the connecting parts would show an inferiority of style, and this is very far from being the case, according to the opinion of the best scholars of to-day.

As the art of composing longer and more ambitious lays had been developing, the mode of delivery must have tended more and more toward a recitative with only a prelude that was musical (such preludes are exemplified in some of the shorter extant Homeric hymns), or an interlude of a few chords while the bard was resting or searching his memory for a theme on which to dwell. The very perfection of the hexameter verse, the vehicle of this early poetry, is enough in itself to show that we have in the Iliad and Odyssey no primitive ballad literature, but literary masterpieces. This meter may have been developed by uniting two short dactylic lines, which had formed a couplet, into one. That the hexameter had gradually been brought to perfection is indicated by its fixedness of form, its variety of cæsural pauses, and its capacity to express changing emotions by the predominance of dactyls in lighter and livelier description and of spondees in more measured and serious passages.

It is hard for us to realize how the later Greeks loved their Homer—this poetry of the youth of their people. It was more than a Bible to them, for it was associated not only with their holy days, when they celebrated the worship of their gods, but with all their glad feasts and holidays. Apposite quotations from the poems were the highest evidence of culture and good-breeding; elegiac and lyric poetry drew their themes and their treatment of these themes as naturally from this great poetic treasury as they did their varied metres from the ever-changing music of the hexameters. Many were the Greeks who memorized the whole or parts of the poems. Herodotus and Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle, knew their Homer through and through, and quoted freely from both poems, and the tragic poets took their hearers back with them into this heroic world to teach them all they knew and felt about man and god, about life and fate. The Greeks well named Homer the father of poetry, for we can hardly imagine lyric and tragic poetry as coming into being at all without Homer as their source and inspiration.

There is to us moderns, too, something of perennial interest, of eternal freshness about the Iliad and the Odyssey, whether appreciated most fully in the sonorous yet facile rhythm of the original hexameters, or presented to us in the translations of men of such different epochs and literary fashions or ideals as Chapman and Pope, or Bryant and Palmer. The Odyssey in the prose of Butcher and Lang may be said to “read like a novel”; it combines the skill of high literary art with the ingenuous charm of a folk fairy-tale telling of strange adventures with sorceresses like Circe and Calypso or with giants and ogres like Polyphemus and the Læstrygonians. The romantic interest of the Iliad is less continuous, but we may still follow the story of the wrath of Achilles and his final reconciliation with the great king Agamemnon with somewhat of the thrill felt by Greek hearers or readers of many ages to whom Achilles became the ideal of sensitive, strong manhood rebellious against an unjust king and an untoward fate.

The Epic Cycle and the Homeric Hymns

The early popularity of the Homeric poems is attested by the rise of the poets of the Epic Cycle who attempted in brief compass to complete the story of the Iliad and Odyssey or to tell of the events antecedent to it. Some of these poems in the uncertainties of oral transmission passed current under Homer’s name, as did also the so-called Homeric Hymns, of which the shorter ones give evidence of having served as preludes to epic recitals, while the longer ones form short independent epics telling of the genealogy or history of separate divinities. Such are the hymns to Apollo, Aphrodite, and Dionysus.


The poems of Hesiod fall into an altogether different category. Here we find the personality of the poet coming to the fore, though his work itself shows far less creative individuality than the Iliad or the Odyssey. His ‘Works and Days’ is little more than a catalogue of the times and seasons to which the Bœotian farmer was a slave, interspersed with trite maxims and aphorisms. The bitterness of this rude life is reflected in the passages which touch on the personal life of this poet of Ascra, the little town on the slopes of Helicon. Cheated of his inheritance by his brother whom he is constantly chiding, he sourly and crabbedly decries his own time to the advantage of the golden and heroic ages that were past. In the ‘Theogony,’ Hesiod gathered together the religious lore that was current in his day about the origin of the world out of chaos, and the relations of the gods to each other and toward men. The baser and more ignoble side of the nature of the gods is presented with a crudeness that differs essentially from the brighter picture in the Iliad and Odyssey. Hesiod can hardly have written less than a hundred years later than Homer.

Chronology of Prehistoric Greece

  • DATE
  • All the earlier dates of what is described as the Ægæan Civilization are, of course, conjectural. The Minoan or Cretan Civilization, which has recently been made known by the explorations of Sir A. J. Evans and others, is assigned by him to the following periods:
  • 3000–2000 B.C.Early Minoan.
  • 2200–1600 B.C.Middle Minoan.
  • 1600–1350 B.C.Late Minoan (or, according to Mrs. Hawes, to 1200 B.C., the beginning of the Homeric Age).
  • 2000–1200 B.C.The Minoan civilization penetrates the Greek mainland at points like Mycenæ, Tiryns, Amyclæ, Thebes, and Orchomenos.
  • 1500–1200 B.C.This civilization is at its height in Greece.
  • 1184 B.C.Traditional date of the fall of Troy.
  • 1104 B.C.Traditional date of the Dorian invasion of Greece and of the fall of the Achæan civilization.
  • 840 B.C.Traditional date of Homer, according to Herodotus (probably too late).
  • 776 B.C.Founding of the Olympian Games, the basis of subsequent Greek chronology.
  • 700 B.C.Hesiod (at least 100 years later than Homer).
  • 654–617 B.C.Earliest evidence of Greek writing in inscriptions by Greek mercenaries at Abou Simbel in Egypt in the reign of either Psammetichus I. (654–617 B.C.), or Psammetichus II. (594–589 B.C.).
  • 560–510 B.C.Rule of the Pisistratidæ at Athens.
  • Reading Recommended

  • Hesiod
  • Homer: Selections from the Iliad
  • Homer: Selections from the Odyssey
  • Homeric Hymns
  • In addition to the selections given in the Library, the student is advised to read in a modern translation the story of the wrath of Achilles and its fatal results, forming what we may call the original nucleus of the Iliad. This is to be found in Books 1, 11, 16–22. In the Odyssey, the story of Telemachus’s visit to Pylus and Sparta in Books 1–4 should be read; and the episodes of Calypso in Book 5, of Polyphemus in Book 9, and of Æolus and Circe in Book 10 will be found of special interest. Books 13–16 tell of Odysseus’s visit to his faithful swineherd, and 21–24, of his vengeance on the suitors of Penelope.

    Elegiac Poetry. Greek elegiac poetry sprang naturally from the Epic. Its metre—the distich composed of a hexameter followed by a pentameter—was a simple variant of the Homeric verse. Its more subjective treatment of themes taken from daily life and the intercourse between friends reflected the rise of more consciously personal sentiments under the oligarchies and tyrannies that succeeded the monarchies of Homeric times. Interest in the glorious past of one’s ancestors or one’s race yielded to a desire for self-expression as the individual began to realize that he was an essential element in the state. Though originally a song of mourning for the dead, elegy dealt in a homely way with the ordinary life of the citizen, giving as it were genre pictures instinct with life though seldom rising to passionate expression. Callinus, Tyrtæus, and Theognis sought to stir their fellow citizens by giving expression to the motives by which they were themselves impelled.

    Iambic Poetry. Iambic poetry broke away from the literary tradition of the epic in using an iambic metre that was more akin to the prose of daily life, and transferred such satirical invective as characterized the religious festival of Demeter to a literary raillery and criticism of one’s foes or political opponents. Archilochus’s satire is that of a bold and dashing cavalier who gives free vent to his feelings, while Simonides of Amorgos expresses the bitterness of a man disappointed in life and in himself.

    Lyric Poetry Proper. The development of lyric poetry was coincident with a great improvement in the lyre. Terpander added three strings to the instrument’s four and a complete octave was attained. Under the inspiration of higher musical skill came a more impassioned poetry. In Lesbos, in the highly musical Æolic dialect with its soft liquid and sibilant sounds and its more open vowel scale, the passionate feelings of a Sappho found an adequate expression. No poet of any time has ever succeeded better in making sound voice sense. Even the most inarticulate emotions of joy and sorrow find utterance. Alcæus, too, in poems that deal with love, politics, and patriotism, reflects to us, with the high-spirited carelessness of a wealthy Lesbian noble, the turbulent life of contests between the oligarchs and the masses. Here, too, belong the beautiful lyric gems of an Anacreon, which were the models for many a later poet, whose work is often confused with that of the master.

    Dorian Lyric Poetry. The Dorian lyric poetry was less personal that the Æolian, centering as it did around the religious festivals of the race. To its earlier poets Alcman, Arion, and Stesichorus, respectively, are attributed the invention of strophe and antistrophe, the dithyramb sung by the cyclic chorus, and the epode. Simonides and Pindar transcend the limits of the Dorian school and represent the highest development of Greek lyric poetry. Both came under the inspiration of the Persian wars and saw Athens extending its empire over the Ægæan. What part the rhythmical beauty of the dances and the more highly developed musical skill of the time played in stimulating and exciting the imagination of these poets we can never know. We see an intoxication of sense which, though never so un-Greek as to become neurotic, touches all life with a magic that seems to carry us into another world. Bacchylides of Ceos, a nephew of Simonides, is now known to us by nineteen poems recently found in an Egyptian papyrus (1896); most of these—like the poems of Pindar—are “epinicia,” that is, they are poems that celebrate the victories of athletes. Bacchylides fails to reach the heights of imagination of Pindar, but his poems are nearly perfect in grace and beauty.

    Chronology of Greek Lyric Poetry
    Note: c. means about; fl. means flourished.

  • DATE
  • Lyric Poetry
    676–573 B.C.Terpander of Lesbos wins a prize at the Carneia in Sparta in the 26th Olympiad.
  • Elegiac Poetry
    676–573 B.C.Tyrtæus wrote in Sparta at the time of the second Messenian War.
  • c. 630–560 B.C.Solon, the most famous of the Seven Wise Men, lived at Athens.
  • fl. Sixth Century B.C.Theognis of Megara lived probably in the last half of the sixth century.
  • Iambic Poetry
    c. 650 B.C.Archilochus of Paros fl.
  • c. 556–468 B.C.Simonides of Amorgos
  • c. 620–560 B.C.Æsop. The later fable writers, Phædrus and Babrius, seem to have had iambic prototypes before them in their handling of Æsop’s fables.
  • Medic Poetry
    (Lyric in the narrower sense)
    c. 620–c. 580 B.C.Alcæus of Lesbos.
  • fl. c. 610–580 B.C.Sappho, a slightly later contemporary of Alcæus in Lesbos.
  • 582–485 B.C.Anacreon of Teos.
  • Choral Lyric Poetry
    Seventh Century B.C.Alcman fl.
  • 640–555 B.C.Stesichorus of Himera in Sicily.
  • 625–585 B.C.Arion at the court of Periander, tyrant of Corinth.
  • c. 556–468 B.C.Simonides of Ceos.
  • c. 522–433 B.C.Pindar of Thebes in Bœotia.
  • c. 505–c. 430 B.C.Bacchylides of Ceos.
  • Reading Recommended

  • Tyrtæus
  • Solon
  • Theognis of Megara
  • Archilochus
  • Æsop
  • Babrius
  • Alcæus
  • Sappho
  • Anacreon
  • Alcman
  • Stesichorus
  • Simonides
  • Pindar
  • Bacchylides
  • Greek Lyric Poetry
  • Greek Anthology
  • The Gods of Greece (Poem by Schiller)
  • Greek Drama—Tragedy

    The drama in Greece arose naturally from the two types of literature that we have already discussed. Epic poetry at its best was dramatic in the sense that where it was in any way possible the story was developed in an interchange of speech between the persons of the narrative. Thus long stretches of the Odyssey are told in the words of Odysseus himself, and two thirds of the first book of the Iliad is in dialogue. Though it would seem to us that, given such a highly dramatic scene as the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, the thought of dramatizing it would have occurred to someone quite naturally and at a comparatively early time, such was not the case. Greek drama did not spring from the epic directly, though its greatness, its effectiveness was derived, when once its germ was started from that remote world of supermen and gods which had been so vividly described by Homer, that it still lived in the folk imagination of the Greeks of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. It was from the Doric dithyramb that tragedy arose by almost painfully slow steps. Arion had introduced in his cyclic choruses conversations between the members of the chorus about Dionysus’s wanderings in his late entry into the family of the gods of Greece, but it was reserved for the Athenian Thespis in the little deme of Icaria, where this worship was early established, to make the decisive invention—the addition of a real actor who in conversation with the chorus or its leader could take the part, now of a priest of the god, now of the god himself, and again of some mortal like Pentheus resisting the ecstatic frenzy of the god’s adherents. The revels and dances of the City Dionysia, then, celebrating the rejuvenation of the earth in the glories of spring, were the immediate source of Greek tragedy, and the theatre of Dionysus in Athens became to the whole Greek world the centre of this the highest manifestation of the literary genius of the Greeks. Among all other peoples folk-drama ended, as it began, in crude abortive mime or farce, except as it came under the influence of the Greek. These dithyrambic choruses in honor of Dionysus were originally danced by men impersonating satyrs, youthful and lustful creatures, half man, half goat, and it is from the Greek word for goat (“tragos”) that tragedy gets its name. The “skene” or tent in which the actor changed his costume has given us the word “scene” which we now interpret as meaning the setting in which a given episode takes place, or the episode itself.

    Æschylus. The essence of tragedy lies in the clashing of two moral principles; two “characters” in a literal sense of the word must be brought into juxtaposition and conflict. In dramas, like those of Thespis with only one actor, tragic situations could only be narrated. It was Æschylus who by the introduction of a second actor really created tragedy, for antagonists were thus brought face to face, the names in fact for first and second actors being protagonist and deuteragonist. In his earliest play, ‘The Suppliant Women,’ sparing use of this innovation was made, the choral or lyric songs predominating, while in the next tragedies, ‘The Persians’ and ‘The Seven against Thebes,’ the choruses are reduced in length and the dialogue increased, but the moments of greatest tragic interest are still narrated rather than acted, in spite of the fact that a second actor was used. In the four later plays, however, the tragic situations are developed by the dialogue itself, and the chorus, except in ‘The Eumenides,’ ceases to take any real part in the action of the play and becomes merely a sympathetic spectator. Æschylus made his plays more effective by having the four plays, with which a poet contended for the tragic prize, deal with one theme, in a so-called tetralogy, or at least by connecting three of them so as to form a trilogy with a satyr-play at the end in which the spirit of the old Dionysiac festival was kept up. What distinguishes him most, however, from his two great successors is the lofty grandeur of his art, and the serious moral purpose with which his plays were written. His characters are titanic in strength, and indomitable in will and patience, but the preternatural in them is so tellingly described or suggested that they take us away into a world where fate is inexorable and the gods are ever just in punishing men’s crimes.

    Sophocles. In ‘The Frogs’ of Aristophanes, Sophocles cheerfully yields the palm in this grand art to Æschylus. The heroes and heroines of Sophocles are no giants like Prometheus, championing the cause of mankind, no Cassandras, endowed with strange prophetic powers, but human beings, men and women cast large, but true to type, idealized to be sure and made perfect but still remaining creatures of this world, about whom no veil of mystery could be thrown. It is as the poet who perfected the tragic art, the poet who most fully realized its proper limits, and within these limits brought the most tremendous effects into being with the simplest, truest, most obvious means, that we must evaluate Sophocles. As the relative importance of the dialogue increased, he felt the need of a third actor (in ‘The Œdipus at Colonus,’ even of a fourth) and this improvement made it possible to contrast the response of two different natures like those of Antigone and Ismene to Creon’s edict that their brother was to lie unburied, and to depict in the face or gesture of a Jocasta the tragedy in a human soul that sees death and shame before it.

    With the increase in the power rapidly to develop the action through the more extended dialogue and the larger number of actors on the stage at one time, the need of a trilogy or tetralogy on the same theme was no longer felt. Rather did the choice of subjects that differed give greater variety to the tragic performances.

    Euripides. Sophocles, in comparing himself with the third great tragic writer, said that he represented men as they ought to be, while Euripides represented them as they were, a statement that forcibly contrasts the idealism of the one with the realism of the other. Euripides’s plays reflected the newer and more cosmopolitan philosophy of the last part of the fifth century B.C. Nay, they even anticipated or perhaps contributed to produce that of the following century. The appeal was made to personal sentiment and emotion rather than to men’s common feelings of right and wrong, and in this more individual and sentimental view of life the passions of love, jealousy, hate, and fanaticism are naturally the mainsprings. Euripides is therefore in spirit the most modern of the three tragedians. The symptoms of Phædra’s love-sickness, her querulousness and petulance, are described almost in the fond detail of a melodramatic novel. Euripides won the first prize only five times, as compared with Sophocles’s eighteen victories and Æschylus’s thirteen, but after his death his dramas far surpassed in popularity those of his predecessors. In modern times, too, in reaction against almost a cult tendency to put Sophocles on the pedestal of tragic perfection, Euripides has been increasingly appreciated, as the innovations which he introduced have been more fully understood in relation to the changing life of his time.

    Greek Dramatic and Musical Festivals

    On no occasions in the life of ancient Athens did popular excitement run higher than at the two grand festivals of Dionysus, the City Dionysia and the Lenæa. These celebrations were distinctly religious. After a spectacular parade, with all the splendor and jollity of a Mardi Gras, the statue of Dionysus was ceremoniously placed in the theatre, where the seat of honor was always given to his priest. Happiness reigned supreme. Disorder or crime during these days was regarded as sacrilege and was summarily dealt with. Audiences of approximately twenty thousand sat on the ground or on rude benches from morning to night, for five or perhaps six consecutive days, listening unwearied and unsated to play after play of tragedy or comedy, or to the cyclic dithyrambic choruses of men and boys from the different tribes. Prizes were given in all three contests, the award being made by five judges chosen by a somewhat complicated method combining election and lot. At the City Dionysia strangers were present in large numbers to share in this, the greatest of the religious functions of the state, and, during the period of the Athenian supremacy, the tribute from the allied states was exhibited at this time, and ambassadors came to present their causes. Our great musical festivals form perhaps the closest parallel to these celebrations, but the Dionysia were state functions; poets and players were selected by the state, and public money, raised by a tax on the wealthiest citizens, was used to meet the expense; tickets were provided by the state for those who were too poor to pay the merely nominal price of admission. These choruses and plays were the greatest of the literary pleasures of the citizens and took for them the place of magazine and book reading. The tragic and comic poets were their religious, political, and social teachers. Sententious aphorisms and quotations in contemporary and later literature testify to the part played by comedy and tragedy in shaping public opinion and morals.

    In a city like Athens, beautified by the most graceful temples that the world had ever seen, with its squares and porches adorned with the sculptures of the world’s greatest artists, scenes like these must have been an inspiration to Athenian and foreigner alike. How blest was Athens in its Acropolis, that towering hill of only a thousand feet in length, crowned with the Parthenon, and the Erechtheum, and the magnificent portal the Propylæa! Later on in the year what a scene must the Panathenæa, too, have afforded when amid the maze of sculptured denizens of the violet-crowned hill the light-hearted and brightly clad Athenian youths and maidens wound their way to the virgin-goddess’s temple to the shrine of that patroness of art and literature, the embodiment of Athenian moderation and wisdom.

    Greek Drama—Comedy

    Aristophanes. Though tragedies as well as comedies were presented at both of the greater festivals of Dionysus, tragedy predominated at the City Dionysia and comedy at the Lenæa. This latter festival occurred in mid-winter and was therefore not frequented by strangers, as the sea was then not safe for travel. Comedy arose from the joyous side of the worship of Dionysus, as tragedy from its more serious phases. The name comedy is probably derived from the “comus” or band of revellers which during these festivals indulged in coarse jokes or licentious banter at the expense of the spectators. Its essence lies therefore in ridicule, in arousing a laugh, and in thus increasing the merriment and jollity of the crowd.

    These comic songs had assumed dramatic form first in Megara, from which city they were introduced into Attica in the time of the Pisistratidæ by Susarion. The crude Megarian farce had developed even then into a comedy of manners, for we read of the invention, by a certain Mæson, of masks of uniform types, representing, e.g., slaves and cooks. This comedy of manners must have persisted in many parts of Greece and especially in Sicily, where Epicharmus first brought it to high perfection early in the fifth century. It gave rise later to the Middle and New Comedy or at any rate was parallel to these.

    In Attica we find, under the democracy of the fifth century, Eupolis, Cratinus, and Aristophanes (though comedies of the last alone are extant) turning their jibes against the foibles and weaknesses of men prominent in political life, or against the larger policies of the state. This could only take place while democratic free speech reigned, and accordingly we find Aristophanes in his later plays abandoning completely his invective of Cleon and his raillery of the Knights and the Dikasts for literary criticism in ‘The Frogs,’ and for making sport of women’s rights in ‘The Ecclesiazousæ.’ It is a mistake to assume that Aristophanes regarded himself as having any other mission than that of amusing his audiences. He was by nature a conservative, a “laudator temporis acti,” and for this reason was unable to see the good in the new philosophy or the new drama of his time. His greatest gift, apart from a keen sense of humor that enabled him to turn anything and everything in the daily life of the Athenians into a jest, was a wonderful vein of the purest lyric melody. Nothing can ever surpass the joyous warbling songs in the choruses of ‘The Birds.’

    Middle Comedy. Aristophanes’s ‘Plutus’ forms a transition to the Middle Comedy in that it has a certain moral tendency, showing as it does the advantage of having the good made rich. During this transition period the comic writers found their subjects in the philosophical, literary, and religious fads of the day rather than in politics. The more sober interest of the Athenians of this time in oratory seems to have removed politics from the comic sphere, or perhaps the more cosmopolitan spirit of the time made things of this nature seem less fit subjects for comedy. We find coming into existence, then, a genuine comedy of manners in which all the characters tend to become types, the parasite, the impecunious lover, the miserly or the indulgent father, the cunning slave occurring again and again. Burlesques of the old gods had helped to establish such types as the glutton, the braggart, or the wanton.

    New Comedy. In Menander the culmination of this tendency is reached, though it is only through the Roman writers, Plautus and Terence, and a few rather extensive fragments that have recently been unearthed in Egypt that we can appreciate somewhat fully the nature of his own and of his contemporaries’ work. These changes had been accompanied, if not in great measure caused, by a decrease in the part taken by the chorus. This may well have been, at first at any rate, largely a matter of economy in the administration of the Dionysiac festival. Modern comedy, except in the form of the musical extravaganza, has never subjected itself to the incubus of a chorus.

    Chronology of Greek Drama

  • c. 600 B.C.Arion introduced conversations about the adventures of Dionysus between members of the Cyclic choruses.
  • 534 B.C.Thespis introduced an actor who personified Dionysus or one of his followers.
  • c. 525–456 B.C.Æschylus lived.
  • c. 496–406 B.C.Sophocles lived.
  • 484 B.C.Æschylus wins his first victory, about fifteen years after his first appearance.
  • c. 480–406 B.C.Euripides lived.
  • 472 B.C.‘Persians’ of Æschylus produced.
  • 467 B.C.‘Seven against Thebes’ of Æschylus produced.
  • 458 B.C.The trilogy, ‘Agamemnon,’ ‘Choephori,’ and ‘Eumenides’ of Æschylus produced.
  • 455 B.C.First play of Euripides produced.
  • c. 448–c. 388 B.C.Aristophanes lived.
  • 442 B.C.‘Antigone’ of Sophocles probably presented.
  • 438 B.C.‘Alcestis’ of Euripides produced.
  • 431 B.C.‘Medea’ of Euripides produced.
  • 428 B.C.‘Hippolytus’ of Euripides produced.
  • c. 425 B.C.‘Œdipus Tyrannus’ of Sophocles probably produced early in the Peloponnesian War (431–404).
  • 425 B.C.‘Acharnians’ of Aristophanes produced.
  • 424 B.C.‘Knights’ of Aristophanes produced.
  • 423 B.C.First edition of ‘The Clouds’ of Aristophanes.
  • 422 B.C.‘Wasps’ of Aristophanes produced.
  • 421 B.C.‘Peace’ of Aristophanes produced.
  • 415 B.C.‘Troades’ of Euripides produced.
  • 414 B.C.‘Birds’ of Aristophanes produced.
  • 412 B.C.‘Helena’ and ‘Andromeda’ of Euripides.
  • 411 B.C.‘Lysistrata’ and ‘Thesmophoriazousæ’ of Aristophanes produced.
  • 409 B.C.‘Philoctetes’ of Sophocles is dated by didascalic notice.
  • 408 B.C.‘Orestes’ of Euripides produced. ‘Iphigenia’ and ‘Bacchæ’ posthumously produced.
  • 405 B.C.‘Frogs’ of Aristophanes produced.
  • 401 B.C.‘Œdipus at Colonus’ of Sophocles produced not long after the poet’s death.
  • 392 or 389 B.C.‘Ecclesiazousæ’ of Aristophanes produced.
  • 388 B.C.‘Plutus,’ which failed in 408, re-produced.
  • c. 368–c. 264 B.C.Philemon lived.
  • c. 342–c. 292 B.C.Menander lived.
  • Reading Recommended

    In addition to these readings Plumptre’s translations of Æschylus and Sophocles, Jebb’s and more recently Whitelaw’s of Sophocles, A. S. Way’s of all three tragedians, and Gilbert Murray’s of Euripides may be heartily recommended. Roger’s and Frere’s translations of Aristophanes preserve to us much of the joyous lively wit of the original Greek. It is, of course, only by reading plays in their entirety that the poet’s dramatic art can be appreciated. Of more general and comprehensive works ‘Studies of the Greek Poets’ by John Addington Symonds, and ‘Lectures on Greek Poetry’ by John William Mackail contain illuminating essays on Greek drama.


    History with the Greeks, like the other forms of their literature, followed a course of natural development from the ruder to the more polished and complex. In the logographers of western Asia Minor, as these recorders of dry facts were called, history took its rise, much as in the earlier epic poems we saw the way prepared for Homer, and this earlier stage culminated in Herodotus who is rightly called the Father of History. Just as centuries were required to develop epic verse, so a not inconsiderable time was doubtless necessary to make Ionic prose the facile instrument which we find Herodotus using so gracefully and interestingly. Among a people that makes little use of writing, literature starts in the form of poetry because it is thus rendered easy for the poet to remember and repeat, and more interesting for the hearer to listen to, since it has the added charm of musical rhythm and a poetic vocabulary which is rendered thus poetic by the very fact that it is reminiscent of bygone times, remote from the prosaic present. With heroes and their deeds enveloped in this enchantment of distance, imagination gives the poet his power, and the pictures thus called forth are sharply impressed on the hearer by their verbal form and are easily recalled in quotation and fancy. Prose came to be used by these historical logographers only after repeated attempts at a use of the hexameter for such purposes had proved how futile it was to put classified and dissected facts into poetry.

    Herodotus. Herodotus was to the ancients, is to us, and as far as we can see always will be the prince of storytellers. His work, written though it was, was not intended primarily to be read in book form, though it is most interesting reading. It was to be read aloud by the author himself, and we hear in fact of public readings given by him in Athens and at Olympia. Eight or ten readings—a Lowell Institute course—would cover the history of the Great Persian War, for this was Herodotus’s only theme, though he artfully brought in many a tale of Egyptian wonders that he had seen, and many a description of strange customs like tattooing among the Thracians and the scalping of their enemies by the Scythians. These stories seemed to him to have their bearing on these great events which he naïvely tells in his preface he cannot allow to be forgotten. This great war so fraught with tragic moment for Greece and Persia he unfolds like a veritable tragedy. How Marathon, Thermopylæ, and Salamis have continued to live in men’s memories as among the greatest days in the history of mankind! Herodotus was a genuinely religious man and saw in the disaster to Xerxes’s invading millions the hand of divine providence smiting down the things of high estate. If he regarded the gods as envious of man’s greatness, it may have been that he saw with timid eyes Athens, too, rising to a supremacy that he felt must challenge defeat and destruction.

    Thucydides. Herodotus gives us many a glimpse of his friendly, credulous, garrulous personality, but Thucydides with an austere self-restraint, that arises from his scientifically objective point of view, permits hardly any inferences as to his political or religious opinions. Profiting undoubtedly by what he conceived to be Herodotus’s faults, he proposes to himself to set forth the facts about the Peloponnesian War, foreseeing that it was to be one of the greatest of wars. His plan was chronological, and it is only because his masterful mind sees events in their just relative importance and their bearing on each other and on the whole war that this way of treating his subject is kept from degenerating into a dry annalistic method. As it is, we have perhaps the greatest history that has ever been written dealing with one of the greatest tragedies of history. Thucydides does not attribute the dread result to fate, or even to divine interference. With cold, sharp clearness of vision he describes the weaknesses and sins of men and parties and nations as bringing their dire consequences with the scientific precision of cause and effect. We feel, however, the intenseness of his love for Athens and his sympathy for democracy. His literary style he created for himself. In the narrative portions, as for instance in his description of the plague at Athens, it is direct and terse, but when he attempts to reproduce the speeches of conferences and embassies, as he felt he must, in deference to the Athenians’ love of oratory, he shows the influence of the artificial rhetoric of Antiphon and of such sophists as Gorgias of Leontini; his terseness then becomes obscure and his antitheses are frequently false and without point.

    Xenophon. Although Thucydides outlived the Peloponnesian War, his history covered only the first three quarters of it. The last years (411–404) are treated by Xenophon in the first two books of his ‘Hellenica’ in a strangely summary fashion and with the emphasis frequently on unimportant events. The latter books are not in the same degree open to this criticism, but they too betray Xenophon as lacking in historical perspective and prejudiced by his own political convictions. In his ‘Anabasis,’ however, we have a fascinating historical account by an eyewitness and participant in Cyrus’s attempt, with the aid of the Ten Thousand Greeks under Clearchus, to overthrow his brother Artaxerxes. The ‘Cyropedia’ is an imaginary account of the birth and education of Cyrus the Great, and is really a political pamphlet in a form approaching our novel, in which Xenophon sets forth his ideal of a monarchy.

    Chronology of Greek Historians

  • DATE
  • c. 484–425 B.C.Herodotus was born at Halicarnassus and died at Athens or Thurii. He read his History and received a reward of ten talents from the city of Athens in 445. He settled in Thurii in 444.
  • c. 460–c. 395 B.C.Thucydides lived. He commanded military operations in Thrace in 424. He was banished, owing to failure in Thrace, up to the year 403.
  • c. 430–c. 350 B.C.Xenophon lived. He took part in Cyrus’s expedition in 401; fought with the Spartans against Athens at Coronea in 394; and lived in banishment at Skillous, which the Spartans gave him as a reward, until 370.
  • Reading Recommended

    The best translations are Rawlinson’s of Herodotus and Jowett’s of Thucydides; Dakyns has translated all the works of Xenophon.


    Contemporary with the development of prose for the purposes of recording history was its stylistic growth in the oratory of political life, and of the Athenian law courts. Even in Homer the heroes are often distinguished by their manner of making speeches, and in the fifth century B.C. we find Themistocles at the time of the Persian wars, and Pericles toward the end of the century, gaining and maintaining their ascendancy by their ability to speak before the people.

    Antiphon (480–411), the earliest of the ten Attic orators, was the originator of political oratory, the Æschylus of the oratorical art. Though he was active in the oligarchical party and instrumental in establishing the Four Hundred in 411, his speeches were mostly written for those who could not compose their own defenses without professional help. His style was severe, pregnant, and highly poetic in its phraseology.

    Lysias is distinguished as having been the first professional speech writer to attempt to suit the style of the particular speech to the individuality of his client. The law required that the accuser and defendant should speak for themselves. It was, therefore, necessary that the real artist in speech-writing, and Lysias was pre-eminently this, should make his clients speak in character. His was the masterly art which concealed art. In graceful simplicity and fluent forcefulness his orations are unexcelled.

    The orations of Isocrates belong to the epideictic or show orations, in which sense is sacrificed to form. In the magniloquence of his ‘Panegyricus,’ for instance, we can feel that the past greatness of Greece has so completely faded that it has become a subject for rhetorical and sentimental display, and has ceased to stir men to assert themselves and to act. He pretends to desire to rouse Greece against Asia once more, but his eloquence does not ring true. The perfection of his literary style, his attention to matters of rhythm and rhetorical balance, to the musical joining of word to word, and to avoidance of hiatus between words exerted a great influence on Demosthenes and Cicero.

    Demosthenes was so much the statesman of strong and decided character and the orator of terrific earnestness, that, while willing by patient effort to master these details of art and style, he could never lose himself in the pettiness and triviality of an Isocrates. His is the intellect of a superman, which draws its moral force and its power of expression from the very highest political and patriotic impulses and convictions. No historian could give us a picture of Greece tottering to its fall that would compare with the dramatic recital in the ‘Philippics,’ in the oration ‘On the Peace,’ and in the masterpiece of all—the oration ‘On the Crown.’ These tell in his own words what this heroic defender did to save Greece from her fall before the Macedonians.

    Æschines as an orator is second only to Demosthenes, but his was a natural gift of fluent eloquence, far less trained and polished than that of Demosthenes. In argumentative power he was far inferior to him, and less convincing. His moral inferiority, his lack of courage, his pessimistic feeling of hopelessness in the struggle against Macedon, contributed to make him less effective than his great rival. In the oration ‘Against Ctesiphon’ (330 B.C.), which Demosthenes answered with the oration ‘On the Crown,’ he failed to get one fifth of the votes and, rather than submit to fine and disgrace, left Athens forever.


    As in the sphere of art, so too in the field of philosophical thought and speculation the world owes to Greece not only the beginnings of philosophy, but also the defining of its limits, the fixing of its proper categories, and the decision as to the direction, at least, in which it was to progress during the centuries. It is, however, of the early philosophers as writers that we must here speak. Heraclitus (c. 535–c. 475 B.C.), called the Dark Philosopher, is the founder of metaphysics; that everything is in a state of change and flux from not-being to being and vice versa was his belief; our senses are no safe witnesses, and all things are relative. His only extant work, ‘On Nature,’ is obscure, not only in the profundity of the thought, but in the difficulty of expressing this thought in the Greek language as it then existed. Parmenides, who flourished about 500 B.C., has left us only about 160 lines of a poem called ‘Nature,’ in various fragments, divided between a Proem, a part called Truth, and a part called Opinion. In the second part he treats of the real unity of what is existent, and, in the third part, of the unreality of variety, i.e., of its non-existence. Opinion is what seems to exist but does not really exist. His literary style is to the point and direct, with a certain rugged simplicity. Empedocles (c. 495–435 B.C.), of Agrigentum in Sicily, also wrote a poem on nature of which four hundred lines in unequal fragments remain. His stately hexameters influenced Lucretius greatly. His mysterious personality as statesman, prophet, and reformer gave rise to many strange tales. The “elements,” fire, air, water, and earth, are in constant activity, according to him, under the forces of love and strife.

    In the latter part of the fifth century we find philosophy taking a more practical turn. It was probably in the hand of those private teachers called the sophists, who were nothing if not practical, that this bent toward ethics and ordinary life was first seen.

    Xenophon’s philosophical works, which can only be so called because they deal with the philosopher Socrates, comprise the ‘Œconomicus,’ a treatise on ideal household administration, the ‘Symposium,’ a banquet scene of well-known Athenians including Socrates, and his ‘Memorabilia’ which gives a somewhat photographic but entirely inartistic picture of the everyday life of Socrates as seen and, shall we say, misunderstood by this pragmatical man of letters.

    Plato. It is, however, to Plato in the ‘Apology,’ ‘Crito,’ ‘Phædo,’ and ‘Euthyphro’ that we must look for the judgment of a discerning eye on Socrates, the founder of all philosophy, even modern. Socrates first called the minds of men from abstruse and purely theoretical speculation about the universe of matter to man himself in his relations to his fellowmen and to the divine. He asked such questions as “What is virtue?” “What is a state?” “What is it to govern a state?” In Plato’s inimitable way of presenting the dialectic method of Socrates, a method which sought to arrive at the truth inductively by a system of question and answer in dialogue between Socrates and men in all walks of life, we get an impression of the master that is undoubtedly idealized by the writer’s own poetic and imaginative temperament, but it is just this artistic element in his work that contributes to make it the highest creation of Attic prose. In his ‘Republic’ and ‘Laws’ Plato presents his more constructive work describing the ideal state and setting forth his doctrine of ideas, but into his philosophical views, as being apart from literary study, we shall not enter.

    Aristotle. For a similar reason Aristotle also, who systematized more fully what Plato had intuitively sensed, demands here only a passing mention. His literary style is so devoid of charm in spite of its being so pregnant with thought and so logical in its expression, that it is only as the first great critic of literature that he can be mentioned here. The concepts of what constitute the genuinely dramatic, the tragic, and comic were first defined in the ‘Poetics’ of Aristotle. His ‘Rhetoric,’ too, analyzed and classified masterpieces of a literature that had ceased to be produced. The creative power of Greek literary genius had spent itself. From now on only fitful bursts, ineffectual as compared with the old fires, flare here and there through the darker ages till in modern times the ballads of the liberty-loving Klephts sprang up in the mountains of Greece to show that neither the language nor the spirit of ancient Greece was entirely dead, that Greece could still fight the Turk as she had in old times fought and conquered the Persian.

    Greek Oratory and Philosophy
    Chronological Table and Reading Recommended

  • c. 535–c. 475 B.C.Heraclitus
  • fl. early Fifth Century B.C.Parmenides
  • c. 495–435 B.C.Empedocles
  • 490–429 B.C.Pericles
  • 480–411 B.C.Antiphon
  • 469–399 B.C.Socrates
  • c. 444–c. 380 B.C.Lysias
  • 436–338 B.C.Isocrates
  • 431–404 B.C.Peloponnesian War
  • 429–347 B.C.Plato
  • 389–314 B.C.Æschines
  • 384–322 B.C.Demosthenes
  • 384–322 B.C.Aristotle
  • 338 B.C.Battle of Chæronea
  • 330 B.C.Oration of Æschines ‘Against Ctesiphon’ and of Demosthenes ‘One the Crown’
  • c. 50–c. 138 A.D.Epictetus
  • Later Greek Literature

    We have, then, thus traced the organic life of Greek literature. What comes later is either imitative, as in the poems of Callimachus and the ‘Argonautica’ of Apollonius of Rhodes (see, in the LIBRARY., ‘The Argonautic Legend’) or, as in the case of the idyls of Theocritus and the poems of Bion and Moschus, is a harking back to the old touched with new life owing to new conditions. In this bucolic literature, which affected Virgil so strongly, it is a fostered and self-conscious love of nature and the simple life that arises in the breasts of men that are wearied of the refinements of civilization. Later, in the third century A.D., a somewhat similar feeling motivated the writing of romantic novels by Heliodorus, Longus, and Achilles Tatius. Contemporary with the Alexandrian writers mentioned above we find Polybius who fought against the Romans in their conquest of Greece, giving with almost Roman matter-of-factness the history of these wars that terminated with the fall of Corinth in 146 B.C., while Josephus narrates the history of the Romans’ wars against the Jews of his time and gives an account of Jewish antiquities from the very earliest times. Plutarch in his parallel lives of the most famous Greeks and Romans carries biographical historical writing to a very high degree of perfection. No other source gives us such clear and authentic details about the life of the ancient world. Among philosophical writings the ‘Hymn to Zeus’ of the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes has been preserved to us by Stobæus; the ‘Discourses of Epictetus’ and his ‘Encheiridion’ give a clear presentation of the practical doctrines of this deeply religious Stoic whose faith in God and in man’s ability to will to take his part in God’s world, was so strong. Among the Atticists who in their language and style as well as in the subjects on which they wrote went back to the centuries before Christ, the satirical Lucian and Alciphron stand pre-eminent. In the drawing of character and the telling of stories of adventure they make that ancient life thoroughly up-to-date and modern in tone. Zeus and Hera talk in almost the lingo of a modern divorce court. Another of the Atticists, Pausanias, drily and prosily tells us, as an extensive traveler, of the cities and monuments of his time. His is an early Baedeker’s guide. From about this time, the second century A.D., dates what Renan has called “the most human of all books,” the ‘Reflections or Meditations of Marcus Aurelius,’ the moral guide by which the great emperor governed his life. An episodical literature consisting of anecdote and biographical incident is found in Athenæus and Ælianus Claudius, while Diogenes Laertius tells us in his lives of the philosophers many details of their beliefs that would otherwise have perished. The eloquent sermons of St. John Chrysostom, i.e., the golden-mouthed or tongued, and the works of Agathias who wrote a history of the conquest of Italy in the sixth century by Narses, may be said to close the history of Greek literature as presented in the LIBRARY.

    Later Greek Writers
    Chronological Table and Reading Recommended

  • 331–232 B.C.Cleanthes
  • fl. Third Century B.C.Theocritus
  • c. 310–240 B.C.Callimachus
  • fl. Third Century B.C.Apollonius of Rhodes
  • c. 200–c. 118 B.C.Polybius
  • fl. 150 B.C.Moschus
  • fl. c. 100 B.C.Bion of Smyrna
  • 37–100 A.D.Josephus
  • c. 45–120 A.D.Plutarch
  • c. 50–c. 138 A.D.Epictetus
  • Second CenturyAlciphron
  • c. 110–180 A.D.Pausanias
  • c. 125–after 180 A.D.Lucian
  • 121–180 A.D.Marcus Aurelius
  • Second Century? A.D.Athenæus of Naucratis
  • Second Century? A.D.Longus
  • c. 175–c. 235 A.D.Claudius Ælianus
  • Third Century A.D.Diogenes Laertius
  • Third Century A.D.Heliodorus of Emesa
  • c. 347–407 A.D.Saint John Chrysostom
  • c. 530–582 A.D.Agathias
  • The following general articles may be consulted with advantage: H. F. Amiel’s ‘Journal’ (On our barbarism compared with the Greeks); G. W. F. Hegel’s ‘The Greek World,’ D. J. Snider’s ‘The Battle of Marathon,’ and J. A. Symonds’s ‘The Genius of Greek Art.’