Greek literature

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The term Greek literature refers to literature in the Greek language , i. H. in ancient Greek as well as Middle Greek and modern Greek . In a narrower sense, however, it is often only understood to mean the ancient Greek literature of antiquity, as it has become generally accepted in research (e.g. division of chairs and subjects at universities). The Byzantine (Middle Greek) and Modern Greek literature are treated in separate articles. For the sake of simplicity, the ancient Greek literature is also often referred to as “Greek” literature for short in the following.

Almost all of the texts are available in libraries for research into European literatures of modern times and modern times. At most, texts from trivial literature that were not considered worth keeping are excluded. In ancient Greek and Latin literature, the situation is fundamentally different. Essentially, we only have texts that Christian monks copied in the Middle Ages. Your manuscripts ( codices ) are selectively supplemented by valuable late antique codices, papyrus finds and stone inscriptions, but these supplementary ways of transmission can by no means compensate for the losses. One will hardly go wrong if one also assumes that certain areas of literature are affected more than average by the losses: “pagan” doctrine of gods, philosophy of atheism, literature by women, literature of same-sex love or culture and much more. Corresponding approaches in recent research are regularly faced with large gaps in the source base that cannot be closed by speculation. However, this source restriction applies to broad areas of Greek literature: the complete works of hardly any author are available.

In addition, our image of Greek (and Latin) literature is largely shaped by the centuries-old tradition of reception and research. Authors who belonged to the canon of school reading were cared for and researched far more intensively than others. Especially in the areas of "small" authors, so-called colored writers and specialist literature, many authors and texts are still waiting for (broader) discovery. Even where teaching at schools (and universities) today picks up on newer trends in history and literary studies, it usually continues to do so only (or preferably) using the example of established school authors.

On the other hand, the centuries-long reception of Greek literature in Central Europe also shows its importance for us, and in some cases it is the reception that determines the meaning. Indian or Arabic literature is no less rich, but it is literally remote from us and much less has entered our cultural heritage.

The ancient Greek literature

The Archaic Period


The first surviving witnesses of Greek, and thus also of European, literature are the epics of Homer , who already has a long tradition of oral tradition . In addition to the Iliad and the Odyssey , which are commonly attributed to Homer, there are other so-called Cyclic epics that were attributed to Homer, but can no longer be considered Homeric today. However, just like the Iliad and the Odyssey, they deal with the legends surrounding the Trojan War , of which the Homeric poems only deal with excerpts.

The second great early epic is Hesiod . The Greeks even imagined a "competition" between him and Homer, although the lifetimes of the two poets did not allow such a competition at all. The great epics that came to us from Hesiod are the theogony , which comprehensively depicts Greek mythology, and the works and days , a didactic poem in epic form, which essentially deals with the peasant trade.


Only fragments of the majority of early Greek poets have survived, partly as quotes from other ancient writers, partly as papyrus finds . The latter have significantly expanded our knowledge. Almost nothing was known about Sappho and Alkaios in the 19th century , today the collected fragments each fill a separate ribbon. Two exceptions are to be mentioned: Under the name of Theognis von Megara, a collection of elegiac poems in medieval manuscripts has been handed down, and the victory songs (choral lyric) of Pindar also had this traditional history.

Poetry (Greek lyrikós, after an ancient instrument, the lyre ) was originally the art poetry performed with a stringed instrument, which was divided into two main forms, monodic lyric and choral lyric. The division into individual genera of the lyric is carried externally by the poetic meters , whereby the respective meter but corresponds to the contents of the seal. In principle, the verses are to be understood as a regular sequence of long and short syllables, whereas the verse accent was of secondary importance. In some lyrical genres and in the songs of ancient tragedies and comedies, several verses of different meters form stanzas, some of which are complex. On the one hand, this construction of verses and stanzas is an important aspect of Greek poetry (and theatrical poetry), as at least a remnant of their musicality has been handed down in them (melodies are not preserved). On the other hand, the metric poses a major challenge for today's readers.

Monodic poetry

The monodic lyric is the lyric performed by a single singer. It originated on the island of Lesbos. The poet and musician Terpander , who was born on the island but spent most of his time in Sparta, is considered to be the first Greek poet to combine music and poetry. Most of his poems were a hymn-like melody type (nomoi) of ancient Greek music, which at the beginning was only performed instrumentally, later with text, or liturgical hymns, which were written in honor of a god and performed by a single singer accompanied by a lyre has been.

Choral poetry

The so-called choral lyric - for people speaking, singing and dancing together - was developed in the 7th century BC. Founded by poets who wrote in the Doric dialect . The Doric dialect was native to the area around Sparta, later it was also used for choral singing in other parts of Greece. The poets composed their songs and dances initially for cultic celebrations, later also for other occasions, such as to celebrate a victory in sporting or musical competitions. At the transition to classical music, Pindar should be mentioned above all .

Iambic poetry

The iambus is originally a foot of verse made up of a short, unstressed and a long, stressed syllable. He was formative for the jamb seal a. a. of Archilochus .


Based on the Roman elegy , elegies in modern Western literature are poems in a plaintive tone and in resigned melancholy. The early Greek elegy did not yet know this limitation. Formally, the poems are characterized by the so-called elegiac distich. It is a pair of verses consisting of a hexameter and a pentameter.

see also: Canon of the nine lyric poets

Science prose

  • Around 550-450 BC In prose, various realia (news, knowledge) about peoples, cities and the nobility were collected and arranged in prose .
  • In contrast to the epic, which was characterized by astonishment at the deeds of the gods and heroes, the recognizable was presented objectively and critically here.
  • The work of these authors is based on their own perception (αὐτοψία, autopsia), on that of others (ἱστορία, historia = experience ) and also on anecdotes and short stories
  • most important representative: Hecataeus of Miletus (approx. 550-480 BC)


The archaic period (7th / 5th century BC) is the period for Greek philosophy that has the cosmos as the most important research object .

The classic period

The drama

see also: Theater of Ancient Greece

Other forms of poetry

Drama and rhetoric were typical forms of social art and created less favorable conditions for the (individual!) Poetry of this period.

The creative prose

The philosophy

the Hellenism

The drama

  • the tragedy: in Alexandria and other centers outside Attica
  • the New Comedy : Menander (342–290 BC) described in his plays the family affairs of the petty bourgeoisie of the (Hellenistic) city
  • the mimus : realistic & satirical scenes of daily life, etc. a. at Herondas , in the 3rd century BC. Chr.

Other forms of poetry

Epic and didactic poem:

Smaller forms:

The creative prose

The imperial era

Classical Attic became the norm for written Greek.

The poetry

The prose

  • The historiography
  • Other scientific or technical literature
    • Geography : three important representatives:
      • Strabo (64 BC – 19 AD) described all land connections around the Mediterranean that were known in his time
      • Ptolemy (around 100 - after 160), geographer, astronomer, physicist, music theorist (theory of harmony)
      • Pausanias (120–?) Wrote a travel guide for the Greece of his time
    • Natural Sciences: Heron of Alexandria (dating uncertain)
  • The philosophy
    • the stoa
      • Epictetus (approx. 50–130) and Arrianus
      • Emperor Marc Aurel (121–180) wrote down his thoughts - probably in the tent on the campaign against the barbarians.
    • other currents:
      • the second sophistry : Lukian (120 - approx. 180)
      • the Neuplatonismus : Plotinus (205-270), Porphyrius (232-304), Iamblichos of Chalkis († 330), Kaiser Julian (331 / 332-363, reg (355-) 360 / 361-363.)
      • the Peripatetic School
      • the skepticism : as a result of many philosophies that contradicted each other, we came to the conclusion that people have to abstain from any opinion, but to be satisfied with the fate (σκέψις, skepticism )
      • the eclecticism : under the influence of pragmatism of the Romans (the philosophy as a special occasion in itself regarded) was sought (ἐκλέγειν, eklegein ) the useful to build up to its own world view
      • the syncretism : east under the influence of thought (Jewish and Christian) one came to pick up elements of all known philosophies and (συγκεραννύναι to a system to process synkerannynai )
  • A new genre comes up with the novel :
  • Christian literature
    • New Testament : The most printed and most translated work of literature in ancient Greek (Koinē Greek) is curiously not rooted in the Greek literary tradition.
    • Church fathers

The afterlife of ancient Greek as a literary language

Unlike Latin , which in the West asserted itself as the language of church and education alongside the national languages, although it was no longer anyone's mother tongue, ancient Greek has always been more or less easily accessible to the Greeks, so that in literary work one always refers to the used the classic language level as a model. The spectrum ranges from atticent to puristic use. For example, the novel Parerga by Nikolaos Maurokordatos , the first modern novel in Greek, was written in pure Attic in the 18th century . On the other hand, many Renaissance humanists such as Daniel Heinsius write prose and poetry in classical Greek as non-native speakers, on the one hand as an exercise in style, on the other hand also to continue a cultural tradition, such as Wilhelm Kuchenmüller in the 20th century, who wrote his perfectly formed poems in the Alindethra magazine published; even Harry Potter translated into Ancient Greek.

Byzantine literature

The modern Greek literature


See also

Web links

Wikisource: Greek Metric  Sources and Full Texts

Individual evidence

  1. Examples: Wiener Dioskurides , for Latin literature: Vergilius Romanus , Vergilius Vaticanus .
  2. Particularly relevant, for example, to our knowledge of Sappho , Alkaios , Menander , but also Hellenica from Oxyrhynchos , Aristotle ( Athenaion politeia ) and Philodemos from Gadara .
  3. Examples: City charter of Gortys , Monumentum Ancyranum , Diogenes von Oinoanda .
  4. Extensive considerations on the losses and their quantification see under Book Losses in Late Antiquity .
  5. Partly accidentally, partly deliberately, as already shown in Acts 19:19 in the report of a book burning by the Apostle Paul. A pointed “statement” in this direction is: Catherine Nixey: The Darkening Age. The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. Macmillan, London 2017, the presentation of which is controversial in research. German edition: Heiliger Zorn. How the early Christians destroyed antiquity. 2nd Edition. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Munich 2019, ISBN 978-3-421-04775-5 .
  6. Here, too, a pointed “statement” should be made: Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (2016).
  7. In this area, recent research has given us a better overview, for example through anthologies and lexical compilations of the authors, at least by name or fragmentarily. Poets are at the center of attention. Women philosophers were discussed particularly in connection with Hypatia, but at least a dozen names have survived. - Ellen Greene (ed.), Women Poets in Ancient Greece and Rome (2005) pp. 192–196 ( list limited to poetry ); Ian Michael Plant, Women writers of ancient Greece and Rome: an anthology (2004); Marjorie Lightman / Benjamin Lightman, A to Z of Ancient Greek and Roman Women. Revised edition (2008).
  8. The remains include: Sappho , Book 2 of the Theognis collection and Straton von Sardis .
  9. Tip for beginners: If you want to read Greek poetry in the original, you have to struggle less with problems of text transmission with these two authors than with those that have only survived in fragments.
  10. As long as Wikipedia does not yet contain an article on Greek metrics , reference should be made to Historical Metrics and Latin Metrics for this fundamental difference .
  11. Only one example of the fragments of Greek music handed down from antiquity relates to a well-known literary text, a few verses from Orestes des Euripides. Egert Pöhlmann, Monuments to Ancient Greek Music , Nuremberg 1970.
  12. For example, Pindar's 12th Pythian Ode applies to a victory in a musical agon : Midas of Akragas had won the Aulos game.