Delving into Greek Literature

Greek literature extends from the 1st Millennium BC to the present day. After the conquest of Alexander the Great, Greek became the common language of the eastern Mediterranean lands and then of the Byzantine Empire. At present, it is chiefly confined to Greece and Cyprus. Greek Literature can be divided into three time periods – Ancient Greek Literature (800BC-350AD), Byzantine Literature (290AD-1453AD), and Modern Greek Literature (1453AD-Present).

Ancient Greek Literature – Ancient Greek Literature alludes to the literature written in ancient Greek dialect. The Greek language arose from the proto-Indo-European language; roughly only 2/3rd of its words are derived from various phonetic reconstructions. By the 5th century BC, Athens fully adopted the Phoenician derived alphabets that primarily arose from the Greek-Ionia or present-day Turkey.

  1. Pre-classical Period (800BC – 500BC) – The earliest of Greek Literature was completely oral while the ancient Greek Literature was oral to some degree. The poems that were composed in the pre-classical period were meant to be sung or recited. Writing them down for literary purposes began a little before the 7th century BC. Most of the poems focused on myths and legends that were partly folktale and partly religion. The significant figures of this period are Homer and Hesiod.
  2. Classical Period (500BC – 323BC) – Western literature became more prominent through its genres – lyrical poetry, Pastorals, Odes, Elegies, Epigrams, along with dramatic presentations of Comedy and Tragedy. Even Philosophical dialects, histories, and rhetorical treatises arose in this period. The two celebrated lyrical poets of this period are Sappho and Pindar. Throughout this period there were hundreds of tragedies that were written as well as performed, but only a limited number of plays survived. Especially the ones authored by SophoclesAeschylus, and Euripides. The writing of comedy also commenced in this period, as a ritual, in honor of Dionysus (the God of theater in ancient Greek religion). The earliest written plays were full of obscenity, abuse, and insult. Hence, the only surviving plays are of Aristophanes which are a treasure trove of comic presentation. The greatest achievement of the 4th century BC was in the field of philosophy. Greek philosophy flourished during the classical period. And the most prominent contributors to this field are SocratesPlato, and Aristotle.
  3. Hellenistic Period (323BC – 31BC) – By 338 BC, the important Greek cities were captured by Philip II of Macedon. Philip II’s son Alexander expanded his father’s territory of conquest greatly. This period is defined as the timeline between the death of Alexander the Great and the rise of the Roman Domination. And after the 3rd century BC, the Greek colony of Alexandria in northern Egypt became the center of Greek culture. The most valuable contribution done in the Hellenistic period was the translation of the Old Testament into Greek, by Septuagint. On the other hand, Greek poetry flourished with works of Theocritus (creator of pastoral poetry), Callimachus, and Apollonius of Rhodes. And Menander came up with his New Comedy, which changed the course of drama representation.
  4. Roman Age (31BC – 284AD) – A large section of Greek literature from this period was histories. The Roman Period contributed largely to the subjects of poetry, comedy, history, and tragedy. The important historians of this period were Timaeus, Diodorus, Siculus, Plutarch, Appian of Alexandria, and Arrian. Significant contributions were also made in the field of astronomy and geography by Eratosthenes. The physician Galen pioneered developments in scientific disciplines including anatomy, neurology, pharmacology, pathology, and physiology. Other than this the New Testament, the Gospels, and the Epistles of Saint Paul are also a product of this period. This period marks the end of Ancient Greek Literature. 

Byzantine Literature – Written in Atticizing, Medieval, and Early Modern Greek. It is a combination of the Greek and the Christian civilizations based on the foundation of the Roman political system. It comprises of four main cultural elements: Greek, Christian, Roman, and Oriental. The literature of this period was mainly written in the Atticizing style (a particular region of Athens in Greece). Some were written in Latin and the ones from Latin Empire were written in French. Apart from all these Chronicles, Encyclopedias flourished in this period. 

Modern Greek Literature – The literature of this period is written in standard Modern Greek language. It witnessed the revival of Greek and Roman studies; and the development of Renaissance humanism and science. The Cretan Renaissance poem Erotokritos is a prominent work of this period. It is a romantic verse written by Vitsentzos Kornaros around the 1600s. Modern Greek Literature was mainly influenced by Diafotismos, a movement that translated and borrowed the ideas of the European Enlightenment into the Greek world. Adamantios Korais and Rigas Feraios are two important figures of this movement. At present, Modern Greek Literature is a part of the Global Literary Community. And Greek authors like George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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