Greek literature history and characteristics

Greek literature

The literature Greek comprises a body of writings in Greek, with a continuous history extending from the first millennium BC to the present. However, the great works were produced during the early period, from the 8th to the 4th century BC. 

Also, back then, most of the great genres (epic, lyric, tragedy, comedy, history, oratory, and philosophy) were created and peaked. Similarly, the canons of ancient literature were established. These were the main spiritual and cultural foundations of the Western world until the end of the 19th century.

In fact, few literary traditions have been as influential in Western society as the literary works of Ancient Greece. From the Homeric works to the reflections of Aristotle, Greek literature forms the basis of modern thought. These productions are still at the center of Western culture.

Now, most of the works produced in the ancient period focused on myths and involved gods and mortals. Latin literature, the other great influence in the Western world, was largely an imitation of Greek paradigms. Many of the texts were presented in verse form , but there were also prose compositions.

In a sense, in the ancient period, the culture was centered on the Greek language. Because of this, many Romans felt a sense of inferiority. Even after the Romans conquered the Hellenistic states, much literature, philosophy, and almost all science was practiced in Greek. And many Romans studied in the Greek schools of philosophy.

Among his many contributions, the development of the Greek alphabet and the many works of Greek writers helped create the literary tradition that people still enjoy. Many Greek poems and stories are still read and enjoyed in contemporary educational spaces.


In the beginning, the authors of Greek literature were exclusively born in Greek territory. These not only lived in Greece itself, but also in Asia Minor, the Aegean islands and Magna Graecia (Sicily and southern Italy). Greek literature history and characteristics

Later, after the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek became the common language of the eastern Mediterranean lands and later of the Byzantine Empire.

Greek literature was produced not only in a much wider area, but also in those whose mother tongue was not Greek. Even before the Turkish conquest (1453), the area had started to shrink again, and was now confined mainly to Greece and Cyprus.

All this vast knowledge came to be concentrated in one place, the Library of Alexandria. On this site, he managed to store all the great works of Greek poets, historians, philosophers, scientists and other writers. It is estimated that they contained more than half a million papyrus scrolls.

Thus, it became a symbol of the growing scholarship of Greek culture. Similarly, it was an area where thinkers and writers could conduct literary, historical, and scientific studies. Unfortunately, the library was burned down in 48 BC.

More than 40,000 works of Greek philosophy, literature, history, and science were burned and lost. However, despite this loss, the Greek literary tradition remained profoundly rich and impacted all of Western civilization.


In its early days, Greek literature was intended for oral “consumption” and therefore did not depend on books or readers. Although the alphabet arrived in Greece around 800 BC, ancient Greece was in many ways a society in which the spoken word prevailed over the written word.

In this way, literary production was characterized by verbal echoes and repetition of terms. This trait was repeated in the compositions of the archaic and classical periods (Golden Age). In these periods the great works that have transcended to today’s society were produced.

Because most of the literary production was destined to be listened to in community, it was always connected to group meetings. The parties or symposiums, religious festivals, political meetings or sessions of the courts of justice were the scenes for these works.

Due to this confrontational context, poets and writers always competed with each other and with their predecessors. Poetic creation was, from the beginning, inseparable from imitation.

These are its main characteristics:

Use of rhetoric and oratory

In few societies has the power of fluent and persuasive language been valued more highly than in Greece. In the use of tone of language, people did not raise or lower their voices much.

In this sense, the Greeks spoke with a very high volume of voice and used real words that expressed sarcasm, interest, love, skepticism and hostility.

The emotion markers have been preserved, especially in the emotional attitude of the speaker / writer. Traits that have been inherited in current discourse.

Later this type of oratory provided a great incentive to study and instruct in the persuasive arts of governments, especially in political debates in the assembly, and for attack and defense in court. In fact, the most important speakers in history took their techniques from ancient Greek.

Importance of emotion and affection

Ancient Greek literature exhibited a great deal of emotion, either in the behavior of the characters in the narrative or in the response elicited from the audience or readers. What’s more, there was an extensive vocabulary of emotions in ancient Greece.

These emotions are: pity (compassion), anger, fear, love and jealousy. In addition, it relied on a set of affective capacities, such as empathy , aggressiveness, cowering, and attachment; emotions common to all human beings.

Use the epic narrative

The Iliad and the Odyssey are prime examples of epic narrative, which in ancient times was a long narrative poem, in a lofty style celebrating achievement. Both poems were based on plots that grab the reader, and the story is told in language that is simple and direct, but eloquent.

They were oral poems, they were transmitted, developed and added in a vast period of time, on which poets without names freely improvised.

Includes lyrical poetry

Lyric poetry, characteristic of Greek literature, was mainly related to the worship of the gods or the celebration of the victors in the great Hellenic games.

The lyrical chorale, which had lyre and aulos accompaniments, was very complicated in its structure as it did not use traditional lines or stanzas.

Thus it was never used in exactly the same way again, although the metric units from which the stanzas were constructed were drawn from a common collection. The form of the stanza was normally related to the accompanying dance.

Use philosophical prose

Philosophical prose is considered the greatest literary achievement of the fourth century. He was influenced by Socrates and his characteristic method of teaching led to dialogue. Its greatest exponent was Plato.

In fact, the style of this author is considered of an unparalleled beauty, although the old critics saw it too poetic. His works have also influenced posterity.

Presence of a human divinity

The ancient Greeks developed a religious understanding of the world based on divine presences and traditional stories.

The first important and most frequently observed characteristic of the Greek gods was their human form. Unlike other religions, the Greeks did not give a prominent place in their religious hierarchy to monsters, animals or strange imaginary creatures (although there are some in Greek mythology, but they are clearly minor).

Thus, the Greek gods came to be included within a vast family of deities just as it happened in the family of the Greeks. Therefore, in the Greek religious imagination, the highest and most perfect manifestations of existence had forms and attributes exactly the same as those of their human worshipers.

In fact, except for their power, beauty, and immortality, the Greek gods were exactly like human beings in the way they looked, felt, or loved.

Inclusion of drama and tragedy

Tragedy is a form of drama in which a strong central character or hero ultimately fails and is punished by the gods.

Usually in Greek tragedy the hero has a fatal flaw that causes his downfall. Tragic events were often committed involuntarily, such as the episode in which Oedipus unknowingly kills his father. Although there were others who were conscientious, like when Oreste takes revenge on his father by killing him.

For many years, Aeschylus was the most successful playwright in Athens, winning various competitions. One of his rivals, the Athenian writer Sophocles wrote the famous play Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King).

A third major writer named Euripides focused more on people than gods in his writing. Among Euripides’ most famous works are Electra and The Trojan Woman .

Rise of comedy

The word comedy seems to be connected by the derivation of the Greek verb meaning “to delight,” which arose from the delights associated with the rites of Dionysus, a god of vegetation.

Aristotle, in his poetics, affirmed that comedy originated in phallic songs and that, like tragedy, it began in improvisation, although its progress went unnoticed.

When tragedy and comedy arose, poets wrote one or the other, according to their natural inclination.

The distinction between tragedy and comedy is basic: tragedy imitates men who are better than average men and comedy those who are worse.

The purpose of the comic artist was to serve as a mirror to society to show its follies and vices, in the hope that they would wake up.

The most important writer of comedies in ancient Greece was Aristophanes, whose works included The Frogs and The Clouds . His works were witty and sarcastic. He often mocked the leading political figures of the time, although the government tolerated it.

Use of Greek mythology

Greek myth attempts to explain the origins of the world, they also detail the lives and adventures of a wide variety of gods, goddesses, heroes, heroines, and mythological creatures.

These mythological stories were initially spread in an oral-poetic tradition. The oldest Greek literary sources are the epic poems of Homer, Iliad and Odyssey , which focus on the Trojan War and its aftermath.

The poems the Theogony and the Works and Days , contain stories of the genesis of the world, the succession of divine rulers, the succession of human ages or the origin of human evils.


This literature developed with little outside influence, and among all the literary expressions the Greek one is characterized and highlighted by the great originality of the texts and genres.

The originality of Greek literature is due to the great leap that his writings made in creating a break with the past.

The proof of this uniqueness is that Greek literature has managed to endure to this day and is often taken as a reference to understand even current literature.


Archaic period

Within Greek literature, the archaic period was characterized, first of all, by epic poetry: long narratives representing heroic deeds of gods and mortals. Homer and Hesiod were the great representatives of this period. Both emphasized in their works the importance of honor and courage.

On the other hand, lyrical poetry, sung with the music of the lyre, evolved around 650 BC. C. and dealt with human emotions. Sappho, a 6th century BC poet, was the highest representative of this genre. Sappho composed a special type of lyric poem called a melodic poem, which was sung, not recited.

Golden age

For a period of roughly 200 years, from 461 BC to 431 BC, Athens was the center of Greek culture. In the so-called Golden Age, literature flourished, largely as a result of the rise of democracy. And the drama in the form of tragedy became the most important literary form.

Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were the 3 best tragic playwrights. The works of Aeschylus were noted for their seriousness, majestic language, and complexity of thought.

Sophocles was characterized by his elegant language and sense of proportion. Meanwhile, Euripides, the “philosopher of the stage”, explored human emotions and passions.

Comedy was also prominent in 400 BC. The works of Aristophanes, a satirical and obscene comedy writer, reflected the sense of freedom that prevailed in Athens at the time.

For his part, Herodotus, the “father of history”, traveled throughout the civilized world in the middle of 400 BC, recording the manners and customs of nations and peoples. He and the other historians wrote in prose. Thucydides, in his account of the Peloponnesian War, attempted to explain the effects of politics on history.

Philosophical literature evolved around 450 BC with the Sophists, a group of philosophers. These scholars and masters of theories of knowledge invented rhetoric – the art of persuasive speech. Literature was essentially oral and was spoken in prose. Socrates’ ideas were preserved in the writing of his student, Plato.

Hellenistic age

During the reign of Alexander the Great in 300 BC. C., Greek ideas and culture spread throughout the civilized world to the east. The period after his death in 323 BC. In the Hellenistic Age, Athens gave way to Alexandria, Egypt, as the center of Greek civilization.

Theocritus, an important poet of this period, introduced pastoral poetry, which expressed an appreciation for nature. Callimachus and others produced short, witty poems called epigrams. Likewise, Apollonius of Rhodes continued to write traditional long epic poetry.

It was Greco-Roman

The period of the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 BC saw prose as the prominent literary form. Thus, Plutarch wrote biographies that contrasted the Greek leaders with the Romans. Luciano de Samosata satirized the philosophers of his time. And Epictetus founded the Stoic school of philosophy, which emphasized acceptance and endurance.

For his part, Pausanias wrote an important history of ancient Greece in 100 AD. In this period, Galen’s medical writings appeared. Ptolemy – who was an astronomer, mathematician, and geographer – produced scientific writings.

Also, in this era, Longo wrote Daphnis and Chloë, the precursor to the novel. Plotinus, author of the Enneads, founded the Neoplatonic school, the last great creation of ancient philosophy.

Medieval literature

From 395 AD to 1453 AD, Greece was part of the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople (Istanbul) was the center of Greek culture and literature. Christian religious poetry became the dominant form. Romano el Meloda (-562 AD), who composed long hymns called Kontakia, was the greatest Greek poet of medieval times.

Modern Greek Literature

In the 1800s, Dionysios Solomos (1798-1857) wrote his poems in Demotic Greek, the language of the common people. Before World War I , Greek prose was limited to short stories depicting provincial life. The post-war period witnessed the rise of the psychological and sociological novel.

The Greek poets achieved renown in this period. In 1963, George Seferis (1900-1971), a lyrical poet, became the first Greek to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Odysseus Elytis (1911-1996), also a poet, received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979.

Genres of Greek literature

Epic narrative

The epic narrative had its beginnings in the need for men to tell the salient facts of their history. In the Greek case, its configuration as a literary genre took place after the appearance of writing.

This genre is represented by two great epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, although they do not constitute the origin of the epic narrative. Very popular in ancient times, the epic was a long oral tale in verse with a high style and in which legendary or fictitious events were narrated. Its objective was to celebrate the heroic actions of the peoples.

In the ancient world, the Iliad and the Odyssey formed a class apart among archaic epic poems. From there other poems were later released that made up the so-called Greek epic cycle.

Lyric poetry

Lyrical poetry was a type of poetry written in the first person that expressed personal emotions or feelings . There is not enough historical data to fix the date of its appearance. However, according to evidence, it spread rapidly throughout Greece from the 7th century BC. C.

This expansion occurred with great force especially among the Ionian populations that lived along the coasts of the Aegean Sea. At this time it was known as the “lyrical age of Greece.” However, it continued to be cultivated in later periods. Greek literature history and characteristics

In addition to experimenting with different metrics, lyrical poets sang their songs to the accompaniment of a lyre. This was a hand plucked stringed instrument. From there came the name that would identify the genre as “lyrical poetry.”


According to historical evidence, the tragedy is an evolution of the dithyramb (a poetic composition written in honor of the god Dionysus). The precursor of the tragedy was Arión de Lesbos, who lived in the 7th century BC. C., and who is said to have worked in Corinth.

Later, Thespis (6th century BC) brought in an actor who conversed with the choir. This was a revolution of the genre, and it became a regular feature of the Dionysian festivals in Athens. A little later, the Greek playwright Aeschylus (525 BC-456 BC) introduced a second actor in the play.


Like the tragedy, the comedy grew out of the rituals in honor of Dionysus. It was a popular and influential form of theater performed in Greece from the 6th century BC.

The most famous playwrights of the genre were Aristophanes (444 BC-385 BC) and Menander (342 BC-292 BC). In their works, they mocked politicians, philosophers, and other artists.

In addition to maintaining their comic touch, the plays also offered an indirect view of Greek society in general. They also provided details on the functioning of political institutions. Additionally, they gave an overview of legal systems, religious practices, education, and warfare in the Hellenic world.

Sometimes the plays also revealed something of the identity of the audience and showed the true sense of humor of the Greeks. Finally, the Greek comedy and its immediate predecessor, the Greek tragedy formed the foundation on which all modern theater rests.


The first great writer in history was Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484 BC -426 BC). This historian described the clash between Europe and Asia that culminated in the Persian war. His works were directed primarily for Athenian readers. The account of this war was the product of an investigation among survivors of the conflict.

Later, Thucydides (c.460-c. 400) changed the role of the historian from being a mere narrator of past actions. Thanks to his work, it was possible to make an examination of the nature of political power and the factors that determined the policies of the States.

The result of his work was a deeply military and political history of warfare, but of a more penetrating quality. Thucydides investigated the psychological effect of war on individuals and nations. His findings were interpreted through the many subsequent works and served as elements of analysis of the societies.

Rhetoric and oratory

Both rhetoric and oratory had their heyday in Greece with the emergence of democratic forms of government. The power of fluent and persuasive speech became necessary for political debate in the assembly and for attack and defense in the courts of law. Even in the works of Homer speeches were read that were masterpieces of rhetoric.

Philosophical prose

Greek philosophical prose writers included Anaximander (610 BC -545 BC), Anaximenes (590 BC – between 528 and 525 BC), and Democritus (460 BC -370 BC). Socrates (470 BC-399 BC) had great influence on this type of prose, imposing a characteristic method of teaching by questions and answers.

Alexamenus of Teos and Antisthenes, both disciples of Socrates, were the first to use it. However, the greatest exponent of Socratic dialogue was Plato (427 BC -347 BC). Shortly after Socrates’ death, Plato wrote some dialogues of his own, mostly short.

Frequent topics


In works of Greek literature, heroes tend to share rare strength, immense courage, and noble morals. They are also resourceful and exceed the limits of the average man. These heroes act somewhere between gods and mortals. In fact many of them are demigods (sons of gods with humans).


Throughout Greek stories, generosity is repetitive and appears to be a noble characteristic. Sometimes she subtly reinforces the stories.

Hospitality is a particularly important kind of generosity. The altruism and detachment in the stories reinforce the idea that they are good qualities that should be valued.


Faith is perhaps the most important theme in Greek literature. This is reflected in the confidence of the characters both in their gods and in themselves.

They accept myths and prophecies without question, and risk their lives for them. Sometimes the stories recounted the negative results of losing faith, with a clear moralizing intention.


Love often appears throughout Greek literature to drive the narratives. Different types of love emerge in the texts with different implications. In some cases, love is visceral and impulsive. In others, it is more relaxed and long-lasting.


Throughout the stories, fate appears as a powerful force that no human or god can contend with. In this sense, they both share an equally frustrating experience when trying to change them. Fate is presented in the writings as a power greater than those of Mount Olympus.


Sacrifices are repeated throughout Greek literature. Not only because physical sacrifice was significant in ancient Greek societies, but also because of the reward associated with it. In these cases, this becomes a quality that any common person can achieve.

Through sacrifice, the characters are rewarded by the gods. In this way, they become good examples for other people. This act must often be done out of honor and morality rather than simply out of self-love.

Outstanding works and authors

Epic narrative

In the line of epic narrative, the most genuine representative was definitely the Greek poet Homer. The works The Iliad and The Odyssey are attributed to him The first tells the tragic story of Achilles, son of a goddess and richly endowed with all the qualities that make men admirable.

For its part, The Odyssey is an improved version of an old folk tale of the return of the tramp and his triumph over those who usurped his rights. It is about the return of the hero Ulysses from Troy to his homeland, Ithaca. In the play, Ulysses is represented by his Greek name, Odysseus.

Lyric poetry

Sappho (650 BC-580 BC) is considered the most important of the lyrical poets. He lived on the island of Lesbos in the northwestern Aegean Sea, and his work flourished sometime around 600 BC. His most prominent work was the Hymn in honor of Aphrodite .


The tragedy was a form of the dramatic genre . It went on to become one of the most important forms of Greek literature. Aeschylus (525 BC-456 BC), Sophocles (496 BC-406 BC) and Euripides (484-480 BC-406 BC) were three of the best tragic playwrights.

From the production of Aeschylus, the works The Persians , The Seven Against Thebes , The Supplicants , Prometheus in Chains and Agamemnon stand out .

On the part of Sophocles, Ajax , Antígona and Las traquinias stand out . Finally, the production of Euripides is worth mentioning Alcestis , Medea , Hipólito and Andrómaca .

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Back to top button