David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.
Ancient Greek Literature
What's your favorite book? Whether you like adventure stories where the hero defeats a villain or a star-crossed romance where a boy and girl fall in love, almost all of the books written today borrow from a very old formula. In fact, this formula is nearly 3,000 years old, because the first literature, or collections of written stories, was laid down by the ancient Greeks. Their old stories may sound familiar when reading today's books because they created the guidelines and formulas used by many writers throughout literary history.
Some of the first and probably the most important works of ancient Greek literature are the two books written by the poet Homer: The Illiad and The Odyssey. Both of these stories feature heroes trying to defeat enemies and then return home, with trials and complications along the way. Sound like a book you've read, or a movie you've seen? There's a good reason for that.
Homer's works became so popular and influential that they formed the basis for many literary works that followed. The Illiad and The Odyssey were first memorized, or remembered, instead of being written down. This was because the ancient Greeks thought that literature was meant to be performed and heard rather than read.
Other Ancient Greek Writers
So who could compete with Homer? Well, a lot of Greek writers tried, and many of them became famous in their own right. Not long after Homer wrote The Illiad and The Odyssey, a Greek writer named Hesiod (pronounced Hee-see-uh-d) became the first writer in history to insert himself into his own stories. Hesiod also wrote down his stories, rather than relying on memorization like Homer.
Men were the main writers in ancient Greece, but not the only ones. Perhaps the most famous woman to ever write in ancient Greece, Sappho (pronounced Saf-oh), earned a spot in history for her famous, and sometimes shocking, poems about life and love. Much of Sappho's poetry, however, has been lost, and what is left is mostly fragments, meaning smaller pieces, instead of a complete story. Greek writers wrote on parchment paper, which is very fragile. What's more, they wrote an entire story on a single scroll -- creating a book that was as long as 150 feet!
Many of the writers we think of when we talk about ancient Greek literature lived in Athens about 2,600 years ago, in a period of time known as the Golden Age (457 BC to 430 BC). During this period, many parts of Greece became richer and more powerful, especially the city of Athens. Many people wrote stories, created art and sculptures, and built structures that survive to this day. Cities also built new theaters for plays, performances, and readings.
Just about everyone loves going to the movies, especially with a big bucket of popcorn. In ancient Greece, the theaters were open-air, and performances often had political messages. For example, the famous Athenian playwright Aristophanes (pronounced Ar-uh-stof-uh-neez) wrote a number of plays making fun of the city leadership. He was one of the first writers to specifically try to be funny, helping to create comedy as we know it. Other playwrights like Sophocles (pronounced Sof-uh-kleez) and Euripides (pronounced Yoo-rip-i-deez) wrote tragedies about heroes who encounter great misfortune, usually through their own doings.
The Greeks developed literature as we know it today, creating the ideas of heroes, villains, and story structure. The first Greek literature was memorized, then later written down. Some ancient Greek works have not survived, and we only know about fragments of the original stories.
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