Impact of Ancient Greek Literature on Modern Literature & Language

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  • 0:08 Ancient Greek
  • 1:04 Impacts of Greek Literature
  • 3:47 Greek Literature & Theater
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the various ways that ancient Greek literature has impacted our modern language and literature. Then,you can test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Ancient Greek

I have a question for you. Would you feel frantic if a pathetic pirate with poor hygiene used a telephone to call you and sarcastically asked for directions to the museum because politics, like democracy, were a tragedy?

Okay, so you might feel more confused than anything else. But, you would also feel the impact of ancient Greece! You see, all of the words on the screen are based on words from the ancient Greek language. But how did ancient Greece come to influence modern English? Simply put, through literature.

The literature of ancient Greece was so important that it was preserved for millennia and helped form the basis of modern European culture. The authors of ancient Greece left major legacies that included styles and themes of literature, early mythologies and histories, and of course, words to describe important aspects of life.

Impacts of Greek Literature

The Greeks were the first major European civilization to create complex literature, and their works influence us today in many ways. One way is in the style that we write. In other words, why do we write history, or philosophy, or comedy, or poetry? These styles were first developed by the Greeks.

One of the oldest styles of literature is poetry. Specifically, epic poetry, which uses verses to tell a long story about a hero. The oldest surviving works of the great Greek epic poetry are the Iliad and the Odyssey, written by Homer around 800 BC. The Iliad and Odyssey tell stories that are part history, part fiction, and part mythology but represent how the Greeks remembered their past and understood their world. These two stories are also some of the most widely read books in the modern world because they set standards for storytelling, such as the characteristics of a hero's journey, that influence us to this day.

When the ancient Greek civilization reached its height in the fifth and fourth century, an era called the Classical Period, literature blossomed and expanded. Several styles emerged that may sound familiar to you. Let's start with history. We don't often think about this, but writing history had to start somewhere. In the fifth century BC, a man named Herodotus wrote a book that was the foundation of historical writing. For centuries, rulers recorded important events and singers passed on local legends, but Herodotus was the first to systematically research and collect historic materials and arrange them into a single narrative. Although he often mixed in mythology or folk stories, this was still the most accurate account of recorded history and started a trend that modern historians still obey.

Just as they did with history, the Greeks also turned random jots on philosophy, medicine, art, and engineering into full-length articles that other people could read and research. Scholars would then write new articles, leading to a widespread academic community, similar to the way that scholars interact today. Because they wrote down their research in this way, many Greek scholars left behind legacies that we can, and do, still read. For philosophy, the works of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle serve as the foundation of Western ethics. Hippocrates wrote articles on medicine that are still read in med schools. Euclid is considered the founder of modern geometry. These are just a few of the many Greek scholars whose works inspire us to this day.

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