That’s Ancient History: Classic Greek & Roman Literature

The story of the roots of the Western canon in Ancient Greece and Rome.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Defining Classical Literature

The term ‘classical studies’ is used in the case of Western literature to describe works written in ancient Greek and Latin during the time of the ancient Greek and Roman empires; this period is also sometimes called ‘antiquity.’

The earliest surviving works of Greek literature were likely composed around the 8th century BCE, and new works were being created up until the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 BCE. Classic Roman literature started later than Greek and was written in Latin, and while there are earlier examples, most Classic Roman literature was written between the 1st century BCE and the 2nd century CE.

It’s important to know that when talking about literature, the term ‘classics’ can be confusing, because it can identify specifically ancient Greek and Roman texts, but it’s also used interchangeably with ‘the canon.’ That’s why, if you look in a Classics section in a bookstore, you may find texts written from a wide variety of time periods. In conversation, context clues will be important to know which kind of ‘classic’ someone is referring to.

Influence of Classics Across Disciplines

Classical literature includes epics and dramas, but also Greco-Roman nonfiction works on philosophy, history, archaeology, anthropology, art and mythology.

Many subjects studied today find their roots in ancient Greek and Roman writings. From the sciences to the arts, much of Western thought has been influenced by writers and thinkers of these early ages: the works of Pythagoras continue to influence Mathematics, the Socratic Method remains a popular teaching style, and art and architecture still refer to Vitruvius’ writings for understanding balance and scale.

In literature, the influence of the West’s earliest writers cannot be overstated. While some styles such as Neoclassicism are more obviously influenced by these ancient texts, as we will see, the majority of works in the Western canon have been impacted by classical literature in some way – whether the author seeks to copy it or rebel against it.

The Epic Poem


Did you know that the epic poem is one of the earliest known forms of literature in the world?

Sometimes simply called an ‘epic,’ it’s a long-form narrative – often book-length – that is written in poetic verse. Ancient Greek epics like Homer’s the *Iliad* and the *Odyssey* from around 800 BCE are some of the earliest works of Western literature. The oldest recognized epic is the *Epic of Gilgamesh*, recorded in ancient Sumer circa 2500-1300 BCE.

These earliest epics were composed as songs – not written down – and shared orally. Because the narratives were created as poems with rhyme and meter, it helped the creators memorize these lengthy works. Being able to memorize the poem was important so that it could be performed and passed on to new orators.

In Western literature, heroic epics are the most common form of epic poem. These depict extraordinary characters or people performing extraordinary deeds (so, heroes), usually dealing with gods, deities or other superhuman forces. These forces sometimes work against the hero, for him (in classical epics the heroes are male), or the gods are oblivious to the hero but create a conflict that he has to manage. The *Odyssey* has examples of all three.

Greek Dramas

Most literary scholars agree that the ancient Greek theater was the birthplace of Western drama.

The city-state of Athens became an important cultural center around 700 BCE, with plays performed as part of religious festivals and has continued to be a source of art and inspiration ever since.

Greek drama has unique characteristics that you don’t usually see in the theater today. Sophocles’s *Oedipus Rex* is one of the most famous Greek dramas and displays many of these characteristics.

First, all plays were written in verse. This means they had meter and rhyme schemes.

Second, actors always wore masks and relied on the masks to show emotion; the masks were usually extreme and showed faces with huge smiles or abject weeping. Today, you can often see theater represented by two masks, one happy and one sad. These masks, called ‘Comedy and Tragedy’ are associated with ancient Greek drama.

Third, ancient Greek casts were very small, never consisting of more than three actors in addition to the chorus – the Greek chorus was a group of actors that spoke in unison, and their role within a drama was to describe and comment upon the main action of the play.

Greek Philosophy

Ancient Greek philosophy marked an important shift in Greek literature when it arose in the 6th century BCE. As writing became standard and more widely used, scholars began to write their ideas down, instead of relying on memory and oral tradition.

From this time through the Hellenistic period and into the time of the Roman Empire, Greek Philosophy blossomed.

The most notable Greek philosophers are Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Socrates is often called the ‘father of Western philosophy’ – he introduced the Socratic method, which is a question-and-answer style of learning.

Socrates’ works also heavily influenced the philosophers that came after him, including Plato. In Plato’s *Republic*, for example, Socrates shows up as a character that is an important source of dialogue and discussion.

Possibly the most influential philosopher of all time, Aristotle was a student of Plato. He invented the field of formal logic, defined the scientific disciples, and made ground-breaking contributions to philosophy and science.

Key Figure: Homer

Homer is often considered the most influential author of all time, and the epic poems the *Iliad* and the *Odyssey* are both attributed to him. From what we can tell, he most likely lived during the late 8th century BCE. Many accounts say that he was visually impaired, and he’s often referred to as ‘the blind bard.’

The *Iliad* and the *Odyssey* were both originally constructed in ‘Homeric Greek,’ a literary language that blended dialects. Both epics are divided into 24 books and both contain exactly 15,693 lines!

The *Iliad* is, narratively, the earlier of the two works. It is set during the Trojan War – a ten-year siege on the city Troy – and it focuses on King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles. Interestingly, although the famous story of the Trojan Horse takes place during the Trojan War, it’s not mentioned in the *Iliad*, which ends before the event.

The *Odyssey*, which is arguably the more famous of the two epics, occurs after the fall of Troy and follows the hero Odysseus on his long and difficult journey home, which takes many years and during which he encounters many trials.

Key Figure: Virgil

Publius Vergilius Maro, most widely known as ‘Virgil’ was an ancient Roman poet who lived from 70 BCE to 19 BCE during the reign of Caesar Augustus. He is known for composing some of the most famous poems in the Latin language: particularly *Eclogues*, the *Georgics*, and the epic poem the *Aeneid*.

Of these three, the *Aeneid* is by far the best known – and it has remained popular throughout history. Since its creation, the poem has held the title as a national epic of ancient Rome.

This epic was inspired by the works of Homer and uses much of the same style, though it’s written in Latin and Homer wrote in Greek. However, despite the similarities, Virgil also helped to expand the genre by integrating other poetic devices and figurative language into his epic.

The story of the *Aeneid* centers on Aeneas after the fall of Troy as he struggles to reach Italy and fulfill his destiny to become the ancestor of the Romans. The story helped the Romans to feel that they were part of a grand historical narrative – with a mythology that could rival that of the Greeks.

Key Figure: Sophocles


Sophocles was one of the greatest ancient Greek tragedians and one of only three from whom any complete plays still survive; the other two tragedians are Aeschylus and Euripides. Sophocles lived from around 497 BCE to 406 BCE.

Although he wrote over 120 plays, only 7 still exist in their complete form. Drama was central to Ancient Greek culture, and competitions were held during religious festivals. Sophocles was the most celebrated playwright for 50 years, competing in 30 competitions, winning 24, and never placing lower than second. In his first competition, his success was so clear that the reigning champion Aeschylus went into voluntary exile afterwards.

Sophocles’ most famous plays are *Oedipus Rex*, *Oedipus at Colonus*, and *Antigone*. These three together are called the ‘Theban plays’ because they take place in the city of Thebes during and after the reign of King Oedipus.

The Expanded Canon: Sappho


Sappho was an Ancient Greek poet from the island of Lesbos. She was highly respected as a lyrical poet during her time and was often referred to as the ‘Tenth Muse’ or simply ‘The Poetess.’ She lived from about 630 BCE to 570 BCE.

Sappho’s work was foundational for Ancient Greek and Roman writers, and she is one of the earliest writers to record homoerotic feelings. The words ‘sapphic’ and ‘lesbian’ are both inspired by her.

Although Sappho was a prolific poet, likely composing more than 10,000 lines, unfortunately very little of her work survives today. The only existing complete poem is ‘Ode to Aphrodite.’ Sappho’s legacy began to be criticized during the 3rd century CE due to being a woman and because of her sexuality – and her works were all but lost by a century later.

Today, Sappho is regaining appreciation and is widely considered for the expansion of the canon.

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