Ancient Literature

Introduction

Table Summary

Primary Ancient Writers
Greek Roman
poetry narrative Homer Virgil
lyric Pindar
drama serious Sophocles
comic Aristophanes
Archaic period (ca. 800-500 BC)
Classical period (ca. 500-330 BC)
golden age of Latin literature (ca. 80 BC-20 AD)
Ancient Christian Literature
written over the period...
Old Testament ca. 1000 BC-0
New Testament ca. 0-100
early theology ca. 0-500

The Three Ages of the West

Western history can be divided into three ages: ancient, medieval, and modern. These ages are reflected in all facets of Western culture, including politics, science, visual art, and literature.

The ancient period featured Greco-Roman culture (the collective culture of ancient Greece and Rome), which became the foundation of Western culture. As the Roman Empire crumbled, medieval culture developed, which can be broadly described as Greco-Roman culture with the addition of Christianity and the removal of humanism. Modern culture finally emerged when humanism was restored (see Humanism).

Types of Literature

Although literature can be defined simply as "written works", the term is often used more specifically to denote writing of a creative nature (e.g. poetry, drama), as opposed to scholarly (e.g. philosophy, science, history) or practical (e.g. letters, diaries, travel accounts, law) documents. Essential Humanities focuses mainly on creative literature.

Literature can be divided into three traditional categories: prose, poetry, and drama. Prose denotes literature that features "ordinary language", while poetry features language that has been carefully structured (e.g. rhythm, rhyme) for aesthetic effect. All written works can be described as either prose or poetry.

Prose-Poetry Spectrum
prose poetry
straightforward prose poetic prose loosely-structured poetry tightly-structured poetry
e.g. newspaper article e.g. novel e.g. Shakespearean play e.g. Shakespearean sonnet
Prose-Poetry Spectrum

Drama, which can be defined as "literature intended for performance", may be composed of poetry and/or prose.

Poetry is traditionally divided into narrative poetry (which tells a story, and tends to be relatively long; this type is often called "epic poetry") and lyric poetry (which communicates feelings or ideas, and tends to be relatively short). Drama is traditionally divided into serious drama (tragedy) and comic drama (comedy), though naturally the two are often mixed.

Literature can thus be divided into five major types. All were founded (in the West) by the ancient Greeks.

The Five Major Types of Literature
narrative poetry prose serious drama
lyric poetry comic drama

Ancient Prose

Today, we are accustomed to prose as the usual method of storytelling, especially in the form of novels; only in the nineteenth century, however, did prose secure this dominant position. Until then, poetry (in the form of narrative poetry or verse drama) was generally the preferred medium. While the ancient Greeks and Romans did produce the first Western prose stories (from brief folktales to epic legends), the creative prose of antiquity did not remotely approach the renown or influence of poetry.

Main Article

Archaic Literature

ca. 800-500 BC

The roots of literature lie in oral traditions, which emerged throughout the world long before the development of writing. In addition to pure entertainment, oral stories were often used for instruction (e.g. ethical, religious, historical). Storytelling was sometimes ceremonial, and might be combined with other aesthetic forms (e.g. music, dancing, costumes).

The most influential and highly-regarded works of ancient literature are the narrative poems Iliad and Odyssey. Originally works of oral tradition, these poems were set down in the Archaic period, apparently by a man named Homer. The Iliad recounts the decade-long seige of Troy, while the Odyssey follows the decade-long homeward journey of Odysseus (a Greek king) at war's end.

Primary Ancient Writers
Greek Roman
poetry narrative Homer Virgil
lyric Pindar
drama serious Sophocles
comic Aristophanes
Archaic period (ca. 800-500 BC)
Classical period (ca. 500-330 BC)
golden age of Latin literature (ca. 80 BC-20 AD)

Meanwhile, ancient lyric poetry culminated with Pindar, whose victory odes (which celebrate athletic victories) are considered the pinnacle of his work.4

Though Western prose and drama were also born in the Archaic period, these genres did not truly flourish until the Classical age.

Classical Literature

ca. 500-330 BC

As noted earlier, oral legends were a universal feature of early human societies, and were often combined with other aesthetic forms (such as music, dancing, and costumes) to produce compelling reenactments of historical and/or mythical events. Such "story-ceremonies" remained popular long after the development of writing, and continue to flourish among many cultures today. The ancient Greeks invented drama by harnessing (and developing upon) these ceremonies to tell newly-composed stories.

Greek drama was performed by a small number of actors (1 to 3) and a chorus. The chorus was a group of supporting characters (e.g. a crowd of citizens) that presented and commented upon the story (with speech, singing, miming, and/or dancing). Greek tragedy culminated in the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the second of whom is generally considered the greatest ancient playwright. The two outstanding figures of Greek comedy are Aristophanes and Menander, of whom the former is widely regarded the foremost comic dramatist of antiquity.3

Primary Ancient Writers
Greek Roman
poetry narrative Homer Virgil
lyric Pindar
drama serious Sophocles
comic Aristophanes
Archaic period (ca. 800-500 BC)
Classical period (ca. 500-330 BC)
golden age of Latin literature (ca. 80 BC-20 AD)

Sophocles' foremost tragedy is Oedipus Rex, in which the titular character tries (and fails) to avoid fulfilling a prophecy that he will murder his father and wed his mother. In The Birds, often hailed as Aristophanes' finest play, two world-weary Athenians sprout wings and move to a city in the sky.

Subsequent Greek Literature

The Archaic and Classical periods witnessed the emergence and flourishing of every major type of literature, as well as the careers of all the foremost Greek authors. During the subsequent Hellenistic (ca. 330 BC-0) and Roman Empire (ca. 0-500) periods, Greek literature continued to thrive, but never again would a Greek author achieve renown comparable to that of the Archaic/Classical titans. Meanwhile, the cultural torch of the West passed to the Romans, who wrote primarily in Latin.

The Five Major Types of Literature
narrative poetry prose serious drama
lyric poetry comic drama

One further Greek author merits mention, however: Aesop, the (probably legendary) master of the fable, a brief story with non-human characters that teaches a lesson. Whether or not Aesop was an actual person (sources claim he lived in the Archaic or Classical period), the ancient body of work known as Aesop's fables became (and remains to this day) the most popular collection of fables ever written. The original Aesop collections have been lost; the fables are known only through later versions (sometimes poetry, sometimes prose), which have been produced regularly from antiquity up to the present.

Roman Literature

The Roman Republic can be divided into the Early Republic (ca. 500-250 BC), during which Roman territory expanded gradually across Italy, and the Late Republic (ca. 250 BC-0), during which Roman territory expanded rapidly across the Mediterranean. During the Late Republic, Roman culture (including art and literature) truly began to flourish. Roman culture continued to thrive during the Early Empire (ca. 0-200), then permanently declined in the Late Empire (ca. 200-500).

The Romans adopted Greek culture as the foundation of their civilization, such that Roman literature (like Roman culture generally) continued and developed upon Greek forms. Naturally, these forms were modified to suit Roman tastes, and were injected with native Roman cultural elements; most obviously, the chief language of Roman literature was Latin rather than Greek. Though all fields of ancient literature reached their highest level among the Greeks, the Romans produced their own share of titans, notably in epic poetry (led by Virgil), lyric poetry (led by Horace), and comedy (led by Plautus and Terence).

Roman literature is widely considered to have culminated over the century-long period ca. 80 BC-20 AD, known as the golden age of Latin literature. The preeminent figure of this golden age is Virgil, greatest of Roman writers. His masterpiece, the epic poem Aeneid, recounts the adventures of Aeneas, a Trojan prince who (following the destruction of Troy) journeys to Italy and founds Rome.

Primary Ancient Writers
Greek Roman
poetry narrative Homer Virgil
lyric Pindar
drama serious Sophocles
comic Aristophanes
Archaic period (ca. 800-500 BC)
Classical period (ca. 500-330 BC)
golden age of Latin literature (ca. 80 BC-20 AD)

The Bible

ca. 1000 BC-100 AD

The Bible, the scripture (sacred text) of the Christian faith, consists of two main parts: the Old Testament (which is also the Hebrew Bible) and New Testament, which are themselves divided into many distinct works. The Old Testament was written (mainly in Hebrew) over the first millennium BC, while the New Testament was written (in Greek) mainly in the first century AD.6,7

Ancient Christian Literature
written over the period...
Old Testament ca. 1000-0 BC
New Testament ca. 0-100
early theology ca. 0-500

The Bible contains various elements typical of religious texts across the world, including explanations of supernatural beings and places (and their relevance to humanity), history (ordinary and supernatural), law, ethics, and prophecy. The principal subject of the Old Testament is God's covenant with the Hebrews (the chosen people) and the ensuing formation and history of Israel (the Hebrew kingdom). The New Testament focuses on the life and teachings of Jesus, along with the attendant new covenant between God and Christians.6,7

Christianity (with the Bible as its core) was the supreme force in medieval culture. Christian stories and themes dominated medieval art and literature. Indeed, the religion's sweeping cultural influence remained strong for centuries after the Middle Ages, though it came to share the stage with classical themes, as well as increasing attention to the immediate human world.

Early Christian Literature

Christianity emerged in 1st-century Palestine (as a splinter sect of Judaism), then spread throughout the Roman Empire. By the early medieval period, Christianity had come to dominate most of Europe; consequently, a great portion of Western literature (from the Roman Empire period onward) is Christian in nature.

Theology can be defined as "the study of religious belief and practice". Christian theology, which emerged under the Roman Empire (and subsequently became the primary focus of medieval scholarship), is thus concerned with analyzing biblical truths (e.g. the nature of God and the afterlife, humanity's relationship with God) and their implications for human life (e.g. religous practice, politics, law, ethics).

To modern secular eyes, theological literature may seem an isolated curosity, of concern only to devoted religious intellectuals. Prior to the rise of secular societies, however, theology (along with the scripture it drew upon) was widely and profoundly influential on Western views and values. Indeed, for some Christians (and for millions who follow other faiths), the resounding impact of scripture and theology on everyday life has not dwindled (see Religion).

The theologians of the Roman Empire period laid the groundwork of Christian doctrine. In addition to analysis of the Bible itself, theology often attempted to reconcile scripture with classical philosophy (see History of Western Philosophy). The growth of theological scholarship began in earnest during the Late Empire period (ca. 200-500), especially once the religion was granted official tolerance by Constantine (313). By far the most influential theologian of antiquity was Saint Augustine.

Ancient Christian Literature
written over the period...
Old Testament ca. 1000-0 BC
New Testament ca. 0-100
early theology ca. 0-500
1 - "Western Literature", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
2 - "Writing", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed April 2009.
3 - "Ancient Greek Literature", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed April 2009.
4 - "Pindar", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
5 - "Chorus (theatre)", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
6 - "Old Testament", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed April 2009.
7 - "New Testament", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed April 2009.