Greek literature: what it is, history and literary development, characteristics, works and authors


What is Greek literature?

Greek literature refers to all the literary production that was written by authors born in Greece, approximately in the time range of 2000 B.C. However, this literature also includes other geographical areas that received great cultural influence from Greece, and which extends through all periods until today. It is undoubtedly one of the most important regions for the development of world literature in different fields, becoming one of the key references for the organization and understanding of artistic expression.

Often Greek literature also refers to writings in the Greek language, and is usually associated with classical or ancient literature, due to the importance it has for the development of world literature, although without ignoring the literary productions of modernity.

History and origin of Greek literature

The first stage of Greek literature, as mentioned above, is known as ancient or classical literature, and dates back to before 300 AD. Thus, it gathers the most ancient productions in Greek until the rise of the Byzantine Empire in the 4th century. During this time, Greek literature focuses its production in three main genres established at the time: epic poetry, theater and lyric poetry.

During the 6th century, the development of drama took place in Athens, which at first consisted of a chorus composed of men who shared the singing and dancing in odes, with the passage of time, dialogue was incorporated into the chorus, which was added by one of the actors. Aeschylus introduced tragedy during this same century with a second actor in addition to the chorus. While Sophocles, considered the second of the great tragedians, advanced along the same path establishing concrete themes that were treated by his characters.

After Rome’s conquest of Greece around 146 B.C.E., Polybius, a Greek historian, dedicated himself to the writing of the chronicle of the conquest a century later. Later Plutarch will also appear with a selection of works including biographies of Greek as well as Roman characters, while in other fields such as medicine, Galen writes works that begin to lay the first foundations of what will become modern medicine.

However, all Greek knowledge was later concentrated in the Library of Alexandria, where the works of philosophers, poets, historians, scientists and other writers of Greek origin were stored, which gradually became one of the most important symbols of Greek culture. With the fire of the library, as is believed, more than 40,000 works from these areas were lost, however, the tradition of Greek literature was not lost in its entirety, as its authors continued to write, in addition to the impact and influence that Greek culture had already achieved by then in Western civilization.

What is Greek literature

Development of literature in Greece 

As mentioned, Greek literature spans three main genres:

Epic poetry

Besides being one of the oldest literary manifestations, it is one of the most important in the development of artistic expression, given that it will also appear in other civilizations. This first form contains the legendary past of the people where the exploits of heroic figures that were previously told through oral transmission are sung.


Another of the forms developed in Greek literature will be prose, which had great importance in the writing of a large number of works that came from the oratory that was executed in the political area, as well as thanks to the concern of the writers of the time to write history texts about the most relevant events of the population. In this sense, representatives of prose such as Aristotle, Plato and Herodotus will appear.

Lyric poetry

Lyric poetry is poetry that was sung with the lyre as a musical instrument. This genre appears with the need to exalt the human being and sing to thoughts, emotions and everything that is part of the human condition, so that he sang to love, sadness, friendship, life, etc.. This poetry will be marked by a more intimate sense, although frequent themes such as the cult of the gods will also appear. They will be sung at important moments in life, such as birth, wedding celebrations, death, etc.

Theatrical representation 

It is considered that the first manifestations of the writing of dramatic texts that would give rise to theatrical representations arose at the end of the 6th century BC. Thus, the first plays performed were of comedy and tragedy. It is important to bear in mind, also, that theatrical representation arose when lyric poetry began to decline.

The theater is presented to all the people, so it will be marked as a popular genre of the polis, mainly developed in Greece and Sicily. On the other hand, satire takes vital relevance, which with its mocking and humorous intention, highlighted a large number of aspects of the time and conflicts of the organization within the polis.

On the other hand, we also find in Greek literature what will be the first signs of underlying manifestations to the main ones, among which are the elegy and the ode. The former was erected as a song of mourning that made the public aware of the problems and needs faced by the polis. The ode, on the other hand, was a composition that sought to exalt the life of the human being, either to commemorate a relevant event or to direct it towards nature.

Main characteristics of Greek literature

Among the main aspects of Greek literature we find the following:

Content: much of the literary production mainly from the classical era has mostly a content that includes legendary heroes, as well as gods that are part of Greek mythology, the latter being one of the major representatives present in the literary works of Greece. In this way, Greek literature deals with historical events, in addition to the legends that are part of its culture.

Human participation: a particularity of Greek literature has to do with the fact that it highlights the human condition that is subjected to divine designs, so that they depend on their decisions. This is also reflected in the interaction between the human world and the divine world.

Religion in the works: one of the most important faculties of Greek literature has to do with the high religious content of its works, also of mystical content. These themes were present in both stories and legends, since the deities that were part of Greek mythology were worshipped in the works. Thus, we can identify characters such as Perseus or Oedipus, who belonged to the imaginary of the time and had a place in religious stories.

Use of rhetoric: another key aspect of Greek literature is rhetoric, a set of principles governing the art of speaking or writing with the intention of persuading or delighting a particular audience, thus forming the qualities of discourse.

Catharsis: is a concept that refers to a form of elimination of human passions through suffering. In this way, citizens who participated as audience in theatrical performances, especially tragedies, could return home much calmer and in harmony with their emotions, which allowed them to act in a better way in the face of events they faced in their particular reality.

Oral transmission: oral transmission is undoubtedly of vital importance for literary development, in this case for Greek literature, from which important written texts that are known today are derived. Thus, lyric poetry and epic poetry are mainly derived from that practice, as they were previously sung by reciters who memorized fragments of epics or created to recite them, often called rhapsodes.

Main works

Main works and most important authors 

Among the main authors of Greek literature we can highlight figures such as Aristophanes, one of the main writers and representatives of Greek comedy, as well as Euripides, who worked on tragedy as Sophocles and Aeschylus. Likewise, there is another series of authors known for their works such as Homer, to whom are attributed works such as “The Odyssey”, “The Iliad”, hymns and other works, as well as Hesiod, writer of the work “Works and Days”, “Theogony”, in which he describes the genealogy of the Greek gods, among other writings.

As for lyric poetry, we find authors such as Archilochus, Alcmán, Callinus, Sappho, Alceo of Mytilene, Alcmán of Sparta, Anacreonte, Ibico, Estesícoro, Baquílides, Píndaro, Simónides of Ceos, Tirteo, Mimnermo of Colofón, Jenófanes, Focílides, Teognis, Solón, as well as writers and historians such as Heródoto and Tucídides. In prose, Demosthenes, Isocrates, Aeschines, Iseus and Lysias stand out. Later on, another series of writers will work on different combinations of the already proposed genres, such as Menander with a new trend of comedy, Timaeus of Tauromenius in history, Lucian with satirical dialogue, Aristarchus of Samothrace as a grammarian and philologist, among others.