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Greek literature



GREEK LITERATURE. The great British philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once commented that all philosophy is but a footnote to Plato . A similar point can be made regarding Greek literature as a whole.
  Over a period of more than ten centuries, the ancient Greeks created a literature of such brilliance that it has rarely been equaled and never surpassed. In poetry, tragedy, comedy, and history, Greek writers created masterpieces that have inspired, influenced, and challenged readers to the present day.
  To suggest that all Western literature is no more than a footnote to the writings of classical Greece is an exaggeration, but it is nevertheless true that the Greek world of thought was so far-ranging that there is scarcely an idea discussed today that was not debated by the ancient writers. The only body of literature of comparable influence is the Bible.
  The language in which the ancient authors wrote was Greek. Like English, Greek is an Indo-European language; but it is far older. Its history can be followed from the 14th century BC to the present. Its literature, therefore, covers a longer period of time than that of any other Indo-European language .
  Scholars have determined that the Greek alphabet was derived from the Phoenician alphabet. During the period from the 8th to the 5th century BC, local differences caused the forms of letters to vary from one city-state to another within Greece. From the 4th century BC on, however, the alphabet became uniform throughout the Greek world.

CLASSICAL PERIOD

  There are four major periods of Greek literature: preclassical, classical, Hellenistic-Roman, and Byzantine. Of these the most significant works were produced during the preclassical and classical eras.

Epic Tradition

  At the beginning of Greek literature stand the two monumental works of Homer, the 'Iliad' and the 'Odyssey'. The figure of Homer is shrouded in mystery. Although the works as they now stand are credited to him, it is certain that their roots reach far back before his time (see Homeric Legend). The 'Iliad' is the famous story about the Trojan War. It centers on the person of Achilles, who embodied the Greek heroic ideal.
  While the 'Iliad' is pure tragedy, the 'Odyssey' is a mixture of tragedy and comedy. It is the story of Odysseus, one of the warriors at Troy. After ten years fighting the war, he spends another ten years sailing back home to his wife and family. During his ten-year voyage, he loses all of his comrades and ships and makes his way home to Ithaca disguised as a beggar.
  Both of these works were based on ancient legends. The stories are told in language that is simple, direct, and eloquent. Both are as fascinatingly readable today as they were in ancient Greece.
  The other great poet of the preclassical period was Hesiod. He is more definitely recorded in history than is Homer, though very little is known about him. He was a native of Boeotia in central Greece, and he lived and worked in about 800 BC. His two works were 'Works and Days' and 'Theogony'.
  The first is a faithful depiction of the dull and poverty-stricken country life he knew so well, and it sets forth principles and rules for farmers. 'Theogony' is a systematic account of creation and of the gods. It vividly describes the ages of mankind, beginning with a long-past golden age.
  Together the works of Homer and Hesiod made a kind of bible for the Greeks. Homer told the story of a heroic past, and Hesiod dealt with the practical realities of daily life.

Lyric Poetry

  The type of poetry called lyric got its name from the fact that it was originally sung by individuals or a chorus accompanied by the instrument called the lyre. The first of the lyric poets was probably Archilochus of Paros about 700 BC. Only fragments remain of his work, as is the case with most of the poets. The few remnants suggest that he was an embittered adventurer who led a very turbulent life.
  The two major poets were Sappho and Pindar. Sappho, who lived in the period from 610 to 580 BC, has always been admired for the beauty of her writing. Her ... more

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Virgil at Odds

While on the surface the Aeneid could be seen as a Roman epic meant to glorify Rome and rival those of the ancient Greeks, the author was engaged in a struggle.  Virgil had to satisfy the cultural demands of his work, the political demands of his time, and his own personal demands as an artist.  In tackling his problem, Virgil is revealed to be slightly reluctant of embracing fully the still young regime of Octavian but still proud of Rome and his ancestry, and concerned with the moral issues of civil war.
When considering the style with which Virgil composed the Aeneid, it is important to look at the time in which he lived and exactly what was going on around him when it was written.  Virgil was born in 70 BC and died in 19 BC.  This places him in the very beginning of what was to be a long and relatively stable existence of the Roman Empire.  Further, it was during the poet's lifetime that Rome made citizens of all Italians, allowing a huge community to share in Rome's growing heritage.  People who formerly may have felt like outcasts under the oppression of Rome could now call Rome their own.  This included Virgil because he came from a provincial Italian town far outside Rome.  W.A. Camps cites that while Virgil was still a young man, his family's estates were confiscated by Caesar to be given to veterans of the battle of Philippi (1).  Caesar was eventually assassinated and the next twenty years of the poet's life are shaded by bloody struggles for power among heirs and military leaders.
Eventually Caesar's adopted son Octavian defeats Marc Antony and Cleopatra's forces and brings all Rome under his rule, in about 30 BC.  This is important because Virgil had been fond of Octavian, although it is not known if he publicly supported anyone during the conflict.  It is known that Virgil came to enjoy first the friendship then the patronage of Octavian and his minister Maecenas, both of whom bestowed a small fortune upon him (Freeman 389).  
While Virgil accepted their patronage he was still wary of capitulating the new emperor and sacrificing any integrity.   Charles Freeman writes that Virgil's contemporary, Horace also reflects these feelings.  Octavian, now known as Caesar Augustus, took a liking to Horace just as he did Virgil, endowing him with gifts and money.  Eventually Augustus asked Horace to be his secretary, and Horace refused, citing the need to protect his integrity as a poet.  (391)
Virgil felt great gratitude towards an emperor who vigorously supported the arts and brought the Empire much stability but at the same time faced a moral dilemma.  Augustus was looking for a poet to write a national epic about him and his rise to power.  In a letter Augustus wrote to Maecenas he says,  " If I had any talent for the heroic epic, I'd not waste my time on stories from mythology . . . I'd write about Caesar's wars and achievements"  (qtd. in Quinn 27).  This sheds light on the morality issue Virgil faced as an artist. There were plenty of epic poets available in Rome at the time, and plenty were approached with this daunting task of writing an epic with Augustus as the hero.  Nearly all declined, and even Virgil was reluctant. That says something about the attitudes of the poets of his time.  They were not interested in art for art's sake. They wanted to create of their own accord something that came from within.  Kenneth Quinn points out that they wrote with very high standards of integrity, and wrote not for widespread popularity of their works but for approval of their literary peers (30).   Poets were writing of their own personalities; their own views and ideas of right and wrong.  They were not to be leased out for purposes of glorifying Rome's leader.
In a widely known of reply to Augustus' letter inquiring as to Virgil's progress, the poet writes that he thinks he may have been out of his mind to have undertaken the task in the first place (Freeman 387).  He was obviously struggling to balance his need to satisfy himself artistically without ... more

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