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.
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.
Greek Literature and Theater
There is one form of Greek literature that deserves special mention: theater.
The Greeks invented theater, and over the course of their history wrote literally hundreds of plays that were performed in public theaters. Theater was so important to the Greeks that it was part of festivals to honor the gods, the subject of highly prestigious competitions, and a way to create sense of cultural unity amongst Greek cities that were separated by seas and mountains.In ancient Greece, there were two forms of theater that emerged in the fifth century BC. The first is tragedy, defined by human suffering that evokes an emotional response in the audience.
The opposite, of course, is comedy, which generally has a happy ending and follows a fool throughout an adventure with disastrous, ironic, or downright funny results. The terms comedy and tragedy should sound familiar; Greek theater is still used to define the themes of modern literature.The Greeks loved theater, and they wrote a lot of plays. Unfortunately, they wrote them a long time ago.
Over the course of two full millennia, almost all of the original Greek plays have been lost. Those that survive belong to the masters Sophocles, Euripides, and Aesschylus. The fact that Greek theater is still such a prevalent part of our literature, despite only a few pieces surviving, is evidence that it was extremely important to ancient European societies. They copied the plays and copied the styles until they were established as the foundations of all Western literature.
Greek literature was so influential that it managed to actually impact our language. Words like skeleton are derived from ancient Greek because the first texts that wrote about the skeleton were by ancient Greeks. Ancient Greek literature began with epic poetry, lengthy stories about heroes told in verse, like the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer. From there, scholars started doing more research and wrote their findings into articles that presented the information in a clear format. With this style, Herodotus wrote the first histories, Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates composed philosophy, and Euclid developed geometry.The Greek literature that had the most stylistic impact was theater.
Greek play writers created the styles of tragedy, focused on human suffering, and comedy, defined by ironic or funny events. So, the next time you have an epiphany and type a program to create symbols of mythology out of meteors, thank the Greeks. You couldn’t have done it without them.
When this lesson is completed, you should be able to:
- Describe the influence Greece had on modern literature: epic poetry, history, and theater
- Identify the works of Homer
- Recognize some important Greek philosophers
- Recall the classic Greek playwrights