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.
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.
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.
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...