Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: Greek by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: Greek by  Charles Morris

The Literary Glory Of Greece

Shall we now leave the domain of historic events, of which the land of Greece presents so large and varied a store, and consider that other feature of national life and development which has made Greece the most notable of lands—the intellectual growth of its people, the splendor of art and literature which gave it a glory that glows unfading still?

In the whole history of mankind there is nothing elsewhere to compare with the achievements of the Greek intellect during the few centuries in which freedom and thought flourished on that rocky peninsula, and the names and works handed down to us are among the noblest in the grand republic of thought. Just when this remarkable era of literature began we do not know. So far as any remains of it are concerned, it began as the sun begins its daily career in the heavens, with a lustre not surpassed in any part of its course. For the oldest of Greek writings which we possess are among the most brilliant, comprising the poems of Homer, the model of all later works in the epic field, and which light up and illustrate a broad period of human history as no works in different vein could do. They shine out in a realm of darkness, and show us what men were doing and thinking and how they were living and striving at a time which but for them would be buried in impenetrable darkness.

This was the epoch of the wandering minstrel, when the bard sang his stirring lays of warlike scenes and heroic deeds in castle and court. But the mind of Greece was then awakening in other fields, and it is of great interest to find that Homer was quickly followed by an epic writer of markedly different vein, Hesiod, the poet of peace and rural labors, of the home and the field. While Homer paints for us the warlike life of his day, Hesiod paints the peaceful labors of the husbandman, the holiness of domestic life, the duty of economy, the education of youth, and the details of commerce and politics. He also collects the flying threads of mythological legend and lays down for us the story of the gods in a work of great value as the earliest exposition of this picturesque phase of religious belief. The veil is lifted from the face of youthful Greece by these two famous writers, and we are shown the land and its people in full detail at a period of whose conditions we otherwise would be in total ignorance.

Such was the earliest phase of Greek literature, so far as any remains of it exist. It took on a different form when Athens rose to political supremacy and became a capital of art and the chief centre of Hellenic thought, its productions being received with admiration throughout Greece, while the ripened judgment and taste of its citizens became the arbiters of literary excellence for many centuries to follow. The earliest notable literature, however, came from the Ionians of Asia Minor and the adjacent islands. In the soft and mild climate and productive valleys of this region and under the warm suns and beside the limpid seas of the smiling islands, the mobile Ionic spirit found inspiration and blossomed into song while yet the rocky Attic soil was barren of literary growth. But with the conquering inroads of the Persians literature fled from this field to find a new home among "those busy Athenians, who are never at rest themselves nor are willing to let any one else be."

The day of the epic poet had now passed and the lyric took its place, making its first appearance, like the epic, in Ionia and the Ægean islands, but finding its most appreciative audience and enthusiastic support in Athens, the coming home of the muse. Song became the prevailing literary demand, and was supplied abundantly by such choice singers as Sappho, Alcæus, Anacreon, Simonides, and others of the soft and cheerful vein, the biting satires of Archilochus, the noble odes of Pindar, the war anthems of Tyrtæus, and the productions of many of lesser fame.


Along the Coast of Greece.

This flourishing period of song sank away when a new form of literature, that of the drama, suddenly came into being and attained immediate popularity. For a century earlier it had been slowly taking form in the rural districts of Attica, beginning in the odes addressed to Dionysus, the god of wine, the Bacchus of Roman mythology. These odes were sung at the public festivals of the vintage season, were accompanied by gesture and action and in time by dialogue, and the day came when groups of amateur actors travelled in carts from place to place to present their rude dramatic scenes, then mainly composed of song and dance, rude jests, and dialogues. In this way the drama slowly came into being, comedy from the jovial by-play of the rustic actors, tragedy from their crude efforts to reproduce the serious side of mythologic story. A great tragic artist and poet, the far-famed Æschylus, lifted these primitive attempts into the field of the true drama. He was quickly followed by two other great artists in the same field, Sophocles and Euripides, while the efforts of the earlier comedians were succeeded by the fun-distilling productions of Aristophanes, the greatest of ancient artists in this field.

This blossoming age of poetry and the drama came after the desperate struggles of the Persian War, which had left Athens a heap of ruins. In the new Athens which rose under the fostering care of Pericles, not only literature flourished but art reached its culmination, temple and hall, colonnade and theatre showing the artistic beauty and grandeur of the new architecture, while such sculptors as Phidias and such painters as Zeuxis adorned the city with the noblest products of art. During these busy years Athens became a marvel of beauty and art, the resort of strangers from all quarters, the ablest workers in marble and metal, the noblest artists, poets, and philosophers, until for more than a century that city was the recognized centre of the loftiest products of the human intellect.

Prose came later than poetry, but was soon flourishing as luxuriantly. The early historians quickly yielded Herodotus, the delightful old story-teller, with his poetic prose; Xenophon, with his lucid and flowing narrative; and Thucydides, the greatest of ancient historians and the first to give philosophic depth to the annals of mankind. The advent of history was accompanied by that of oratory, which among the Greeks developed into one of the choicest forms of literature, especially in the case of the greatest of the world' s orators, Demosthenes, whose orations were inspired by the noblest of themes, that of a patriotic effort to preserve the independence of Greece against the ambitious designs of Philip of Macedon.

Philosophy, the third great form of Greek prose literature, was as diligently cultivated, and has left as many examples for modern perusal. The works of the earlier philosophers were in verse, while Socrates, the first of the moral philosophers, left no writings, doing his work with tongue instead of pen, though he forms the leading character in Plato's philosophic dialogues. In Plato we have the most famous of the world's philosophers, and a writer of the ablest skill, in whose works the imagination of the poet is happily blended with the reasoning of the philosopher, his productions constituting a form of philosophic drama, in which the character of each speaker is closely preserved, Socrates being usually the chief personage introduced.

Following Plato came Aristotle, his equal in fame though not in literary merit. His name will long survive as that of one of the ablest thinkers the world has produced, a reasoner of exceptional ability, whose scope of research covered all fields and whose discoveries in practical science formed the first true introduction to mankind of this great field of human study, to-day the greatest of them all.

We have named here only the leaders in Greek literature, the whole array being far too great to cover in brief space. Following the older form of the drama, with its archaic character, came two later forms, the Middle and the New Comedy, in the latter of which Menander was the most famous writer, making in his plays some approach to the modern form. Philosophy left later exponents in Zeno, Epicurus, and many others, and history in Polybius, Strabo, Plutarch, Arrian, and others of note. Science, as developed by Aristotle and Hippocrates, the father of medicine, was carried forward by many others, including Theophrastus, the able successor of Aristotle; Euclid, the first great geometer; Eratosthenes and Hipparchus, the astronomers; and, latest of ancient scientists, Ptolemy, whose works on astronomy and geography became the text-books of the middle-age schools.

Long before these later writers came into the field the centres of literary effort had shifted to new localities. Sicily became the field of the choicest lyric poetry, giving us Theocritus, with his charming "Idyls," or scenes of rural life, and his songful dialogues, with their fine description and delightful humor. Following him came Bion and Moschus, two other bucolic poets, whose finest productions are elegies of unsurpassed beauty.

Syracuse was the home of this new field of lyric poetry, but there were other centres in which literature flourished, especially Pergamus, Antiochia, Pella, and above all Alexandria, the city founded by Alexander the Great in Egypt, and which under the fostering care of the Ptolemies, Alexander's successors in this quarter, developed into a remarkable centre of intellectual effort.

The first Ptolemy made Alexandria his capital and founded there a great state institution which became famous as the Museum, and to which philosophers, scholars, and students flocked from all parts of the world. Here learned men could find a retreat from the bustle of the great metropolis which Alexandria became, and pursue their studies or teach their pupils in peace within its walls, and it is said that at one time fourteen thousand students gathered within its classic shades.

Here grew up two great libraries, said to number seven hundred thousand volumes, and embracing all that was worthy of study or preservation in the writings of ancient days. Of these, one was burned during the siege of the city by Julius Caesar, but it was replaced by Marc Antony, who robbed Pergamus of its splendid library of two hundred thousand volumes and sent it to Alexandria as a present to Cleopatra.

In this secure retreat, amply supported by the liberality of the Ptolemies, philosophers and scholars spent their days in mental culture and learned lectures and debates. The scientific studies inaugurated by Aristotle were here continued by a succession of great astronomers, geometers, chemists, and physicians, for whose use were furnished a botanical garden, a menagerie of animals, and facilities for human dissection, the first school of anatomy ever known.

In the heart of the great library, battening on books, flourished a circle of learned literary critics, engaged in the study of Homer and the other already classical writers of Greece and supplying new and revised editions of their works. Here philosophy was ardently pursued, the works of Plato and his great rivals being diligently studied, while in a later age the innovation of Neoplatonism was abundantly debated and taught. A new school of poetry also arose, most of its followers being mechanical versifiers, though the idyllic poets of Sicily sought these favoring halls. Most famous among the philosophers of Alexandria was the maiden Hypatia, who had studied in the still active schools of Athens, and taught the doctrines of Plato and Aristotle and the then popular tenets of Neoplatonism—her fame being chiefly due to her violent and terrible death at the hands of fanatical opponents of her teachings.

The dynasty of the Ptolemies vanished with the death of Cleopatra, and during the wars and struggles that followed the library disappeared and the supremacy of Alexandria as a centre of mental culture passed away. The literary culture of Athens, whose schools of philosophy long survived its downfall as the capital of an independent state, also disappeared after being plundered of many of its works of art by Sulla, the Roman tyrant, and in later years for the adornment of Constantinople; its schools were closed by order of the Emperor Justinian in 529 a.d. ; and with them the light of science and learning, which had been shining for many centuries, though very dimly at the last, was extinguished, and the final vestige of the glory of Athens and the artistic and literary supremacy of Greece vanished from the land of their birth.


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