T HE finest poems which have come to us from the Greeks are the Iliad and the Odyssey. Formerly these were supposed to have been written by Homer. Old stories tell us that this poet was born in the island of Chios (now called Scio), a thousand years before the birth of Christ; that he was blind, and that he sang his songs and begged his way through seven cities, each of which, after he was dead, claimed to be the place of his birth.
Scholars who have studied the matter say that this account cannot be true. They declare that these wonderful poems are not all the work of one man, but were written by many different persons and at different times. In their original form they were sung by wandering minstrels at the great festivals. Those who sang them added to them from time to time. At first they were not written, because writing was then unknown in Greece, but were repeated from memory by the singers. In that way they had been known and sung for more than five hundred years.
Then Pisistratus had them written down, as we now have them, in two volumes, which he placed in the public library established by him at Athens.
The first of these volumes, called the Iliad, tells about some things that happened in the last year of the Trojan war. The second volume, the Odyssey, describes the wanderings of Ulysses, king of Ithaca, after the war and before he reached his home.
However these poems came into being, there is no question about their beauty and power. Many learned men think there is nothing equal to them in the world. An English writer has said, "If you read Homer, you will not want to read anything else, nor do you need any other books."
Though most people know what is believed to be the truth about Homer, he is always spoken of as if he were a real person and actually composed the poems which bear his name.
Another poet who wrote about a hundred years later than Homer was Hesiod. One of his works was about farming and sailing and the common things of life; the other was the family history of the gods, telling of their births, marriages, and adventures.
Three great tragic poets were Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
The greatest comic poet was Aristophanes, who made fun of real people.
Theocritus of Sicily wrote beautiful poems about country life.
Anacreon wrote about love and wine. He is said to have been choked by a grape seed.
There were many lyric poets, who wrote songs to be sung at the games and festivals. Simonides, who lived at the time of the Persian war, was one of these. When the victors came home he wrote songs in their praise, which made them prouder than ever that they had served their country so well. For those who had died in battle he wrote hymns, which made their friends glad that they had known and loved such heroes. His songs of sorrow brought tears to many eyes. He won fifty prizes for his poetry at different times. The last he gained was at Athens, when he was nearly eighty years old. After that he went to Syracuse, and lived there ten years longer, being almost ninety when he died.
Pindar was another famous writer of songs. He was sent to Athens to study. When he was twenty years old he went to Thebes and began to write. He found two women there who also wrote beautiful songs, and who taught him much about poetry. One of these was named Corinna.
The different states of Greece paid him to write songs to be sung in chorus after a great victory, or at some other time of rejoicing. After the Persian wars he composed a poem in praise of Athens, which pleased the citizens so well that they gave him a valuable present, and after his death set up a statue in his honor.
He liked to be among kings and great people, but his nature was sincere, manly, and generous.
He wrote poems for victors, hymns to the gods, solemn dirges for the dead, and merry songs to be sung at feasts.
He had many friends everywhere. Sometimes he was called the Theban eagle. When Alexander the Great captured Thebes he pulled down every house except the one in which Pindar had lived many years before. In that way he showed respect to the poet whose writings he knew and liked.
Alcæus, a citizen of the island of Lesbos, was also a lyric poet. He wrote short poems about love and music; others in honor of events or of persons.
Terpander, who also lived at Lesbos, invented a better harp for the use of minstrels who sang the Homeric hymns, which were written by other poets who lived after the days of Homer.
Sappho, of Lesbos, wrote poems, and gave lessons in poetry and music to the women of Asia Minor. Plato called her the tenth muse; and Solon, having heard her recite one of her poems, prayed that he might not die until he had committed it to memory. She is said to have been in love with Phaon, who did not care for her. To cure herself of hopeless love, she leaped from the top of a rock into the sea and so died.
Archilochus was born in the island of Paros. He came from a poor family; it is even said that his mother was a slave. But his mind was full of beautiful thoughts, and he wrote songs about war and freedom,—songs which helped other men to be brave and noble.