Greek literature, ancient

The Classical Period

Greek drama evolved from the song and dance in the ceremonies honoring Dionysus at Athens. In the 5th cent. B.C. tragedy was developed by three of the greatest dramatists in the history of the theater, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Equally exalted was the foremost exponent of Attic Old Comedy, Aristophanes. Other writers who developed this genre included Cratinus and Eupolis, of whom little is known. The rowdy humor of these early works gave way to the more sedate Middle Comedy and finally to New Comedy, which set the form for this type of drama. The best-known writer of Greek New Comedy is Menander.

The writing of history came of age in Greece with the rich and diffuse work of Herodotus, the precise and exhaustive accounts of Thucydides, and the rushing narrative of Xenophon. Philosophical writing of unprecedented breadth was produced during this brief period of Athenian literature; the works of Plato and Aristotle have had an incalculable effect in the shaping of Western thought.

Greek oratory, of immense importance in the ancient world, was perfected at this time. Among the most celebrated orators were Antiphon, Andocides, Lysias, Isocrates, Isaeus, Lycurgus, Aeschines, and, considered the greatest of all, Demosthenes. "Classical" Greek literature is said to have ended with the deaths of Aristotle and Demosthenes (c.322 B.C.). The greatest writers of the classical era have certain characteristics in common: economy of words, direct expression, subtlety of thought, and attention to form.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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