Greek Poetry in Antiquity Analysis

Early Greek Poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The earliest Greek poetry was unlettered, oral, and traditional. For centuries before the appearance of the alphabet in the eighth century b.c.e., Greek poets were creating songs, probably in dactylic hexameter, for entertainment, ritual, and religious purposes. Some of these poems were probably short lyrics and others were longer tales about their heroes and gods. Most, if not all, were probably intended for public performance by individuals or by choruses. Especially in longer, narrative poetry, fixed phrases such as epithets and formulas were used as mnemonic devices and compositional tools to tell and retell tales through generations.


While the texts of the earliest surviving Greek poetry, the Homeric epics Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), were probably not written down in definitive form until the eighth century b.c.e., the tales on which they are based may have existed in oral form at least by the late second millennium b.c.e. Although the very existence of their author is clouded in controversy, few challenge their author’s debt to a long chain of earlier poets who helped establish tales about a ten-year-long war between the Greeks and the Trojans and the troublesome homecomings of the...

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Greek Poetry in Antiquity First-person poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Hesiod’s poetry marks a transition in the seventh century b.c.e. from the traditional, oral poetry represented by the surviving Homeric epics to shorter, more individualized verse that often uses this traditional language in novel ways. In most cases, this poetry, like the Homeric epics, continues to be composed for performance rather than for publication. Most of this poetry survives only in short fragments culled from references in later works or found on scraps of Egyptian papyri. These poems are written in a variety of meters, styles, and dialects. Some, like elegy, use the traditional dactylic hexameter, but accompanied by a second line, in dactylic pentameter, to form an elegiac couplet. It is possible that the origin of the word “elegy” is derived from a non-Greek word for flute. This poetry was, in fact, often sung to the accompaniment of such musical instruments. Occasionally the Greeks themselves mistakenly assumed that the word meant “lament,” but such poetry is especially associated with commemoration of the dead only in the Greek tombstone inscription tradition. Ancient Greek poems written in a variety of other meters are usually called “lyric,” after a stringed-instrument the Greeks called the lyre. A third important type of personal verse used an iambic meter especially for invective or poetry of personal attack. While metrical form and theme are closely associated in Greek poetry, such metrical features are rarely discernible in English translation. All of these varied verse forms, however, share an emphasis on personal self-expression, reflection, and, especially, the use of the first person.


One of the earliest surviving poets of elegiac and iambic was Archilochus (c. 680-c. 640 b.c.e.). In a famous fragment about losing his shield in battle, Archilochus used Homeric vocabulary to question traditional Greek military values and priorities, which demanded that a warrior return either with his shield...

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Greek Poetry in Antiquity Other early poets

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The poetry of other early elegists reflects the frequent warfare of the period as Ionian Greeks struggled to resist the great empires of the East and generations of Spartans fought on the Greek mainland against their neighbors the Messinians. Poets like Tyrtaeus of Sparta (fl. seventh century b.c.e.), Callinus of Ephesus (fl. early seventh century b.c.e.) and Mimnermus of Colophon (fl. 632-29 b.c.e.) wrote about war and exhorted their contemporaries to fight on behalf of their cities. Occasionally Mimnermus turned to more personal themes, such as the difficulties of old age.

Archaic Greek poetry was also used for philosophic and political purposes. The pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes of Colophon (fl. late sixth century b.c.e.) wrote in a variety of poetic forms, including epic, elegy, and satirical iambics and hexameters. His surviving fragments challenged many of the assumptions and norms of Greek society, including the anthropomorphism of the Greek gods and the honors awarded to Greek athletes. The Athenian statesman Solon (fl. early sixth century) used poetry to justify the political and economic reforms he instituted as archon in 594-593 b.c.e.

Greek Poetry in Antiquity The classical period

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The fifth century b.c.e. saw the finest flowering of poetry in Greece. The tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and the comedies of Aristophanes are the best-known and most influential products of this period, associated with the civic life of Athens, which grew to be the center of Greek culture of the time. Practitioners from many places in the Greek-speaking world, however, helped to raise poetry to a high state in the century that saw the defeat of Persia and the downfall of democratic Athens. Pindar’s brilliant choral odes celebrating victors in the national games, important philosophical verse, elaborate dithyrambic poetry—all had their roots and flourished outside Athens. Although the achievement of Athenian dramatists came to overshadow the other poetry of the period, a true appreciation of their highly synthetic art form requires a sense of the fifth century poetic “climate”; only then can what is innovative and fresh in the drama of the period be contrasted with that which continues Archaic trends.

Greek Poetry in Antiquity Popular poetry and skolia

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The parties, or symposia, at which Greek men gathered regularly to discuss the latest politics, to drink, and to talk on all topics, from the trivial to the philosophical, often featured informal songs as well. Plato’s dialogue Symposion (fourth century b.c.e.; Symposium, 1701) offers a look at the procedures on such occasions: Each member of the party must contribute a performance, poetic or rhetorical. An antiquarian writer of the second century c.e., Athenaeus, preserved about twenty-five examples of various types of songs that might be sung on such occasions. The topics that most occupied the minds of the Athenian leisure class are in kernel form here. It should be remembered that this class gave Athens its preeminent writers and that, in general, Greek literature was the creation of an elite. The audience for the public poetry of the drama, however, was mixed in a democratic fashion because admission was provided by the city-state; on other occasions, the poetry was performed at free festivals.

What might a fifth century Greek have sung, then, at an evening’s entertainment? He might well have chosen a poem by a sixth century lyric poet such as Anacreon or Alcaeus, a poem celebrating the joys of drinking and sporting among friends. For variety, the participants in a symposium, especially those with good voices, might have invented new words for a traditional tune, or they might have had verse-capping contests (like those of Japanese party poetry, renga) in which the song would zigzag among the guests. Both of these latter sorts of entertainment seem to have fallen under the heading of skolia (crooked songs).

Politics, love, social life, and light philosophy were the most popular subjects of skolia. In these occasional poems, several points of interest appear. First, the political allusions, although they may refer to figures of a century earlier, concern the present day: The continuing call for isonomia (equal portioning) was a democratic slogan in Athens, so that this...

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Greek Poetry in Antiquity Elegaic poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The historic events of the fifth century b.c.e. brought new demands for such social cohesion as poetry could offer. In the early part of the century, the Greek city-states banded together under the lead of Sparta and Athens to defeat the might of the Persians, first in 490 b.c.e., then in a more protracted struggle ending in 480 or 479 b.c.e. with Greek victories at Salamis and Plataea. This surprising outcome ushered in an era of self-confidence and inspired serious high art that attempted to understand the world system anew: What kind of virtue did Greece have that it could win against such odds? The drama of Aeschylus (525-456

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Greek Poetry in Antiquity Dithyrambic poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Parmenides and Empedocles represent one extreme in fifth century poetry—its highly intellectual strain. A Greek audience, for whom the Delphic maxim “nothing in excess” was usually an unattained ideal, could find a counterbalance in another extreme form of poetry—dithyramb. This highly emotive art form, thought to have begun with worship of the revel god Dionysus (patron of poets), remains important for students of Greek literature because, according to Aristotle, the genre gave birth to tragedy. In fact, at the annual Dionysian festivals of Athens, at which tragedy and comedy were performed in the fifth century, dithyrambic competitions still had a place of honor, and huge choirs strove to win singing prizes. During the...

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Greek Poetry in Antiquity Victory odes

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Bacchylides had a nearly contemporary rival, the Boeotian poet Pindar (c. 518-c. 438 b.c.e.), who competed for patronage from great aristocratic families all over Greece by writing dithyrambs, maiden songs, praise poems, and, most important, odes to commemorate the victories of youths at the four national games. Competitions were held in events ranging from boxing to flute playing, and victors, although rewarded only with crowns of leaves, gained instant reputations all over the Greek world. Like much Greek poetry, victory odes were performed at religious occasions, since the games were sacrosanct (even warring states suspended hostilities to attend) and were thought to have been instituted by heroes...

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Greek Poetry in Antiquity Hellenistic poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

After the Peloponnesian War and Athens’ surrender to Sparta in 404 b.c.e., Greek poetry gradually becomes less public and performative and more scholarly and literary. One exception is comedy, which continued to thrive, especially in Athens, for much of the fourth century and into the third century b.c.e. The only surviving comic writer is the Athenian Menander (c. 342-c. 291 b.c.e.), some of whose work was rediscovered on papyri in modern times. Together with a number of scenes from other plays, his complete Dyskolos (317 b.c.e.; The Bad-Tempered Man, 1921; also known as The Grouch)...

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Greek Poetry in Antiquity The Roman period and late antiquity

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The Hellenistic Age is usually said to end with the defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium by the Roman Octavian (later, Augustus) in 31 b.c.e. Rome’s annexation of Egypt following the death of Cleopatra marked the final stage in the Roman conquest of the eastern Mediterranean in the second and first centuries b.c.e. During the subsequent Roman period, Greek literature in general, and poetry in particular, went into decline.

Several anthologies of Greek lyric and epigram in the tradition of Meleager’s Garland were made during this period. The most comprehensive of these was probably done by Constantinus Cephalas, a Byzantine...

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Greek Poetry in Antiquity Bibliography

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Budelmann, Felix, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Greek Lyric. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. A collection of twenty essays, grouped by subject matter. Includes maps and illustrations, chronology, glossary, and index, as well as lists of editions, commentaries, translations, lexicons, and bibliographies. Extensive bibliographical references and excellent index.

Constantine, Peter, et al., eds. The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009. Introduction by Robert Hass. A landmark publication, containing more than one thousand poems by two hundred poets. Essential for any student of Greek poetry....

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