Craig White's Literature Courses

Critical Sources

Ancient & Classical
Greek Poets & Philosophers

Raphael (1543-1620), The School of Athens (1509-11), the Vatican

Early Greek Poets

  • Homer (8th c BCE)epics: Iliad, Odyssey + Homeric Hymns

  • Hesiod (8c BCE)Greek spoken-word poet or poetical tradition, to whom or which is credited Works and Days, Theogony, and Shield of Heracles. Major source for Greek myths.

  • Archilochusearly Greek poet (7c BC), remembered as creator of the elegy (poem commemorating the dead) and as the first Greek lyric poet. His works survive only in fragments, but the ancient Greeks ranked him with Homer and Hesiod.

  • Sappho (late 7th c. BCE)"Of an estimated 12,000 lines of verse attributed to her, virtually all is lost, much having been destroyed by the medieval Church: one complete poem, some citations, and fragments survive. Originally accompanied by lyre, her poetry included cultic hymns, mythological narrative, epithalamia, satire, and intensely passionate poetry about women." (Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States)

  • Aesop (ca. 620-564 BC)Greek storyteller, traditional source of folk tales and fables with animal characters; Aesop's Fables (e.g. "The Goose that lay the Golden Eggs," "The Town Mouse and the City Mouse," "The Tortoise and the Hare," "The Ant and the Grasshopper").

Tragic Playwrights of Classical Greece (i.e. 5th century BCE, "the Athenian Golden Age")

  • Aeschylus (525-456 BCE): 7 plays survive, incl. Prometheus Bound (attributed; ca. 478?); Oresteia trilogy (456); Seven Against Thebes
  • Sophocles (496-406 BCE) 7 plays survive, incl. Oedipus the King (ca. 442); Antigone (ca. 420); Oedipus at Colonnus (produced 401)
  • Euripides (480-406 BCE): 18 or 19 plays survive, incl. Medea (431), The Trojan Women (415), The Bacchae (405), Electra, Heraclesand Hippolytus (429 BCE), on which Racine's Phedre(1677) and O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms (1924) are based.

Classical Greek Comic Playwrights:

  • Aristophanes (c. 448-385 BCE): 11 of 30 plays survive, including The Birds (414 BCE), Lysistrata (411), The Wasps, The Frogs (405); primarily identified with "Old Comedy" involving sexual and scatological humor, buffoonery, and political satire.

  • Menander (342–291 BC): popular Athenian poet and playwright of New Comedy. Nearly all of his work is now lost. One complete play survives: Dyskolos.

Classical Greek Philosophers (many others but less well known)

  • Socrates (470-400 BCE): wrote nothing but appears as main character in Plato's Dialogues. "Socratic dialogue" is modeled after his method of questioning to reveal truth or untruth.

  • Plato (428-348 BCE): The Republic (book of dialogues on justice and the state); 35 dialogues; 13 letters (Epistles) (some of doubtful authenticity)

  • Aristotle (384-322 BCE): Poetics, Rhetoric, Nicomachean Ethics, & many works on nature and logic

(BCE dates run backwards!)

Mathematicians, Medical Doctors, Scientists, Engineers of Ancient & Classical Greece

Mathematics, physics, and astronomy: The ancient and classical Greeks developed early forms of geometry, trigonometry, and calculus; also early analogue computers such as the Antikythera mechanism, discovered in 1900-01.

  • Euclid (fl. ca. 300 BCE) "the father of geometry," whose Elements served as a mathematics textbook until the 20th century.

  • Pythagoras (ca. 580-500 BCE), attributed developer of the Pythagorean Theorem (In a right triangel the square of the hypotenuse [the side opposite the right angle] is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides)

  • Archimedes (287-212 BCE), mathematician, physicist, engineer, astronomer; applied mathematics to physical phenomena, explaining the principles of levers and developing "Archimedes's Screw" or water pump.

  • Hipparchus (ca. 190-120 BCE), founder of trigonometry.

  • Ptolemy (ca. 90-161 CE), mathematician, geographer, astronomer, remembered now as the namesake of the "Ptolemaic system" or earth-centered planetary system.

Biology, botany, and medicine: Greek physicians enjoyed excellent reputations throughout the Mediterranean civilizations throughout the classical era.

  • Hippocrates (ca. 460 BC – ca. 370 BC), "the father of modern medicine" who developed much of the terminology still used by medical doctors today. His name survives in the "Hippocratic Oath" and "Hippocratic baldness."Aristotle and his successor at the Lyceum, Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BCe

  • Aristotle and his successor at the Lyceum Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BCE) wrote numerous tracts on biology and botany that remain important and influential in the history of science.

  • Galen (129 – c. 200/c. 216 CE), accomplished researcher in anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and neurology, influenced Western medicine profoundly for 1300 years.

Why read and study the Greeks?

Earlier instances of human writing, records, or literature are found in China, Mesopotamia, India, the Holy Land, and elsewhere, but Ancient and Classical Greece typically appear as the foundation of Western Civilization and its literature.

Why is Greek literature and thought considered so foundational to Western Civilization or cultural education? (Question responds to increasingly multicultural population and curriculum.)

Greek literature and culture stand at the beginning of a relatively unbroken or continuous chain of influences and learning. Other cultures have achieved accomplishments comparable to the Greeks', but those other cultures' advances rose and fell with less continuous influence—often because records were lost, or the cultures that wrote them disappeared or left few records.

Greek empires also rose and fell, but Greek learning and achievements survived not only in architecture and sculpture but in writing or permanent records, some of which were preserved by scholars in schools and libraries within and beyond Greek civilization.

Even after the Greek empires collapsed, Greeks remained important people in the civilized world. Greeks were often the engineers, diplomats, translators, scholars, teachers—-people who knew how or learned how.

Greek language remained widespread as a language of learning and commerce. (The New Testament of the Bible was written in Greek during the Roman Empire.)

Greek drama directly influenced Roman drama, both of which influenced the Renaissance drama of Shakespeare, later playwrights, and modern film.

Greek empires (especially Athens but also Sparta) influenced the politics, languages, science, philosophies, and technologies of the Phoenicians, the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, the European empires of the Renaissance, the founding of the USA, and so on.

Consequently, classical Greece may function as Western Civilization's and literature's Origin Story—a story that tells how a culture began and with what principles or values.

Gender and ethnic studies challenge such studies' general exclusion of women writers and voices beyond the Western tradition. Most multicultural studies, however, acknowledge the pervasive influence of classical Western Civilization and its predominance in various institutions of learning. As a result, many multicultural or gender studies are arranged in reaction to, dialogue with, or difference from this long-established tradition.

More positively, Greek literature is from so long ago that in some senses it belongs to no one, and many different cultural groups freely identify with it.

Greek literature also provides much of our knowledge of Greek (> Roman) mythology,

But aside from literary allusions, these aspects of the Greek influence are far less important than Greek influence on politics, art, literature, philosophy, technology, science, architecture, etc.

See also Classical Humanism & Judeo-Christianity: Primary Sources / Strands of Western Civilization 

Apollo, god of poetry