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Ancient Greek literature

Ancient Greek literature refers to literature written in the Ancient Greek language from the earliest texts until the time of the Byzantine Empire. The earliest surviving works of ancient Greek literature, dating back to the early Archaic period, are the two epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, set in an idealized archaic past today identified as having some relation to the Mycenaean era. These two epics, along with the Homeric Hymns and the two poems of Hesiod, Theogony and Works and Days, comprised the major foundations of the Greek literary tradition that would continue into the Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods.

Greek literature was divided in well-defined literary genres, each one having a compulsory formal structure, about both dialect and metrics. The first division was between prose and poetry. Within poetry there were three super-genres: epic, lyric and drama. The common European terminology about literary genres is directly derived from the ancient Greek terminology. Lyric and drama were further divided into more genres: lyric in four (elegiac, iambic, monodic lyric and choral lyric); drama in three (tragedy, comedy and pastoral drama). Prose literature can largely be said to begin with Herodotus. Over time, several genres of prose literature developed, but the distinctions between them were frequently blurred.

In the age that followed the Greco-Persian Wars, the awakened national spirit of Athens was expressed in hundreds of tragedies based on heroic and legendary themes of the past. The tragic plays grew out of simple choral songs and dialogues performed at festivals of the god Dionysus. In the classical period, performances included three tragedies and one pastoral drama, depicting four different episodes of the same myth. Wealthy citizens were chosen to bear the expense of costuming and training the chorus as a public and religious duty. Attendance at the festival performances was regarded as an act of worship. Performances were held in the great open-air theater of Dionysus in Athens. The poets competed for the prizes offered for the best plays.

A third historian of ancient Greece, Xenophon of Athens, began his Hellenica where Thucydides ended his work about 411 BC and carried his history to 362 BC. Xenophon's most famous work is his book The Anabasis, a detailed, first-hand account of his participation in a Greek mercenary army that tried to help the Persian Cyrus expel his brother from the throne. Xenophon also wrote three works in praise of the philosopher Socrates: The Apology of Socrates to the Jury, The Symposium, and Memorabilia. Although both Xenophon and Plato knew Socrates, their accounts are very different. Many comparisons have been made between the account of the military historian and the account of the poet-philosopher.

The city of Alexandria in northern Egypt became, from the 3rd century BC, the outstanding center of Greek culture. It also soon attracted a large Jewish population, making it the largest center for Jewish scholarship in the ancient world. In addition, it later became a major focal point for the development of Christian thought. The Musaeum, or Shrine to the Muses, which included the library and school, was founded by Ptolemy I. The institution was from the beginning intended as a great international school and library. The library, eventually containing more than a half million volumes, was mostly in Greek. It was intended to serve as a repository for every work of classical Greek literature that could be found.

The historian Timaeus was born in Sicily but spent most of his life in Athens. His History, though lost, is significant because of its influence on Polybius. In 38 books it covered the history of Sicily and Italy to the year 264 BC, which is where Polybius begins his work. Timaeus also wrote the Olympionikai, a valuable chronological study of the Olympic Games.

While the transition from city-state to empire affected philosophy a great deal, shifting the emphasis from political theory to personal ethics, Greek letters continued to flourish both under the Successors (especially the Ptolemies) and under Roman rule. Romans of literary or rhetorical inclination looked to Greek models, and Greek literature of all types continued to be read and produced both by native speakers of Greek and later by Roman authors as well. A notable characteristic of this period was the expansion of literary criticism as a genre, particularly as exemplified by Demetrius, Pseudo-Longinus and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. The New Testament, written by various authors in varying qualities of Koine Greek also hails from this period, the most important works being the Gospels and the Epistles of Saint Paul.

The Aethiopica by Heliodorus of Emesa was probably written during the third century AD. It tells the story of a young Ethiopian princess named Chariclea, who is estranged from her family and goes on many misadventures across the known world. Of all the ancient Greek novels, the one that attained the greatest level of popularity was the Alexander Romance, a fictionalized account of the exploits of Alexander the Great written in the third century AD. Eighty versions of it have survived in twenty-four different languages, attesting that, during the Middle Ages, the novel was nearly as popular as the Bible. Versions of the Alexander Romance were so commonplace in the fourteenth century that Geoffrey Chaucer wrote that "...every wight that hath discrecioun / Hath herd somwhat or al of [Alexander's] fortune.

George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion is a modern, rationalized retelling of the ancient Greek legend of Pygmalion. James Joyce's novel Ulysses, heralded by critics as one of the greatest works of modern literature, is a retelling of Homer's Odyssey set in modern-day Dublin. The mid-twentieth-century British author Mary Renault wrote a number of critically acclaimed novels inspired by ancient Greek literature and mythology, including The Last of the Wine and The King Must Die.