Ancient Greece and Rome 1200 BCE-476 CE: Literature

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 2. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

The Age of Homeric Epic

The Emergence of the City-State

The word “city-state” is a translation of the Greek word polis from which we derive the word “politics.” It was the political unit that arose out of the ruins of the Mycenaean world, and had a social and economic structure closer to that of Babylon and ancient Egypt than to the later world of classical Greece. The palaces where the Mycenaean wanaktes—a word meaning something like “godkings”—had their seats were also bureaucratic centers where clerks kept records and dispatched memoranda to lower-ranking officials. Among them were the head-men of the various villages with the titlepa-si-reu, a word that evolves into the classical Greek basileus, a king with a legitimate claim to the throne based on heredity and the favor of the gods. When the Mycenaean civilization was destroyed in the century of upheavals and migrations after 1200 B.C.E., the wanaktes and their palaces were swept away, and the need for writing disappeared along with them. Yet the basileis with their little domains endured, and once life in Greece became more secure again after 1000 B.C.E., these little baronies emerged as self-governing political units. It was in the halls of these little kings that bards improvised tales of the heroes that would eventually become the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The World of Homer

Homer’s reputation as Greece’s greatest epic poet rests on two famous works attributed to him: Iliad and Odyssey, which focus on a legendary war between Greece and Troy known as the “Trojan War” and its aftermath. While these works have been studied over centuries to modern times, details of the life of Homer are sketchy at best. Greek sculptors made portraits of him that can be easily recognized by their blind eyes and beetling brow, but they are imaginative creations rather than a true representation of his appearance. Several cities claimed to be his birthplace. The two with the best claims were Chios, one of the Dodecanese islands off the Turkish coast, and Smyrna, an important Greek settlement on the west coast of Asia Minor. Both were Ionian cities founded during the “Dark Ages” of Greece by refugees who were displaced by a wave of migrants into the Peloponnesos after the collapse of the Mycenaean world. Homer’s dialect of Greek is mostly Ionic, though his Greek was not the Greek of the streets; it was “epic Greek,” the language used by epic poets. We do not know exactly when he lived. It is clear from the Iliad and Odyssey that the Trojan War took place long before they were written, in an age when men were mightier than in the contemporary world. Yet, since the Iliad and Odyssey were written down, it follows that Homer could write, or else dictated to someone who could. Thus we must date him after the Greeks borrowed the north Semitic alphabet from the Phoenicians and adapted it to their own use, adding vowels which the Phoenician alphabet lacked. When the adaptation occurred is much disputed, but the general consensus dates it not long after 800 B.C.E. So a Homer who knew how to write could have lived as early as the first half of the eighth century B.C.E., but hardly earlier. For the latest date, the terminus ante quem as it is called, a fragment of a vase found on the island of Ischia off the coast of Naples provides a clue. An inscription in verse on the vase fragment refers to a cup belonging to the hero Nestor which is described in the Iliad, and the vase is dated to before 700 B.C.E. Therefore, the epic must have been written before this vase was made. This date allows scholars to pinpoint the period between 725 and 675 B.C.E. as the time when the Iliad and the Odyssey were written down.

Performance of the Epic Poet

The poems of Homer were composed in an age when oral bards sang poems to the accompaniment of the lyre, with the epic composed like music written in half and quarter notes; a long syllable equals a half note and a short syllable a quarter note. The stress accents found in medieval and modern poetry did not exist in this poetry, which was written to be sung, but there were pitch accents; almost every word had a pitch accent where the voice went up or down. The music of the lyre—an instrument with strings which the bard plucked as he sang—provided a melodic background. As he sang, dancers might perform to the music, but both the music and dance were subordinated to the spoken word. The poems of Homer must have started out as songs that were sung by bards but at some point they were committed to writing. Schoolboys learned them and committed portions of them to memory. They were recited at religious festivals. They had an influence on the language of Greece similar to the effect that the English translation of the King James Bible of 1611 had on the English language. The Homeric poems not only mark the beginning of Greek literature; their influence is felt in all aspects of Greek culture.

The Trojan War

The legend of the Trojan War probably has an historical basis, for there is archaeological evidence that around 1250 B.C.E. a fortified city came to a violent end on the site which Greek tradition identified as Troy. So there was once a war that ended with the capture of Troy, but the story relayed in Homer’s telling of the Trojan War is an imaginative one that includes the involvement of the gods. In fact, the conflict begins with the gods when a beauty contest between the goddesses Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite takes an ugly turn. Having chosen a mortal prince from Troy named Paris to judge who was the most beautiful, each goddess attempts to bribe the young man to select her, and Paris chooses Aphrodite on the basis of her promise to give him the most beautiful woman in the world. Unfortunately, the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, is already the wife of a Spartan (Greek) king named Menelaus, so Paris’ abduction of her to Troy prompts the Greeks to muster a fleet in pursuit of her under the leadership of the high king of Greece, Agamemnon. The bloody conflict at Troy lasts ten years, and finally ends when the Greeks trick the Trojans into opening up the gates of the city to a large wooden horse concealing Greek warriors inside. These warriors then open the gates to the rest of the Greek army, allowing for the sacking of Troy. The Trojan warriors were slain and the women sold into slavery, though there were myths that some Trojans escaped; some aristocratic Roman families were to claim descent from Trojan heroes.

The Nostoi

The return home of the Greek victors after the war spawned a number of other myths of the type known as nostoi, the Greek word for “returns home.” The most famous nostos was the tale of Odysseus, who spent ten years trying to reach his island of Ithaca, the subject of Homer’s Odyssey. The Trojan War left a powerful imprint on the Greek imagination, perhaps because—if the date of 1250 B.C.E. is more or less correct—it was the last great venture of the Greek Bronze Age before the Myceneaean civilization fell. The myths about it were worked and reworked by Greek poets and dramatists. Not only the Trojan War itself, but the nostoi provided the raw material for the earliest Greek literature of Greece, and from Greece the tales of the Trojan War passed to Rome, where the family of the Iulii, which produced Julius Caesar, claimed descent from the Trojan hero Aeneas. Thus the Trojan War would contribute to the self-definition of both the Greeks and the Romans.

The Iliad

One of the reasons the Iliad has stood the test of time is that it is much more than a story about a war. In epic format, Homer provides keen psychological portraits of the heroes involved on both sides of the conflict. Central to the story is the figure of Achilles, the leader of the Myrmidons and the greatest warrior on the Greek side. He is practically invincible on the battlefield because his immersion in the River Styx as a baby prevents him from being wounded anywhere on his body except for his heel—the one part that the water had not touched. He is the paradigm of the doomed hero who knows that death awaits him if he continues to fight at Troy, yet his desire for glory in battle consumes him. His status as Greece’s best warrior sets him up for conflict with the army’s leader, Agamemnon, and when the two have a dispute over the distribution of the spoils of war, Achilles allows the affront to his ego to negate his duty in battle and he refuses to fight against the Trojans. His decision has terrible consequences for both himself personally and the Greek military cause. Without Achilles in battle, the tide of the war turns in the Trojans’ favor and several key leaders of the Greek side are wounded, including Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Odysseus. Achilles—though he will not return to battle himself—loans his armor to his friend Patroclus and allows him to lead the Myrmidons into battle, where Patroclus is killed by the Trojan hero, Hector. Once Achilles learns of Patroclus’ death he returns to battle, and avenges Patroclus’ death by killing Hector. He then buries his friend with funeral rites that are splendid, almost barbaric. Although Achilles is portrayed as a merciless warrior in battle, Homer humanizes him with a display of compassion when Hector’s father, old King Priam, visits Achilles under cover of night to ransom the body of his son. Achilles is moved by pity, both for Priam and for his own father, Peleus, for his mother has warned him that if he returns to battle, his own death would soon follow Hector’s. He accepts the ransom and sends Priam safely back to Troy and the Iliad ends with Hector’s funeral. Throughout the story, Homer leaves no doubt that the Greek heroes are better warriors than the Trojans, and yet he is surprisingly sympathetic to Troy. The most sympathetic character in the story is the Trojan hero Hector. He is a great warrior but he does not love war. He fights to defend Troy, but he knows that Troy is doomed and his wife and son face a perilous future. Hector’s last farewell to them is the most moving passage in the Iliad. He is hopelessly outclassed when he meets Achilles in their final duel; yet his honor as a warrior prevents him from retreating behind the city walls. This resolve to fight in the face of certain death is part of a general theme of the glory of battle that is present throughout the epic. The characters are judged on the basis of their fighting skills and their courage, and those who continue to fight even though they know the hard fate ahead of them (such as Hector and Achilles) are given the most accolades.

The Odyssey

The Odyssey is the story of one of the Greek heroes at Troy, Odysseus, as he attempts to sail home from the war. A series of misfortunes turns the journey into a ten-year ordeal, and a combination of good fortune and craftiness saves him from several perilous situations. A tale of wandering that takes place over many years is not easy to relate, for it can lapse into a sprawling chronological account. To avoid that, Homer uses a “flashback” technique in which Odysseus relates most of his own story as a series of episodes, each episode relating some fresh peril he endured on his journey. When the story begins, Odysseus is near the end of his travels as he tells his story to an audience of Phaeacians who have given him temporary refuge in their land on his way home. His tales of encounters with fantastic creatures and his experiences in strange lands amaze them. Among his adventures, he outwitted the one-eyed giant, Polyphemus (the Cyclops); he sailed between the two monsters Scylla and Charybdis; he subdued the witchgoddess Circe; and he was the captive lover of the nymph Calypso for seven years. Although he had started home from Troy with a fleet of twelve ships, he alone reached Ithaca, his homeland. Each new adventure resulted in the loss of crew members. In the land of the Lotus-Eaters, some ate the fruit of the lotus plant that made them forget their home, and Odysseus had to force them back on his ships. Others were eaten by the giant Cyclops while captive in his cave. The cannibal Laestrygonians destroyed all his ships save only for Odysseus’ own vessel. The witch Circe turned Odysseus’ men into pigs, and Odysseus saved them only with the help of the god Hermes. Finally Odysseus was once again caught by a storm. Zeus struck his vessel with lightning and flung his men overboard, and Odysseus alone survived, clinging to the wreckage and drifting nine days at sea until he reached Calypso’s island. Moved by his story, the Phaeacians return him to his kingdom of Ithaca where Odysseus discovers that suitors ambitious for the hand of his wife Penelope have overrun his manor house. Although Odysseus’ long absence has led many to presume he is dead, Penelope has managed to keep her suitors at bay through a clever ruse; she promises to select a husband after she has finished weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus’ father, Laertes, but every night she undoes her work of the day before. The suitors eventually discover the deception and increase pressure on her to choose one of them. It is at this point that Odysseus returns home, disguised as a beggar. Since she can no longer use the burial shroud as an excuse to put off marriage, Penelope has produced a new tryout for the suitors: she announces that she will choose as her husband whoever wins an archery contest with Odysseus’ bow. Her choice will fall on whoever can string the great bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axes. None of the suitors can so much as string the bow, much less shoot an arrow with it, but Odysseus easily accomplishes the feat, and then slaughters all the suitors. Penelope, however, is not yet completely convinced that Odysseus is her long-lost husband, and she puts him to one final test: she, orders a servant to move her marriage bed outside the bedroom for Odysseus to sleep on. Only Odysseus and Penelope know that the order is impossible to carry out since the bed is anchored to a tree stump; so when Odysseus reveals that he knows the secret of the bed, Penelope knows him to be her husband. Odysseus has regained his kingdom.

Cunning Over Strength

While much of the Iliad focuses on the battle strength of warriors, the Odyssey exalts cunning over brute strength. Time and again, Odysseus is described as a crafty man, and he frequently escapes the dangerous passages of his journey by using his wits to overcome the superior strength of his adversaries. On more than one occasion he assumes a disguise or masks his identity to gain the upper hand, such as was the case in his confrontation with the suitors. The encounter with the Cyclops is a particularly good example of Odysseus’ use of his wits to overcome a seemingly impossible situation; Odysseus and his men are trapped in the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus, a one-eyed giant cannibal shepherd who was the son Poseidon, god of the sea. They face certain death since only Polyphemus can roll back the boulder blocking the entrance to the cave, which he does only to let his sheep out of the cave each morning and bring them back each night for safekeeping. Physically, Odysseus can do nothing, but he uses his wiles to get the giant drunk. When Polyphemus asks Odysseus his name, Odysseus replies that his name is “Noman.” After the giant falls into a drunken sleep, the men put out his eye with a sharpened pole; he cries for help from the other Cyclopes, but they assume that a god must have caused his misfortune when he tells them that “Noman” (“No man”) put out his eye. With Polyphemus at a disadvantage because of his blindness, Odysseus and his men make their escape from the cave by lashing themselves to the bellies of Polyphemus’ sheep as he lets them out in the morning. The blind Cyclops runs his hand over the backs of the sheep to make sure no one is riding them to freedom, but he fails to perceive the men underneath. As Odysseus is pulling away in his ship, he cannot resist shouting back to the Cyclops his true name, which allows the giant to pray to his father Poseidon for vengeance on Odysseus. Poseidon sends a storm to blow the ships off-course and Odysseus becomes subject to a curse: that he will not return home or, if he does, he will be long delayed, alone, and find trouble in his house.

Temptation and Endurance

Odysseus’ inability to resist revealing his identity to the Cyclops provides an example of another dominant theme of the work: the danger of temptation. Odysseus’ pride at having outwitted the Cyclops tempts him to tell the Cyclops his name, though his men urge him to be cautious. In fact, when Odysseus found the Cyclops’ cave, his men urged him to steal some cheeses and lambs and be off back to their ships, but Odysseus is tempted by a thirst for knowledge: he wants to see who owns this cave, and waits for the Cyclops to return home. In the Land of the Lotus-eaters, the temptation is to give up and forget about their goal of returning home, and Odysseus, no matter what he must endure, remains determined to return: he forces his men back onto their boats. When Odysseus sails past the reefs where the Sirens—half-women, half-bird creatures—sang their seductive songs that lured sailors to their deaths on the rocks, he saves his men from temptation by ordering them to plug their ears, while he himself, tempted by his thirst for knowledge, has himself tied to the mast, thereby allowing him to hear the Sirens’ melody and survive. Following the Cyclops incident, Odysseus obtains from Aeolus, the lord of the winds, a magic bag that imprisons all the winds save the one that will waft his ships safely home, and he forbids his men to open it. Ithaca is already in sight when the crew, suspicious that Odysseus is keeping treasure from them in the sack, disobey orders and yield to the temptation to open the sack when Odysseus falls asleep. The winds are released, and a storm blows Odysseus back to the land of Aeolus, who refuses angrily to give him another sack. On the Isle of the Sun God, Hyperion, Odysseus’ men are warned solemnly not to touch Hyperion’s cattle, but they are driven by hunger, and yield to the temptation to slaughter some of them when Odysseus is away. Hyperion, the Sun God is so angry that he threatens to cease shining in the sky if Zeus does not avenge him, and Zeus agrees to destroy Odysseus’ ship with a thunderbolt. Odysseus alone endures, never abandoning his goal of returning home.

The Epic Cycle

There were other epics as well which filled in the story of the Trojan War. One, titled the Cypria, described how Paris abducted the wife of Menelaus, Helen, and brought her to Troy. It seems to have been composed almost as early as theIliad, and some Greeks attributed it wrongly to Homer. Another titled the Aethiopis told how a king of Ethiopia named Memnon came to aid Troy and was killed by Achilles, who in turn died from an arrow wound in his vulnerable heel. The Little Iliad and the Sack of Troy told how Troy fell, and there was a group of poems called the Nostoi (The Returns) which related the experiences of heroes other than Odysseus as they voyaged home from Troy. These poems survived into the second century C.E., for they were still being quoted by later authors, but they seem to have been lost in the upheavals of the third century C.E. There were epics as well which dealt with subjects other than Troy. One told the story of Oedipus of Thebes, who killed his father and married his mother, and there were several poems on Heracles. There were many other epics besides the Iliad and Odyssey, but those two poems were by far the most popular and were recited most often at religious festivals. One other poem, the Margites should be mentioned, too, for even as shrewd a critic as Aristotle thought that Homer wrote it. It was a mock epic, a burlesque which related the misfortunes of a stupid fellow named Margites. A surviving fragment relates his misadventures on his wedding night, and if Homer wrote it, he must have used it to give his audience some belly laughs after they had their fill of the Trojan legends. One short mock epic has survived, The Battle of the Frogs and the Mice, which describes in heroic style a battle between a corps of frogs and a regiment of mice. The banqueting halls of the aristocrats in the early city-states of Greece clearly enjoyed their comic moments.

The Boeotian School of Epic


It is customary to speak of Homer and Hesiod in the same breath, but, in fact, the two poets lived in different worlds and produced markedly different poetry. Both belonged to eighth century B.C.E., but Hesiod reflected a different style of life. He grew up in the poor village of Ascra in Boeotia, a district of central Greece bordering on Athenian territory. The Athenians considered the Boeotians rather stupid, and, compared to Athens, Boeotia was a cultural backwater. Despite this reputation, about the same time as bards in Ionia were singing heroic lays about the Trojan War, poets in Boeotia were composing poetry on more down-to-earth subjects. There must have been a fair number of poets, but all that survives of their works are three poems attributed to Hesiod: the Theogony, the Works and Days, and a rather poor piece titled The Shield of Heracles, which few think is really Hesiod’s composition.

The Theogony

The Theogony, or The Generations of the Gods, is the first effort by a Greek to write a systematic theology. Hesiod begins by invoking the nine Muses who taught him the art of poetry while he was shepherding his flock on Mt. Helicon. The Muses, the daughters of Zeus who knew how to speak the truth when they wanted to, inspired him to sing of “things to come and things that were before.”

“Hail, daughters of Zeus! Give me sweet song
To celebrate the holy race of gods
Who live forever, sons of starry Heaven
And Earth, and gloomy night, and salty Sea.”
Dorothea Wender, trans., Hesiod and Theognis (Penguin Classics): 26.

Hesiod began with Chaos, the formless matter which was the earliest state of the universe, out of which appeared Earth and Tartarus, Night and Erebos, which in the Theogony was a mythical being. Earth produced Ouranos (Heaven), and from the sexual union of Earth and Heaven arose the race of Titans. The Titan Kronos, with the connivance of Mother Earth, castrated Heaven and thrust him up into the sky. But Kronos feared that his children would overthrow him just as he overthrew his father, and he swallowed the infants as his wife Rhea bore them. Rhea tricked him, however, by giving him a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes to swallow instead of her last-born child. When that child, who was Zeus, reached manhood, he overthrew Cronus and forced him to vomit up the children he had swallowed. Thus the generation of Zeus took control.

The Eastern Connection

It is difficult to discern whether Hesiod was repeating traditional wisdom about the gods in his Theogony or whether it sprang from his own fertile brain. Certainly, the Near East had creation stories before Hesiod wrote; one that Hesiod might have known at second-or third-hand was the Babylonian Creation epic, the Enuma elis of which over 900 verses survive. The story of how Cronus castrated Ouranos has a parallel among the myths of the Hittites whose empire dominated central Asia Minor until the raids and invasions which ended the Mycenaean civilization after 1200

B.C.E. destroyed it as well; the Hittites, in turn, borrowed it from a people called the Hurrians, pre-Semitic inhabitants of Syria. The Hittite tale told that Kumarbi, the equivalent of Cronus, bit off the genitals of the Sky-God Anu. Folktale motifs can travel from culture to culture with surprising ease, but they change as they travel, and by the time the Near Eastern creation myths reached Boeotia, they had taken on a different complexion. Yet the cultural influence of the Near East was felt even in Hesiod’s isolated little community. In the Works and Days, he tells the Near Eastern myth of the Ages of Man, but with a change to make it fit Greek common wisdom: the Oriental version has four ages corresponding to the four metals, Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron, but Hesiod adds a fifth age before the Age of Iron—the heroic age—thus creating space in the history of mankind for the heroes who, as all Greeks knew, lived before the present age. It seems unlikely that Hesiod was the first Greek to use myths from the Near East, for Greek contacts with Syria go back to Mycenaean times. Yet much of the theology in the Theogony was Hesiod’s own creation.

The Works and Days

In Hesiod’s second poem, we hear the genuine voice of a peasant farmer. Hesiod’s father had left Aeolian Cyme, fleeing from poverty, and had come to the town of Askra near Mt. Helicon, which Hesiod characterized as “harsh in winter, comfortless in summer, not really good at any time of year.” Hesiod’s brother Perses had cheated Hesiod in the division of their father’s estate, and then had squandered his portion. He then attempted to acquire more of his brother’s share by dishonest means, bribing the corrupt aristocrats who dispensed justice in the city-states. The Works and Days is Hesiod’s advice to Perses. It tells him how to farm, when to marry, what sort of slaves to have, which days are lucky and so on. The sixth day of the month, for instance, was not a lucky time for girls to be born, but it was a good day for castrating kids and lambs, and for the birth of boys, though boys born on that day will be given to lies and flattery. Other admonitions included one always to wash one’s hands before pouring libations to the gods, and another to wash one’s hands in a stream before crossing it. This “wisdom literature” is typical of ancient Egypt, but the advice Hesiod gives is rooted in the soil of Boeotia. He had a strong sense of justice, and he had a message for crooked judges:

You lords, take notice of this punishment
The deathless gods are never far way;
They mark the crooked judges who grind down
Their fellow-men and do not fear the gods,
Three times ten thousand watchers-over-men,
Immortal, roam the fertile earth for Zeus,
Clothed in a mist, they visit every land
And keep a watch on law-suits and on crimes,
One of them is the virgin, born of Zeus,
Justice, revered by all the Olympian gods.
Dorothea Wender, trans., Hesiod and Theognis (Penguin Classics): 66-67.

Hesiod’s suggestion that Zeus is the enforcer of fair play differs from Homer’s amoral version of the god.


Boeotia continued to produce poets after Hesiod, though none wrote in the epic tradition. Nearly two centuries after Hesiod, one of the greatest Greek lyric poets, Pindar, was born there, near the chief Boeotian city of Thebes. An older contemporary of Pindar, a poetess named Corinna, wrote lyrical narrative poems on Boeotian subjects for a circle of women friends. A papyrus fragment from Egypt preserves substantial remains of two of her poems. In one she describes a contest in song between Mt. Helicon, or more precisely, the god Helicon, and Mt. Cithaeron. Helicon was Hesiod’s mountain where the Muses appeared to him and taught him to sing, and Mt. Cithaeron was closer to Corinna’s polis of Tanagra. The gods judge whether Hesiod’s Helicon or Corinna’s Cithaeron has sung the better poem.

The Muses told the high gods then
each to deposit his ballot stone
secretly in the gold gleaming
urns. Together the gods rose up.
Cithaeron won more of the votes.
At once Hermes, with a great cry,
announced him, how he had gained success
he longed for, and the blessed gods
with garlands crowned him, so that his heart
was happy.
Richmond Lattimore, Greek Lyrics (University of Chicago Press): 52.

Mt. Helicon was a sore loser. The poem may have been Corinna’s declaration of independence from the Hesiodic epic school of poetry.

The Age of Lyric Poetry

The Changing Greek World

In the years after 700 B.C.E. the Greek world underwent social and economic change. The poleis, or city-states, now emerged fully from the so-called “Dark Ages” which had followed the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization. They began to send out colonies; about 770 B.C.E., the leading cities on the island of Euboea—Eretria and Chalcis—established a trading post on the island of Ischia off the coast of Naples. About twenty years later, Chalcis—her partnership with Eretria dissolved into enmity—planted a colony on the Italian mainland, at Cumae. It was the first of a host of colonies, and within the next two and a half centuries, Greek settlements—each of them a nascent city-state—appeared in Italy, Sicily, southern France, north-eastern Spain, as well as the north Aegean and the shore of the Black Sea. The eastern Mediterranean coast and Egypt were not open to colonization but even there the Greeks established a trading post at al-Mina in modern Lebanon; in Egypt, the pharaohs of the twenty-sixth dynasty allowed them to build a post at Naucratis at the mouth of the Nile. Egyptian culture came as a revelation to the Greeks; by the mid-seventh century B.C.E., Greek sculptors were carving nude male figures in poses borrowed from Egyptian sculpture. In the pottery workshops of Corinth, potters produced vases with oriental motifs taken from Asian metalwork, and their fine Protocorinthian ware found export markets all over the eastern Mediterranean as well as in Italy and Sicily. The poleis began to build freestanding temples; the earliest have an apse or semi-circular wall at the end, but by the latter part of the seventh century B.C.E., the canonical Greek temple-plan had been born. This was an age of revolution, in which the rule of the “lords,” the injustice of which Hesiod had attacked, was swept away and replaced by dictatorships, which the Greeks called “tyrannies.” It was against this background that the age of lyric poetry arose.

Defining Lyric Poetry

Lyric poetry is poetry sung to the lyre, but that in itself was not a new development since epic poetry also had lyre accompaniment. The great lyric poets, beginning with Archilochus, belong to the exuberant seventh and sixth centuries when Greece moved from the “Dark Ages” to the great classical period of Greek culture. Lyric is commonly divided into three types of poetry: melic, elegiac, and iambic. Their boundaries are indistinct. “Melic” means “for song,” and can include everything from party songs to choral cantatas. Elegies were sung, too, but they are defined by their meter, the elegiac couplet. Although it uses an iambic meter, poetry that is classified as iambic relates more to its subject matter which is ludicrous, abusive, or sometimes off-color. Not all lyric poetry was sung to the music of the lyre. Mimnermus of Colophon was accompanied by a girl playing the aulos, a remote ancestor of the oboe. Choral cantatas might be accompanied by both the aulos and the lyre, of which there were several models.

The War Poets

Elegiac poetry is most often though to express emotions, such as love or sorrow, but there was a group of poets which used the elegiac couplet for patriotic themes. The seventh century B.C.E. was not a period of peace in the Greek world. In the so-called “Dark Ages” which followed the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization, Greeks had migrated to the west coast of Asia Minor and the offshore islands and founded settlements there, which flourished, but were always under threat from the non-Greeks in the interior of Asia Minor. One elegiac poet who used his talent to arouse the Greeks to defend themselves was Callinus of Ephesus. Ephesus was one of the twelve cities of Ionia, founded by Greeks speaking the Ionian dialect who fled from the ruins of the Mycenaean world first to Athens, and then from Athens across the Aegean Sea to Asia Minor. Ephesus’ was in the forefront of Greek cultural development in the early to mid-seventh century. Yet it was a time of war. Anatolia, the plateau of central Asia Minor, was under attack by nomadic migrants, and the sole elegy of Callinus that has survived is an appeal for courage in the battle.

How long will you lie idle? When will you young men take courage? Don’t our neighbors make you feel ashamed, so much at ease?

Tyrtaeus, Sparta’s War Poet

A generation later in Sparta across the Aegean Sea, Tyrtaeus used elegiac poetry for a similar purpose. The Spartan state had been founded by Dorian immigrants, the last of the migrants to arrive in Greece after the collapse of the Mycenaean world. They spoke their own dialect of Greek, though Dorian is not much closer to Ionic Greek than Spanish is to Italian. The Spartan immigrants conquered the natives of the Eurotas River valley and reduced them to helots, serfs who worked the land and gave their overlords half their crop. Sparta prospered and its growing population of Spartiates, Sparta’s landowning class, required more estates. To procure more land, Sparta conquered her neighbor to the west, Messenia, in the early seventh century and made the Messenians her helots. But towards the end of the seventh century, the Messenians rebelled. Tyrtaeus’ poetry aroused the Spartan resolve to vanquish them. He recalled how Sparta had conquered Messenia in the first place, and reminded his listeners of the glory of battle.

… our sovereign Theopompus, whom the gods did love, through whom we took Messene’s broad dance-grounds,
Messene good to plough, and good to plant for fruit. To conquer her they fought full nineteen years. …
For it is fine to die in the front line, a brave man fighting for his fatherland
and the most painful fate’s to leave one’s town and fertile farmlands for a beggar’s life.
M. L. West, trans., Greek Lyric Poetry (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1993): 23.

Mimnermus in Defense of Smyrna

The elegiac poet Mimnermus of Smyrna also wrote war poetry. Smyrna was one of the earliest Greek settlements in Asia Minor, but she was under attack by the neighboring empire of Lydia, and about 600 B.C.E. she lost the struggle and was destroyed. Mimnermus’ patriotic efforts were unavailing.


The Greeks themselves ranked Archilochus with Homer and Hesiod as the greatest poets of early Greece, but unfortunately little of his poetry has survived as evidence of his genius. He was the illegitimate offspring of a noble from Paros (an island in the Aegean Sea), and a slave from Thrace. He made his living as a mercenary soldier, but did not hold to the soldier’s code of honor. In one of his poems he freely admitted his cowardice in a battle with a Thracian tribe called the Saians:

Some Saian sports my splendid shield: I had to leave it in a wood,
but saved my skin. Well, I don’t care. I’ll get another just as good.
M. L. West, trans., Greek Lyric Poetry (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1993): 14.

Archilochus was famous for the invective with which he attacked his enemies, particularly Lycambes, who had two daughters, one of whom, Neobule, was the object of Archilochus’ lust.
I wish I had as sure a chance of fingering Neobule—the workman falling to his task—and pressing tum to tummy
and thighs to thighs. …
M. L. West, Greek Lyric Poetry, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1993): 6.

Lycambes did not fancy Archilochus as a son-in-law, and Archilochus’ verse lampooned him and his two daughters so viciously that, according to the legend, they hanged themselves. Much of his surviving poetry reflects his observations on current events: bristling attacks on his enemies, banter with friends, mournful lyrics for men lost at sea, scorn for dandies. In his description of a good soldier—”A shortish sort of chap, who’s bandy-looking round the shins,/he’s my ideal, one full of guts, and steady on his pins”—he may have been describing himself.

The Choral Lyric

Choral lyric was poetry sung by choirs that danced as they sang, usually accompanied by a musician. Sparta, for all its emphasis on militarism in the seventh century B.C.E., was also a center of music and dancing. The first great composer and virtuoso on the type of lyre known as the kithara, Terpander of Lesbos, worked there, as did Alcman, who wrote choral works sung by choirs of girls. One long fragment of a choral song survives, preserved on a papyrus fragment found in Egypt. It is a parthenion, a song sung by young girls to the accompaniment of the aulos—this one sung by a choir of ten. Choral lyric was also popular in the Greek cities of Sicily and southern Italy, where the first poet of note whose name we know was Stesichorus who came from Himera, not far from present-day Palermo. The most famous composer of choral lyric was Sappho of Lesbos, who is usually classified as a melic poet because her songs express personal feelings. A group of girls and unmarried women, it seems, met regularly with Sappho in a school, the “home of the disciples of the Muses,” as Sappho called it in a fragment of her poetry that has survived—it may have been her own house—where they sang and learned to play musical instruments. Sometimes they sang in public at weddings and religious ceremonies; her group of students was called a thiasos, which means something like a “religious club.” Sappho was a music teacher and choreographer, and her chorals often gave voice to her personal feelings.

Poetry as the Personal Voice

Poetry gave voice to the personal emotions—usually relating to love, politics and patriotism—of the lyric poets and their circles. For Sappho of Lesbos, it was love that was an all-consuming passion. She expressed her attachment to some of the girls she taught with an intensity that has made “lesbian” a byword for women who are homosexual lovers, although Sappho herself was married and had a daughter. Love between male youths and older, married men was accepted in Greek society, and Sappho merely represented the other side of the coin in expressing romantic attachments between women. The world of her contemporary, Alcaeus of Lesbos, was markedly different. He lived during a time of civil conflict on Lesbos, particularly in its leading polis, Mytilene, where tyrants challenged the rule of the aristocrats, and the aristocrats fought back. Alcaeus used to be best known for his political songs, his Stasiotika, as they were called from the Greek for “civil strife,” stasis. They were songs of political commitment. The aristocrats formed political societies to defend their interests, and when they had their common meals, they sang songs such as Alcaeus wrote. In the last century, however, papyri have been found in the sands of Egypt with poems that show another side of Alcaeus’ genius. He also wrote hymns to the gods, love poems, and poems on mythological themes. The individual voice of the poet can be heard in the works of Sappho and Alcaeus, but Mimnermus of Smyrna, too, whose war poems have already been noted, deserves a second mention as a poet of love. The editors at the great library at Alexandria in the Hellenistic Period made an anthology of his poetry titled the Nanno after the name of a courtesan. Mimnermus also looked on death with apprehension; dread of the ills of old age was another of his favorite themes.

Poetry in Aid of Politics

The age of prose had not yet arrived, and when men expressed their political views in writing, they used poetry which they could recite at public gatherings. One political poet who belonged to the polis of Megara was Theognis. Megara is squeezed between Corinth on the south and Athens on the north, and in the last decades of the seventh century B.C.E., the winds of change that were toppling aristocratic governments elsewhere affected Megara, as well. Theognis was an aristocrat who apparently lost his land and became an exile. His poetry reflects a bitter cynicism about the state of society where good people can be plunged into poverty. Some of his elegies are addressed to a friend called Cyrnus, and they are not all political: some give advice, some reflect on the faithlessness of friends, and others are love poems. However, the body of literature attributed to Theognis that has survived was not all written by him, and it projects a blurred image of Theognis himself. In a political poem attributed to him he says that no land on earth loves a tyrant, and in another non-political one, that he has no interest except high-class life and the culture of the intellect—so he wants to continue enjoying the lyre and dance and song. The social pressures that threatened the political power of the aristocratic landowners in Megara were felt as well in her larger neighbor, the city-state of Athens. There, too, the rival political factions recognized the danger of a tyranny if there were no reforms, and tried to forestall it. They turned to Solon, a poet, merchant, and aristocrat by pedigree if not by political inclination, and by common consent, he became sole ruler, or “archon,” of Athens for a year in 594-593 B.C.E. with a mandate to make political and economic changes. He used poetry to defend his reforms, which were an effort to find a middle ground between the extremists on the left and on the right. He was no great poet, and he was not the originator of Athenian democracy, but two centuries later Athenians—particularly those whose politics were conservative—looked back at him as the founder of an ideal constitution.

The Age of Tyrants

The Age of Tyrants in archaic Greece was a transitional period between the early polis ruled by aristocrats whose power was based on the possession of land and long pedigrees, and the classical polis where government was more broadly based. Tyrants—in the modern world they would be called dictators—seized power by force and sometimes bequeathed it to their children and even grandchildren, and though the tyrannies left a bad reputation behind them, they were not all bad. Some tyrants were patrons of poetry. A tyrant of Corinth, Periander (ruled about 625-585 B.C.E.) gave profitable hospitality to a famous lyricist, Arion, but none of his work survives. Across the Aegean Sea at Samos, the tyrant Polycrates patronized Ibycus from Rhegium, modern Reggio on the toe of Italy, until he was unseated by the Persians in 522 B.C.E. The choral lyrics of Ibycus carried on the tradition of Stesichorus, but he was equally famous for his love poems. Anacreon, possibly the music teacher of Polycrates, also wrote well-crafted poetry: exquisite songs about the delights of wine and love. When Polycrates fell, Anacreon, along with Ibycus, moved to Athens, where Hipparchus, the younger brother of the tyrant Hippias, gathered about him a number of poets. Hippias was driven from Athens in 510 B.C.E., and as the Age of Tyrants came to an end so did their patronage of literature. One poet, Simonides of Ceos from the court of Hipparchus, made the transition into the new period when professional poets would sell their services and make a living as literary entrepreneurs. He had a nephew named Bacchylides who would be equally entrepreneurial, if not the equal of his uncle in poetic inspiration.

Poets for Hire

The End of Archaic Greece

The Persian Wars, from 490 to 479 B.C.E. marked the end of the archaic age. The Persian Empire had been slowly pushing westwards. It captured the Greek cities on the western coast of Asia Minor shortly after 546 B.C.E. In 513 B.C.E.King Darius led a Persian army across the Bosporus into Europe and captured Thrace, the region south of the Danube River. But what turned Persia’s attention to mainland Greece was the Ionian Revolt—a revolt of the Greek cities on the Asia Minor coast and the offshore islands which started in the Ionian city of Miletus in 500 and spread all along the coast and even to Cyprus. Athens sent the rebels help in the first year of the revolt and then withdrew it, but her one-year intervention was enough to rouse Persian resentment. A Persian expeditionary force landed on the plain of Marathon north of Athens in 490 B.C.E., planning to take Athens and establish a Persian bridgehead in Greece. But in a battle that gave Athens a new sense of pride and accomplishment, the Athenian citizen army defeated the Persian force. Ten years later, the Persians attacked again, this time with a great land and naval force, and once again the contribution of Athens to the alliance of Greek states that swore to resist Persia was crucial, for Athens had built a navy in the years after Marathon, and the decisive battle that stopped the Persian onslaught was a naval victory fought off the island of Salamis within sight of Athens. Athens emerged from the Persian War as a center of power in the Greek world, strong enough to challenge the old dominant power, Sparta. In the next half-century, she would acquire an empire, and become the cultural center of Greece. The Persian War ushered in the classical period, which is considered the time when the Greek cultural achievement reached its height, and Athens led the way.

Poets of the Persian War

The poets Simonides, Pindar, and Bacchylides all had one thing in common: their lives were bisected by the Persian Wars. This fact places them within the transitional period between the archaic and classical ages. Simonides was born early enough to enjoy the patronage of Hipparchus, who was the brother of Hippias, the tyrant of Athens. Hipparchus was assassinated in 514 B.C.E. Four years later, Hippias was driven into exile at the court of the Persian king Darius. Simonides wrote the epitaph for the 300 brave Spartans who died defending the Pass of Thermopylae against the Persians in 480 B.C.E.: “Stranger, report to the Spartans that here we lie, obedient to their commands.” All three lived on into a different post-war world. There were still tyrants in Sicily, but in Greece itself the Age of the Tyrants passed on to be replaced in their patronage by the many wealthy Greeks willing to pay money for a poem, including hymns, dirges, songs sung in the service of Dionysus called dithyrambs, and the songs for choruses of girls called partheneia. One bestselling commodity was a praise poem in honor of a victory at one of the four great athletic contests of Greece. The victor or his friends would commission a epinikion (victory ode) which originally was a simple song of welcome, but Simonides developed it into an art form. The contract probably specified the length of the poem and what should be included. It might or might not require the poet to train the chorus to perform the ode. For his services, the poet charged a fee. Simonides in particular had a reputation for being expensive.


Simonides came from the little island of Ceos but he developed an international reputation as a poet, and used it to market himself. Only fragments of his work survive, but they include victory odes, chants that were called “paeans,” dirges, epigrams, and various lyric poems. His subject matter was not limited to mythology, but also included the Persian War. He wrote a poem on the naval battle at Artemisium in 480 B.C.E., a defeat for the Greeks which they followed up later in the year with a great victory off the island of Salamis. The few surviving fragments of the poem indicate that it is a choral lyric. Recently a papyrus from Egypt has turned up an elegiac poem on the Battle of Plataea, where the Persian army was destroyed in 479 B.C.E. His dirges, or laments for the dead called threnoi, were also famous. Their simple pathos had no equal in Greek poetry, and more than four centuries later, the Roman poet Catullus used the phrase “sadder than the tears of Simonides” to describe his sorrow at a friend’s coldness.


Pindar, born in 518 B.C.E. near Thebes in Boeotia, was one of the poets whose towering eminence was recognized by the Greeks in his lifetime, though he must be judged by the four books of his victory odes, plus fragments of his other poetry that have survived. He got his first commission at the age of twenty to write an ode in honor of Hippokleas of Thessaly, the winner in the boys’ double footrace at the Pythian Games. He lived on, greatly honored, until his death around 438 B.C.E. His language is brilliant, and his allusions often obscure to the modern reader, although they were less so to his contemporaries. The structure of his victory odes is precise: first comes the naming in which the victor is named along with his home city and his patron; next comes the central feature which narrates a myth that in some way reflects on the victor’s success; and then the conclusion returns to the victor and his community, which basks in his reflected glory. The ode was sung at a victory celebration for the athlete, but it is not clear how it was staged; perhaps a single choral leader sang the poem while the chorus danced behind him. Pindar was the greatest poet from Boeotia, which had already produced Hesiod and Pindar’s older contemporary, Corinna. His reputation was such that in the following century Alexander the Great’s destruction of Thebes spared only one house: the one which had belonged to Pindar.


Little more than the name of Bacchylides, the nephew of Simonides of Ceos, was known until 1896, when the British Museum acquired what remained of two papyrus rolls containing poems of Bacchylides, which had been found in a grave. One roll contained victory odes, the other six dithyrambs. He competed with Pindar for commissions, apparently not without success. In 476 B.C.E., both he and Pindar wrote victory odes for Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse in Sicily, for a victory at Olympia in the horse race, but in 468 B.C.E. when Hiero won a victory in the chariot race at Olympia, he commissioned Bacchylides for the victory ode and passed over Pindar. Bacchylides’ surviving dithyrambs have some of the quality of ballads, for they relate episodes excerpted from Greek mythology with twists to the plot that probably come from Bacchylides’ own imagination. Their charm lies in his skill as a narrator. He gives the impression of a capable rather than a great poet, who practiced his craft competently, and the opinion of the ancient Greek critics that he was no equal of Pindar is not unfair.

Herodotus, the Father of History

Emergence of History

About 425 B.C.E., Herodotus published his History with the proem (introductory sentence):

This is the publication of the research of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which I have produced so that what men have done might not become dim with the passage of time, and that the great and marvelous achievements, some the doing of the Greeks, others done by the Persians, might not lack renown, and in particular to show whose fault it was that they fought one another.

Herodotus states his subject at the beginning: the Persian Empire’s invasion of the Greek city-states which began with the Persian takeover of the cities on the coast of Asia Minor and the offshore islands in the years following 546 B.C.E. and ending in 479 B.C.E. with the annihilation of the Persian army in the Battle of Plataea. Herodotus did not produce a mere chronicle of events as past historians had done, however. He had two purposes in mind. One was a purpose that he shared with the epic poets: to keep alive the memory of the heroic deeds and achievements of the men of old. The other was to examine the cause of the conflict, and cause could not be dissociated from blame. Who, or what was to blame for the great war between Persia and Greece? Finding the answer to that question would be the object of Herodotus’ research, for his word for “research” was historie, which after Herodotus would acquire a new sense. Historie, as it was spelled in the Ionic dialect that Herodotus used, or historia in the Greek spoken on the streets of Athens, would become the word for “history” in the modern sense. It would be a search for causes and developments, and not merely a record of facts.


Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus, modern Bodrum in Turkey, shortly before 480 B.C.E. Halicarnassus had been founded by settlers from the little Greek polis of Troezen in the Peloponnesos, and they were Dorians, speaking the Dorian dialect that they shared with Sparta. By Herodotus’ day, the Ionic dialect had taken over, and in addition, Halicarnassus had a substantial population of Carians, non-Greeks from southwest Asia Minor who had been partially assimilated into Greek culture. The ruling dynasty of Halicarnassus was Carian, and in 480 B.C.E., when King Xerxes of Persia launched his invasion of Greece, the sovereign of Halicarnassus was Queen Artemisia, and when Xerxes conscripted naval contingents from his subject cities, Artemisia led Halicarnassus’ fleet in person. Herodotus treats her with admiration in his History, but while he was still a young man, he was involved in a revolt against Artemisia’s grandson, Lygdamis, along with his uncle, Panyassis, a poet who had tried to revive the epic and succeeded well enough to be ranked with Homer by some Greek critics. Panyassis lost his life, and Herodotus fled Halicarnassus. His exile turned him into an historian.


Herodotus was now an alien wherever he went, for a Greek was born a citizen of a polis, and only under exceptional circumstances could he acquire a new citizenship. Eventually, when a new city called Thurii was founded in southern Italy, Herodotus was able to enroll on its citizenship list, and so ended his life as “Herodotus of Thurii,” not “Herodotus of Halicarnassus.” Probably the first sentence of his History identified him as “Herodotus of Thurii,” but later editors amended it to “Herodotus of Halicarnassus.” Regardless of the title of his origin, his History indicates that Herodotus was restless and traveled extensively. He visited Egypt at least once and interviewed Egyptian priests. He went to Babylon. He got as far north as the Ukraine where the Scythians lived and interviewed a Carian who was an agent for the Scythian king in the trade between the Greeks and the Scythians. He visited both Sparta and Athens, and some scholars believe that he became a friend of the leading Athenian politician of the time, Pericles, and tapped the traditions of Pericles’ family for information; there is no hard evidence to support this theory, however. At some point he acquired a reputation as a logios, that is, an oral performer who did not chant poetry accompanied by music but recited prose. A late source which may be trustworthy reports that Herodotus went to Olympia while the Olympic Games were in progress, and there set up his tent and gave recitations to all who would listen. There are stories of other visits to Greek cities, too. Athens liked his performance, and paid him handsomely, but he was not allowed to talk to the young men of Thebes in Boeotia. Thebes sided with the Persians in the Persian Wars and probably disliked being reminded of their lack of patriotism, and, in fact, Herodotus treated Thebes with a marked lack of sympathy in his History.

Herodotus’ Plan: The Preliminaries

The History is a long, sprawling work, full of digressions. Long after Herodotus’ death, the scholars at the Alexandrian Library where the kings of Egypt supported a research institute, divided the History into nine books, named after the Nine Muses, but that is an artificial division, though a convenient one. Herodotus simply follows the course of Asian aggression upon the Greek world with the result that the subject of History becomes a study of imperialism and the resistance to oriental imperialism. The east was the home of a succession of empires, culminating in the Persian Empire, whereas Greece was the home of free city-states. Herodotus began with the first Asian to subdue Greek cities and make them pay tribute: Croesus, king of Lydia. He conquered the Ionian cities on the western fringe of Asia Minor. He was in turn conquered by Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire, and all the Greek cities on the east side of the Aegean Sea—whether Ionian, Dorian or Aeolian—passed to Persian control. Then Herodotus followed the course of Persian expansion as Cyrus conquered Babylon, and his successor, Cambyses, took over Egypt. As the Persian juggernaut acquired new subjects, Herodotus digressed to describe what they were like. King Darius, who succeeded Cambyses, crossed the Bosporus into Europe, and the region between the Aegean Sea and the Danube fell under Persian dominion. So far, Persian expansion was driven by imperialism, but it was the Greeks themselves, specifically Athens, and Eretria on the island of Euboea, that provoked the Persian invasion of mainland Greece. At the start of the fifth century B.C.E. Ionia rebelled against the Persian yoke, and Athens and Eretria both sent assistance to the rebels. Darius took revenge in 490 B.C.E. by sending an expeditionary force across the Aegean Sea against Athens and Eretria. Eretria fell within a week, and the Persians then landed at Marathon north of Athens, intending to march on the city with their infantry and cavalry. The Athenians were outnumbered, but they adopted the daring tactic of lengthening their battle-line to match the Persian line by thinning its center and reinforcing its wings. They hoped to rout the Persian wings and then wheel in on the flanks of the Persian center, where it was vulnerable to attack. It was a desperate tactic: the Athenian center broke, but the Athenian wings swept aside the Persians facing them and closed in on the Persian flanks. After a stiff fight, the Persians fled. In spite of their fearsome reputation, they were not invincible, for the charge of the heavily-armed infantry—the hoplites—of Athens vanquished the Persian army, cavalry and all.

The Struggle for Greece

Vengeance and counter-vengeance was a motive for action in history, as Herodotus saw it, but Darius died before exacting revenge on the Greeks for this defeat. The hawks in his court managed to persuade his son, Xerxes, to carry on his father’s plans for Greece, although he is counseled against rash action by his uncle, Artabanus. At decisive moments like this, Herodotus often brought on a wise adviser, who almost invariably counseled against rash action. While initially heeding his uncle’s advice, Xerxes decided to proceed with the invasion on the strength of a vision which appeared to him twice in a dream, telling him that he had to attack Greece or be brought low. Herodotus suggests in this that Persian imperialism had developed its own momentum, and no mere king could stop it without paying a heavy penalty. Xerxes conscripted a great army and navy and, crossing the Hellespont on pontoon bridges, made his way through northern Greece, while in Greece itself, under Sparta’s leadership those states willing to resist joined in an alliance and planned for defense. They attempted to hold back the Persians at the Pass of Thermopylae, where the space between Mt. Kallidromos and the sea is so narrow that in places only a single cart could get through; at the same time, a Greek naval contingent tried to hold back the Persian fleet off Artemisium at the northern tip of the island of Euboea. But a traitor betrayed the Greeks defending Thermopylae and an elderly Spartan king, Leonidas, and his royal bodyguard of 300 hoplites died fighting there so that the rest of his army could get away. The Persians advanced, burning Athens. But the Athenian general Themistocles persuaded the Greek fleet to make a stand at the island of Salamis, and there the over-confident Persian navy was so badly mauled that it withdrew from the western Aegean Sea. Xerxes himself departed from Greece at the end of the campaigning season but he left behind a smaller but more efficient force under an able general, Mardonius, who captured Athens once again and burned it. But at Plataea in southern Boeotia, a Greek army commanded by the Spartan Pausanias, regent for Leonidas’ underage son, utterly defeated Mardonius, and at the same time—some said on the same day—a Greek fleet destroyed a Persian fleet at Mycale on the coast of Ionia. Thus Persian imperialism reached its climax and began its long recession.

Seeking a Reason

Herodotus states in his introduction that one of his aims was to show why the Greeks and Persians fought a war. Who or what was at fault? Herodotus never tells us explicitly the reason why, but he allows the reader to infer a great deal. Vengeance was a motive for historical action—one power wronged another and the power that is wronged seeks vengeance. Vengeance is a force that maintains limits and balance. If something harms the balance of nature, then something else will take vengeance and thereby restore the balance. Persia, by pushing the boundaries of its empire beyond Asia and aiming at world domination harmed the natural balance between the continents, and the two very different ways of life. But it is also clear that some force beyond the motive of vengeance pushed the Persian Empire into its ill-fated attempt to conquer Greece. Persia, under the rule of a despot, had adopted expansionism as a way of life, and when it invaded Greece, it encountered a people whose way of life embraced individual freedom. Two ways of life fought for dominance in the Persian War, as Herodotus saw it, and Greece’s victory demonstrated the importance of liberty. If we seek themes in Herodotus’ History, two stand out: that imperialism drives empires on to overexpansion, and that individual freedom makes braver soldiers than does despotic government.


The Lonely Historian

Thucydides occupies a lonely place in the pantheon of historians. He is regarded as one of the world’s greatest, yet he had no followers to mimic his sort of history. His plan was to write an accurate history of the Peloponnesian War, the struggle that divided the Greek world at the end of fifth century B.C.E., stretching over the years 431 to 404 B.C.E. He intended to produce a “possession for all time” which future generations might consult if they found themselves in situations resembling the Peloponnesian War. Unlike Herodotus, he did not write with a pleasant, readable style. He was austere and distant, treating the war like a doctor observing a sick patient. This was the period when the medical school on the island of Cos, founded by the great diagnostician Hippocrates, was collecting descriptions of diseases so that doctors could make correct diagnoses, and Thucydides was influenced by the approach of this medical school. Among ancient Greek critics, Herodotus had a reputation—which he did not deserve—as a teller of tall tales, whereas Thucydides had the reputation of a truthful reporter of what actually happened, which he did not entirely deserve, either. His bias can be readily seen in his admiration of the Athenian democracy under Pericles, which was not truly a democracy, for Pericles dominated politics to such a degree that the democracy was really the rule of one man. The historian’s admiration of Pericles did not extend to his successor, Cleon, the son of a leather-maker who was a favorite of the masses in the Athenian assembly. In reality, Cleon was a better administrator than Thucydides admits in his writings, but Thucydides favored Cleon’s rival, Nicias, a conservative man who feared the gods but whose incompetence nearly brought Athens to her knees. For the most part, however, Thucydides played the part of an unprejudiced reporter very well.

The Peloponnesian War

The so-called Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 431 to 404 B.C.E., was fought between Athens on one side, which had built up an empire in the years following the Persian War, and Sparta, which headed an alliance of states centered in the Peloponnesos, the region of Greece south of the Isthmus of Corinth. There was a brief break after the first ten years of war, which are sometimes called the “Archidamian War” after the Spartan king Archidamus who commanded the Peloponnesian forces in the early years of the war. The Archidamian War ended with a peace treaty which was never accepted by some of Sparta’s allies, and during the brief period when hostilities ceased, Athens launched an expedition against Sicily with the intention of extending her imperial reach there, and her expeditionary force was completely destroyed in 413 B.C.E. In the final years of the war Persia intervened, and supplied Sparta with a subsidy with which to build a Spartan fleet, and when the war ended with the surrender of Athens, Sparta and Persia divided the Athenian Empire between them. The slogan of Sparta and her allies when the war began was “Liberation for the Greeks”—that is, liberation from the Athenian Empire—but at the war’s end, the slogan was forgotten.

The Downfall of Athens

Thucydides began his history with the causes of the Peloponnesian War. The underlying cause was the fear which Sparta and her allies had of Athenian imperialism, though Thucydides pinpointed three immediate causes. First, Athens became embroiled in a struggle between Corinth, a member the Spartan alliance, and Corinth’s former colony, Corcyra (Corfu, nowadays called Kerkyra), and Corinth appealed to her allies. Second, a tributary state of the Athenian Empire, Potidaea, rebelled against Athens and Corinth sent help to Potidaea. Finally, Athens placed an embargo on trade with her neighbor Megara, which was a Spartan ally. Pericles had a strategy to win the war for Athens that capitalized on her strength. Athens had a powerful fleet made up of galleys called triremes, rowed by well-trained crews of Athenian citizens. On land, however, she was no match for Sparta and her allies, and so when the Spartan-led army invaded Athenian territory, the Athenians evacuated their farms and took refuge behind their great city walls. Long walls fortified the road between Athens and her port of Piraeus so that Athens could access the sea and use her fleet to make commando raids on Peloponnesian territory. This would be a war of attrition—each side would try to wear the other down—and Pericles believed that Athens would last longer than Sparta. But an unexpected event upset his calculations. In the second year of the war, the Athenians were smitten by a plague described by Thucydides in clinical detail. Pericles himself took ill, recovered, but died shortly afterwards. The first ten years of war ended with a peace treaty in 421 B.C.E., but the result was to exchange a hot war for a cold one. Athens, ever ambitious to expand her empire, dispatched an expedition to the neutral territory of Sicily in 415 B.C.E., in the hopes of conquering its leading city, Syracuse. To Thucydides, who was familiar with the plots of the tragedies staged in Athenian theater, the Sicilian expedition must have seemed like a protagonist’s act of arrogance preceding his downfall in a tragic drama. The attempt to conquer Syracuse failed, and Athens lost all the ships and men she had dispatched to Sicily. The powerful prose of Thucydides’ description of the last, desperate battle in the harbor of Syracuse provokes our emotions because it is outwardly unemotional. The Athenians, having lost their best warships and troops, were in desperate straits, bankrupt, and facing revolts in their empire, but they did not give up. For reasons unknown, when Thucydides reached 411 B.C.E. in his narrative, he broke off in mid-sentence and left his history unfinished. It may have been sudden death; he was reportedly drowned at sea. All that is certain is that he clearly knew that the war ended with the defeat of Athens, and he intended to finish the story.

Continuing Thucydides

More than one author endeavored to continue Thucydides’ work. Two historians, Theopompus and Cratinus, individually took up the story where Thucydides broke off, and they continued until 394 B.C.E., ten years past the year of Athens’ defeat. Athens by 394 B.C.E. was about to rise again, and thus the tragic vision of Thucydides is given a happy ending. A scrap of papyrus discovered in 1906 at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt has some 900 lines of a continuation that was clearly written by an able historian, and many scholars attribute it to Cratinus. The lack of concrete evidence to support this supposition, however, forces the more generic authorship of “The Oxyrhynchus Historian,” or the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia. The one continuation that we do have, the Hellenica, was written by Xenophon, a onetime disciple of the philosopher Socrates. The Hellenica of Xenophon took up Greek history where Thucydides left off and continued it to 362 B.C.E. None of those who continued the work of Thucydides, as far as we know, brought their histories to a close with the Athenians’ capitulation to Sparta in 404 B.C.E.

History after Thucydides


The fourth century had many historians, but only a small portion of their output remains. The author with the best survival record is Xenophon, an Athenian of good family and a member of Socrates’ circle. Against Socrates’ advice he joined a corps of Greek mercenaries in the army which Cyrus, the younger brother of the Persian king, mustered in 401 B.C.E. to usurp the throne. The expedition was a disaster, but Xenophon led them safely out to the Black Sea coast, and from there they dispersed to seek other employers. Xenophon himself took service with the Spartans. Athens exiled him shortly after Socrates’ death—he would return to Athens only in 365 B.C.E.—and he lived on a estate granted him by Sparta for much of his banishment until the upheavals after Sparta’s defeat at Leuctra in 372 B.C.E. forced him to move. He wrote on subjects ranging from the Spartan constitution to training horses, but he is best known for his memoirs of Socrates (the Memorabilia); his Anabasis or “March Up Country,” which tells the story of the failed attempt of prince Cyrus, younger brother of King Artaxerxes II of Persia, to seize the Persian throne; and his Hellenica, which continues Thucydides’ history to the Battle of Mantineia in 362 B.C.E. Xenophon is an easy author to read, and among his other claims to fame is his introduction of a new literary genre: the historical novel. His “Education of Cyrus” (Cyropaedia) is a fictional account of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire. It is a bad novel, full of moralizing and not much read nowadays, but it is a groundbreaking venture into historical romance.

The Lost Historians

Many historians were writing in the fourth century B.C.E. but their works have not survived. We know them because they were quoted by later writers, or were used by later writers as sources for their own histories—or in some cases, because papyrus fragments have turned up in the sands of Egypt that contain remnants of their works. One of the most prominent was Theopompus of Chios, who wrote an exceedingly long history on Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II of Macedon. It was innovative in that it focused on only one personality, whom Theopompus represented as the greatest man that Europe had produced. Another historian of high reputation was Ephorus of Kyme who produced what became the standard history of Greece: a universal history of Greece from the Dorian invasion to his own day. Some of what he wrote has survived at second hand because his history was used as a source by another universal historian who wrote in the first century B.C.E., Diodorus the Sicilian, and we still have Diodorus’ history. Diodorus based his history of the world on other authors as well as Ephorus, but Ephorus was a favorite source for him to copy. Alexander the Great’s conquests produced a body of historical writings, but none of it survived except as sources for the work of other Greek and Roman historians such as Plutarch and Arrian, both of whom wrote in Greek, and Curtius Rufus in Latin—all of these date to the period of the Roman Empire. Greece in the fourth century B.C.E. also developed a taste for local chronicles; the chronicles of Athens were known as Atthides, or “Chronicles of Attica,” and two of its notable authors were Androtion and Philochorus. There is also an historian of the second century B.C.E., Polybius of Megalopolis (208-126 B.C.E.), who was exiled from Greece to Rome, where he wrote a history of Rome in forty books beginning with the first war between Rome and Carthage (265-241 B.C.E.). About a third of it survives. He is a major source for information on Rome’s war with Hannibal. A dry writer, he is nonetheless reliable, and he was a shrewd observer of the rising power of Rome.

Greek Comedy


The early history of comedy is unclear, remarked Aristotle in his On the Art of Poetry, because no one took it seriously. The polis of Megara which was sandwiched between Corinth and Athens claimed to have invented it, as did Sicily, which produced a writer of farces, Epicharmus, who was patronized by the tyrants of Syracuse Gelon (485-478 B.C.E.) and his successor Hiero (478-467 B.C.E.). Little of his work survives, though there is enough to make us regret its loss. He wrote burlesques of myths: one play called Hebe’s Wedding was set in Olympus and parodied the marriage of Heracles to Hebe. Deified though he might be, Heracles was still portrayed much as he was in the comic theater: a muscle-bound lout who gobbled up his food, and drank until he was drunk. Another type of comedy that Epicharmus wrote dealt with contemporary life and introduced stock characters (that is, characters with trademark roles such as the clever slave, the boastful soldier, and the love-sick youth), and a third type that he wrote played with arguments between non-human abstractions—for instance, one seems to have hinged on a debate between women’s logic and men’s logic. The plays of Epicharmus had no chorus, unlike the comedies produced in Athens, though there was musical accompaniment. Farces were clearly popular in Sicily and “Magna Graecia,” as the Greek settlements in southern Italy were called, for the local potters used scenes from the comic theater as vase paintings. These farces look forward to the New Comedy which would displace the Old Comedy of Aristophanes on the Athenian stage more than a century later.

Athenian Old Comedy

Old Comedy was an Athenian theatrical development with topical allusions to Athenian politics, and its acceptance as an art form dates from either 488-487 or 487-486 B.C.E., when the archon—that is, the chief magistrate of Athens who gave his name to the year—was made responsible for providing a chorus for a day for five comedies to be produced at the City Dionysia festival each spring in the modern month of March. Shortly before 440 B.C.E. a day of comedies was included in the other great festival of Dionysus where dramas were presented, the Lenaea festival in January. We also know that in the fourth century B.C.E.comedies were produced at the Rural Dionysia, which were festivals in the country districts of Athens called “demes,” and it is likely that comedies were produced there earlier, too, given the physical evidence of theaters in some of these demes. Until the ascendance of Aristophanes there are only a few names and a handful of fragments from the comic poets of this era, including Cratinus—old, and notorious for his wine consumption, but still writing when Aristophanes began his career—and Eupolis, who was a worthy rival of Aristophanes and popular in his day, for he was often quoted. Other comic playwrights such as Crates, Pherecrates, Hermippus, Phrynichus, Teleclides, Ameipsias, Theopompus, and Plato—not to be confused with the philosopher Plato—are hardly more than names attached to titles of lost comedies. The eleven plays of Aristophanes are all that remains of Greek Old Comedy, and they owe their survival to the fact that Aristophanes became popular as assigned reading for Greek schoolboys of the second century C.E.

Aristophanes’ Background

The approximate dates of Aristophanes’ lifetime—450-385 B.C.E.—place him in one of the most turbulent periods of Athenian politics. He was a boy in the Periclean Age, when the politician Pericles dominated Athens. Pericles’ authority was based on his dominance of the popular assembly, the ekklesia, where all male citizens could vote. As a well-connected, wealthy man, Pericles was able to dominate the assembly so long as he followed popular policies, which he did. He took an imperialist approach to Athens’ neighbors, which led to the creation of an Athenian Empire profitable enough to finance a splendid building program in Athens. It also led to the Peloponnesian War with Sparta and her allies. Nine of Aristophanes’ plays were written in wartime and they belong to the period that followed the death of Pericles in the autumn of 429 B.C.E. The great man proved irreplaceable and, under the stress of war, the fissures in the body politic of Athens began to appear.

The First Plays

Aristophanes’ first comedy was The Banqueters, produced in 427 B.C.E., which won second prize at the City Dionysia, followed the next year by The Babylonians. Although The Babylonians won first prize, it also earned him the wrath of the politician Cleon, who successfully prosecuted him for anti-Athenian propaganda. The reason for the inflammatory nature of the work is lost in history since neither of these plays survived. His next play, the Acharnians, was produced at the Lenaea festival in January, 425 B.C.E. A year later at the same festival he produced the Knights, and in 423 B.C.E. he produced the Clouds, a burlesque of Socrates which only won third prize. Aristophanes was bitterly disappointed; the Acharnians and the Knights both won first prizes, and since the number of comedies had been reduced from five to three during the Peloponnesian War as an economic measure, that meant that the Clouds took last place. Aristophanes set about rewriting it, and at least some of the surviving text is from this second edition, which was never staged. In 422 B.C.E. his play the Wasps won second prize, and the next year, when Athens and Sparta signed a peace treaty, Aristophanes staged his comedy Peace and again won second prize.

Formula for Old Comedy

The structure of the comic play was already established by Aristophanes’ heyday. First there was a prologue during which the leading character has a bright idea which gets the plot underway. Then comes the parodos: the entry of the chorus of 24 men wearing masks and fantastic costumes. Next is the agon: a debate between one character who supports the bright idea of the prologue, and an opponent who always loses. Then follows the parabasis where the chorus comes forward and sings to the spectators directly. The parabasis gave the comic poet an opportunity to voice his views on the present state of affairs. Next comes the episodes where the bright idea is put into practice, sometimes with comic results, after which comes the exodus, which concludes the play on merry note: a marriage, or a banquet, or some happy occasion. This was not a hard-and-fast formula. The Acharnians has two episodes, the Knightsthree, and the Clouds two agons. The last two plays of Aristophanes lack a parabasis, but by the time they were produced, Old Comedy had given way to Middle Comedy, which did without the parabasis. It belonged to an age which preferred not to hear the personal views of comic poets.

The Acharnians

One of Aristophanes’ first plays, The Archarnian is a play whose theme is the foolishness of war-mongering. The Acharnians of the title of this play were citizens of the deme (constitutency) of Acharnae, war hawks who made their living making charcoal. The Peloponnesian War was beginning its sixth year when this play was produced. The citizens from the countryside were suffering great hardship, for they had to evacuate their farms when the Spartan allied force invaded Attica—as it did each year when the crops were ripe—and find shelter behind the walls of Athens. Pestilence aggravated their suffering; the great plague was at its most severe in the second year of the war but it lingered on for three more years. The setting of the Acharnians is the Pnyx in Athens where the people assembled for meetings of theekklesia. Dicaeopolis, a decent citizen, recounts his woes as he waits for the assembly to convene. When it does, Amphitheus proposes peace negotiations with Sparta but is silenced. Disgusted, Dicaeopolis recruits Amphitheus to negotiate a private truce for him with Sparta, and he returns from Sparta to offer Dicaeopolis three possibilities: a truce for five, ten, or thirty years. Dicaeopolis chooses a thirty-year peace and exits. On comes the chorus of peace-hating Acharnians, searching for the man who dared conclude a truce with Sparta. When Dicaeopolis returns, they hurl stones at him, and to save himself, he runs to the house of the tragic poet Euripides, whose works were famous for their pitiable heroes. Euripides gives Dicaeopolis a tattered costume to wear, and with his Euripidean props, Dicaeopolis delivers a clever parody of a Euripidean speech in his defense, reviewing the causes of the war and absolving Sparta. The sympathies of the chorus are divided, and the war hawks call in an ally, Lamachus, a well-known hawk. Lamachus comes on stage, magnificent in full armor, but Dicaeopolis’ arguments demolish him. Dicaeopolis proclaims the end of all war boycotts. The chorus then advances stage front and sings the parabasis directly to the audience, the subject of which is the virtues of Aristophanes. Following two more episodes, Lamachus is ordered off to a battle, and the play concludes with Lamachus returning wounded from war, and Dicaeopolis returning drunk from a feast, with a courtesan on each arm. In the final scene, Dicaeopolis roisters and Lamachus groans, and the foolishness of war-mongering is made apparent to all.

The Knights

The Knights was an attack on Cleon, the chief war hawk and the darling of the Athenian common man. The year before, the Athenians had defeated Sparta on Sphacteria, an island at the north end of the Bay of Navarino, where they had marooned a Spartan force, including 120 of their elite Spartiates, and forced it to surrender. Cleon was given the credit, which, in part, he deserved, though Aristophanes thought not. In the Knights, Demos is a good old man who is easily gulled, and his new slave, a tanner from Paphlagonia, has him under his thumb to the despair of two other slaves, Demosthenes and Nicias. Each character represented a real-life person: the Paphlagonian was Cleon, thinly-disguised; the two other slaves were the Athenian generals, Demosthenes and Nicias; and the old man Demos represented the Athenian people, for whom the Greek word was demos. Demosthenes and Nicias depose the Paphlagonian by putting forward an even greater rascal than he, a sausage seller who outbids the Paphlagonian for Demos’ favor and is revealed as a statesman whose real name is Agoracritus, meaning “Choice of the Agora.” In the exodus, Agoracritus announces that he has rejuvenated Demos into a young, vigorous, and highly-sexed man.

The Clouds

The butt of Aristophanes’ raillery in the Clouds is Socrates, who is portrayed in the play as the proprietor of aphrontisterion, a think-tank combined with a school for Athenian youth. The plot centers on Strepsiades, an elderly Athenian, and his ne’er-do-well son, Pheidippides. Pheidippides’ passion for chariot racing has landed him deeply in debt, and Strepsiades is afraid that his son’s creditors will pursue him. To avoid the creditors, he decides to enroll his son in Socrates’ school that teaches debaters how to make weaker arguments appear the better. Pheidippides refuses to go, so Strepsiades enrolls himself. Socrates’ attempt to teach poor old Strepsiades is a nice piece of buffoonery, but the upshot is that Strepsiades is expelled for stupidity and insists that his son enroll or leave home. Pheidippides is instructed by two teachers at the think-tank, Just Cause, who teaches the old-fashioned virtues, and Unjust Cause, who teaches how to find loopholes in the laws. They quarrel about the purposes of education. Unjust Cause wins on a technicality and takes over Pheidippides’ training. He makes such splendid progress that he is able to justify beating his father. Strepsiades realizes that the new learning that Socrates represents has ruined his son and burns down Socrates’ institute.

The Wasps

A citizen in Athens had the right to a trial before his fellow citizens, and in practice that meant that he was tried before a large jury of from 100 plus one jurymen to 500 plus one, who listened to the arguments of both the plaintiff and the defendant and then voted on the verdict. A juryman’s pay was small. Yet for elderly citizens, jury service was both a welcome income supplement and also entertainment. Yet because many took jury duty as entertainment, it was often seen by many as a useless system of judgement. In Wasps, a farce on the jury system, there is a clash of wills between the old man Philocleon (Cleon-lover) and his son Bdelycleon (Cleon-hater). The chorus of jurymen, who are costumed as hornets, summon Philocleon to join them at jury duty, but Bdelycleon has his father locked in the house. After an argument, Bdelycleon convinces his father that jurymen are only tools in the hands of self-seeking demagogues, and promises Philocleon that he will feed him and let him play at holding trials at home if he gives up his addiction to jury duty. Then in a parody of a court case, Philocleon tries the dog Labes for stealing cheese; Bdelycleon argues for the dog so well that Philocleon acquits it. When Philocleon realizes his error—he has never voted “Not Guilty” before—he swoons and is taken off stage. Two episodes follow: in the first, Bdelycleon, on his way to a banquet with Philocleon, instructs him how to behave like an Athenian gentleman; and in the second, Philocleon returns with a piper from the banquet, very drunk, and holding with one arm a nude girl. As Philocleon tries to make love to the girl, Bdelycleon manhandles him into his house.

The Peace

When the Peace was produced, Cleon was dead, as was the chief Spartan war hawk, Brasidas. Both had died in the same battle, at Amphipolis in northern Greece. For Athens the battle was disastrous, but in both Athens and Sparta, parties supporting peace were left in control, and during the year 421 B.C.E., a peace treaty was signed. In the Peace, an Athenian citizen Trygaeus flies to Heaven astride a dung-beetle where he learns that the Olympian gods have moved away in disgust at the warring Greeks and have left War and Tumult in charge of their palace. War has thrown Peace into a pit and piled stones on her. Trygaeus, with the help of a chorus of Greek farmers and laborers, frees Peace, along with Harvest and Diplomacy, two women whom Trygaeus brings with him when he returns to earth. Trygaeus prepares a wedding feast where a soothsayer appears, prophesying that the war cannot be stopped. In the Exodus, there appears a group that is hard hit by the peace: manufacturers of armor, trumpet makers, and the like. They try to unload surplus arms and armor on Trygaeus, but he will have none of it. He drives them off and the feast begins.

The Birds

The play the Birds is a good-natured spoof on the “castles in the air” that some Athenians were building as they imagined their triumph in taking over Sicily in the late fifth century B.C.E. The castles in the air would soon implode. In 415 B.C.E. Athens dispatched a great armada to Sicily, and two years later, the fleet was completely destroyed in a fruitless effort to take the city of Syracuse. When the Birds was produced, however, the Athenians still nursed hopes of winning an empire in Sicily that would make Athens the superpower in the Greek world. In the play, two Athenian adventurers, Pisthetaurus and Euelpides, convince birds to build a new city, to be called Cloudcuckooland, in the sky between Earth and Heaven. Cloudcuckooland cuts the gods off from the smoke rising from human sacrifices, and the gods are forced to seek a peace treaty with the birds. Pisthetaurus and Basileia (meaning “kingship”) are to wed, and they exit the stage, flying off to Zeus’ palace to take it over.

The Lysistrata

In the year 411 B.C.E., following the disastrous Sicilian expedition, many of the wealthier, more conservative Athenians lost confidence in the Athenian democracy’s conduct of the war. The Lysistrata is Aristophanes’ plea for peace. Lysistrata is an Athenian housewife who is sick of war. Women in Athens were traditionally shut out of government, but Lysistrata’s disgust with male bumbling causes her to lead a women’s revolt to seize the Athenian government and end the war. The women agree to deny their husbands sex until they make peace, while at the same time making themselves as alluring as possible in order to set their husbands’ hormones raging. They seize the Acropolis, where the Parthenon housed the state treasury. The revolution spreads to Sparta, where the women banish their husbands until peace is made. Finally in the third episode, envoys arrive from Sparta to sue for peace, and everyone calls on Lysistrata. She appears on stage bearing a statue of the goddess Reconciliation, and she makes a speech on the worth of women and the value of Panhellenism, when all the Greeks band together, rather than fight each other. The play ends with the Athenians and the Spartans feasting and dancing.


Thesmophoriazusae (Women Celebrating the Thesmophoria) is a spoof on Euripides, whose tragedies were controversial—he had the reputation of being a woman-hater because he did not idealize women in his plays. In the Thesmophoriazusae, the women of Athens have decided to put Euripides to death for his insults to the female sex. Euripides, along with his father-in-law, Mnesilochus, come to the tragic poet Agathon to ask for help. Agathon was famous in real-life for his effeminacy and for inventing plots for his plays rather than taking them from mythology. When Agathon consents to see his visitors, he appears lolling on his bed, surrounded by feminine toilet articles. He refuses to help but consents to lend Euripides some women’s clothing so Mnesilochus can wear them when he meets the women at the Thesmophorion, the temple of Demeter where the women’s religious festival known as the Thesmophoria is held. Finding them denouncing Euripides, he undertakes his defense, arguing that women are much worse than Euripides depicted them. He infuriates the women into attacking him, and then is exposed as a man by a well-known pederast, Clisthenes, who is also dressed as a woman. Then Euripides’ himself attempts to save Mnesilochus, using various dramatic devices from his own plays, and finally he succeeds in rescuing his father-in-law with a tried-and-true method: he disguises himself as a procuress—that is, a female pimp—and comes on stage with two girls. They distract the policeman who is holding Mnesilochus, allowing Euripides to release Mnesilochus.

The Frogs

In 405 B.C.E. the Peloponnesian War was nearing its end, but the radical democrats in Athens still did not want peace. The deaths of Sophocles and Euripides the year before lent a bittersweet tone to the Frogs. In the play the god Dionysus, patron of the Athenian stage, descends into the Underworld to bring back his favorite playwright, Euripides, for no tragedians still alive were as ingenious as he was. In the Underworld, there is a contest between Aeschylus, who was long dead, and Euripides, the new arrival in the Underworld. The worth of the poets is decided by bringing out a scale and putting a verse from one of the plays of each contestant into the balance and seeing which verse weighs more. Aeschylus wins in three trials, for his verses express weighty ideas whereas Euripides is an intellectual lightweight by comparison. When Dionysus decides in Aeschylus’ favor, however, Euripides reminds him that it was to bring him back that Dionysus descended into the Underworld in the first place. Dionysus replies with a famous quotation from Euripides’ tragedy the Hippolytus which struck the Athenians as the height of sophistry when it was first uttered on the stage: “My tongue has sworn. My heart remains unsworn.” The play ends with a feast, and Hades, the Lord of Death, sends Aeschylus back to Athens with messages for some Athenian individuals who were still alive that he wanted to see them soon. The Frogs is the last surviving example of Old Comedy, and it is Aristophanes at his most brilliant.

The Ecclesiazusae

Following the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War, Old Comedy diminished in popularity. It had flourished under the freewheeling democracy of fifth-century Athens, but after the war, the political atmosphere changed even though the democracy was restored after a group of disgruntled right-wingers known as the “Thirty Tyrants” seized power and set up a short-lived oligarchic government. The Ecclesiazusae (Women in the Assembly, produced in 391 B.C.E.) and Plutus(388 B.C.E.), the last surviving play of Aristophanes, belong to Middle Comedy. Middle Comedy differs from Old Comedy in that the parabasis is omitted, the chorus is less important, and the pointed attacks on Athenian politicians are absent. The butt of Aristophanes’ satire, Ecclesiazusae, is Plato’s Republic. While it is unclear whether the Republic had been published at the time of the production of Ecclesiazusae, Plato’s lectures had been propagating his ideas, and the idea of an ideal society without private property of the sort lampooned by Aristophanes in his play was familiar to Aristophanes’ audience. In the play, the women of Athens, led by Praxagora, dress themselves in their husbands’ clothing, go early to the ekklesia—that is, the assembly which held ultimate power in the Athenian democracy—and establish a new constitution in which everything is held in common, even women. The episodes that follow are commentaries on the new order. Praxagora’s husband Blepyrus is delighted at his wife’s initiative because he looks forward to a life of laziness. Another citizen wants to share in the benefits of the new order without contributing anything. A handsome young man wants to sleep with a lovely courtesan, but the law requires him to satisfy a couple old crones first who drag him off to enjoy his sexual prowess. The play ends with a communal feast. The moral of the play is that an ideal society needs ideal citizens to make it work, and none were to be found in Athens.

The Plutus

One of the darker comedies of Aristophanes, Plutus reminded audiences that a certain amount of injustice may be necessary to make the economy function. In this play, a blind old man in rags comes on stage, followed by Chremylus and his slave, Cario. Chremylus has been told by the Delphic oracle to follow the first man he met after leaving the temple, and it turned out to be this blind old man. Chremylus and Cario ask the old man who he is, and reluctantly he tells them that he is Plutus, the god of wealth whom Zeus, jealous as ever of mankind, has struck blind. Chremylus decides to cure Plutus of his blindness, and takes Plutus into his house. Chremylus’ friend, Blepsidemus, agrees to help restore Plutus’ sight in exchange for a share of the wealth granted by Plutus. They take him to the temple of Asclepius, the god of healing, but are interrupted by a horrifying woman, the goddess Poverty. She and Chremylus debate whether Poverty or Plutus, the god of wealth, benefits mankind more. Chremylus argues that if Plutus could see, he would reward only the good, and hence eventually everyone would become good. Poverty counters that if this happened, no one would want to work. Chremylus wins the argument, and a miraculous cure restores Plutus’ sight. Then we see the results—good and bad—of giving rewards only to good and deserving persons. Not everyone is delighted with this new dispensation. A Just Man comes on stage. He is happy. An Informer enters. He is ruined. An old woman, dressed as a young girl, comes to tell Plutus that her gigolo has deserted her. Hermes arrives to report that humans are no longer making sacrifices and the gods are starving. A priest of Zeus reports that he is starving, too, and he deserts to the new god, Plutus. Then Plutus himself comes on stage, followed by the old woman that has lost her gigolo. She is assured that he will return to her. The play ends with a procession to the Acropolis to install Plutus and begin his reign.

Middle Comedy

Between Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War in 404 B.C.E. and 321 B.C.E.—the probable date when Menander produced his first comedy Anger—comedy underwent an enormous change. The audience became more solidly middle-class as the poor could no longer afford to go to the theater. The emphasis of the plays switched from politics to courtesans, food, and sex. The chorus merely provided interludes of song and dance instead of being part of the action. Though we have the names of some fifty authors, and the titles of over 700 comedies, no Middle Comedy survived, except for the last two plays of Aristophanes. The titles range from The Birth of Aphrodite, evidently a burlesque of mythology—send-ups of myths were popular in Middle Comedy—to The Stolen Girl which sounds like a situation comedy. Characters from the fringes of polite society appear again and again as stock characters: the professional courtesan who sometimes has a heart of gold, the clever slave, the braggart soldier, and the sponger who survives by truckling to rich friends. These are international character types with panhellenic appeal, meaning they could belong to any Greek city, not just Athens. In fact, many of the playwrights producing Middle Comedy in Athens were not Athenian citizens.

The Unearthing of Menander

Until the beginning of the twentieth century the only known examples of New Comedy came from second-hand adaptations of Greek plays by the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence for the Roman stage. These adaptations provided some flavor of the New Comedy playwrights Menander, Diphilus, Philemon, and Apollodorus. In 1905 a papyrus-codex—that is, a papyrus document bound like a modern book—was found in Egypt at Aphroditopolis, modern Kom Esqawh. It contains large parts of Menander’s Girl from Samos, The Rape of the Locks and the Arbitration, plus fragments of two other plays. A little more than fifty years later, a papyrus containing the full text of the Dyskolos (The Man with a Bad Temper), more fragments of the Girl from Samos, and half of a play titled The Shield came to light Since then, other papyrus fragments have been discovered—one, as recently as 2003, yielding 200 lines of an unspecified play—but the Dyskolos is the only complete play to be discovered.

The Dyskolos

The Dyskolos was first produced at the Lenaea festival in Athens in 316 B.C.E. It is an early play of Menander, a lightweight situation drama without the stock characters typical of New Comedy. In the play, Knemon, a misanthropic man, marries a widow with one son, Gorgias, by a previous marriage. They have a daughter, but Knemon’s wife, unable to bear his bad temper, leaves him and he lives as a virtual hermit on his farm. Sostratus falls in love with the daughter and asks for her hand in marriage. Knemon refuses, but after he falls down a well and is rescued by Sostratus he becomes a changed man. He is reconciled with his wife and agrees to give his daughter to Sostratus to marry. In addition, he marries Gorgias to Sostratus’ sister.

Influence of New Comedy

New Comedy set the style for Greek theater after Alexander the Great, from the third century B.C.E. onwards. Numerous theatrical festivals sprouted in cities everywhere, and troupes of professional actors traveled from place to place, staging their plays. From Greece, the New Comedy went to Rome where the playwrights Plautus and Terence crafted plays on the New Comedy model. While the Old Comedy plays of Aristophanes were tied to one place and one time, the New Comedy had universal appeal.

Greek Tragedy


The evidence for the origins of tragic drama is ambiguous. The name itself is odd, for tragoidia means the “song of the male goat,” or perhaps a “song for a male goat” and attempts to explain its meaning have been ingenious but never quite successful. The Roman poet Horace, a contemporary of the emperor Augustus, thought that “tragedy” got its name because the prize for the best tragedy was a goat, but this is unlikely. One fact, however, is not disputed: tragedy was intimately connected with the cult of Dionysus, and Aristotle stated that it developed from the dithyramb, a choral song in honor of Dionysus. The great age of Greek tragedy began in Athens when the tyrant Pisistratus established the festival of the City Dionysia about 536 B.C.E. where dithyrambs were presented by amateur choristers. Pisistratus hoped to use the festival to raise the profile of Athens. After he died in 527 B.C.E., his sons Hippias—who succeeded him as tyrant—and Hipparchus—who became a quasi Minister of Culture—continued his policy until Hipparchus was assassinated and Hippias was ousted from power four years later in 510 B.C.E. At the City Dionysia of 534 B.C.E., or at least between 536 and 533, the chorus leader Thespis from the village of Icaria took a solo part in his dithyramb, thus introducing an actor who played a role in the story. Tragedy, as Aristotle pointed out, was the representation of an action worthy of attention, and once there was an actor, there could be an imitation of the action, though the chorus still sang the story line. We know almost nothing about Thespis except his father’s name, Themon, and that he had a pupil named Phrynichus who lived well into the fifth century B.C.E. By then the great age of tragedy had arrived, dominated by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Age of Tragedy

The great age of tragedy was short. It began with Thespis, but the first surviving tragedy is Aeschylus’ Persians, performed in 472 B.C.E. It ends with the deaths of Sophocles and Euripides just before the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Other surviving plays include seven plays of Aeschylus, seven of Sophocles plus a satyr play (theTrackers), and seventeen of Euripides plus a satyr play (the Cyclops). There is also the Rhesus, the shortest Greek tragedy we have, which may be by Euripides. Other tragedians whose work is now lost include Phrynichus, Choerilus and Pratinas—all of whom wrote before Aeschylus—and the sons of Phrynichus and Pratinas who belonged to the generation of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Aeschylus’ son Euphorion also presented tragedies.

Tragedy Before Aeschylus

Aeschylus was the first playwright to add a second speaking actor, and Sophocles added a third. Prior to Aeschylus, when there was only one actor, the chorus must have played a very important role in unfolding the plot of the drama. One of Aeschylus’ tragedies, the Suppliants, conforms to this pattern. At one time, scholars believed it was produced even before the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.E., where Aeschylus fought the Persian invaders as an infantryman on the Athenian battle line, but among the great cache of papyri discovered at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt there is a small fragment which upset the early date for the Suppliants. It now seems likely that it was produced at the City Dionysia of 462 B.C.E.The late date of Suppliants shows that Aeschylus did not feel the need to follow the newest fashions on stage.

The Persians

In 480 B.C.E. the Persian Empire launched a great invasion of Greece by land and sea, led by King Xerxes himself, and it ended in utter defeat. The turning point was the Greek victory at Salamis, and the Athenians had some right to claim the victory as theirs, for though the admiral of the allied Greek fleet was a Spartan, the Athenian navy was by far the largest contingent. The Persians is an imaginary portrayal of the impact of the Persian defeat on the Persians themselves. The play is set in the Persian capital of Susa and used a chorus of Persian councilors, magnificent in their costumes. Xerxes’ mother, Atossa, reports a troubling dream and receives comfort from the chorus. A messenger arrives with news of the defeat of the Persian fleet. His description of the naval battle at Salamis was masterful and must have made Athenian hearts swell with pride. Atossa takes offerings to the tomb of Darius, the wise old king who was Xerxes’ father, and the ghost of Darius arises. He describes how the power and wealth of the Persian Empire has blinded the foolish Xerxes, and he utters prophecies of doom. Finally Xerxes comes onstage, his royal robes in tatters, and the drama ends with a lamentation sung antiphonally by Xerxes and the Chorus. This was patriotic drama of a high order, yet it does not disparage the Persians; except for Xerxes himself, all the Persian characters are dignified and noble. Yet the theme was a familiar one: man, blinded by his pride and his greatness, suffers an unexpected overthrow.

The Seven Against Thebes

The Seven Against Thebes was the last and only surviving play from a trilogy which dealt with the curse of the royal house of Thebes. The story provided Sophocles with the material for three great tragedies, the Oedipus Tyrannus, the Antigone, and the Oedipus at Colonus. According to the story, Laius, king of Thebes, is befriended in exile by Pelops, but falls in love with his benefactor’s son, Chrysippus, and kidnaps him; the deed brings a curse upon Laius and his family in which his son is destined to kill him. In the lost second play of this trilogy, Oedipus, Laius is indeed killed by his son, Oedipus. The curse extends to Oedipus’ own sons, Polynices and Eteocles, when they reach adulthood and agree to share the rule of Thebes between them, each reigning in alternate years. While Polynices rules for his year and resigns, Eteocles does not hold to the agreement, refusing to step down following his year of rule. To regain the throne, Polynices gathers an army led by seven heroes, one for each of the seven gates of Thebes, and lays siege to the city. It is at the start of this siege that Seven Against Thebes begins. The seven heroes in Polynices’ army each lead an attack on their assigned gate, which are, in turn, defended by six champions selected by Eteocles; he himself defends the gate assaulted by his brother Polynices. While the subject matter of the play is action-packed and violent, the Greek audiences did not see any of the battle, which raged offstage, while onstage the chorus sang of the fearful curse that hangs over the royal house of Thebes. A messenger informs the audience of the result of the conflict; the city has been saved but Eteocles and Polynices killed each other, which causes the chorus to sing a lamentation. The message of the play is highly fatalistic, suggesting that nothing can avert a fate that is destined to be.

The Suppliant Women

The Suppliant Women belongs to a trilogy of three tragedies which modern critics call the Danaid Trilogy for the sake of convenience. Only the first play of the trilogy, Suppliant Women survives, but we know the titles of the two plays that followed it: the Egyptians and the Danaids (the “Daughters of Danaus”). The myth on which the play is based was familiar to the Athenians: the fifty sons of Aegyptus (meaning “Egypt”) force the fifty daughters of Aegyptus’ brother Danaus (meaning “Greek”) to marry them, and the daughters flee from Egypt with their father to seek refuge in Argos, their ancestral home. At the beginning of the play, the daughters are in Argos, pleading for sanctuary (thus, they are the “suppliant women” of the title) from Pelasgos, king of Argos. At the risk of war with Egypt, Pelasgos and the Argive people agree to give them sanctuary and defy the pursuing sons of Aegyptus. The fifty daughters act as the chorus in this play, although presumably represented by twelve singers, the standard size of tragic choruses. After thwarting the Egyptians, Danaus gives his daughters some fatherly counsel: be obedient to your father’s instruction. The full weight of this advice is borne out in the last two plays of the trilogy, now lost, in which the sons of Aegyptus succeed in marrying the daughters of Danaus, and Danaus instructs his daughters to kill their husbands on their wedding nights. All of them do so except for Hypermestra, the one daughter who fell in love with her Egyptian husband Lynceus; she obeys the claims of love rather than her father. A fragment of the last play of the trilogy survives: a speech of Aphrodite, goddess of love, which praises love as the generative principle of the universe.

The Oresteia

The Oresteia is the only complete surviving trilogy of Aeschylus, consisting of the Agamemnon, the Libation Bearers, and the Eumenides. The trilogy is about a blood feud coming under the rule of law. A hero of the Trojan War, Agamemnon, had sacrificed his own daughter prior to leaving for the war in order to secure favorable winds for the journey. This act sparked a chain reaction of revenge killings when Agamemnon is slain by his wife, Clytaemnestra, and her lover upon his return from Troy and his son Orestes then kills the murderous couple. Orestes is morally polluted by his matricide and is pursued by the Furies until he stands trial in Athens before the ancient Council of the Areopagus. The Council had only recently been stripped of most of its power when the Oresteia was produced, but still served as a court for homicide cases. The Furies argue that Orestes must pay the penalty for matricide according to the law of blood feud. The gods become involved, with Athena presiding as a judge, and Apollo speaking for the defense. The jurors are evenly divided, so Athena casts the deciding vote. She rules that because the murder of a father outweighs the murder of a mother, Orestes was not in the wrong to punish his mother with death for killing his father. The decision implies the replacement of a matriarchal society by a patriarchal one, though whether or not that is the hidden meaning of this play can be endlessly debated. At any rate, the Furies are outraged, but Athena offers them a place in her city as kindly spirits, checking crime under her new dispensation. The Furies accept and become “Kindly Goddesses” under the new rule of law that replaces the law of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

Prometheus Bound

Prometheus Bound is considered to be Aeschylus’ last play. The story re-tells the myth of Prometheus, a Titan who incurs the wrath of Zeus because he secretly gave the gift of fire to mortal men whom Zeus despised and would have replaced with a more perfect race if he had had his way. For his rebellion against Zeus, Prometheus was condemned to be eternally chained to a rock and to have his liver eaten by an eagle each day. Prometheus’ immortality as a Titan assured the unending torture of his punishment since his liver would grow anew each day, only to be eaten again by the eagle. The drama ends with an earthquake—how the “special effects” department of the day accomplished it is a matter of conjecture—and Prometheus and his rock sink below ground while the chorus flees. Prometheus remains a man of principle in the face of overwhelming power. This ending cuts off the myth, but we know that the trilogy had two more plays and ended with peace between Zeus and Prometheus. The supremacy of Zeus is recognized, but so also is the right of human race to exist and live under the rule of law, free from violence.


During his long life which stretched from about 496 to about 406 B.C.E., Sophocles wrote 123 dramas, of which seven survive along with an incomplete satyr play which was discovered on a papyrus. This abbreviated catalog of his work only hints at his development as a playwright. By all accounts, he was well born, handsome, and pious, and he took an active role in public life. He introduced the convention of a third actor in tragedy productions early in his career (previous tragedies had only two actors with a chorus), and Aeschylus soon followed his lead by including three actors in his Oresteia. Sophocles also introduced scenery of some sort. The recurring theme of his tragedies is the suffering of men and women—sometimes suffering they bring on themselves by flaws in their characters, or suffering that results from being in the wrong place at the wrong time.


The Ajax, which most scholars consider to be the earliest Sophoclean tragedy, centers on the legend of Ajax’s suicide. According to Homer’s Iliad, the hero Ajax was, after Achilles, the toughest warrior in the Greek army fighting at Troy. Following the death of Achilles, there is a contest to see who is the most valuable hero in the Greek army, and thus worthy to inherit his armor. Ajax loses the competition to fellow warrior Odysseus and goes mad with disappointment. In his madness, he attacks what he believes to be the Greek camp and at the start of the play is gloating over his supposed slaughter of Odysseus and two of the Greek champions, Agamemnon and Menelaus. When he recovers his sanity he realizes that instead of the Greek camp, he has attacked a flock of sheep, and he is so overcome by shame that he commits suicide. His death was dishonorable, and thus the issue arises of what sort of burial Ajax should have. His half-brother Teucer is determined to see him honorably buried, but Menelaus and Agamemnon forbid it, for it was Ajax’s intention to slaughter them, even though he had not succeeded. The quarrel is settled when Odysseus successfully argues that grudges should be forgotten. There is a magnificent array of characters here: Ajax, completely absorbed in his own grievances; Menelaus and Agamemnon, both mean, small-minded men; and Odysseus, who allows his intelligence to override any rancor he might feel and realizes that statesmanship requires magnanimity. The Ajaxdemonstrates the worth of true statesmanship.


Antigone is a dark play with a troubling message. The attack on Thebes dramatized in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebesis over, and the two warring brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, are dead. Creon, the new king of Thebes, orders that Polynices remain unburied because he died as a traitor attacking his homeland. Polynices’ sister, Antigone, disobeys, however, and gives Polynices’ body formal interment—that is, she spreads earth on his corpse. She defies Creon in a magnificent speech, vindicating her right to place divine laws above the man-made rules of a state. Creon condemns her to be shut up alive in a vault for her disobedience, but when the seer Teiresias warns him that the city is polluted by Polynices’ unburied corpse, he reluctantly repents and goes to release Antigone. He is too late, however, as she has hanged herself. His son Haemon, who was betrothed to Antigone, kills himself, as does Creon’s queen when she discovers what has happened. Creon leaves the stage a broken man. Two stubborn persons have clashed: the one, Creon, defending a state’s right to enforce its laws, and the other, Antigone, defending the individual’s right to follow her conscience. Both follow their agendas and both suffer, though Antigone achieves a degree of martyrdom. Yet there are no clear winners in this contest of wills, and the message of the play seems to be that one person’s refusal to see another’s point of view can bring calamity on both of them.

Oedipus Tyrannus

In his Oedipus Tyrannus Sophocles returns to the myth of the curse that hung over the royal house of Thebes, but the setting is a generation before Antigone. A plague has smitten Thebes and an oracle from Delphi reveals that the cause is moral pollution: the murderer of Laius who ruled Thebes before Oedipus is still unpunished. The Athenians in the audience knew from the myth on which the play is based that the murderer is Oedipus himself, a fact of which he is ignorant because he did not realize that the man he had killed, Laius, was his father. He compounded his crime by marrying Laius’ widow, Jocasta, not knowing she was his own mother. In his ignorance, Oedipus calls on everyone to tell him what information they have about the crime and lays a curse on the killer and anyone who shelters him. He sends for the blind seer Teiresias for insight. Teiresias is at first unwilling to say what he knows, but Oedipus’ badgering makes him angry and he tells Oedipus plainly enough that he is his father’s murderer and his mother’s husband. Oedipus does not believe him. He suspects that Teiresias is a tool of Creon, his wife’s brother, who wants to depose him. Jocasta assures Oedipus that he need not fear oracles, citing as proof of their unreliability the fact that an oracle had warned Laius, her former husband, that his son would kill him. She, like Oedipus, bases her confidence on ignorance, for she believes that Laius was killed by robbers while on a journey. Jocasta’s effort to reassure him has the opposite effect, for Oedipus had been told by the same Delphic oracle that he was fated to kill his father and marry his mother, and he now suspects the truth. This is what was called peripeteia—a thrust in one direction which results in the opposite of what was expected. Then Oedipus learns that the man he had presumed to be his father, Polybus of Corinth, has died—and not by Oedipus’ hand; Oedipus is relieved, believing the oracle to be wrong. The truth is then revealed that Polybus was not actually his father, and that spurs Oedipus to discover the whole truth. His wife/mother Jocasta is actually the first to realize the awful truth and in horror, hangs herself. When Oedipus understands the horrible truth himself and sees Jocasta’s lifeless body, he gouges out his eyes to shut out the light. The Oedipus Tyrannus is the most famous Greek tragedy for two reasons. First there is its structure: the action is compressed, one scene follows logically upon the scene that comes before it, and Sophocles’ use of dramatic irony, for which he was famous, heightens the tension until we reach the final resolution. But the second reason for its fame is the multiple messages it projects. It appears to be a drama of fate; Oedipus is doomed to kill his father and marry his mother and though he takes steps to avoid his destiny, he cannot. But on the other hand it is Oedipus’ determination to investigate Laius’ death and discover the cause of the plague which leads to the revelation of the awful truth, so he is inadvertently responsible for his own downfall. Finally this is a play that has attracted psychologists. Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology argued that it expressed a young male’s subconscious desire to kill his father and take over as his mother’s mate—a primitive longing that is suppressed because it is taboo in civilized society. Freud labelled this suppressed lust the “Oedipus Complex,” although this psychological angle had probably not occurred to Sophocles when he wrote the play. Central to his drama is the horror with which Greeks regarded patricide and incest.

Three Later Tragedies

The three tragedies titled the Electra, the Women of Trachis, and the Philoctetes do not build the same tension as Sophocles’ masterpiece, but they are good pieces of theater. The Electra uses the same myth as Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers but the general tenor is vastly different. Whereas Aeschylus’ version shows Orestes’ murder of his mother as a terrible crime in that he is pursued by the Furies, in the Electra, Orestes’ matricide of Clytaemnestra is just recompense for her crime of murdering Agamemnon. The title character is Orestes’ sister, and she lives a life consumed by thirst for revenge for she is devoted to her father’s memory, and lives in hope that her brother Orestes will come home and kill Clytaemnestra and her lover. But Sophocles presents no great issues as Aeschylus did in his handling of the same myth. Sophocles’ characters are ordinary people caught in an extraordinary situation. The Women of Trachis dramatizes the myth of Heracles’ death. Heracles has captured the city of Oechalia, and his servant Lichas brings the captives from Oechalia to Heracles’ home in Trachis, including Iole whose beauty is conspicuous. Heracles’ wife, Deianeira, is a good woman by the standards of the day, but when Lichas blurts out that Iole is Heracles’ new wife she believes that she is losing her husband’s love. She sends Heracles a garment anointed with a love potion, not realizing that the love potion is poisonous. Heracles puts on the garment, and it burns into his flesh. Deianeira’s son Hyllus curses her for having caused his father’s death, and Deianeira hangs herself. Heracles is brought onstage, asleep, but soon awakes in horrible pain. He learns the truth about Deianeira from Hyllus and gives orders for his funeral pyre on Mt. Oeta. The Philoctetes centers on the conflict between two characters, Neoptolemus, the young, honorable son of Achilles, and the older and craftier Odysseus. The hero Philoctetes, who possesses the bow of Heracles, had been abandoned on a desert island by the Greek army on its way to Troy because he suffered from an incurable ulcer, caused by a snakebite. The Greeks learn, however, that they cannot take Troy unless they possess the bow of Heracles, which Philoctetes owns. Neoptolemus and Odysseus travel to Philoctetes’ island, and Neoptolemus reluctantly agrees to go along with a trick that Odysseus proposes to get the bow from Philoctetes and then abandon him again. But once Neoptolemus gets the bow, Philoctetes’ despair moves him so greatly that he returns it over Odysseus’ protests. The play concludes with an epiphany of Heracles who commands Philoctetes to sail to Troy where Asclepius will heal him. The ending is unusual for Sophocles for it involves a deus ex machina, that is, a god—in this case, Heracles—lowered in a basket on to the stage by a rope attached to a derrick crane to set matters right. Thus the resolution of the drama does not develop from the plot, but rather is brought about by divine intervention.

The Oedipus at Colonus

The last and longest surviving play of Sophocles is about Oedipus’ death and apotheosis—that is, his acceptance among the gods. It also is a play that requires four actors; Sophocles, who introduced the innovation of using three speaking actors early in his career, expands it here to include a fourth. Oedipus—now old, blind, and destitute, and cared for in his exile by his daughter, Antigone—reaches Colonus just outside Athens, Sophocles’ own home village. He recognizes the precinct of the Venerable Goddesses there as the place where he is destined to die. His daughter Ismene arrives and tells him that his son Polynices is about to attack Thebes, and Creon wants Oedipus back, for he has been told that his presence in Thebes will save the city. Theseus, king of Athens, accepts Oedipus as an inhabitant of Athens. Creon arrives and tries to persuade Oedipus to come and live just outside the borders of Thebes and when Oedipus refuses, his attendants attempt to drag off Antigone and Ismene, only to be thwarted by Theseus. Then Polynices arrives and pleads for Oedipus’ help. Oedipus listens to what he has to say, and replies with a solemn curse. A thunderclap warns Oedipus that his time is near. He sends for Theseus again and together they go offstage. A messenger arrives to report that Oedipus has vanished. Only Theseus knows what has happened and his knowledge is the preserve of the kings of Athens. This play was probably written only shortly before Sophocles’ own death in 406 B.C.E.


For Euripides, the last of the triad of great classical tragedians, what was important in drama was character. He probed the deeper feelings of his heroes and heroines. Not for him were the great questions of fate, and the nature of justice. Instead he placed the persona of a hero or heroine under stress to explore how they would react. The fact that he often used heroines may have been the reason for his reputation as a woman-hater among contemporaries. In his greatest play, Medea, produced in 431 B.C.E., the first year of the Peloponnesian War, he shows a woman terribly wronged by her husband getting revenge. The myth was well known: the hero Jason had sailed to Colchis on a quest for the Golden Fleece, and got it only with the help of the Colchian princess, Medea, whom he takes with him to Greece. When the play opens, Jason and Medea have settled in Corinth. Jason has become a comfortable member of Corinthian society and his foreign wife, Medea, has become an embarrassment, especially now that Jason has an opportunity to marry the king’s daughter. Jason, the complete egocentric, reasons with Medea that it is better for all concerned that he should discard her and make this advantageous marriage. Medea sees things differently. She destroys the king’s daughter and the king along with her, then kills her children and departs in a fiery chariot sent by her grandfather, the Sun-God. The drama ends with supernatural intervention: the sort of conclusion that Euripides liked and for which he was criticized.

The Alcestis

Eighteen dramas of Euripides survive, including one satyr play, the Cyclops, and one drama, the Alcestis, produced in 438 B.C.E. and which took the place of a satyr play as the fourth drama of a tetralogy. It is not a tragedy. Instead it points forward to the New Comedy which Menander wrote a century later when Euripides was the tragedian whose dramas were revived most frequently. The story of the Alcestis is a folktale with the following pattern: a man learns that he must die at a certain time unless someone else will die in his stead. In Euripides’ play, Admetus, king of Pherae in Thessaly, who possesses all the conventional virtues, is the man who learns his doom, and tries to find someone to assume it. His parents refuse because they want to have the last years of their lives for themselves. His wife Alcestis, however, agrees to die in his place. Admetus accepts his wife’s sacrifice, realizing after he has done so that he has been less than gallant. He is prepared to live on, however, forgetting all the virtuous resolutions he has made to salve his conscience. Alcestis is rescued from death by the hero Heracles, who wrestles with Thanatos, the god of death, to bring her back to life. The characters are brilliantly drawn, particularly Heracles, who is depicted as having a gargantuan appetite for food and drink. The later development of Heracles’ character as a roisterer owes much to Euripides. The play ends happily, though a modern reader may think that Admetus will have some explaining to do when he next talks to his wife.

The Cruelty of Passion

The Hippolytus, produced in 428 B.C.E., shows a woman stressed by passion and a man obsessed by virtue. Phaedra, the young wife of Theseus, falls desperately in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, whose love is the outdoor life and is not interested in sex. Phaedra’s nurse offers to act as her go-between and proposition Hippolytus. Hippolytus reacts with disgust, and Phaedra, overcome with shame, kills herself, leaving a note for Theseus that accused Hippolytus of improper advances. Furiously jealous, Theseus invokes his father Poseidon to punish his son, and Poseidon sends a sea-monster that terrifies the horses of Hippolytus’ chariot so that they bolt. Hippolytus is thrown from the chariot and mortally wounded. Theseus learns the truth of his son’s innocence, and the two are reconciled just before Hippolytus dies. Phaedra is destroyed by her longing for sexual love, whereas what destroys Hippolytus is his obsession for chastity. The Hecuba, produced three years later than the Hippolytus, shows another woman under stress, this time because of the catastrophe of defeat. Troy has fallen, Hecuba, the wife of Troy’s king, has been enslaved, and has seen her daughter Polyxena sacrificed to the ghost of Achilles. Now she learns of the murder of her last son, Polydorus, who had been entrusted to Priam’s ally, the Thracian king Polymestor, to keep safe. Once Polymestor learns of Troy’s fall, he kills Polydoros and casts his body into the sea. Calamity transforms Hecuba from a fallen queen into a bereaved mother thirsting for revenge. She makes a desperate appeal to the victor Agamemnon, and, having won his cooperation, she entices Polymestor into her tent, where she and her women kill his two sons before his eyes and blind him. The play ends with Polymestor relegated to a desert island, and the old queen departing to bury her dead.

War Propaganda

The popularity of the Athenian theater stretched beyond Athens itself, even in the midst of the bitter Peloponnesian War, which divided Greece into two warring camps, each eager to justify itself. Many of Euripides’ plays that were written during the war had a message for the two combatants, and Sparta and Delphi (a Spartan ally) tend to come off badly. It is stretching the truth to call these plays war propaganda, for Athens did not purposely mobilize her tragic poets to produce plays favorable to her aims. Nevertheless the Andromache does seem to have been inspired by some Spartan atrocity that took place in the early years of the war, and an ancient commentator in Euripides reports that it was not produced in Athens. The question of where, then, the play was produced allows for two possibilities: one was Sparta’s neighbor Argos, where Athens wanted to stir up anti-Spartan feeling; the other was the kingdom of Epirus in northwest Greece where there was a young king who had been educated in Athens. The plot deals with the aftermath of the Trojan War. When the spoils of Troy were divided, Hector’s captive wife Andromache went to Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, also called Pyrrhus, whom the kings of Epirus claimed as their ancestor, and she goes home with him and bears him a son. When the play opens, the daughter of Menelaus and Helen, Hermione, has married Neoptolemus, and Andromache is no longer welcome in Neoptolemus’ household. Menelaus, who is presented as a typical Spartan—cruel, faithless, and a blusterer into the bargain—wants to kill Andromache and her child in cold blood while Neoptolemus is absent in Delphi. She is saved by the intervention of Neoptolemus’ aged grandfather, Peleus. Then crushing news arrives; Neoptolemus has been ambushed at Delphi and killed by a gang of armed men who acted under the orders of Orestes, another Spartan. The Delphians, whose partiality for Sparta in the Peloponnesian War was no secret, are shown as a treacherous lot in the Andromache. The Children of Heracles is even more clearly anti-Spartan. The Dorians claimed to be Heraclids—that is, descendants of Heracles—and the Spartans were quintessentially Dorian. Heracles’ children and his mother, Alcmena, take refuge from his old enemy Eurystheus at Marathon in Athenian territory. Eurystheus is captured and the vengeful Alcmena insists that he be put to death. Before he dies, he promises the Athenians that if they give him honorable burial, he will be their friend when the ungrateful descendants of the Heraclids—that is, the Dorians—invade, a clear reference to the Peloponnesian War when the Spartans led an invading army into Attica to destroy the crops in the early years of the war. The Suppliants, which is equally anti-Spartan, ends with an oath of Adrastus of Argos never to invade Athenian territory and to hinder any enemies who did. In 420 B.C.E., Athens and Argos negotiated an alliance, and the oath of Adrastus sounds like a reference to it. However, a few years later, in 415 B.C.E., when Euripides’ Trojan Women was presented in March at the City Dionysia, on the eve of the departure of the disastrous Sicilian expedition, it is the brutality of war that weighed on Euripides. Only the year before, an Athenian force had taken the little island of Melos in the Aegean Sea and massacred the men and sold the women and children into slavery. The Trojan Women portrays the misery of the women captured when Troy fell, but Euripides takes one liberty with traditional mythology: he has Hecuba indict Helen so eloquently as a war criminal that Menelaus decides to execute her when he gets home to Sparta, even though the long war at Troy had been fought to return her to him, her rightful husband.

The Heracles

In the Renaissance this play was called the Hercules Furens (“The Madness of Heracles”). In the play, Lycus has made himself tyrant of Thebes and is about to kill Heracles’ wife, Megara, and his children. Heracles arrives in the nick of time to save his family and kill Lycus. Then his enemy, the goddess Hera, inflicts Heracles with madness, and he kills his wife and children. When the fit of madness leaves him, he falls asleep, only to awaken to the news of what he has done. But Theseus, whom Heracles had rescued from Hades, comforts his friend and offers him asylum in Athens. There is no reliable date for this play, but 414 B.C.E., when the Athenians still had high hopes of their Sicilian expedition, is a good possibility.

Happy Endings

Euripides did not always end his plays in tragedy. Iphigeneia in Tauris, the Ion, and Helen all have happy endings. The first exploits the myth of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigeneia, whom Agamemnon sacrificed to the gods so that they would grant favorable winds for the Greek fleet to sail from Aulis against Troy. An alternative version of the myth had the goddess Artemis rescuing Iphigeneia at the last moment and carrying her to Tauris to be her priestess there. While in Tauris, she recognizes her brother, Orestes, and his friend, who are captives of the Taurians. She plots to save them from the Taurians, and does so with the goddess Athena’s aid. The second non-tragedy, the Ion, has a plot of the sort we find in the New Comedy in which a child conceived by rape is exposed to die only to be saved and reunited years later with the parents. In this play, Ion is the child of a rape perpetrated by the god Apollo on the wronged heroine, Creusa, the daughter of King Erechtheus of Athens. Fearing the wrath of her parents, Creusa secretly exposes Ion to the elements and leaves him to die, but Apollo takes the infant to his temple at Delphi, where he becomes a pious temple servant knowing little of the wicked outside world. When the play begins, Creusa and her husband Xuthus arrive at Delphi to consult the oracle regarding their inability to conceive a child, and their arrival at the temple in which Ion serves threatens to expose the truth about Ion’s parentage. The oracle—to save Apollo’s reputation—tries to foist Ion off on Xuthus, and Creusa, fearful for her own future with an unwanted stepson in her house (not realizing he is her actual son), tries to kill Ion. The plot is discovered and Ion and the Delphians are about the stone Creusa to death, when the aged priestess of Apollo who has reared Ion arrives with the cradle and clothes that he wore when she first received him, and Creusa recognizes them as belonging to her abandoned son. Everything is resolved with some help from Athena, who explains that she has come in Apollo’s place because Apollo is too ashamed to own up to the rape of Creusa. Apollo is portrayed as an ordinary politician who has been caught in a sex scandal and tries what in modern times would be termed a “coverup.” The message is that organized religion can claim no special privileges when it comes to moral standards. The Helen exploits an alternative myth about Helen of Troy that was invented by the Sicilian poet Stesichorus. Paris did not take Helen to Troy. Instead his ship was driven by contrary winds to Egypt where Helen remained and only an ectoplasmic facsimile of Helen went to Troy. On the way back home from the war at Troy, Menelaus is wrecked on the shores of Egypt and is amazed to find Helen living there. The facsimile that he took from Troy simply evaporates. This fantastic drama ends with Menelaus and Helen escaping from Egypt, where the king had the unpleasant custom of killing all Greeks who reached his shore. There is nothing tragic about the Helen. The myth that it relates is simply a nice story with comic elements.

Four Melodramas

With the Electra, produced about 413 B.C.E., and the Orestes (408 B.C.E.) Euripides turned to the familiar theme of vengeance for Agamemnon’s murder. In the Electra, neither Electra nor Orestes are quite sane. Euripides’ addition to the legend is Electra’s marriage to a decent farmer; her mother Clytaemnestra has given her to a man of low standing to prevent her bearing children of a status high enough to embarrass the royal house of Mycenae. Despite her marriage, Electra remains a virgin. Electra and her brother Orestes plot the assassination of Clytaemnestra for killing their father, Agamemnon, and carry out the deed ruthlessly. Their mood then changes to hysterical remorse. But Castor and Polydeuces, brothers of Clytaemnestra and now divine beings themselves, appear and sort things out: Orestes is to go to Athens, his friend Pylades is to marry Electra, and as for the matricide, it can be blamed on Apollo. In the Orestes we have an array of unpleasant characters: Orestes, who is mad; Electra, whose only redeeming quality is her devotion to her brother; Menelaus; Helen; her daughter Hermione; old Tyndareus, who is Helen’s father; and faithful Pylades. Electra and Orestes are condemned to death for killing Clytaemnestra but are granted the privilege of committing suicide instead. Thereupon they plot to kill Helen, who mysteriously disappears, and so they seize Hermione as a hostage to force Menelaus to intervene. Menelaus finds Orestes with a knife at Hermione’s throat while Electra and Pylades set fire to the palace. Apollo intervenes and explains that everything has happened for the best. The Phoenician Women is a long play about the sons of Oedipus who died fighting each other at Thebes. Jocasta—who is still alive in spite of her suicide at the end of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus—tries to stop the duel between Polynices and Eteocles but reaches them too late and kills herself over their corpses. Iphigeneia at Aulis was a play that Euripides never finished but someone supplied the missing parts and it was produced after his death. It tells the story of Iphigeneia’s sacrifice and the text stops with a messenger arriving to report it. The characterization is splendid. Agamemnon is irresolute, and terribly distressed at the thought of sacrificing Iphigeneia to get favorable winds to sail to Troy, but his army is mad for battle. For Menelaus, what is important is getting on with the war. Clytaemnestra has brought Iphigeneia to Aulis because Agamemnon sent her a deceitful message that he wanted to marry her to Achilles. Achilles comes out of the plot as an honorable warrior. Angry at having his name misused, he is prepared to defend Iphigeneia. But then Iphigeneia herself volunteers to die as her patriotic duty, and Achilles departs, promising to defend her if she changes her mind.

The Bacchae

Either in 408 B.C.E. or early the following year, Euripides left Athens for the court of King Archelaus of Macedon and it was there that he produced the Bacchae, his last drama, and it is generally acknowledged as a masterpiece. The story comes from a legend of Thebes telling how Pentheus, the grandson of Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, resisted the coming of the god Dionysus (also known as Bacchus) and suffered for it. Dionysus himself explains the situation in the prologue to the play: he has returned to the city where he was born and his mother’s sisters, including Pentheus’ mother Agave, hesitated at first, but then were overcome by Bacchic frenzy and are now on Mt. Cithaeron, where he is on his way to join them. Then two old men, Cadmus and Teiresias, come on stage. They too are going to join Dionysus’ votaries, and Pentheus fails to stop them. Then a servant arrives with a mysterious prisoner who is never identified, but when Pentheus shuts him up in the palace stables, the palaces collapses as if hit by an earthquake and the stranger emerges and faces Pentheus’ threats with serene confidence. A messenger arrives with a report of the astonishing revelry of the women on the mountain, and the stranger persuades Pentheus to disguise himself and go and witness it. Soon after Pentheus leaves the stage, the news arrives that the women have caught him and torn him to pieces. Then Agave arrives, still under the spell of her frenzy and carrying what she thinks is a lion’s head. It is actually the head of Pentheus. Cadmus brings her to her senses and she breaks into lamentations that Dionysus cuts short by reappearing and justifying his vengeance on unbelievers; much of his speech has been lost. The play has raised many questions. Did Euripides attack the religion of Dionysus or defend it? Who was the mysterious stranger whom Pentheus tried to imprison? One thing at least is certain: Euripides, whose attitude toward conventional religion was often marked with cynicism, here acknowledges its terrifying power. Pentheus’ mother, Agave, who loses herself in the wild ecstasy of the Dionysiac cult becomes a tragic figure—a mother who has killed a son she loves. Dionysus himself does not hesitate to be ruthless if ruthlessness helps the spread of his religion. The message seems to be that mass religion is a force to be reckoned with.

The Art of Public Speaking In Greece


Greece admired a good public speaker who could put forward his point of view effectively in an assembly of men, or conduct a case in the law courts. Tradition has it that public speaking as an art was cultivated first in Syracuse in Sicily in the years before the middle of the fifth century B.C.E. Syracuse had been ruled by tyrants and a great deal of litigation followed their overthrow, necessitating the oratorical skills of numerous people in court. The art reportedly first came as an import from Sicily into Athens in 527 B.C.E. While he was in Athens on a diplomatic visit, the rhetorical skills of Gorgias of Sicily captivated the Athenians. Gorgias went on to become a famous Sophist—that is, a teacher who taught the skills necessary for public speaking—and he was known for the high tuition fees he charged. Athenians were willing to pay the fees, however, because public speaking was a valuable skill in Athens, not only for a politician addressing the assembly, but in the courts as well, for neither the plaintiffs nor the defendants in trials could hire lawyers to speak for them. The best they could do was to hire a speechwriter, or a “logographer,” as they were called. Speechwriting thus became a profitable profession—one that was particularly attractive for orators such as Lysias who were resident aliens in Athens and therefore could not themselves speak in the courts or the assembly. The pioneer speechwriter was the Sophist Antiphon, (c. 480-411 B.C.E.). Antiphon first gave advice to citizens who were entangled in litigation, but about 430B.C.E. he began to write speeches for others to memorize and deliver. He spoke only once for himself. He was tried for treason in 411 B.C.E. and wrote out a speech in his own defense. His speech failed—Antiphon was executed—but he set a trend. After him orators would write down and publish speeches they delivered themselves in the courts or, more rarely, in the assembly. Oratory was in full flower by the time Aristotle wrote a treatise on rhetoric, which he divided into three types: forensic, for the courts; deliberative, for delivering in the assembly; and epideictic, for a special occasion such as a funeral.

The Ten Orators

In the great age of oratory from about 420 to 320 B.C.E., Athens saw or heard many orators and logographers, but only ten of these were selected for study by ancient scholars. Sometimes speeches by unknown orators have been preserved because it was thought—wrongly—that they were written by one of the Ten. Of the sixty speeches ascribed to the great orator Demosthenes, only about half of them are genuine. The Ten Orators were Antiphon and Andocides, whose careers belonged to the fifth century B.C.E.; Demosthenes and his rival Aeschines; Dinarchus and Lysias, both of them resident aliens in Athens; Isaeus whose forte seems to have been probate law for all eleven of his surviving speeches deal with inheritance; Lycurgus, better known as an Athenian statesman, who is represented by only one speech; Hyperides, who like Demosthenes opposed Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great for which the Macedonians sentenced both him and Demosthenes to death in 322 B.C.E.; and Isocrates, who might have been unhappy to find himself included among the Ten Orators, for he considered himself a philosopher and an educator rather than a public speaker. Two of these stand out, both for their ability and reputation, and the number of their speeches that have survived.


The end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 B.C.E. was followed by political turmoil and Isocrates was apparently on the wrong side since he lost the family estate. Isocrates first tried logography as a way to make a living, but then turned to teaching, first on the island of Chios, and then, from not long before 387 B.C.E. until his death in 338 B.C.E. at the age of 98 in Athens, where students flocked to his school from all over the Greek world. His alumni included two important historians of the fourth century B.C.E., Ephorus and Theopompus. Greece in Isocrates’ day was divided into warring camps; not only did the old powers of Athens, Sparta, and Thebes vie for hegemony, but there were new rising powers such as Thessaly and Macedon. Isocrates was not a public orator. His orations are really political pamphlets, but they reveal a consistent political aim. Isocrates advocated an alliance, or perhaps a federation of the states which would turn Greek energies from fighting each other within Greece to combating the Persian Empire, which had recovered control of the Greek cities in Asia Minor at the end of the Peloponnesian War. In his Panegyricus, dating to 380 B.C.E., he advocated an alliance headed by the old enemies, Sparta and Athens, which would liberate the Asian Greek cities. In 346 B.C.E. Isocrates, now aged ninety, addressed an open letter to Philip of Macedon urging him to head a pan-Hellenic alliance which would attack Persia. In 339 B.C.E., he published his last long work, the Panathenaicus, an elaborate eulogy of Athens. Though he never mentions Philip by name, it seems clear that he still saw Philip as the champion of Greece. The following year, Philip defeated Athens and Thebes on the battlefield of Chaeronea, and Isocrates’ last work is an epistle to Philip written after the battle, still urging a campaign against Persia.


Demosthenes is notable for two reasons. First, as an Athenian statesman he passionately opposed the imperialist ambitions of Philip II of Macedon, whose son, Alexander the Great, would continue his father’s policies and transform the world of Greece with the conquest of Persia. For that reason, some historians have hailed Demosthenes as the courageous defender of Athenian freedom and democracy, while others have condemned him as a dead-end politician mired in the past. Second, he brought the art of oratory to new heights—a conclusion few would dispute. His masterpiece was his speech On the Crown in defense of Ctesiphon, one of his supporters who was charged with illegally proposing to honor Demosthenes. The combined armies of Athens and Thebes had been defeated in 338 B.C.E. at the Battle of Chaeronea, and it was the anti-Macedonian policies which Demosthenes urged upon the Athenians that led to the disaster. Yet two years after the defeat, Ctesiphon, one of Demosthenes’ supporters put forward a motion in the assembly that Demosthenes be awarded a golden crown for his services at the upcoming festival of Dionysus. The time and place for the award violated the law, and Demosthenes’ rival and bitter enemy Aeschines charged Ctesiphon for the proposal, as a way to attack his real enemy, Demosthenes. The case did not come to trial until 330 B.C.E. Demosthenes rose to address the jury after the jury had been listening all forenoon to Aeschines’ argument that this extraordinary honor which Ctesiphon had proposed for Demosthenes could not be justified by a great service he had done the state, for the anti-Macedonian policy which he had promoted had ended in disaster. In a brilliant piece of sophistry, Demosthenes disregarded the legal questions and focused on slandering his accuser. He regaled the jury with a malicious caricature of Aeschines’ parents, who were very ordinary folk, and finally he attacked Aeschines himself, suggesting that it was Aeschines who was really responsible for the disaster at the Battle of Chaeronea, which was a perversion of the truth. He ended with a prayer to the gods to keep the state safe. The speech is a brilliant example of making the worse argument appear the better. Demosthenes died following an anti-Macedonian uprising in Greece in 323 B.C.E. The tough old Macedonian general Antipater crushed the revolt in Athens, and Demosthenes tried to escape retribution by fleeing to the island of Calauria. He sought asylum in a temple, but he took poison when it was clear that Antipater’s men intended to drag him from his sanctuary.

Greek Literature after Alexander the Great

A Changed World

When Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 B.C.E. he left the Greek world irrevocably changed. The centers of Greek culture moved away from the old city-states of Greece to the capitals of the new Hellenistic kingdoms that were centers of wealth and power. Athens held its own in the field of culture, but it was an exception. Egypt emerged as a magnet for the Greeks. On Alexander’s death, one of his shrewder generals, Ptolemy, secured Egypt as his province and established himself at Alexandria. Alexander’s young son was killed in 310 B.C.E., and in 305 B.C.E., after there was no longer any pretense of unity in the empire Alexander had conquered, Ptolemy declared himself king. Ptolemy wanted to make Alexandria a hub of Greek culture, for the Greeks lived side-by-side with native Egyptians who had an ancient culture of their own, and there was remarkably little cross-fertilization. At some point before he died, Ptolemy started the Great Library of Alexandria, and his son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who ruled 285-247 B.C.E., continued the work. The kingdom of Pergamum, which was founded in Asia Minor in 263 B.C.E., also established a library, and Alexandria did not look kindly on this rival; the Ptolemies cut off Pergamum’s supplies of papyrus but Pergamum developed parchment as a substitute. Alexandria never surrendered its supremacy to the Pergamene library, which was neglected after Rome acquired Pergamum in 133 B.C.E., and terminated when Mark Antony gave its collection to Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemies, for the Alexandrian library in the period 40-33 B.C.E. The dynastic capitals of Antioch in Syria and Pella in Macedon also boasted substantial libraries.

The Alexandrians

Alexandria took the lead in literary development. It fostered a hothouse culture with no roots in the native Egyptian way of life. The literature produced there was not intended for the masses, for the masses did not speak Greek. There was some attempt at crossover between Greek and Egyptian traditions; an Egyptian priest, Manetho, in the reign of Ptolemy I wrote a history of Egypt in Greek, using Egyptian records, but it was not widely read. Alexandrian poetry was written for an elite Greek-speaking public, and it was meant to be read, not performed. Much learning was prized, and didactic poetry—that is, poetry written to instruct—was in vogue. One poet, Aratus of Soloi, enjoyed tremendous acclaim for writing a book on astronomy in verse. His information is all second-hand, for he was not an astronomer himself, and his work has little appeal for a modern reader. Another didactic poet of the same sort was Nicander of Colophon, who wrote a poetic work on venomous reptiles and insects, and another on poisons and their antidotes. Poets liked learned and obscure references. A good example is Lycophron, who belonged to the Pleias, a group of seven poets named after the Pleides constellation. Although none of the tragic dramas written by the Pleias survived, one poem by Lycophron, theAlexandra, did. It purports to be a long prophecy of Priam of Troy’s daughter Alexandra, better known as Cassandra, who was fated to foresee the future and be disbelieved when she foretold it. Lycophron’s Greek is peppered with words that are found nowhere else in surviving Greek literature.

Greek Poetic Influence

Alexandria produced three poets who influenced Latin literature: Callimachus, Apollonius of Rhodes, and Theocritus. Callimachus was a librarian at the Alexandrian library and wrote a catalogue of books for it. He wrote a variety of poetry, including six surviving hymns written in iambics in imitation of Hipponax of Colophon, who lived in the mid-sixth century B.C.E.He also wrote a poem titled the “Aitiai” (Origins), which sets forth the origins of a series of local customs, and a short narrative poem titled the “Hekale” which modern scholars have called an “epyllion” or “little epic”; the word is not found in antiquity. Callimachus believed that the long narrative poem was dead. There was no place for long epic poems anymore in the Hellenistic world. Apollonius was the second chief librarian at Alexandria, after Zenodotus, who was the first; if that information is accurate, it must have exacerbated his rivalry with Callimachus who seems to have been passed over for promotion in favor of a man who was about five years younger. Apollonius set out to prove Callimachus’ stricture on epic poetry wrong, and wrote an epic in four books, the Argonautica, on the quest of Jason and the Argonauts for the Golden Fleece. It is not entirely successful. Jason is less than heroic. Medea, the princess of Colchis who helps Jason obtain the Golden Fleece, is the prototype of the romantic heroine who meets challenges that daunt men. She was to have many descendants in literature, including Dido in Vergil’s Aeneid, and Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Theocritus has two claims to fame as a poet. First, he revived the mime as a poetic form. These were short dramatic dialogues on subjects taken from everyday life. The genre originated in Syracuse, which was Theocritus’ hometown. Second, he was the inventor of pastoral poetry that purports to be poetry of the countryside—songs sung by shepherds as they watched their flocks. He wrote first in Syracuse, but he got little encouragement or patronage from the tyrant of Syracuse, Hiero II, and he moved to the island of Cos and then to Alexandria, which proved more profitable. His Idylls were short mimes that gave a snapshot of contemporary life. They are sometimes shepherds or herdsmen who converse or dispute—hence the name “pastoral” from the Latin word pastorfor “shepherd”—or a girl who tries to recall her lover with a love charm, or two housewives of Alexandria who visit the royal palace that has been opened to the public for the festival of Adonis. He was to have a host of imitators both in ancient and modern times.

Greek Literature under the Roman Empire

Greek authors continued to write after the Roman Empire conquered the eastern Mediterranean, though the Hellenistic kings who had patronized them no longer existed. The historian and geographer Strabo, of partly Asian descent, born about 63 B.C.E., wrote a work called Historical Sketches which is lost, and Geography which has survived. It describes the known world starting in the west with Gaul and Britain, moving eastwards until it reaches the Orient and India, and concluding with Africa. In historical writing, the Hellenistic age produced one historian of first rank, Polybius of Megalopolis, who was taken to Rome as a hostage in 167 B.C.E. He used his enforced stay to study Rome’s language, customs, and history. He wrote a Universal History in forty books on the period 220-144 B.C.E. The first five books have survived complete, dealing with the Second Carthaginian War, when Rome encountered a general of genius, Hannibal. Of the remainder of Polybius’ history we have only fragments. In the next century, another Greek, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, came to Rome about 30 B.C.E., taught rhetoric there some 22 years, and wrote a history of Rome called the Roman Antiquities. As might be expected, his history is rhetorical and not a great deal of use as a reliable source for Rome’s past. In the reign of the emperor Augustus, another Greek, Diodorus of Sicily, attempted a universal history, beginning with the Trojan War and bringing his world history to 59 B.C.E. The writer who enjoyed the greatest fame in the modern world is Plutarch of Chaeronaea, born about 46 C.E. and living on until 120 C.E. He wrote a large number of essays collected under the general title, the Moralia, but his claim to fame is his Parallel Lives, which placed biographies of famous Greeks side-by-side with that of famous Romans. Plutarch had many admirers in the modern period. Among writers who have mined him for raw material was William Shakespeare, who used him for Julius Caesar,Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus.

Roman Theater


The Roman historian Livy, writing of the years 364-363 B.C.E., related that there was plague in Rome. Since neither human remedies nor prayers to the gods abated the plague, the Romans introduced musical shows in the hopes of entertaining them. Etruscan dancers were brought in who danced to a piper’s tune. Rome already had a comic tradition; at the harvest home festival or other occasions such as weddings “Fescennine songs” were sung: rough abusive verses chanted antiphonally in improvised repartee. On occasion they were composed in the native Latin meter known as “Saturnian”; the Saturnian line consisted of a group of seven syllables, followed by a group of six syllables with a break between them. No one thought crude jokes to be incompatible with solemn ceremonies; even a victorious general celebrating a triumph might hear his soldiers chant Fescennine verses as his procession made its way through the streets of Rome to the temple of Jupiter. One example chanted by Julius Caesar’s soldiers chanted about their revered leader as he proceeded through the streets is translated as “City dwellers, lock up your wives / we’re bringing in the bald lecher.” Livy reports that the young Romans who saw the Etruscan dancers in the plague year began to imitate them and add improvised, bawdy repartee like Fescennine verses known as satura, or “medleys.” There was much suggestive joking and mockery, but no plot worth mention. Fescennine verses were not the only influence, however. The Samnites in Campania between Rome and Naples, who spoke an Italic dialect called Oscan and hence are often known as Oscans, had a taste for slapstick farce with stock characters. When these were introduced into Rome they were called Atellanae after a town in Campania called Atella with which the Romans connected them. Like Punch and Judy shows, the characters were fixed by tradition. There was a clown named Maccus, a simple fellow named Pappus, a fat boy named Bucco, and the hunch-back Dossenus. With their buffoonery and their exaggerated masks, they enjoyed a mass appeal that Latin adaptations of Greek plays never had.

Greek Influence

The actual staging of dramatic productions in Rome of the sort popular in Greece began with Livius Andronicus, whose translation of Homer’s Odyssey into Latin marks the beginning of Latin literature. He began to produce plays with plots. He produced a play translated from the Greek at the Roman Harvest Festival called the Ludi Romani in 240 B.C.E.which was a milestone in Roman theater for it seems to have been the first time a play was staged in Rome. He wrote more tragedy than comedy, and though he was no great literary figure, he was a pioneer as Rome’s first playwright. Naevius, who came after him, was more at home with comedy than tragedy—not that he wrote original plays, for all his comedies were taken from the Greek New Comedy. He did invent a new type of play which was not borrowed from Greece: the historical drama, or, in Latin, the fabula praetexta. The name came from the toga with a purple border called thetoga praetexta worn by Roman magistrates, because the dramas dealt with figures of the Roman past. After Naevius, historical drama had a very modest success. Some plays dealt with the early history of Rome—Ennius wrote a Rape of the Sabine Women—and others with the victories of generals who were still alive or only recently dead. Ennius had a nephew, Pacuvius, born in 220 B.C.E., who arrived in Rome as a young man and made a name for himself both as a poet and a painter. His forte was tragedy on Greek subjects—fabulae cothurnatae, so-called from the special elevated boots called cothurni which tragic actors wore. We know the titles of thirty tragedies that he wrote, but none survive. The same fate awaited the plays of a more significant tragedian, Accius, who overlapped Pacuvius in 130 B.C.E. when each of them produced a drama: Pacuvius was eighty years old and at the end of his career, and Accius, aged thirty, was making his debut. With Accius, the popularity of the fabula cothurnata reached its height, and in later years, Romans looked back on the second half of the second century B.C.E. as the Golden Age of Tragedy. Only fragments of the plays survive, however.

Roman Comedy

Roman comedy fared better. We have 27 comedies, more or less complete, all adaptations from Greek New Comedy. They are fabulae palliatae, that is, dramas with Greek characters who were costumed in a type of Greek cloak (pallium) much favored by Greek philosophers. Twenty-one of these comedies are by “Titus Maccius Plautus,” about whom there is little reliable information. He supposedly came to Rome from Umbria where he was born, worked for a while in the theater business, tried his hand at trade, lost his money, and had to work at a mill where he used his spare time to write plays. He died in 184 B.C.E. The remaining eight are by Publius Terentius Afer, who was born in Carthage and brought as a boy slave to Rome by a senator who was so taken with the lad that he gave him a good education and freed him. Before he was 25, he produced six plays. He then left Rome for Greece, never to return. Various reports were told about his death, but they agree that he was carrying a large number of new plays in his baggage—translations from the Greek—that were lost with him.


It is impossible to judge how much Plautus adapted his Greek originals for Roman taste, but his plays ostensibly have Greek settings such as Athens or Epidamnus. While they could be any city, much of the slapstick must come from the Atellanae, the popular Atellan farces. Plautus used the stock characters of the New Comedy but he put his own mark on them. His courtesans are not always sweet and alluring; in the Truculentus a ruthless courtesan brings her lovers to ruin. One favorite character type that Plautus developed brilliantly was the clever slave. He also reintroduced song into comedy. There had been songs in Old Comedy but they had fallen by the wayside. Plautus found that the Roman audience liked musical comedy and inserted songs more and more as time went on. The Boastful Soldier, which was an early play, has no songs; theBrothers Menaechmus, which is later, has five. His dialogue is racy but not dirty, for the Romans were still puritanical, and as the plots of Plautus’ comedies unfolded onstage, many Romans must have reflected that such things happened in Greece but never in Rome, and found satisfaction in the sense of moral superiority.

The Braggart Soldier

The “Braggart Soldier” of the title is a stock character, the mercenary soldier who is all bombast and self-advertisement. In this case, the soldier of the title has the mouth-filling name of Pyrgopolynices. A young Athenian, Pleusicles, is madly in love with a courtesan Philocomasium, but while he is away from Athens on official business, the soldier abducts her to Ephesus. Pleusicles’ clever slave, Palaestrio, sets off to tell his master what happened, but he is captured by pirates. Coincidentally, they present him to Pyrgopolynices. Palaestrio gets a letter to Pleusicles summoning him to Ephesus. Pleusicles arrives and lodges at a friend of his father’s, who lives next door to the soldier. The clever slave Palaestrio arranges an elaborate hoax to make the soldier believe the wife of a wealthy old gentleman has fallen desperately in love with him. The wife is actually a courtesan who plays the role that Palestrio has assigned her, and the old man is the friend of Pleusicles’ father. The soldier readily gives up Philocomasium for his new love, but he is caught red-handed attempting adultery, given a sound beating, and threatened with castration. The old man relents when Pyrgopolynices swears never to seek revenge for the beating he received.

The Brothers Menaechmus

The Brothers Menaechmus is a comedy of mistaken identities; it was adapted and elaborated by Shakespeare in his Comedy of Errors. Identical twins were born to a Sicilian merchant from Syracuse. One twin, Menaechmus, was kidnapped and his father died of grief. Thereupon the grandfather of the remaining twin renamed him Menaechmus to commemorate his lost brother. Thus we have Menaechmus I and Menaechmus II, identical siblings. Menaechmus I, the boy who had been kidnapped, was taken to Epidamnus by his abductor, who, it turned out, had no son, and so he adopted Menaechmus I and made him heir to his enormous fortune. When the play opens, Menaechmus II has come to Epidamnus in search of his twin; this is the sixth year he has been searching. Menaechmus I is having an affair with a courtesan, Erotium. Erotium mistakes Menaechmus II for Menaechmus I, and Menaechmus II goes along with the error; he has lunch with Erotium and enjoys her favors. The deception results in all manner of confusion so that when Menaechmus I returns to the stage he encounters a jealous wife, an irritated mistress, and a father-in-law who thinks he’s insane. He escapes being dragged off to a doctor, a fate worse than death, by the intervention of Menaechmus II’s slave. Finally the two Menaechmuses meet and sort things out. The drama comes with an assortment of stock characters: a parasite, an alluring courtesan, and a silly doctor. It is Plautus’ only comedy of errors, and when Shakespeare adapted it, he doubled the scope for mistaken identities by having not one set of identical twins but two.


All six plays that Terence wrote have survived, which is a remarkable tribute to his staying power through the Middle Ages. His comedies did not have the popular appeal that Plautus’ plays did, for they lacked his “comic power” as one ancient critic said. They were, however, well-constructed, polished dramas written in the sort of Latin that one could hold up to schoolboys as a model. His first play, the Woman of Andros (Andria) produced in 166 B.C.E., was based on two of Menander’s plays, and uses stock characters with originality: there is the typical lovesick young man, but he wants to marry a young woman of good family, not a courtesan. The strict fathers are presented with sympathy, and the clever slave is more than a mere trickster. The plot is as follows: Simo has betrothed his son Pamphilus to Philumena, daughter of Chremes. But Pamphilus loves Glycerium, an orphan, whereas his friend Charinus wants to marry Philumena. The two fathers negotiate; the clever slave Davus orchestrates the action and everything is resolved when Glycerium turns out to be Chremes’ daughter and also to have borne a child to Pamphilus. Pamphilus marries Glycerium and Charinus marries Philumena. The year after the Woman of Andros, Terence produced his Mother-in-Law but it failed at its first production. Then came the Self-Punisher and the Eunuch and in the same year as the Eunuch, thePhormio. His last play was the Adelphi (The Brothers) which many critics consider his best. In that play, there are two sets of brothers. One set is elderly with contrasting characters: Micio who lives in Athens and is easy-going, and Demea, a farmer outside Athens who is frugal. Micio has no son of his own and adopts one of Demea’s two sons. Thus we have a second set of brothers: one brought up virtuously by his father and the other indulgently by his adoptive father who is also his uncle. The plot centers about the attempt of Micio’s adoptive son to kidnap a harp-playing girl for his virtuous brother. The plot is resolved when Demea is converted to a more indulgent attitude, his son keeps his harpist, and Micio’s adoptive son gets married.

Theater After Terence

The accidents of survival make it appear that dramatic genius dried up after Terence. In fact, theater continued to be popular. While Terence was writing comedies that were purely Greek in everything except the language, other playwrights were putting Roman characters on stage. These were called fabulae togatae, that is, dramas in togas, in contrast to the fabulae palliatae where the characters wore Greek fashions. Their success was modest. Crowds were more attracted to mime and Atellan farce.

Latin Poetry before the Augustan Age

Latin Epic Poetry

The Latin epic begins in 240 B.C.E. with Livius Andronicus, a Greek from Tarentum, modern Taranto on the south coast of Italy, which had been founded as the Greek colony of Taras and fell into Roman hands after Rome’s war with Pyrrhus. Andronicus was brought to Rome as a slave and was acquired by a member of one of Rome’s great Roman families, the Livii, who freed him because he tutored his owner’s children so well. He continued to teach once he was a freedman and desired to develop a teaching model similar to that of the Greeks. Greek children learned from the Greek epic poet Homer, but Rome had nothing similar and so Andronicus translated one of Homer’s most famous works, the Odyssey, into Latin, using the only rhythm native to Rome, the Saturnian verse. He became a professional poet and playwright, writing a hymn to the gods to win their favor during Rome’s war with Hannibal. In recognition of his craft, Rome allowed him to found a guild of writers and actors with its headquarters in the temple of Minerva on the Aventime Hill. But he was best remembered for his translation of the Odyssey which was still a vital part of Roman education when the Augustan poet Horace was a boy in the mid-first century B.C.E.

Naevius and Ennius

The next step in the development of the Latin epic was taken by Gnaeus Naevius. He fought in Rome’s first war against Carthage, which ended in 241 B.C.E., and he wrote a history of it in poetry. Like Andronicus, he used the Saturnian meter. His work is lost, but we do know that he traced the enmity of Rome and Carthage to their foundations, and brought in the story of Dido and Aeneas, as Vergil was to do later in his epic, the Aeneid. With Quintus Ennius, (239-169B.C.E.) the Latin epic took a giant step forward. He came from a town in Calabria, and he knew Oscan, the language of the Samnites, as well as Latin and Greek, and he produced adaptations of Greek dramas for the Roman stage. His great work was his Annales, a poem on the history of Rome from the beginning. Unlike Naevius, he adapted the meter of Homer, the dactylic hexameter, to his verse. It was an important step as all later writers of Latin epic would follow his example and use hexameter verse.

Titus Lucretius Carus

Lucretius (94-55 B.C.E.) stands apart as one of the finest didactic (from the Greek didaskein, “to teach”) poets who ever wrote in any language. The early Greek Presocratic (before Socrates) philosophers had written in poetry, but poetry had given way to prose as a medium for philosophy even before Plato popularized the dialogue form. Didactic poetry was revived in Alexandria, but none of the poets working in the cultural hothouse surrounding the Alexandrian Library ever reached the height that Lucretius did. He was a convert to Epicureanism, which taught that all things are made up of atoms and void and that when human beings die, their atoms dissolve and there is no afterlife. Epicureanism did not deny that the gods existed, but it relegated them to a region far removed from life on earth. The advantage of Epicureanism was that it removed all fear of death, or so Lucretius believed. Lucretius deserves honorable mention among the philosophers, but he also should be recognized as a great poet, for he wrote with verve and skill, and great passion for his subject. He describes matter and void, and the shapes and movements of the atoms in void, he explains how life and sensation came to exist and plants and animals evolved more or less by chance and then reproduced, and what the gods were, for they were also atoms and void, and he ends with a powerful description of a plague epidemic which breaks off suddenly; clearly the poem is unfinished and must have been published after Lucretius’ death.


Thanks to the fortunate discovery of a manuscript in the early fourteenth century, we have 116 poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus of varying lengths, and they reveal a poet of genius. He belonged to a new wave of poets in the first half of the first century B.C.E. who looked to writers in Alexandria for their inspiration. They followed in the footsteps of an unconventional poet named Laevius who, in the 90s B.C.E., wrote love poetry expressing personal feelings. The orator Cicero, who disdained them, called them the neoteroi (the newer writers or “the new wave”), and the name has stuck; modern critics call them the “neoterics.” Catullus is the only one whose work has survived. His poems express his passionate love for a woman he called Lesbia and the emotional rollercoaster he endured as his love turned bitter. Shed of her alias, Lesbia was actually Clodia, a brilliant woman who was the sister of a political firebrand in Rome, Publius Clodius, and Catullus can only have been a minor figure in the group of influential powerbrokers she gathered about her. But Catullus wrote more than love poetry. Taking his cues from Callimachus and the Alexandrians, he tried his hand at an epyllion, or short epic, and he translated one of Callimachus’ most famous poems, the Lock of Berenice. Sappho also influenced him; he translated a poem of hers imitating the Sapphic stanza. But it is his lyrics expressing his ill-fated love for Lesbia that have made him famous.

Latin Prose Writers before the Augustan Age

Writers Before Cicero

Roman historical traditions shaped the Roman people; from early times, the pontifex maximus (high priest) of Rome kept a record on a whitewashed board of the magistrates for each year and any notable events. The first true historian of Rome, Fabius Pictor, wrote in Greek rather than Latin. His history, written during the desperate war with Hannibal the Carthaginian, was intended to encourage pro-Roman sympathies in Greece. Marcius Porcius Cato (234-149

B.C.E.) was the first author and statesman who made a point of using Latin in his writing. He was a considerable orator, and in his old age he wrote a history titled the Origines on the origins not only of Rome but neighboring towns as well. All that survives of his writing is a treatise on agriculture that leaves the impression that he was a hard-boiled but pious farmer. After him, there is no prose author of note until Cicero and Julius Caesar in the middle decades of the first century B.C.E.

Marcus Tullius Cicero

The facts of Cicero’s life can be given briefly. He was born in 106 B.C.E. in the small town of Arpinum (modern Arpino). At age sixteen he was attached to a well-known barrister of the day, Quintus Mucius Scaevola, to win his entrée into the Roman legal industry. At eighteen he began his compulsory military service. He served under the father of Julius Caesar’s rival, Pompey, which he always thought gave him a special link with Pompey. For the next few years he studied rhetoric and philosophy in Rome and made his court debut in 81 B.C.E. This was the period of Sulla’s dictatorship, and Cicero made himself a marked man by successfully defending a man who had incurred the enmity of one of Sulla’s minions, Chrysogonus. Cicero thought it prudent to retire to Greece for further study following this case and only returned to Rome after Sulla’s death in 78 B.C.E. His first great triumph in court was in 70 B.C.E. when he impeached Gaius Verres for his corrupt governorship of Sicily. Verres went into voluntary exile before he was sentenced, and the Sicilian provincials who were his victims got no restitution. To win the case, Cicero had defeated the best lawyer of the day, Hortensius, and his reputation was made. He rose to be consul in 63 B.C.E. even though he was a “new man”—that is, no one in his family had been consul before—and during his year in office, he suppressed the conspiracy of Catiline and put the conspirators to death without trial, which was illegal. For that he was exiled in 58 B.C.E. and was allowed to return only after he made it clear that he would not make waves for the political triumvirate of Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar who were manipulating politics behind the scenes at this time. When Caesar started the civil war in 49 B.C.E. by crossing the Rubicon River which marked the boundary between his province of Cisalpine Gaul and Italy, Cicero, after some hesitation, joined the senatorial group led by Pompey, who were Caesar’s enemies. After the defeat of Pompey’s army during the next year at the battle of Pharsalus, Cicero returned to Italy. He was not one of the conspirators who murdered Caesar on the Ides of March (15 March) 44 B.C.E., but there is little doubt that he approved, and in the immediate aftermath, he tried to arouse the senate to suppress Mark Antony’s efforts to take over. He thought—wrongly—that he could use Julius Caesar’s grandnephew Octavian, whom Caesar had adopted in his will, against Mark Antony, and then discard him when he was no longer necessary. Events turned out otherwise; Octavian joined Antony and another of Caesar’s officers, Lepidus, in a second triumvirate of power brokers, and when this second triumvirate drew up its list of enemies to be proscribed in November, 43 B.C.E., Antony insisted that Cicero be included. He was killed by Antony’s troops and his head nailed to the rostra, or speaker’s platform in the Roman Forum where Cicero had often spoken.

Cicero’s Letters

The sheer bulk of Cicero’s works is impressive. He bequeathed to posterity private letters, public speeches—some delivered in the law courts, others in the senate or before a public assembly—treatises on rhetoric, and dialogues on philosophy that had an enormous influence even though he was not, by any means, an original philosopher. His letters were written to his friends and family members, including his younger brother Quintus and his close friend and confidante, Titus Pomponius Atticus, a wealthy businessman and financier who stayed out of politics and survived the civil wars. The letters reveal the private Cicero, who differed from his public persona. Lawyers at this time in ancient Rome did not charge their clients fees, for the pretence was maintained that lawyers were above such considerations. They did, however, expect gifts and legacies from their clients, and Cicero’s income was such that he could maintain a large number of country villas, although his lifestyle was not particularly extravagant for men of his class by the standards of the day. Cicero’s letters give a rare glimpse of the private life of a Roman statesman as the Roman republic slid into civil war.

Cicero’s Speeches

Of Cicero’s orations delivered in the Roman senate or public forums, his most famous are his four speeches against Catiline and his Philippics, speeches attacking Mark Antony, of which the first was delivered in the senate on 2 September, 44 B.C.E. and the second—his most famous—actually published as a pamphlet though it was in the form of a speech. The Catilinarian orations were delivered in the year of Cicero’s consulship, 63 B.C.E. How serious a threat Catiline was to constitutional government is a matter for dispute—certainly Cicero exaggerated. Cicero’s speeches delivered in the law courts throw a lurid light on Roman public life. His Verrine Orations against the corrupt governor of Sicily, Verres, who was tried in 70 B.C.E., were published after the case; they had not actually been delivered in court, for Verres went into voluntary exile first. Another great speech on behalf of a thuggish gang leader, Milo, in 52 B.C.E. was not delivered in court either. Cicero lost the case, but made up for it by publishing the version he would have given, but failed to do so because he was unnerved by Pompey’s soldiers ringing the court. Other speeches give splendid vignettes of Roman life. One, “In Defense of Cluentius,” is a murder case in an Italian town. Another, “In Defense of Caelius” throws a sidelight on Catullus’ love affair with Lesbia, for Caelius was an ex-lover of Clodia, who seems to have been the Lesbia of Catullus in real-life. Caelius had had an affair with Clodia, and when he abandoned her, she charged him with an attempt to poison her. Cicero’s defense of Caelius gives him a chance to dwell on the demi-monde of Rome, and Clodia’s private life in particular.

Rhetorical and Philosophical Treatises

Cicero was an eclectic philosopher who wrote philosophic dialogues during a period of his life when the alliance of the power brokers Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, known as the First Triumvirate, sidelined him from politics. Of his works on rhetoric, his Brutus is interesting for its discussion of the development of oratory in Greece and Rome, which leads up to a description of his own development. Cicero followed it with his Orator, which makes the case that the true orator must be a master of all styles: the simple, the somewhat florid, and the grand. Cicero is a major source for modern knowledge of oratory in the Roman republic.

Other Notable Writers of Prose

Gaius Julius Caesar is better known as a world conqueror, but he was also an author. His claim to fame in the latter arena is his Commentaries on the Gallic War and Civil War. His Latin style is unlike any other writer’s, except for his imitators. He was writing a “commentary,” not a “history” of his conquest of Gaul and the civil war that followed it; a “commentary” purported to be a first draft which would later be fitted out with literary adornments. Caesar was writing for propaganda purposes, but he reads like a good war correspondent. His bias is apparent but not blatantly so. One of his officers, Aulus Hirtius, added an eighth book to the Gallic War and continued Caesar’s Civil War with a work in a style that copies Caesar’s, the Alexandrine War. It is the source for the affair between the young Cleopatra of Egypt and Julius Caesar. Another supporter of Caesar with a more eloquent style was Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus) who wrote a History, now lost, monographs on the Conspiracy of Catiline in 63 B.C.E., and the war with Jugurtha in north Africa at the end of the second century B.C.E. which was won by Marius, Caesar’s uncle by marriage. In the second of these, Marius comes off very well. In his monograph on Catiline’s Conspiracy, Cicero’s role pales beside those of Julius Caesar and Cato the Younger. Cicero is portrayed as a decent but lightweight politician, but Cato represents the severe righteousness of an extreme right-wing statesman while Caesar has the makings of a beneficent ruler. Finally, there was an extraordinarily productive writer, Marcus Terentius Varro, of whose many works only one survives complete: a dialogue on buying and running a farm. Another writer worthy of mention is Cornelius Nepos, whose Book about Excellent Leaders of Foreign Peoples—22 of them, all Greeks except for two Carthaginians and one Persian—was written in straightforward but rather dull Latin prose.

The Golden Age of Latin Literature under Augustus

New Climate of Opinion

The civil war—which started when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in 49 B.C.E. and ended when Caesar’s heir, Octavian, defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E.—ended the era of literature of the late republic and started the Augustan Age. The poet Horace fought as a staff officer (tribune) in the army of Brutus and Cassius, but he was no diehard defender of the Roman republic. He returned to Italy after the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 42 B.C.E., and made his peace with the new regime. The poet Tibullus personally had no taste for war, as he tells us in two poems which celebrate the victories of his patron Messala, and Propertius preferred to write about the love of his life whom he called Cynthia—her real name was Hostia and she was a beautiful courtesan—but since he belonged to the circle of writers who were supported by Augustus’ unofficial minister of propaganda, Maecenas, he was called upon to eulogize Augustus’ exploits and excused himself as gracefully as he could. Vergil, the greatest of the Augustan writers, had no hankering for the old Roman republic, having seen first-hand how it misruled the provinces, for he was born in one. Ovid was born the year after Julius Caesar was murdered and never knew the free-wheeling days of the republic when writers could write what they pleased, but he learned that an author under the principate—as Augustus’ regime was called—failed at his peril to respect certain limits to his freedom. When Ovid was about fifty years old, Augustus exiled him to Tomis on the Black Sea in modern Rumania. Augustus’ successor, Tiberius, did not recall him and he died there. The reasons for his exile are obscure, but one of them may have been a playful poem he wrote titled The Art of Love which is a witty poetic instruction manual on how to seduce women.

Vergil’s Eclogues

A group of minor poems have survived which have been considered Vergil’s early works, and one of them, the Culex (The Gnat) is an epyllion worthy of Vergil. The poem describes how a shepherd is wakened from a nap by a mosquito, which he kills only to discover that a venomous snake is about to strike him; the mosquito had sacrificed its life to warn him in time. Some scholars accept the Culex as Vergilian, but the earliest works that are certainly written by him are his Bucolics (Poems of the Countryside), otherwise known as his Eclogues (Select Poems). There are ten of them, and two—the first and the ninth—have been thought to be autobiographic, for they deal with the land confiscations after the Battle of Philippi, when Octavian expropriated land in the region of Cremona and Mantua to settle demobilized soldiers. Vergil’s family estate was expropriated and the first Eclogue tells how a freedman, Tityrus, had his little farm restored to him. There are problems with this interpretation, and it is more probable that Vergil’s intent in both his first and ninth Eclogues was to make known the disruption and injustice caused by the land expropriations. The fourth poem, the so-called “Messianic” Eclogue hails the expected birth of a child who will usher in a new age. The identity of this child has been much disputed, and later Christian commentators interpreted the poem as a prophecy of Christ’s birth. It could be a child expected by Octavian; when Eclogue Four was written in 40 B.C.E. he was still married to his second wife Scribonia by whom he had his only child, a daughter Julia. But if so, the child whose birth Vergil foretold was never born. In the Eclogues, the influence of Theocritus is clear, but it was Vergil who invented Arcadia—not the Arcadia in central Greece but an imaginary Arcadia where shepherds and cowherds sang and loved and lived a life far removed from the turmoil of the city. In the literary tradition of Europe, it was Vergil, not Theocritus, who invented pastoral poetry.

The Georgics

The Georgics (On Land Cultivation) is a didactic poem written at the behest of Maecenas who gathered about him a cluster of writers and tried to harness their talents for the benefit of Octavian. Restoring agriculture in Italy after civil war was a vital concern, and though the Georgics is the most polished verse that Vergil ever produced, it is propaganda. It also brought didactic poetry to a new height. The subject of the first book is the crops and the signs for good and bad weather. The second discusses vineyards and olive orchards, the third stockbreeding, the last beekeeping. Vergil worked on the poem for seven years and somehow manages to make plain passages about plowing, planting, and beekeeping interesting.

Rome’s National Epic

Augustus wanted a heroic poem, an epic that could be compared without apology to the Greek poet Homer, whose Iliad and Odyssey overshadowed the works of Roman poets. Of the prominent Roman poets of the day, only Vergil answered the call, producing the Aeneid. It has been justly admired from its own time to the present day. Even while it was being written, the poet Propertius wrote that “something greater than the Iliad is being created”—a favorable review even before the publication date. It soon became the national epic of Rome, the Latin answer to Homer. It tells the story of the Trojan hero Aeneas, who escaped from the sack of Troy and arrived in Italy, bringing with him his household gods and winning a space in Latium for himself and his descendants. The Romans were familiar with the myth. Aeneas’ son Ascanius founded Alba Longa, the royal houses of which spawned Romulus, founder of Rome. Old Roman families called themselves “Trojan-born,” which was the equivalent of claiming ancestors that came over on the Mayflower. Julius Caesar’s family, the Iulii, made the claim, and the emperor Augustus was Caesar’s great-nephew and his adoptive son. Julian tradition told that Aeneas had a son, Iulus, who was the first ascendant of the family. Vergil identifies Iulus with Ascanius by claiming that Iulus was Ascanius’ other name. Thus Augustus was a descendant of Aeneas, and the story of Aeneas shed a glow of legitimacy over the emperor and his dynasty. Aeneas’ struggle to establish his Trojans in Latium paralleled Augustus’ struggle to bring peace and prosperity to the empire after the generation of civil war that destroyed the old Roman republic.

The Aeneid

For the first half of the Aeneid, Vergil took Homer’s Odyssey as his model and the Iliad for the second half, purposely inviting comparisons. For instance, the character of Aeneas is a warrior from the Trojan War who must endure a long and troubled journey following the end of the war, much like the character of Odysseus from the Odyssey. Unlike Odysseus, however, Aeneas is actually fleeing his home, having fought on the side of the Trojans. With a ship full of survivors, including his son and his father, he flees Troy for Italy, where it is his destiny to found Rome. The reality of his destiny does not procure for him an easy passage, however; a tempest tosses Aeneas’ little fleet up on the shores of Carthage, which has just been founded by queen Dido. Dido welcomes Aeneas and his Trojans and gives them a royal banquet, which parallels Odysseus’ landing on the shore of Phaeacia and his welcome by the Phaeacian king and queen. As with the banquet scene in the Odyssey, Vergil related what had happened previous to the Trojans’ landing at Carthage as a “flashback” sequence in which Aeneas relates to the Carthaginians the fall of Troy, including the famous story of how the Greeks finally penetrated the city walls. The Greeks had built a large wooden horse, left it outside the city gates, and then pretended to depart for home. The Trojans were told by a Greek pretending to be an escaped slave that the horse was a gift from the gods and if they took it within the city walls, their city would never be taken. Tricked by his story, the Trojans did indeed take the horse into their city, not knowing that contained in its hollow belly was a group of Greek soldiers waiting for nightfall to open the gates for the Greek forces outside. That night the Greek forces came out of hiding and sacked the city. So famous is this tale that the “Trojan Horse” has become an enduring symbol for trickery and duplicity. The Trojans fought with the courage of despair, but when resistance proved futile, Aeneas followed the orders of the gods to leave. The story of how he hoisted his crippled father Anchises on to his shoulder and escaped from Troy was already famous in Rome. Aeneas got away safely with his father, his little son Ascanius, and his household gods, but his wife Creusa was lost. Aeneas returned to Troy to seek her, but her ghost told him to be on his way—a new home awaited him in Italy. Like Odysseus, Aeneas endured hardship and loss during his journey by sea; he lost his father in Sicily, and a storm blew them onto the shore of Carthage in Africa. As with Odysseus and the Phaeacians, Dido and her people are moved by the sad tale of Aeneas and the Trojans, and the two peoples appear prepared to settle down together. Dido and Aeneas begin an affair, but the gods perceive the romance as a threat to Aeneas’ destiny and order him to leave Carthage for Italy; the plot development closely resembles the gods’ ordering of the nymph Calypso to release her lover, Odysseus, so he can return home. Neither of these powerful female characters wanted to let go of their lovers, and Dido stages a dramatic suicide at Aeneas’ departure by building a funeral pyre for herself out of Aeneas’ discarded possessions and killing herself in its fires. Dido’s death is evidence of a Roman belief that romantic love was a poison which disrupted betrothals and family alliances; in Rome, marriage was a business deal worked out by the parents of the bride and groom, and among well-born Romans it involved property. Love induced irrational behavior and led to unsuitable marriages. Aeneas’ rejection of his lover is also evidence of the Roman emphasis on duty over emotional ties; Aeneas is devoted to duty—the usual epithet that Vergil applies to him is pius which means more than its English derivative “pious.” It means god-fearing, dutiful, and even compassionate.

Destiny In Italy

While Aeneas did not lose nearly as many fellow travelers as Odysseus, he is forced to leave behind the women of his party in Sicily after the travel-weary women set fire to the ships in an attempt to prevent their leaving the island. Thus the Trojan settlers in Italy will be men only, which means that they will have to find Italian women for their mates. Aeneas is aware that their settlement in Italy will necessitate another war similar to the Trojan War, but he sees it as his destiny to be on the winning side this time when he visits the Underworld and sees the ghosts of the future builders of Rome. The last six books describe the fight in Italy between the native Rutulians and the immigrant Trojans, and Vergil switches his narrative model to the Iliad. Aeneas arrives at the future site of Rome, and there meets King Latinus who has been told by an oracle to marry his daughter Lavinia to someone who is not a native of the country. Although the king is amenable to Lavinia’s marriage to Aeneas, the queen, Amata, is not; she favors the prince of the Rutulians, Turnus, and the rivalry between Turnus and Aeneas sparks a war between the two peoples. After much bloodshed, the war is decided by hand-to-hand combat between the two suitors in which Aeneas kills Turnus.

Assessment of a Great Poem

Vergil’s Aeneid became the national epic of the Roman Empire. The poet drew from various literary influences for his creation, particularly Homer. Vergil also drew upon the Argonautica of the Hellenistic poet Apollonius of Rhodes. Vergil’s Dido owes something to Apollonius’ Medea. Vergil was conversant with Alexandrian poetry; his Eclogues draw their inspiration from Theocritus and the Aeneid also draws inspiration from Alexandria even though its model was Homer. Finally there was Ennius, Rome’s first epic poet to use the dactylic hexameter from whom Vergil borrowed heavily for his knowledge of primitive Italy. The Aeneid no doubt celebrates the Roman Empire, Augustus’ contribution to it, and the courage and self-sacrificing toil of Rome’s founders. Yet he also pities the people trampled underfoot by Rome’s growth to power. Turnus and Dido both engage our sympathies, whereas Aeneas can be remarkably brutal, and his epithet pius (dutiful) is a trifle chilling. In the end, it is clear that the Trojans will be assimilated. Aeneas has brought his gods from Troy and plans them to be the gods of Rome, but the god Jupiter makes it clear that he will decide what gods the Romans will worship. Aeneas, who is an Asian immigrant, will start the historical process that results in the Roman Empire, but he will lose his native culture, and his descendants will be purely Italian.


Quintus Horatius Flaccus was the son of an ex-slave who saw to it that his son received a good education in Rome and then managed to send him to Athens. These were the heady days after Julius Caesar’s assassination, and Horace was caught up in the enthusiasm among the Romans studying in Athens for the republican cause and joined the army raised by Marcus Brutus, the assassin of Julius Caesar. The defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi understandably quenched his enthusiasm, so he returned to Italy, got a low-paying clerical post in the government, and began writing. Some of his Epodes, belong to this period. They got their name from their meter which the Greek lyric poet Archilochus had invented, for almost all of them have a long line followed by a shorter one, for which the technical name was an epoide (after-song). Sometime before the Battle of Actium he was introduced to Octavian’s minister in charge of molding public opinion, Maecenas, and his poverty-stricken days came to an end. It was Maecenas who suggested that he put together a collection of his Epodes. About 35 B.C.E. he brought out a collection of satires, or as he titled them, sermones which can be translated not inaccurately as “chitchat.” He was also experimenting with something new: an attempt to use the meters of the Lesbian poets Alcaeus and Sappho. Although the poet Catullus had tried his hand at the Sapphic stanza, Horace could claim to be original because his subject matter was his own. The first three books of his Odes—or as he called them, his carmina (songs)—took seven years to compose, and they were published about 23 B.C.E. He followed them up with his Epistles, so called because they purport to be versified letters to various recipients. He addressed one to his farm manager,’ for Maecenas had given him a farm in Sabine country not far from Rome. Horace advised his manager to be content with what he had. The emperor Augustus, who liked Horace and wrote him frequently, urged him to write more in praise of the imperial house, and in response he added a fourth book to his Odes and also produced a long hymn for the Secular Games of 17 B.C.E. The Games were not “secular” in the modern sense, for the word comes from the Latinsaeculum, meaning “century,” so “Centennial Celebrations” might be a better way of describing the festivities of that year. The hymn is called the Carmen Saeculare and it is not Horace at his best. Horace wrote another long poem which is famous: the third book of his Epistles which is taken up entirely with his Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry). It is a nice example of didactic poetry but its content is not original, for Horace followed a treatise written by a Hellenistic author, Neoptolemus of Parion.

Propertius, Tibullus, and Sulpicia

Propertius, Tibullus, and Sulpicia all wrote love poems addressed to specific individuals whom they claim as objects of their devotion. Propertius addressed his poems to Cynthia and Tibullus to Delia. Sulpicia was a woman and the lover whom she addressed is a man, but otherwise she follows the conventions of this genre of poetry. Propertius belonged to Maecenas’ circle, but Tibullus had another patron, Messalla. Both wrote in elegiac couplets that had been used for centuries in Greek literature and brought into Latin in the Augustan age. The pioneer of the genre was a friend of Vergil, Gaius Cornelius Gallus, who wrote four books of elegies to a mime actress whom he calls Lycoris; in real life, her name was Cytheris and she had a number of lovers, including Mark Antony. Gallus became prefect of Egypt, where he proved too independent for Augustus’ regime; the Roman senate tried and condemned him, and he committed suicide. His political disgrace eclipsed his poetry. Tibullus left two books of elegies. In the first he addresses Delia, and in the second, a woman he called Nemesis. In Messalla’s circle there was also a poetess, Sulpicia, probably Messalla’s niece, who wrote six short poems addressed to a man whom she calls Cerinthus. They are little gems of frank passion. A more productive poet than either of these was Sextus Propertius, whose love was a woman he calls Cynthia. Maecenas noticed his little book of 22 elegies titled Cynthia and took him into his circle. Like the other poets in Maecenas’ stable, Propertius was urged to help popularize the principate (the constitutional settlement of Augustus), but his heart was really with love poetry. Propertius is the most interesting of these writers of love elegies if we take the vicissitudes of his love-affair at face value. But we must not be too quick to infer autobiographical details from their poetry, for they were writing within well-defined conventions. Sincerity was not considered a virtue in Latin poetry, and when a poet claims to be dying of love, he may be expressing only a conventional emotion that was demanded by his art form. Sulpicia’s poetry differs only in one way: usually women were the object of male desire in elegiac love poetry, but Sulpicia presents herself as a woman who desires a partner as much as any man does.


Ovid was truly a man of letters. Sophisticated and technically brilliant, he wrote poetry effortlessly. Although not wealthy, he was sufficiently well-to-do to dispense with a patron and he remained outside the circles of Maecenas and Messalla. He began as an elegiac poet of love. His collection known as the Amores (Love Affairs) follows the examples of Tibullus and Propertius, for they tell of romantic encounters, but whereas the loves of those two writers probably existed, Ovid’s lover, Corinna, probably did not exist outside literature. While he was writing the Amores he was working on a more ambitious work, the Heroides (Heroines), letters in verse by women of mythology addressed to their husbands or lovers. Among others, he imagines Dido writing to Aeneas, Ariadne writing Theseus from Naxos where he had abandoned her, and Medea writing Jason after she has learned of his plans to jilt her and marry the king of Corinth’s daughter. Ovid then turned to didactic poetry, but his subject was not a respectable one like agriculture. Ovid wrote theArt of Love in three books, the first two instructing men in the art of seduction and the third showing women who planned to be courtesans how to make the most profit from their husbands. He followed this up with a fourth book, the Remedium Amoris, on how to fall out of love. Ovid’s greatest work is undoubtedly his Metamorphoses (Changes of Shape). No one believed in the ancient legends anymore, but they were still subject matter for literature, and Ovid decided to string them together on the common theme of changes of shape. He retells myths that told how heroes and heroines changed their shapes, like Actaeon who was changed into a stag, or Alkyone who was changed into the halcyon bird. The resulting epic is a tapestry of myth, told with wit and all the tricks that an author versed in rhetoric could muster. Then came his exile. Augustus relegated him to Tomis, modern Costanza in Rumania, for reasons unknown. He burned his Metamorphoses, but fortunately copies were already in circulation and so it survived, though unfinished. Exile did not break Ovid, though he never saw his beloved Rome again. He wrote five books of Tristia (Poems of Sorrow)—the first book was complete before he reached Tomis. He continued these with his Letters from Pontus; “Pontus” was the name for the Black Sea. He wrote Ibis, an attack on an imaginary figure which was probably written as a psychological release, and a poem on the fish in the Black Sea. The major work of his exile was the Fasti, a versified Roman calendar of religious festivals. Ovid finished the first six months of the year and may have hoped that his interest in Roman religion would soften Augustus’ heart. If that was his intent, he must have been disappointed in the result. Ovid died in exile.


The Augustan age had one prose writer of distinction, Titus Livius, known in English by the name Livy, who wrote a history of Rome from its foundation to his own day in 142 books. He was the type of historian who wrote to edify his readers, and the characters of his history were either heroes or villains. The most wholesome outcome of knowing history, he told his readers, was to have examples of every type of conduct so that a person could choose models to imitate with foreknowledge of what the results of their choices would be. He was not a careful researcher, but he had historians to consult who have been lost long ago, and that gives his work real value for the historian of the Roman republic. His history extends to the Roman triumph over the last king of Macedon, Perseus, in 167 B.C.E. His style is smooth and his characterization vivid, but his panorama of the Roman past is not an example of historical accuracy.

Latin Literature of the Silver Age

Writers Before the Death of Nero

The name “Silver Age Latin” as applied to the literature that follows the “Golden Age” under Augustus reflects the judgement of generations of scholars. Writers of the Silver Age valued rhetorical skill and literary ornaments, and produced a style that was quite unlike ordinary human speech. Contemporary writers in Greek moved in the other direction; they were Atticists, that is, they revived the style and even the dialect of the best classical authors of Greece. Their example did not rub off on their Latin counterparts. Still, the sheer bulk of their writing is impressive. One poet, Marcus Manilius, wrote a didactic poem in five books on astrology. Calpurnius Siculus wrote pastoral poetry that was heavily dependent on Vergil’s Eclogues. An ex-soldier, Velleius Paterculus, who served under the future emperor Tiberius, wrote a history of Rome in two books, and when he comes to his own period, he is a good historical source. Valerius Maximus collected nine books of sayings and anecdotes under the title Notable Doings and Sayings, and Phaedrus versified Aesop’s fable.


Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s family came from Roman Spain, and his father was a rhetorician known as Seneca the Elder to distinguish him from his son. The reputation of the elder Seneca stems from a collection written in his old age of anecdotes about rhetoricians he had known. The younger Seneca is known for his philosophic treatises—he was a Stoic who failed to practice what he preached—four prose works—one of which is a funny but cruel essay on the distaste with which the gods received the dead emperor Claudius when he entered their company after being decreed divine by the Roman senate—and nine tragedies. The tragedies were based on Greek originals except for the Thyestes, which told how the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus, Atreus, fed Thyestes his own children. The work allowed Seneca to give free rein to his love for blood and gore. He reworked Euripides’ Medea and made Medea into a bloodthirsty witch. His Phaedra reworks Euripides’ Hippolytus and gives Phaedra nymphomanic tendencies and makes Hippolytus a woman-hater. It is generally agreed that these plays were intended for public readings before select audiences, not for production in large theaters for the masses, whose taste was for interpretative dancing and mimes. Seneca’s plays appealed only to the educated elite who were familiar with the Golden Age of tragedy in Athens of the fifth century B.C.E.


Lucius Junius Columella, like Seneca, came from Spain, but his interests were very different. After a career in the Roman army, he acquired an estate in Latium outside Rome, and devoted himself to agriculture. His De Re Rustica (On Husbandry) is a treatise on scientific farming. It gives a picture of the countryside of central Italy in his own day, with its growing number of country houses for wealthy Romans, and its absentee landowners. His cure for the decline of farming in Italy was hard work, personal supervision, and mastery of the science of agriculture.

Gaius Petronius

The novel as a literary form was becoming popular in Greece in the early imperial period, and Petronius chose to use it for what he called the Saturae—the “Mixed Bag” of writing. It is now known as the Satyricon. It is picaresque novel (relating to the adventures of rovers) but instead of the hero and heroine of the Greek novels who have a series of wild adventures as they roved from place to place, Petronius has a rascal named Encolpius and a cheeky boy named Giton. Only fragments remain, but one sizeable portion, describing a banquet given by a wealthy ex-slave named Trimalchio, is a masterpiece. The banquet was an orgy of feeding, and Trimalchio takes vulgarity to astonishing heights. Petronius was a favorite of the emperor Nero and invented revels for that pleasure-loving emperor until court intrigue destroyed him and he committed suicide with elegance and irony, as befitted a man of his talents.

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus

The fame of Lucan, who was Seneca the Younger’s nephew, rests on one work: his epic poem on the civil war between Caesar and the senatorial party led by Pompey. Its name, the Pharsalia, comes from the decisive battle fought in Greece at Pharsalus, modern Farsala in Thessaly, where Pompey’s army was defeated. Lucan’s style is somewhat artificial but he is a smooth versifier. His sympathies were with Pompey and the republican form of government that Pompey defended. All of this fitted the popularized Stoic philosopher of the day that looked back with nostalgia at the republic which died in the civil war. Lucan died young. He was implicated in a plot against Nero, and died by bleeding to death, reciting some of his own verses on death by bleeding as he breathed his last.


Little is known about Aulus Persius Flaccus, except that he left a collection of six satires and died young. The first was on the decay of literary taste, the second on the vanity of riches, the third on idleness, the fourth on self-knowledge, the fifth on true liberty, and the sixth on how to use wealth properly. His poetry is crammed with allusions to contemporary life. His fourth satire, for instance, urges a popular statesman named Alcibiades to examine his soul and pay no attention to public adulation. There was an Alcibiades who was an Athenian politician of the fifth century B.C.E., but perhaps the “Alcibiades” whom Persius has in mind is the emperor Nero. Persius’ style is not easy to read. He is not for the beginning Latin student. But his small output reveals an interesting talent.

The Silver Age After the Emperor Nero

Whatever the emperor Nero’s faults may have been, he was an aesthete who was sensitive to culture, and his death in 68 C.E. did not improve the lot of the literary artist. The Flavian dynasty—the emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian who replaced the Julio-Claudian clan to which the emperors from Augustus to Nero belonged—was from Sabine peasant stock. The Flavians were sensitive about their lack of background, and Domitian in particular was a menacing presence who inspired fear. With Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius (who died in 180 B.C.E.) there was greater freedom, but there was a comfortable mediocrity about the age, and it was not until the fourth century C.E.that there was a renewed outburst of literary talent. Still, the period did not lack for writers. Silius Italicus was one such figure; his primary position was as an informer under Nero, passing on information about potential enemies of the regime, although he later cleaned up his reputation by earning praise for his administration of the province of Asia. He wrote an epic titled the Punica on Rome’s wars with Carthage, which were called the “Punic Wars” after the Latin word for Carthaginian: Poenus. The meters are correct but as poetry it is second-rate. He likes to put his learning on display, and the result is more tiresome than impressive. Papinius Statius who wrote under Domitian whom he was careful to flatter, left five books of Silvae—miscellaneous poems on various subjects—and two epics, the second unfinished. The first epic was Thebaid and covered the legends of Thebes: how Oedipus killed his father, how his sons fought over the throne and killed each other, and how Creon succeeded to the throne. The poem reflects the taste of the day for romanticism through the inclusion of slaughter, exaggerated passions, and high-flown sentiment. The second epic, the Achilleis retells the myth of how Achilles’ mother Thetis tried to save her son from being conscripted to fight in the Trojan War by dressing him as a woman and hiding him among girls at the court of the king of Scyrus. Statius wrote 1127 lines on this subject, but he died before he could write more. Valerius Flaccus wrote an epic on the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece, taking as his model the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes. Quintilian, the son and grandson of rhetoricians, is known for his Education of an Orator. His perfect orator was Cicero, and he concluded that all developments since Cicero’s day had brought oratory downhill. Martial was a master of the epigram: the short poem that ends with a sharp, stinging quip. He took his subjects from contemporary life, throwing an interesting sidelight on it. Suetonius, secretary to the emperor Hadrian, wrote biographies in straightforward Latin, and one collection has survived entire: his Lives of the Twelve Caesars from Julius Caesar to Domitian. A little later than Suetonius, another author wrote the only novel in either Greek or Latin worthy of comparison with Petronius’ Satyricon: Apuleius, whose tale, Metamorphosis, better known as The Golden Ass, tells how the hero Lucius dabbled in magic and managed to transform himself into a donkey. We have another work of Apuleius, too, for he married a wealthy widow and her relatives brought him to trial on a charge of winning her affections by magic. Apuleius’ Apology is the speech he gave in his own defense before a court in Sabratha, in modern Libya. Of all the authors belonging to these somewhat tarnished last years of the Silver Age, there are three that should detain us: Juvenal, Pliny the Younger, and the historian Tacitus, for they were first-rate practitioners of their genre of literature.


Juvenal was a bitter man. Life in Rome had not treated him well, to judge from his poetry, and after the emperor Domitian died and the pall of fear lifted, Juvenal wrote satires—sixteen of them—attacking the wickedness of contemporary life. He disliked women, all immigrants from the east—especially Jews, with Greeks a close second—avarice, the miserly rich, and the horrors of living in the shoddily built apartment houses of Rome. He attacked scoundrels by name, though he only picked on already-dead scoundrels to avoid retribution. He is the source of the aphorism that the Roman mob cared only about bread and circuses. He accepted the dictum of the Stoic philosophers that all transgressions were equal and hence he indicted the emperor Nero both for murdering his mother and for writing bad poetry as if they were sins of equal magnitude. He was himself a good poet who wrote vigorous hexameter lines.

Pliny the Younger

The reputation of Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus—the full name of Pliny the Younger—might have been overwhelmed by that of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, an encyclopedia writer who died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E., except that the only surviving work of the elder Pliny is his Natural History, which is a mine of information but not casual reading. Pliny the Younger is known for his collection of pleasant letters written, ostensibly, to various contemporaries, including the historian Tacitus to whom he addressed an eyewitness account of the eruption of Vesuvius. The last book of his collected letters is correspondence between him and the emperor Trajan, for Trajan sent Pliny to the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor about 110 C.E. to correct maladministration there. Among the matters for consultation with Trajan was a cell of Christians whom he found. Pliny wanted to know the legal status of Christianity and Trajan replied that it was outlawed, though he warned against any witch hunt. For historians of Christianity, this is an important morsel of evidence; it defines the attitude of the Roman state towards Christianity in the second century C.E.


Cornelius Tacitus wrote five works: a dialogue on orators, evidently his first; a biography of his father-in-law, Agricola; an essay on Germany, the Germania; and his two greatest works, his Histories and his Annals. The first is a discussion of orators of the past, giving top marks to Cicero. Agricola governed Roman Britain under Domitian and hence Tacitus’ biography adds significantly to knowledge about Britain in the years after its conquest under the emperor Claudius. The Histories begin with the turbulence after Nero’s death when there were four emperors in the year 68 C.E., and it breaks off two years later. The rest is lost. The Annals also survives in mutilated condition; Tacitus begins with the emperor Tiberius, but the reign of Caligula is lost. Even so, Tacitus’ account of Claudius and Nero is splendid. Tacitus knew firsthand the misery of Rome under the tyrant Domitian and when he describes these early emperors, he sees them as forerunners of Domitian. His powers of description were superb, and he is the last great Latin historian until the fourth century C.E. when Ammianus Marcellinus takes Tacitus as his model and produces a history which compares well with any other in Latin, though Ammianus was a Greek and presumably Latin was his second language.

Greek Literature of the Imperial Age

Changed Conditions

When Queen Cleopatra of Egypt committed suicide in 30 B.C.E., the last independent Hellenistic monarchy disappeared and all the eastern Mediterranean was under Roman rule. In place of the Hellenistic kings there were Roman governors whose language of administration was Latin. Yet Roman rule was light. On the local level, cities governed the people. Every Roman province contained a number of cities, some of them very old, some dating back to a foundation by a Hellenistic king or even Alexander the Great himself. Alexandria in Egypt was not the only city that Alexander founded; the Middle East was dotted with cities with the name “Alexandria” which claimed Alexander as founder. The Roman governor made his headquarters in the most important city in his province, and he was chiefly interested in law and order, and seeing to it that taxes were paid; but within limits, the cities were left to govern themselves. The governors cultivated the local elites and kept the loyalty of the well-to-do property owners, who were glad of the protection of an empire that safeguarded their economic interests, but at the same time they looked back with pride at the Golden Age of Greece and its great literary achievements. The literature of Greece under the Roman Empire reflected this vision: pride in the past, and support for the Roman Empire, or at least acquiescence to it. Rome would not tolerate anything that smacked of sedition.


The taste of the new imperial age ushered in by the emperor Augustus was classical. That is, it looked back to the classical period of Greece (480-330 B.C.E.) for its models. The taste is reflected both in the visual arts of the Roman Empire and the literary taste. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek teacher of rhetoric who settled in Rome about 30 B.C.E., expressed the same view in the various treatises on literary style which he produced; his On Ancient Oratorsdefends the Athenian or “Attic” style of oratory exemplified by Demosthenes and rejects the ornate “Asiatic” style which replaced the Attic style in the Hellenistic period. We find the same taste for the past in the essays of two important essayists of the period, Plutarch and Lucian.


Plutarch (c. 40-c. 120 C.E.) is best known for his Parallel Lives: paired biographical essays of Greeks and Romans where Plutarch puts the life of a famous Greek side-by-side with a Roman whose career was in some ways similar, and follows each pair with a comparison. As well as his Parallel Lives we have a great collection of essays grouped under the title Moralia—”Moral Essays” where the adjective “moral” means “based on general observation of people.” Their subjects range far and wide: religion, music, philosophy, superstition (which Plutarch hated), love, and divine justice. He was typical of Greeks who were happy to cooperate with their Roman rulers, but were still proud Greeks. Lucian, (c. 117-after 180 C.E.), born in Samosata, now the village of Samsat in Syria, tried a legal career before turning to lecturing, travelling widely over the empire giving public lectures. When he was about forty, he settled in Athens and wrote satirical essays which laughed at the lives and beliefs of conventional Greeks and Romans. Then, as old age began to close in on him, he accepted a job on the staff of the governor of Egypt, thereby joining the “Establishment” that had been the butt of his humor. His favorite literary forms were dialogues and epistles; the first was borrowed from the theater and also from the dialogues of Plato, and the epistle pretended to be a letter addressed to someone: thus his essay on a charlatan, Alexander of Abonoteichos, takes the form of a letter addressed to one Celsus. Alexander invented a religion centered on a god named Glycon who was incarnate in a large, tame snake that was fitted with an artificial head with a speaking tube so that the snake could give prophecies and answer questions, rather like the Wizard of Oz. Lucian ends his epistle with the hope that it may help the general reader by shattering his illusions and confirming any sensible ideas he might have.


Lucian was educated under a system heavily influenced by a literary movement known as the “Second Sophistic.” It taught that an author should model his content and style on the best Greek authors of the past, and the most obvious way to do this was to use many quotations and allusions to these authors. It also placed great value on rhetorical exercises, and the chief “Sophists” of the movement were orators who gave declamations, often before large audiences that thronged to hear them perform in theaters or music halls (called “odeons”) or other public buildings. The movement got its designation “Second Sophistic” from its memorialist, Philostratus, who belonged to a literary family on the island of Lemnos. Philostratus gave the literary renaissance that he chronicled in his Lives of the Sophists the name “Second Sophistic.” Philostratus’ “Sophists” were polished, cultivated orators who were to be distinguished from the sophists of the classical period in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. They were men like Dio of Prusa, nicknamed Chrysostomos (“Golden-Mouthed”) who lived about 40-110 C.E., Aelius Aristides (117-189 B.C.E.), and Maximus of Tyre (c. 125-185 C.E.). Their repertory of speeches celebrated both the power and the beneficence of Rome, and at the same time the glorious past of Greece. Nowadays their sociological content is more interesting than their literary excellence. Aelius Aristides, for instance, wrote a panegyric in praise of Rome that shared its power with the ruling classes among the subject peoples that it ruled by granting them Roman citizenship as a reward for cooperation. Aristides gives us a window into the psychology of Greece under Roman rule.

The Novel

Writing romantic novels did not begin with the “Second Sophistic” but this was the period of its great development. In fact, Dio of Prusa included a novella in one of his orations. The other novels we have are Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton, An Ephesian Tale by Xenophon, Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius, Daphnis and Chloe by Longus, and the Aethiopica of Heliodorus. The authors are only names to us. The plots are full of voyages and adventures with pirates, shipwrecks, and premature burials, and the characters live in a world where everything is governed by chance, but apart from that, they show considerable variation. Chariton’s romance, which could date as early as the first century B.C.E. is a historical novel; Chariton places it after the Athenian expedition to Sicily (415-434 B.C.E.) which took place in the Peloponnesian War and ended in disaster at Syracuse. His heroine Callirhoe is the daughter of Hermocrates, the Syracusan leader of the resistance against Athens. Daphnis and Chloe is the story of a shepherd, Daphnis, and his love, Chloe, who, like characters in a Greek New Comedy, turn out to be children of well-to-do parents. There are religious overtones to these novels. Xenophon’s Ephesian Tale celebrates the cult of Artemis of Ephesus and Heliodorus celebrates the cult of the Sun-God, known in Rome as Sol Invictus. In this respect they resemble Apuleius’ Latin novel known as The Golden Ass which is a better novel than any of them. It need not surprise us that some of the Christian apocryphal gospels as well as stories of Christian saints borrow features from the novel.

The Acceptance of Roman Rule

The underlying theme of the historians who wrote in Greek was acceptance of Roman rule, and recognition of the benefits that it brought to its subjects. The same Dionysius of Halicarnassus who wrote On Ancient Orators also wrote a history of early Rome titled Roman Antiquities which covered the period from Rome’s beginnings to where Polybius began his history with Rome’s first war with Carthage (265-241 B.C.E.). His aim was to celebrate Rome’s empire and also to prove a special relationship between Greece and Rome by proving that Rome’s origin was Greek. Flavius Josephus (37-100 C.E.), a Jew who took part in the rebellion of Judaea against Rome that broke out in 66 C.E. but went over to the Roman side in 67 C.E., wrote the history of the revolt in his Jewish War, a work in seven books written in the tradition of the great classical historians Herodotus and Thucydides. His aims in writing, he tells the reader, were to remind the victors in the war of the valor of the men they conquered, and also to console the Jews who were vanquished and urge them to reflect on their failed revolt. Josephus wrote one other major work, his Antiquities of the Jews on Jewish history, as well as a tract titled Against Apion which is a reply to an anti-Semitic tract written by someone called Apion who is otherwise unknown. Josephus accepted Roman rule, but he remained proud of his Jewish heritage. The Egyptian Appian, who was born at the end of the first century C.E. emphasized the benefits of Roman rule in his Roman history. He was not an original researcher—he was a civil servant dabbling in history—but his organization was an effort at a new approach. He wrote a history of Rome’s conquests, people by people and region by region. He did not completely abandon the annalistic technique whereby the historian presents the pageant of the past year by year, but he made an effort to deal with Rome’s wars of conquest as separate military operations.


Arrian, or Flavius Arrianus, to give him his full name, was a governor of Cappadocia in Asia Minor under the emperor Hadrian (117-138 C.E.) where he defeated an invasion by an Iranian tribe known as the Alans in 134 C.E. He was a disciple of the philosopher Epictetus, and like Xenophon with Socrates, he preserved his teachings. His major work that survives is his Anabasis which borrows its title from Xenophon’s Anabasis (“The March Up Country”), but Arrian’s “March” is the story of Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire (334-323 B.C.E.). He based his history on the memoir written by Ptolemy, Alexander’s general who became king of Egypt and founded the Ptolemaic dynasty that ended with the suicide of Cleopatra in 30 B.C.E., supplementing Ptolemy when necessary with the memoir of Aristobulus who had been a Greek technician with Alexander’s army. Arrian’s account is a sober narrative, and a valuable source for the military campaign of Alexander, for the historians contemporary with him have survived only in fragments.

Cassius Dio

Cassius Dio deserves special notice, for he is an important source for Roman history. He was born in Iznik in modern Turkey, ancient Nicaea, the son of a consul, in 163 or 164 C.E., and he himself would become a consul and a provincial governor under the emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 C.E.). He started to write in the reign of Caracalla (211-217 C.E.), one of the most odious emperors of Rome. His history, starting with Rome’s beginning and continuing to 229 B.C.E. was a tremendous work that took ten years to prepare and twelve to write. Part of it has survived, and for the missing portions, we have digests written by later writers in the Byzantine period. For the reign of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome (27 B.C.E.-14 C.E.), the account of Cassius Dio is the fullest that we have.

The Christian Writers

Although still in its infancy in the first century C.E., Christianity began to produce its own literature almost as soon as its founder, Jesus, was crucified in 33 C.E. The earliest writings were letters exchanged between the disciples of Jesus and converts that were later compiled as the New Testament of the Bible. As the persecution of the Christian church intensified, other writings commemorated martyrdoms. One of the earliest examples is a group of seven letters composed by Bishop Ignatius of Antioch who, in his old age, was taken to Rome to be put to death sometime in the reign of the emperor Trajan (98-117 C.E.). Guarded by ten Roman soldiers, whom he describes in one letter as “ten leopards,” he travelled across modern Turkey to Smyrna (modern Izmir), where he composed letters to the Christian communities nearby, and from there he proceeded to the Hellespont where he embarked on a ship for Rome. The custodian of Ignatius’ letters was the bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, who was burned to death at the age of 86 in the arena at Smyrna in 156 C.E.; the story of his martyrdom survives in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic versions. Apologies, that is, defenses of the Christian faith appear in the second century C.E.; one of the first, notable for its conciliatory tone, was by Justin the Martyr, who was born in Shechem (modern Nablus in Israel). His apologies are lucid explanations of Christianity for the non-Christian; his First Apology, written about 150 C.E. is addressed to the emperor Antoninus Pius, and his Dialogue with Trypho reports a discussion with a Jewish rabbi which ends on a note of mutual tolerance and respect. By the third century C.E. Christian theology was borrowing from the Greek philosophers. The most brilliant theologian of the period was Origen (185-254 C.E.), who learned philosophy in Alexandria where a fellow pupil was Plotinus, the founder of Neo-Platonism, the mystical interpretation of Plato which was to be the last great school of pagan philosophy. After teaching for a period in Alexandria, Origen moved to Caesarea in Palestine where he produced, among other works, the first critical edition of the Old Testament. During the brief but violent persecution of the Christians under the emperor Decius (249-251 C.E.), Origen was tortured, and never recovered from the ordeal. Later Christian churchmen decided that Origen had married Greek philosophy a little too closely with Christianity, and judged him heretical. The same fate befell the greatest of the Latin theologians, Tertullian, who was born in Carthage in North Africa about 155 C.E., converted to Christianity about age forty, and then abandoned Catholicism for the heresy of Montanism, which was founded by a Christian in Phrygia (in western Turkey) who claimed to have a new revelation vouchsafed him by the Holy Spirit. Tertullian wrote over thirty treatises on all aspects of life, from women’s fashions to sports in the arena. But the great age of Latin theology came in the fourth and fifth centuries C.E., after the empire became Christian, with men such as St. Augustine and St. Jerome.