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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

William Smith, A Smaller History of Ancient Greece






Sketch of the History of Greek Literature from the Earliest Times to the Reign of Alexander the Great

Cf. A Short History of Greek Philosophy


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HE GREEKS possessed two large collections of epic poetry. The one comprised poems relating to the great events and enterprises of the Heroic age, and characterised by a certain poetical unity; the other included works tamer in character and more desultory in their mode of treatment, containing the genealogies of men and gods, narratives of the exploits of separate heroes, and descriptions of the ordinary pursuits of life. The poems of the former class passed under the name of Homer; while those of the latter were in the same general way ascribed to Hesiod. The former were the productions of the Ionic and AEolic minstrels in Asia Minor, among whom Homer stood pre-eminent and eclipsed the brightness of the rest: the latter were the compositions of a school of bards in the neighbourhood of Mount Helicon in Boeotia, among whom in like manner Hesiod enjoyed the greatest celebrity. The poems of both schools were composed in the hexameter metre and in a similar dialect; but they differed widely in almost every other feature.

Of the Homeric poems the Iliad and the Odyssey were the most distinguished and have alone come down to us. The subject of the Iliad was the exploits of Achilles and of the other Grecian heroes before Ilium or Troy; that of the Odyssey was the wanderings and adventures of Odysseus or Ulysses after the capture of Troy on his return to his native island. Throughout the flourishing period of Greek literature these unrivalled works were universally regarded as the productions of a single mind; but there was very little agreement respecting the place of the poet's birth the details of his life, or the time in which he lived. Seven cities laid claim to Homer's birth, and most of them had legends to tell respecting his romantic parentage, his alleged blindness, and his life of an itinerant bard acquainted with poverty and sorrow. It cannot be disputed that he was an Asiatic Greek; but this is the only fact in his life which can be regarded as certain. Several of the best writers of antiquity supposed him to have been a native of the island of Chios; but most modern scholars believe Smyrna to have been his birthplace. His most probable date is about B.C. 850.

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