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ELPENOR - Home of the Greek Word

Three Millennia of Greek Literature

R. W. Livingstone 
On the Ancient Greek Literature

From, R. W. Livingstone, Literature,
in R.W. Livingstone (ed.), The Legacy of Greece, Oxford University Press, 1921.













A man walking down Shaftesbury Avenue from Piccadilly to Charing Cross Road passes the Lyric Theatre. If it is the evening, a dramatic performance is probably taking place inside. It may be a tragedy, or some form of comedy. If it is a musical comedy and he enters, he will see elaborate scenery and a play which may open with a prologue and which is partly composed of dialogue between the various characters, partly of songs in various metres sung by a chorus to the accompaniment of an orchestra. As the words in italics indicate, our imaginary passer-by will have seen, though he may not have suspected it, a symbol of the indelible mark which the Greeks have set on the aesthetic and intellectual life of Europe, and of the living presence of Greece in the twentieth century. An ancient Athenian might be startled at the sight of a musical comedy and its chorus, but he would be looking at his own child, a descendant, however distant, degenerate, and hard to recognize, of that chorus which with dance and song moved round the altar of Dionysus in the theatre of his home.

The same imprint, clear or faint, is on all our literary forms, except perhaps one. Epic, lyric, elegiac, dramatic, didactic, poetry, history, biography, rhetoric and oratory, the epigram, the essay, the sermon, the novel, letter writing and literary criticism are all Greek by origin, and in nearly every case their name betrays their source. Rome raises a doubtful claim to satire, but the substance of satire is present in the Old Comedy, and the form seems to have existed in writings now lost. There are even one or two genres, such as the imaginary speech, which Greece invented and which are not, fortunately, found in modern literature. When the curtain rose on Homer, European literature did not exist: long before it falls on the late Byzantines, the lines were laid on which it has moved up to our own day. This is the entire work of a single people, politically weak, numerically small, materially poor—according to the economy of nature which in things of the mind and the spirit gives a germinating power to few. The Greeks are justly admired for individual poems, plays, and pieces of writing; but it was something even greater to have explored the possibilities of literature so far that posterity, while it has developed Greek genres, has not hitherto been able to add to them. This is one part of the Greek Legacy to literature.

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Cf. Elpenor's Bilingual Anthology of Greek Literature * Greek History Resources
A History of Greek Philosophy * A Sketch of the history of Greek literature
Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome

Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Greek Literature - Ancient, Medieval, Modern

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