Ancient Greek literature is usually divided into three periods: the Ionic period or more properly Hellenic or Archaic (from the origins to about 500 BC); the Attic period (from about 500 to 323 BC), corresponding to the maximum flourishing of the city of Athens; the Hellenistic period (from 323 BC, date of the death of Alexander the Great, to 529 AD, date of the closure of the University of Athens), divided in turn into two periods: the Alexandrian (up to the Roman conquest) and the Roman. The border with subsequent Byzantine literature is very uncertain, in which Greek literature is transformed without solution of continuity.
Archaic period (up to 500 BC)
Greek literature, at the state of our knowledge, presents us with a succession of complex or perfect works whose immediate precedents we ignore; this gave birth to the romantic myth of an absolute and almost miraculous originality of Greek literature.
Without examining the unfolding of the Homeric question, it is enough to remember that it could have arisen due to the absolute lack of historical information about the figure of Homer, due to the diversity of political, social and moral content between the two great poems that tradition attributes to it, due to the contradictions that are found within each of the two poems. It is agreed that the Iliad and the Odyssey were formed in the form known to us at the beginning of the so-called Hellenic Middle Ages (end of the 8th century-beginning of the 7th; the Iliad before the Odyssey); and that this happened through the work of two brilliant poets, who drew on songs formed previously in a long tradition of aedi and rhapsodes. This tradition would have had its first phase in Aeolian territory with more lyrical forms, and would then develop into wider and narrative forms with the Ionians. In the two poems attributed to Homer there are already some fundamental characters of Greek literature, including the art of transferring the story into a lyrical and dramatic climate of high emotional value. Common to the two poems is also the art of cutting the story by introducing the reader into medias res and choosing from the vast mythical material.
Other episodes, treated by the aedi prior to Homer, converged instead in the large flowering of the ‘ epic cycle ‘ – aimed at an orderly and complete narration – of which nothing remains, but we know that it constituted a kind of vast repertoire of legends to which they resorted the later poets, especially the tragic ones.
In Theogony, Hesiod (end of the 8th century) gives a doctrinal arrangement to the vast theological and mythical material which has been constituted over many years of ‘mythopea’. The epos moves from the colonies of Asia Minor to the motherland, abandons the heroic and the fantastic to obey practical demands and assume meditative attitudes. This is evident above all in the Works, in which the poet describes and exalts the hard work of man, in a rough, hostile countryside.
The age following Hesiod (7th-6th century), in correspondence with the political and social crisis that in many Greek cities led from the monarchical government to the aristocratic one, to tyranny and then to democracy, saw the emergence of strong personalities poetics in the various forms of lyric poetry: the elegy, for the meter and the language very close to the epos; iambic poetry, also Ionic but of popular origin; lyric in the strict sense (or melica) associated with the sound of the lyre, and divided in turn into Aeolian (or monodic) and Doric (or choral) poetry. Of so much artistic production, only fragments remain. The elegy, to which Archilochus it gave lyrical impetus and epigrammatic speed, it was widely treated in the 7th and 6th centuries, but in more discursive forms, with a prevalence of gnomic, parenetic, moralizing tones. The poetically most vivid voice is that of Mimnermo, a contemporary of Solon. The iambic poetry, of which Archilochus was considered the inventor, was continued by Semonides of Amorgos, who generalized the satire by inserting it on fabulous motifs, and by the very personal Hipponatte of Ephesus (about half of the 6th century). The Aeolian lyric appears at the end of the 7th century. and at the beginning of the 6th with its own language and metrics (➔ Aeolians). The distant roots are to be sought in that substratum that preceded and gave nourishment to the Ionian epic; but of this lyric only two voices have reached us, those of Alceo and Saffo, whose fragments also constitute the only source for the knowledge of the literary wind. Aeolian poetry had a continuer in the Ionic Anacreon, a few decades after Alceo. Doric lyric, often written to be sung by a choir, takes place with metric structures determined, rather than in the aeolian, by musical needs, and appears more closely linked to external occasions; it was used by Alcmane and Ibico di Reggio. Drafting of Imera (in Sicily) gave greater development to the epic narration, although present in Alcmane, starting the choral composition to that epic-lyric character that prevails in the following age and that is known to us above all from Bacchilides and Pindaro. The ancients also attributed to Stesicoro the invention of the strophic triad (stanzas, antistrofe, epodus) which remains the characteristic form of this poem.
The prose took place late, in the 6th century. and in the Ionian land, where it appears as a derivation of the epic, dealing in competition with it genealogical, geographical, historical narratives. Among the prose writers, Hecateus of Miletus was particularly important. The first philosophical speculation, of the milese Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Heraclitus of Ephesus, who all dealt with the problem of the origin and constitution of the Universe, is connected to the didactic and cosmogonic poetry. From Ionia, philosophy moved to Sicily and Magna Greece, where the Pythagorean and Eleatic schools flourished (Xenophanes, Parmenides, Empedocles). Popular novellism, especially the animal fable, flourished in Asia Minor, in the 6th century, and gathered around the name of Aesop.