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Greek Literature

Greek literature opens with a problem of the first magnitude. Two splendid Epics have been preserved which are ascribed to “Homer", yet few would agree that Homer wrote them both.

Towards the end of the sixth century before Christ, one of the most momentous advances in literature was made by the genius of Aeschylus. European drama was created and a means of utterance was given to the rapidly growing democratic spirit of Greece. Before Aeschylus wrote, rude public exhibitions had been given of the life and adventures of Dionysus, the god of wine. Choruses had sung odes to the deity and variety was obtained by a series of short dialogues between one of the Chorus and the remainder.

In Aeschylus' dramas the will of the gods tended to override human responsibility. An improvement could be effected by making the personages real captains of their souls; drama needed bringing down from heaven to earth. This process was effected by Sophocles. He was born at Colonus, near Athens, in 495, mixed with the best society in Periclean times, was a member of the important board of administrators who controlled the Delian League, the nucleus of the Athenian Empire, and composed over one hundred tragedies.

No-Man's Land was the scene of many tragedies during the Great War. There has come down to us a remarkable tragedy, called the Rhesus, about a similar region. It treats first of the Dolon incident of the Iliad. Hector sent out Dolon to reconnoitre, and soon afterwards some Phrygian shepherds bring news that Rhesus has arrived that very night with a Thracian army.

At the end of the Symposium Plato represents Socrates as convincing both Agathon, a tragedian, and Aristophanes that the writer of tragedy will be able to write comedy also. That the two forms are not wholly divorced is clear from the history of ancient drama itself: Each dramatist competed with four plays, three tragedies and a Satyric drama.

Greek historical literature follows the same course of development as Greek poetry; it begins in epic form in Ionia and ends in dramatic type at Athens.

History, like an individual's life, is a succession of well-defined periods. Herodotus took as his subject a long cycle of events; the shorter period was first treated by Thucydides who introduced methods which entitle him to be regarded as the first modern historian. Born in Attica in 471 he was a victim of the great plague, was exiled for his failure to check Brasidas at Eion in 424 and spent the rest of his life in collecting materials for his great work. His death took place about 402.

Shortly after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war Plato was born, probably in 427. During the eighty years of his life he travelled to Sicily at least twice, founded the Academy at Athens and saw the beginning of the end of the Greek freedom. He represents the reflective spirit in a nation which seems to appear when its development is well advanced.

One of the most disquieting facts that history teaches is the inability of the most enlightened and patriotic men to “discern the signs of the times”. To us the collapse of the Greek city-states seems natural and inevitable. Their constant bickerings and petty jealousies justly drew down upon them the armed might of the ambitious and capable power which destroyed them. Their fate may fill us with pity and our admiration for those who fought in a losing cause may prejudice us against their enslavers.

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