History of Literature, Fhilosophy and Religions



A Brief History of Western Literature
Introduction Western Literature
The Foundations of Western Literature
The Bible
Classical  Literature
The Middle Ages and the Renaissance
The 17-18th Century
The 18-19th Century 






see also texts:

VERGIL "The Aeneid"

HOMER "Iliad", "Odyssey"

APULEIUS "The Golden Asse"

LONGUS "Daphnis and Chloe"

 "Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes" by E. Hamilton

"Bulfinch's Mythology" by T. Bulfinch



 see also illustrations:

The Odyssey of Homer

illustrations by
John Flaxman

Greek and Roman Myths in Art

see also EXPLORATION (in Russian):

Homer  "Iliad "and "Odyssey"

Apuleius "The Golden Asse"

illustrations by Jean de Bosschere and Martin Van Maele


"The Pastorals, or the Loves of Daphnis and Chloe

illustrations by Marc Chagall




We can be certain that people told stories almost as soon as they learned how to speak, but stories could not be recorded until they could be written down. Pictures came before writing - the cave paintings at Altamira are nearly 20,000 years old — and pictures, like words, are a form of communication. Marks that identified objects are at least as old, although a full system of writing did not develop until about 5,000 years ago.


Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)
The Apotheosis of Homer



A form of writing called 'cuneiform', with symbols representing objects and concepts, developed in ancient Mesopotamia (roughly, modern Iraq) about 3100 B.C. Cuneiform means 'wedge-shaped', so called because such symbols were easy to make on the clay tablets that served as paper. Writing was at first used for things like grocery lists — how much corn in the barn, etc. The earliest surviving epic, Gilgamesh, which tells of the adventures of a kind of super-hero, was first written down in cuneiform script about 1,000 years later.
Meanwhile the Egyptians had invented a better material than clay tablets for writing, made from pressed sheets of papyrus reed. Their hieroglyphic script, like Chinese, developed from picture-symbols. By about 2000 B.C. they were writing text books, poems and even stories.
A full writing system requires an alphabet, providing a sign for every sound in the language. Along with other eastern Mediterranean people, including the Arabs and the Hebrews, the Phoenicians had a syllabic system before 1000 B.C., with signs for the different syllables, and the alphabet followed on from that. The Greeks borrowed this system and made the final step of dividing consonants from vowels and writing each one separately, thus inventing the modern alphabet. All alphabets were derived from theirs.

















Masks from Greek drama













see also:

John Flaxman

The Odyssey of Homer


see also:

Greek and Roman Myths in Art

see also EXPLORATION (in Russian):

Homer  "Iliad "and "Odyssey"



In the late 8th century B.C., Greek literature began to be written down. As in other ancient literatures, the subjects concerned gods and heroes: the religious myths that people invent to explain phenomena for which they have no scientific explanation, and the exploits of famous men. They too are largely mythical though perhaps based more closely on real events than we can be sure of now. Archaeology has shown, for example, that the story of the siege of Troy was almost certainly based on an actual war between the Mycaeneans, forerunners of the Greeks, and their neighbours. These were stories that were, in one form or another, well known, having been repeated orally for many generations. They were brought together in two magnificent works of epic poetry, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.
These works formed the basis, almost the 'Bible', of Greek culture, and if any one person can be called the founder of Western literature, it is Homer. But was Homer one person? Tradition says he was a blind bard, who recited his epic verse at social gatherings, but there are no facts about him and most scholars believe that the Iliad and the Odyssey were written or reworked to varying degrees by different people. The structure changes, and there are signs of additions, and odd discrepancies: the author of the Odyssey seemed to like dogs, but the author of the Iliad did not.
The Iliad relates events during the ten-year siege of Troy, originally provoked by the abduction of the beautiful Helen by the Trojan prince Paris, and in particular the incidents arising from the wrath of Achilles, the premier Greek hero who was antagonized by the commander, Agamemnon. It ends with the capture of the city by Greek warriors smuggled into Troy in a wooden horse. The deviser of the wooden horse was Odysseus, a hero with brains as well as brawn, and the Odyssey is the story of his return home, a journey that lasted even longer than the siege and included encounters with the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, the enchantress Circe, the Lotus eaters, the Sirens, the monsters Scylla and Charybdis and others whose names are part of our culture.
Every educated person in ancient Greece grew up with Homer, regarded as the greatest of all poets. Being in Greek, his tales were not read in medieval Europe, but regained immense popularity in the 19th century. The British statesman W. E. Gladstone, among others, wrote several books on him.


Homer was not of course the only writer in Archaic Greece (roughly 8th-6th centuries B.C.). Ionia produced the first Greek philosophers and scientists (as well as, possibly, Homer himself). On the island of Lesbos, the mysterious Sappho wrote her poems about love. The beginnings of Greek drama appeared in Attica, and distinctive forms of verse, notably lyric poetry, established their identities. Excluding Homer, the best-known writer of the period is Hesiod, who seems to have lived soon after him. He was the first Greek poet to find his subject matter in sources other than mythology. His 'Works and Days' reflected his knowledge of farming and provided practical advice for peasants, as well fascinating information on rural life of the time.


"Zeus had spoken. His Messenger (Hermes) obeyed at once and bound under his feet the lovely sandals of untarnishable gold that carried him with the speed of the wind over the water or the boundless earth; and he picked up the wand which he can use at will to cast a spell upon our eyes or wake us from the soundest sleep. With this wand in his hand ... he swooped down on the sea, and skimmed the waves like a sea-mew [gull] drenching the feathers of its wings with spray as it pursues the fish down desolate gulfs of the unhar-vested deep. So Hermes rode the unending waves . . ."

Homer Odyssey
(prose translation by E.V. Rieu).



Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)
The Death of Socrates




By the end of the Archaic period, there were signs that literary traditions were becoming
centred on Athens. Athens's leading role in the Persian Wars, in which the Greek city states
successfully defended their independence against the Persian empire, opened a glorious period of
expansion and prosperity, with such a flowering of literature and the arts as has perhaps never
since been equalled. Although defeat in the Peloponnesian War (431-04 B.C.) ended
Athenian dominance, its literary creativity continued until the end of the Classical era,
conveniently marked by the Macedonian conquest of 338 B.C.



see also:

Greek and Roman Myths in Art



Almost every type of literary composition with which we are familiar can be traced back to the Greeks. The most noted is probably tragic drama, but epic poetry and history are close behind, while in philosophy the Greeks created the foundation on which virtually all subsequent Western thought has been based. Western philosophy, it has been said, is essentially a series of footnotes to Plato.
The Athenian form of direct democracy, in which all citizens participated, not only encouraged public speaking, but also promoted the arts of oratory and rhetoric. At the highest level, there was intense debate on questions of morality and ethics. Against this background, Socrates appeared. His probing discussions with the bright young men of Athens turned philosophy from a somewhat fruitless speculation on the nature of the universe into the study of human society and moral values.
One of the most influential thinkers in history, Socrates didn't write a word. His teaching is known to us through his disciples, in particular Plato, who, himself, was no mere reporter, but an original thinker, at least the equal of Socrates, who turned philosophical dialogue into an art form. He was the author of the seductive theory of the ideal: that there is a perfect essence of any concept which represents the truth. (A crude example: all tables are imperfect approximations of the essence of tableness.)
Aristotle, a pupil of Plato and a thinker of limitless range, looked for reality in particulars rather than in essentials. He was to remain the supreme authority on most subjects (excluding religion) throughout the Middle Ages, and one of the hardest tasks of the thinkers of the European Renaissance was to gain credence for ideas that ran contrary to Aristotle's teaching. There were also famous schools of philosophy, such as the Stoics whose ideas, seriously misrepresented by the word "stoical", were remarkably similar to those of Christianity and had a profound influence on Christian thinkers.



see also:

Greek and Roman Myths in Art



There are earlier examples of "historical" writing in the chronicles of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and in the Book of Genesis, but history as a matter of recorded fact began with the Greeks. Herodotus, the "father" of history, who wrote about the Persian Wars, was the first to break away from myth and legend in pursuit of facts. He was certainly not a scientific historian: his plentiful and fascinating digressions included highly improbable episodes, although he was usually careful to say that they were things he had been told, rather than things that were true. Herodotus makes interesting and informative reading, but  is considered the greater historian. His history of the Peloponnesian War is one of the great classics of historiography. He was writing contemporary history, having held a high command in the war himself, and he employed both documentary and oral sources, but he used them with discrimination, assessing them for accuracy, looking for causes as well as relating events, and displaying shrewd judgment of what was significant and what was not. Like his successors, he was essentially concerned with human behaviour, its influence on history, and the conclusions about human nature that may be drawn from history. The fact that he was also a marvellous writer explains why some people, even now, know more about a civil war in Greece 2,400 years ago than they do about the far greater conflicts of their own era.







Besides Homer, only fragments of epic poetry survive from before the 6th century B.C. Lyric poetry, originally poetry sung to the lyre and written in a variety of metres, was then coming into its own, in drinking songs and songs of love and personal feeling. Lesbos, the island of Sappho, seems to have been its place of birth.
The greatest lyric poet was Pindar, unusually not an Athenian, but a native of Boeotia. After Pindar's death (c.440 B.C.), the finest lyric poetry was to be found in the works of dramatists. As in so many subjects, the great expert on poetry was Aristotle, whose Poetics is the origin of the dramatic unities, a particular influence on French Classical drama of the 17th century.


"So little trouble do men take in the search after truth, they prefer to accept whatever comes first to hand. Yet anyone who, upon the evidence which I have given, arrives at some such conclusion as my own about those ancient times, would not be far wrong. He must not put more reliance in the exaggerated embellishments of the poets, or in the tales of chroniclers who composed their work to please the ear rather than to speak the truth."

Thucydides The Veloponnesian War
(trans. Jowett, rev. Brunt)


see also:

Greek and Roman Myths in Art



see also:

Apuleius "The Golden Asse"

illustrations by

Jean de Bosschere


Martin Van Maele



born c. 124, , Madauros, Numidia [near modern Mdaourouch, Alg.]
died , probably after 170

Platonic philosopher, rhetorician, and author remembered for The Golden Ass, a prose narrative that proved influential long after his death. The work, called Metamorphoses by its author, narrates the adventures of a young man changed by magic into an ass.

Apuleius, who was educated at Carthage and Athens, traveled in the Mediterranean region and became interested in contemporary religious initiation rites, among them the ceremonies associated with worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis. Intellectually versatile and acquainted with works of both Latin and Greek writers, he taught rhetoric in Rome before returning to Africa to marry a rich widow, Aemilia Pudentilla. To meet her family's charge that he had practiced magic to win her affection, he wrote the Apologia (“Defense”), the major source for his biography.

For The Golden Ass it is likely that he used material from the lost Metamorphoses by Lucius of Patrae, which is cited by some as the source for the brief extant Greek work on a similar theme, Lucius, or the Ass, attributed to the Greek rhetorician Lucian. Though Apuleius' novel is fiction, it contains a few definitely autobiographical details, and its hero has been seen as a partial portrait of its author. It is particularly valuable for its description of the ancient religious mysteries, and Lucius' restoration from animal to human shape, with the aid of Isis, and his acceptance into herpriesthood suggests that Apuleius himself had been initiated into that cult. Considered a revelation of ancient manners, the work has been praised for its entertaining and at times bawdy episodes that alternate between the dignified, the ludicrous, the voluptuous, and the horrible. Its “Cupid and Psyche” tale (Books 4 through 6) has been frequently imitated by later writers, including the English poets Shakerley Marmion in 1637, Mary Tighe in 1805, William Morris in The Earthly Paradise (1868–70), and Robert Bridges in 1885 and 1894, and C.S. Lewis in the novel Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (1956). Some of Lucius' adventures reappear in The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, in Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, and in Gil Blas by Alain Le Sage. Of Apuleius' other literary works his Florida is, like The Golden Ass, stylistically affected.

More influential than this collection of the author's declamations on various subjects are his philosophical treatises. He wrote three books on Plato (the third is lost): De Platone et eius dogmate (“On Plato and His Teaching”) and De Deo Socratis (“On the God of Socrates”), which expounds the Platonic notion of demons, beneficent creatures intermediate between gods and mortals. His De mundo (“On the World”) adapts a treatise incorrectly attributed to Aristotle. Apuleius asserts that he wrote a number of poemsand works on natural history, but these works are lost. The noted Asclepius, a Latin translation of a (now lost) Greek Hermetic dialogue, has been wrongly attributed to him. His collected works were first edited by Joannes Andreas (1469);later editions in Latin include a three-volume collection by Rudolf Helm and Paul Thomas (1905–10) and the Index Apuleianus by William Abbott Old father, Howard Vernon Canter, and Ben Edwin Perry (1934). In English, The Works of Apuleius was edited by Hudson Gurney in 1853, and modern editions appear in the Loeb Classical Library series.



flourished 3rd century AD

Greek writer, author of Daphnis and Chloe, the first pastoral prose romance (see pastoral literature) and one of the most popular of the Greek erotic romances.

The story concerns Daphnis and Chloe, two foundlings brought up by shepherds in Lesbos, who gradually fall in love and finally marry. The author is less concerned with the complications of plot, however, than with describing the way that love developed between his hero and heroine, from their first nave and confused feelings of childhood to full sexual maturity. Longus' penetrating psychological analysis contrasts strongly with the inept characterization of other Greek romances. His stylized descriptions of gardens and landscapes and the alternating of the seasons show a notable feeling for nature. The general tone of his romance is dictated by the quality prescribed by ancient critics for the bucolic genre—glykytes, a “sweetening” of the pastoral life.

see also:

"The Pastorals, or the Loves of Daphnis and Chloe

illustrations by Marc Chagall



Franz von Matsch (1861-1942)
Greek Theatre




Drama represented the peak of Greek civilization and has remained a huge influence on the Western tradition. Anyone who comes to Greek tragedy with prior knowledge of, for example, Shakespeare will find it strikingly familiar.







Greek drama originated as a religious ritual performed at festivals such as the Athenian festival of Dionysus, consisting mainly of songs sung by a chorus. (Music was an important part of Classical drama, but no legacy survives today.) Through the work of the three great tragic playwrights, it evolved into a new art. The subject matter remained traditional religious myths, but was reinterpreted to engender a profound investigation of human fate and the relationship between gods and human beings. Several plays were performed in one evening, including comedies, which were sometimes extremely coarse.
The greatest author of comedies was Aristophanes (died c.380 B.C.), equally adept at crude jokes and heavenly lyric poetry. The 'new comedy' of Alenander and others in the late 4th century is the direct ancestor of the "comedy of manners". Drama was extremely popular among most classes. As Arthur Miller noted, the Greek theatre at Syracuse could hold 14,000 people.


The first of the great tragic triumvirate, Aeschylus was born near Athens in 525 B.C. and fought in the Persian Wars. He wrote nearly 100 plays, including satyrs (comedies about satyrs, not necessarily "satires" in the modern sense). Seven complete plays have survived, including Persians, Seven Against Thebes and the Oresteia trilogy about the doomed House of Atreus, which won the last of his many drama prizes in 458 B.C. Regarded as the founder of Greek tragedy, he introduced individual actors and dramatic dialogue, adopted stage costume and 'special effects', and, although Sophocles is said to have first introduced it, he seems to have used scenery. His themes are grand and solemn, dealing with destiny and the irresistible working of fate. His language is vivid, and as a lyric poet he is unsurpassed. Legend has it he was killed when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head.


A generation younger than Aeschylus, Sophocles (b.496 B.C.), lived throughout the greatest years of Athenian prosperity and through its defeat in the Peloponnesian War. He wrote even more plays than Aeschylus, but only seven (all tragedies) have survived. Antigone, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonnus (first produced after his death by his grandson, another Sophocles) and Electra are all still frequently performed.
Sophocles, who first won the drama prize in 468 B.C., defeating Aeschylus amid great popular excitement, was responsible for important developments in drama, including the introduction of a third actor and greater exploitation of scenery. He gave up the tradition of compiling plays as part of a trilogy, writing each one as complete in itself. He generally gave greater weight to human will, rather than the will of the gods, who were more remote, though no less respected, and action tended to grow from character rather than arbitrary events. Sophocles is thus the founder of the concept of the tragic hero, a great man ruined by his faults. Oedipus Rex is perhaps the most influential play ever written. Aristotle took it as the model tragedy in his Poetics. Sigmund Freud found in it the basis of his famous theory of the 'Oedipus complex'.
Sophocles was a handsome, charming and popular man. Though neither a politician nor a soldier, his fame brought him high office in Athens, and after his death at the age of 90 he was recognized as semi-divine.


Though no less successful, Euripides, born in 480 B.C., was a less genial, more reclusive figure than Sophocles. He wrote at least 80 plays, of which 18 have survived more or less intact. Among those still performed today are Medea, Trojan Women, Orestes, Iphigenia at Aulis, Iphigenia in Tauris, Andromache and Electra. His work is closer to everyday life than that of his two great predecessors, and was more controversial, for Euripides was prepared to question traditional morality as well as contemporary society. His lyric verse, especially his descriptions of nature, is more charming than grand in the manner of Aeschylus. His plays tend to show people in the grip of powerful and conflicting passions, but his language is more natural, less high-flown. Even more than Sophocles, he excelled in portraits of women, whether heroines or villains.
Like Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides came in for some amusing mockery at the hands of Aristophanes (for instance in The Frogs), but he was generally regarded with immense respect. Plutarch related several stories of his popularity; for instance, that the Spartan generals about to destroy Athens in 404 B.C. were dissuaded by someone singing the first chorus from Electra. Euripides spent his last years at the Macedonian royal court and died a victim, according to legend, of some misguided hunting dogs.


"Now let the bloodstained god of war Whose savage music I hear Though no swords clash or shields ring, Be driven from our city, where the only song Is the groan of the dying, the whimper of fear. Rout him, the man-slayer, let him fly In disorder, let him hide his head In some bleak Thracian bay, Or ease himself in Amphitrite's bed. Now, whoever survives the night Dies at first light. Great Father Zeus, you who punish with fire, Incinerate the god of war Before we all lie dead."

Sophocles Oedipus Rex
(trans. Don Taylor, 1986)


Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy