History of Literature





The Beginnings of Literature. Myths and Legends

Classical Myth

Myth and Mystery


Hebrew literature

Ancient Greek literature

Ancient Greek literature. Greek theatre

Ancient Greek literature. Philosophical prose

Latin (Roman) literature

Latin (Roman) Literature. The Silver Age

Latin (Roman) Literature. Renaissance

Modern Italian Literature

The Middle Ages Literature

The Middle Ages. Elizabethan England

The Restoration

The Rise of the Novel

Cervantes and Spanish literature

The Enlightenment


Classicism and Naturalism

The 19th century - Prose

The 20th century - Modernism

The 20th century - The Political Novel

Ancient Greek literature. Greek theatre


Ancient Greek literature. Greek theatre

Aristophanes   "Lysistrata"  Illustrations by A. Beardsley, N. Lindsay and A. Boyd

Sophocles  "Antigone"

Euripides   "Electra", "Medea"







"Argonautica", "Jason and the Golden Fleece"
(BOOK 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Parallel Lives of famous Greeks and Romans
"   BOOKS: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Longus "The Pastorals, or the Loves of Daphnis and Chloe"
Illustrations by Marc Chagall   PART I, PART II


Dionysius of Halicarnassus
Eucleides of Megara
Sextus Empiricus









Ancient Greek literature

Greek theatre




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.

Aristophanes   "Lysistrata"   Illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, Norman Lindsay and Arthur Boyd


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 Menander 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.

"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)


("Electra", "Medea")


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.

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.


born c. 342 bc
died c. 292 bc

Athenian dramatist whom ancient critics considered the supreme poet of Greek New Comedy—i.e., the last flowering of Athenian stage comedy. During his life, his success was limited; although he wrote more than 100 plays, he won only eight victories at Athenian dramatic festivals.

Comedy had by his time abandoned public affairs and was concentrating instead on fictitious characters from ordinary life; the role of the chorus was generally confined to the performance of interludes between acts. Actors’ masks were retained but were elaborated to provide for the wider range of characters required by a comedy of manners and helped an audience without playbills to recognize these characters for what they were. Menander, who wrote in a refined Attic, by his time the literary language of the Greek-speaking world, was masterly at presenting such characters as stern fathers, young lovers, greedy demimondaines, intriguing slaves, and others.

Menander’s nicety of touch and skill at comedy in a light vein is clearly evident in the Dyscolus in the character of the gruff misanthrope Knemon, while the subtle clash and contrast of character and ethical principle in such plays as Perikeiromenē (interesting for its sympathetic treatment of the conventionally boastful soldier) and Second Adelphoe constitute perhaps his greatest achievement.

Menander’s works were much adapted by the Roman writers Plautus and Terence, and through them he influenced the development of European comedy from the Renaissance. Their work also supplements much of the lost corpus of his plays, of which no complete text exists, except that of the Dyscolus, first printed in 1958 from some leaves of a papyrus codex acquired in Egypt.

The known facts of Menander’s life are few. He was allegedly rich and of good family, and a pupil of the philosopher Theophrastus, a follower of Aristotle. In 321 Menander produced his first play, Orgē (“Anger”). In 316 he won a prize at a festival with the Dyscolus and gained his first victory at the Dionysia festival the next year. By 301 Menander had written more than 70 plays. He probably spent most of his life in Athens and is said to have declined invitations to Macedonia and Egypt. He allegedly drowned while swimming at the Piraeus (Athens’ port).


Tragedy may have developed from the dithyramb, the choral cult song of the god Dionysus. Arion of Lesbos, who is said to have worked at Corinth in about 600, is credited with being the first to write narrative poetry in this medium. Thespis (6th century bc), possibly combining with dithyrambs something of the Attic ritual of Dionysus of Eleutherae, is credited with having invented tragedy by introducing an actor who conversed with the chorus. These performances became a regular feature of the great festival of Dionysus at Athens about 534 bc. Aeschylus introduced a second actor, though his drama was still centred in the chorus, to whom, rather than to each other, his actors directed themselves.

At the tragic contests at the Dionysia each of three competing poets produced three tragedies and a satyr play, or burlesque, in which there was a chorus of satyrs. Aeschylus, unlike later poets, often made of his three tragedies a dramatic whole, treating a single story, as in the Oresteia, the only complete trilogy that has survived. His main concern was not dramatic excitement and the portrayal of character but rather the presentation of human action in relation to the overriding purpose of the gods.

His successor was Sophocles, who abandoned for the most part the practice of writing in unified trilogies, reduced the importance of the chorus, and introduced a third actor. His work too was based on myth, but whereas Aeschylus tried to make more intelligible the working of the divine purpose in its effects on human life, Sophocles was readier to accept the gods as given and to reveal the values of life as it can be lived within the traditional framework of moral standards. Sophocles’ skill in control of dramatic movement and his mastery of speech were devoted to the presentation of the decisive, usually tragic, hours in the lives of men and women at once “heroic” and human, such as Oedipus.

Euripides, last of the three great tragic poets, belonged to a different world. When he came to manhood, traditional beliefs were scrutinized in the light of what was claimed by Sophist philosophers, not always unjustifiably, to be reason; and this was a test to which much of Greek religion was highly vulnerable. The whole structure of society and its values was called into question. This movement of largely destructive criticism was clearly not uncongenial to Euripides. But as a dramatic poet he was bound to draw his material from myths, which, for him, had to a great extent lost their meaning. He adapted them to make room for contemporary problems, which were his real interest. Many of his plays suffer from a certain internal disharmony, yet his sensibilities and his moments of psychological insight bring him far closer than most Greek writers to modern taste. There are studies, wonderfully sympathetic, of wholly unsympathetic actions in the Medea and Hippolytus; a vivid presentation of the beauty and horror of religious ecstasy in the Bacchants; in the Electra, a reduction to absurdity of the values of a myth that justifies matricide; in Helen and Iphigenia Among the Taurians, melodrama with a faint flavour of romance.


Like tragedy, comedy arose from a ritual in honour of Dionysus, in this case full of abuse and obscenity connected with averting evil and encouraging fertility. The parabasis, the part of the play in which the chorus broke off the action and commented on topical events and characters, was probably a direct descendant of such revels. The dramatic element may have been derived from the secular Dorian comedy without chorus, said to have arisen at Megara, which was developed at Syracuse by Epicharmus (c. 530–c. 440). Akin to this kind of comedy seems to have been the mime, a short realistic sketch of scenes from everyday life. These were written rather later by Sophron of Syracuse; only fragments have survived but they were important for their influence on Plato’s dialogue form and on Hellenistic mime. At Athens, comedy became an official part of the celebrations of Dionysus in 486 bc. The first great comic poet was Cratinus. About 50 years later Aristophanes and Eupolis refined somewhat the wild robustness of the older poet. But even so, for boldness of fantasy, for merciless invective, for unabashed indecency, and for freedom of political criticism, there is nothing like the Old Comedy of Aristophanes, whose work alone has survived. Cleon the politician, Socrates the philosopher, Euripides the poet were alike the victims of his masterly unfairness, the first in Knights; the second in Clouds; and the third in Women at the Thesmophoria and Frogs; whereas in Birds the Athenian democracy itself was held up to a kindlier ridicule. Aristophanes survived the fall of Athens in 404, but the Old Comedy had no place in the revived democracy.

The gradual change from Old to Middle Comedy took place in the early years of the 4th century. Of Middle Comedy, no fully developed specimen has survived. It seems to have been distinguished by the disappearance of the chorus and of outspoken political criticism and by the growth of social satire and of parody; Antiphanes and Alexis were the two most distinguished writers. The complicated plots in some of their plays led to the development of the New Comedy at the end of the century, which is best represented by Menander. One complete play, the Dyscolus, and appreciable fragments of others are extant on papyrus. New Comedy was derived in part from Euripidean tragedy; its characteristic plot was a translation into terms of city life of the story of the maiden—wronged by a god—who bears her child in secret, exposes it, and recognizes it years after by means of the trinkets she had put into its cradle.




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  Thucydides 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.


The first great writer of history was Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who was also a geographer and anthropologist. The theme of his history, written in large part for Athenian readers, is the clash between Europe and Asia culminating in the Persian War. The account of the war itself, which occupies roughly the second half of the work, must have been composed by means of laborious inquiry from those whose memories were long enough to recall events that happened when Herodotus was a child or earlier. The whole history, though in places badly put together, is magnificent in its compass and unified by the consciousness of an overriding power keeping the universe and humankind in check.

Thucydides (c. 460–c. 400) was perhaps the first person to apply a first-class mind to a prolonged examination of the nature of political power and the factors by which policies of states are determined. As a member of the board of generals he acquired inside knowledge of the way policy is shaped. After his failure to save Amphipolis in 424, he spent 20 years in exile, which he used as an opportunity for getting at the truth from both sides. The result was a history of the war narrowly military and political but of the most penetrating quality. Thucydides investigated the effect on individuals and nations both of psychological characteristics and of chance. His findings were interpreted through the many speeches given to his characters.

Just as Thucydides had linked his work to the point at which Herodotus had stopped, so Xenophon (c. 430–died before 350) began his Hellenica where Thucydides’ unfinished history breaks off in 411. He carried his history down to 362. His work was superficial by comparison with that of Thucydides, but he wrote with authority of military affairs and appears at his best in the Anabasis, an account of his participation in the enterprise of the Greek mercenary army, with which the Persian prince Cyrus tried to expel his brother from the throne, and of the adventurous march of the Greeks, after the murder of their leaders by the Persians, from near Babylon to the Black Sea coast. Xenophon also wrote works in praise of Socrates, of whom his understanding was superficial. No other historical writing of the 4th century has survived except for a substantial papyrus fragment containing a record of events of the years 396–395.



"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)




Greek historian

born c. 430 bc, Attica, Greece
died shortly before 350, Attica

Greek historian and philosopher whose numerous surviving works are valuable for their depiction of late Classical Greece. His Anabasis (“Upcountry March”) in particular was highly regarded in antiquity and had a strong influence on Latin literature.

Xenophon’s life history before 401 is scantily recorded; at that time, prompted by a Boeotian friend, he left postwar Athens, joined the Greek mercenary army of the Achaemenian prince Cyrus the Younger, and became involved in Cyrus’s rebellion against his brother, the Persian king Artaxerxes II. After Cyrus’s defeat at Cunaxa (about 50 miles [80 km] from Babylon in what is now Iraq), the Greeks (later known as the Ten Thousand) returned to Byzantium via Mesopotamia, Armenia, and northern Anatolia. Xenophon was one of the men selected to replace five generals seized and executed by the Persians. The persistence and skill of the Greek soldiers were used by proponents of Panhellenism as proof that the Persians were vulnerable. Initially viewed with hostility by Sparta (the current Greek hegemonic power), the mercenaries found employment in the winter of 400–399 with the Thracian prince Seuthes but then entered Spartan service for a war to liberate Anatolian Greeks from Persian rule. Unpersuaded by Seuthes’s offers of land and marriage to his daughter and evidently disinclined (despite protestations to the contrary) to return home, Xenophon remained with his comrades. Although the Anabasis narrative stops at this point and further details are lacking, he clearly became closely involved with senior Spartans, notably (after 396) King Agesilaus II. When a Greek coalition, including Athens, rebelled against Spartan hegemony in mainland Greece, Xenophon fought (at Coronea in 394) for Sparta.

Whether his service to Sparta caused or reflected his formal exile from Athens remains a matter of some dispute, but exiled he certainly was. The Spartans gave him somewhere to live at Scillus (across the Alpheus River from Olympia), a small city in the Triphylian state created after Sparta’s defeat of Elis in 400. During his years there, Xenophon served as Sparta’s representative at Olympia, and he sent his sons to Sparta for their education. Some historians believe that he also made a trip to Sicily during this period. He certainly used his mercenary booty to buy land and erect a small-scale copy of Artemis’s famous temple at Ephesus. (In Anabasis, Book V, there is a well-known description of this sacred estate and of the annual quasi-civic festival celebrated there.) Too prominent to be unscathed by Sparta’s loss of authority after the Battle of Leuctra (371), Xenophon was expelled from Scillus and is said to have settled in Corinth—though here, as elsewhere, the biographical tradition is of debatable authority, since the episode does not appear in Xenophon’s own writings. The claim that his exile was formally repealed is another case in point, but his Hipparchicus (Cavalry Commander) and Vectigalia (Ways and Means) suggest that Xenophon had a sympathetic interest in Athens’s fortunes, and rapprochement is reflected in his sons’ service in the Athenian cavalry at the second Battle of Mantinea (362). The death of Xenophon’s son Gryllus there unleashed such a profusion of eulogies that Aristotle later gave the subtitle Gryllus to a dialogue that criticized Isocrates’ views of rhetoric. At the time of his own death, Xenophon’s standing—as author of a considerable oeuvre and hero of an adventure nearly five decades old but ideologically vivid in a Greek world defined by its relationship to Persia—had never been higher. Posthumously his place in the canon of ancient authors was secure; he was a historian, philosopher, and man of action, a perfect model for the young (a view expressed, for example, by Dion Chrysostom [Dio Cocceianus]) and an object of systematic literary imitation by Arrian.

Works » General characteristics
Xenophon produced a large body of work, all of which survives to the present day. (Indeed, the manuscript tradition includes Constitution of the Athenians, which is not by Xenophon.) The great majority of his works were probably written during the last 15 to 20 years of his life, but their chronology has not been decisively established. His output was formally varied—the main categories were long historical or ostensibly historical narratives, Socratic texts, and short technical, biographical, or political treatises—but these had common features, as enumerated below.

First, Xenophon’s work is characterized by novelty. His output includes the earliest or earliest surviving examples of the short nonmedical treatise and of autobiographical narrative (Anabasis). Other works, although not without precedent in genre, are unusual in various ways; this is true of the idiosyncratic contemporary history of Hellenica (“Greek History”) and the fictive history of Cyropaedia (“Education of Cyrus”); the second-order, philosophically nontechnical response to (or exploitation of) Socratic literature found in Memorabilia, Symposium (“Drinking Party”), Oeconomicus (“Household Management”), and Apology; and the novel form of encomiastic biography exemplified by Agesilaus.

Second, the subject matter reflects Xenophon’s personal experiences. Anabasis and Cyropaedia flowed from the adventure of 401–400; the Socratic writings stemmed from youthful association with a charismatic teacher; Hellenica arose from a personal take on the politico-military history of his times; treatises on military command, horsemanship, household management, and hunting derived from prolonged personal experience of each; Ways and Means was inspired by concern about Athens’s finances and political fortunes; and Hiero may have originated in a visit to Sicily.

Third, Xenophon’s agenda was essentially didactic (usually with direct or indirect reference to military or leadership skills), and it was often advanced through the use of history as a source of material. As a narrative historian Xenophon has a reputation for inaccuracy and incompleteness, but he clearly assumed that people and events from the past were tools for promoting political and ethical improvement. His ethical system contained little that jars in modern terms; but in today’s cynical world, the apparent ingenuousness of its expression strikes some as by turns bland and irritating. The system’s interconnection with the gods may challenge readers who either disavow the divine or are not reconciled to a pagan theological environment, simply because—in ethical contexts, though not in specific ritual ones (as illustrated in Anabasis, Book VII)—divine power in Xenophon is frequently anonymous and often singular or because he could apparently take a pragmatic attitude (e.g., posing a question to the Delphic oracle that was framed to produce the “right” answer). His contemporaries perhaps saw things differently: for them the gods were unproblematic (not that everyone thought the same way about them, but Xenophon’s terms of reference were readily understood), and his insistence on a moral component to practical and (broadly) political skills may have been distinctive.

Fourth, charges of ingenuousness have been partly fueled by Xenophon’s style. Judged in antiquity to be plain, sweet, persuasive, graceful, poetic, and a model of Attic purity, it now strikes some as jejune. A more charitable, and fairer, description would be that his style is understated—the range of stylistic figures is modest, and the finest effects are produced by his simplicity of expression. Rereading a famous passage in which the Ten Thousand first glimpse the sea, one is struck by the disproportion between its remembered impact and its brevity and indirect approach. Xenophon does not describe seeing the sea; instead he describes, first, his gradual realization that a commotion up ahead is caused by the shouts of those who have seen the sea and, second, the scenes of celebration as men embrace with tears and laughter, build a huge cairn of stones, and shower gifts upon their local guide.

Works » Historical themes
Hellenica is a seven-book account of 411–362 in two distinct (perhaps chronologically widely separated) sections: the first (Book I and Book II through chapter 3, line 10) “completes” Thucydides (in largely un-Thucydidean fashion) by covering the last years of the Peloponnesian War (i.e., 411–404); the second (the remainder) recounts the long-term results of Spartan victory, ending with Greece in an unabated state of uncertainty and confusion after the indecisive second Battle of Mantinea (362). It is an idiosyncratic account, notable for omissions, an unexpected focus, a critical attitude to all parties, and a hostility to hegemonic aspirations—an intensely personal reaction to the period rather than an orderly history.

Anabasis, which probably initially circulated pseudonymously (under the name Themistogenes of Syracuse), tells the story of the Ten Thousand in a distinctive version, one in which Xenophon himself plays a central role in Books III–VII. The work provides a narrative that is varied and genuinely arresting in its own right, but it also invites the reader to think about the tactical, strategic, and leadership skills of those involved. On a political and ethnocultural front, it expresses a general view of Greek superiority to “barbarians,” but, although it evokes Panhellenism (the thesis that Persia was vulnerable to concerted attack—and should therefore be attacked), it does not provide unambiguous support for that view.

In Cyropaedia Xenophon investigated leadership by presenting the life story of Cyrus II, founder of the Persian Empire. Because the story differs flagrantly from other sources and the narrative’s pace and texture are unlike those of ordinary Greek historiography, many analysts have classed the work as fiction. Story line is certainly subordinate to didactic agenda, but Xenophon may have drawn opportunistically on current versions of the Cyrus story rather than pure imagination. The result is fictive history, more analogous to Socratic literature than to the Greek novel (to which it is sometimes pictured as antecedent). In the Cyropaedia, techniques of military and political leadership are exposed both through example and through direct instruction; but Cyrus’s achievement (i.e., absolute autocracy) is not an unambiguous (or readily transferable) good, and the final chapter recalls that, Cyrus notwithstanding, Persia had declined. (As is often the case in the stories of Classical Greece, barbarian achievements worthy of respect lie in the past.)

Works » Socratic works
Xenophon’s longest Socratic work is Memorabilia, a four-book collection whose often charming conversational vignettes depict a down-to-earth Socrates dispensing practical wisdom on all manner of topics. The work also refutes the charges of corruption and religious deviance advanced at Socrates’ trial (also addressed in Apology—a work very different from Plato’s) by showing someone whose views on religion, friendship, personal relations, ambition, education, theology, temperance, and justice were entirely proper.

Symposium narrates a party where conversation, interspersed with cabaret, shifts continually between frivolity and seriousness. Personal relationships are a common theme in the two most substantial sections (the guests’ quirky accounts of their own most prized assets and Socrates’ speech on physical and spiritual love) and elsewhere. The work’s conclusion—a suggestive tableau of Dionysus and Ariadne has the guests going home full of libidinous thoughts—typically challenges the earnestness of what has just preceded, while leaving a distinct, if tantalizing, feeling that it is not all simply a joke. “What good men do when having fun is as interesting as their serious activities,” Xenophon wrote at the beginning of the work; the beautifully realized, rather brittle comedy of manners that ensues certainly justifies this assertion.

In Oeconomicus Socrates discusses agriculture and household management. Leadership (“a harder skill than agriculture”) is often the real subject. The most famous section is an account of how the rich Ischomachus trains his ingenuous young wife for an important role in running their home. That there was a real Ischomachus who lost his fortune and whose wife and daughter became involved in a squalid sexual ménage with Callias (the host of Symposium) poses a typical Xenophontic puzzle. His Socratic world often resembles a sanitized version of reality; Xenophon created a fictive history in which propositions about the pursuit of virtue—though they derive authority from being rooted in the past—acquire either a mythical aura or an intriguing piquancy through the use of a deviant version of that past.

Works » Other writings
Six other works came from Xenophon’s pen. Cynegeticus (“On Hunting”) offers technical advice on hunting (on foot, with dogs and nets, the usual prey being a hare); Xenophon sees the pursuit as a pleasurable and divinely ordained means of promoting military, intellectual, and moral excellence (something neither sophists nor politicians can match). De re equestri (“On Horsemanship”) deals with various aspects of horse ownership and riding, and Cavalry Commander is a somewhat unsystematic (but serious) discussion of how to improve the Athenian cavalry corps. Also Athenocentric is Ways and Means, a plan to alleviate the city’s financial problems (and remove excuses for aggressive imperialism) by paying citizens a dole from taxes on foreign residents and from the profits generated by using state-owned slaves in the silver mines.

In Hiero the location is Syracuse (on the east coast of Sicily), perhaps in allusion to contemporary Syracusan tyrants. The 5th-century tyrant Hiero bewails the unpleasantness of his situation, prompting the praise-poet Simonides to suggest that things could improve if Hiero were to adopt some recognizably Xenophontic leadership principles and become a benevolent and much-loved autocrat. There are shades of Cyropaedia (except that the story does not suggest that Hiero’s transformation happened) and of the warnings praise-poets sometimes offered tyrants (except that they tried to check tyrannical self-confidence, whereas Xenophon’s Simonides wants both to enhance and to eliminate it). When defining leadership modes tyrants make good cases. So do Spartan kings, or at least the “completely good man” whose virtues are presented through narrative and analysis in Agesilaus.

Finally, Respublica Lacedaemoniorum (“Constitution of the Spartans”) celebrates the rational eccentricity of the Lycurgan system while admitting its failure to maintain Spartan values—a failure some find perceptibly implicit in the system itself. In this work are shades of the Cyropaedia again, and here the reader may see another example of the slippery nature of the lessons of history.

In post-Renaissance Europe Xenophon continued to be highly valued as long as the valuation by antiquity retained its authority. His works were widely edited and translated, and the environment was one in which, for example, the esteem in which Cyropaedia had been held by Romans such as Scipio Aemilianus found an echo. More generally, Xenophon’s moral posture and his conviction that proper instruction, both practical and moral, could achieve human improvement had an appeal even in a world of secular enlightenment.

By the 19th century the onset of the critical study of historical sources, a growing preference for epistemology over ethics, and the general professionalization of research on the Classical world did Xenophon no favours. It became harder to find much relevance in his practical treatises, and a political philosophy that appeared monarchic rather than republican was out of tune with the times. He remained an author commonly read by those learning Greek, but he ceased to be intellectually fashionable both among academics and the wider educated public.

In the late 20th century his reputation began to rise again. Scholars became more interested in early 4th-century history and increasingly concerned with socioeconomic structures, social institutions, and gender issues. They also became more sensitive to the pitfalls of biographical or quasi-biographical discourse in antiquity. There was a considerable increase in the quantity and sophistication of historical work on Persia and Sparta, and war studies regained its status as a respectable branch of sociocultural history. All these trends made Xenophon an author of crucial importance and encouraged more-discriminating reading of his works.

Xenophon was long characterized as a second-rate practitioner of other people’s literary trades, but more-sympathetic study suggests that the artfully simple style masks a writer of some sophistication. Xenophon was in the early 21st century starting to be taken seriously as a distinctive voice on the history, society, and intellectual attitudes of the later Classical era.

Christopher J. Tuplin

Rhetoric and oratory

In few societies has the power of fluent and persuasive speech been more highly valued than it was in Greece, and even in Homer there are speeches that are pieces of finished rhetoric. But it was the rise of democratic forms of government that provided a great incentive to study and instruction in the arts of persuasion, which were equally necessary for political debate in the assembly and for attack and defense in the law courts.

The formal study of rhetoric seems to have originated in Syracuse c. 460 bc with Corax and his pupils Tisias and Gorgias (died c. 376); Gorgias was influential also in Athens. Corax is reputed to have been the first to write a handbook on the art of rhetoric, dealing with such topics as arguments from probability and the parts into which speeches should be divided. Most of the Sophists had pretensions as teachers of the art of speaking, especially Protagoras, who postulated that the weaker of two arguments could by skill be made to prevail over the stronger, and Prodicus of Ceos.

Antiphon (c. 480–411), the first professional speech writer, was an influential opponent of democracy. Three speeches of his, all dealing with homicide cases, have been preserved, as have three “tetralogies,” sets of two pairs of speeches containing the arguments to be used on both sides in imaginary cases of homicide. In them ideas are expressed concerning bloodguilt and the duty of vengeance. Antiphon’s style is bare and rather crudely antithetical. Gorgias from Sicily, who visited Athens in 427, introduced an elaborate balance and symmetry emphasized by rhyme and assonance. Thrasymachus of Chalcedon made a more solid contribution to the evolution of a periodic and rhythmical style.

Andocides (c. 440–died after 391), an orator who spent much of his life in exile from Athens, wrote three speeches containing vivid narrative; but as an orator he was admittedly amateurish. Lysias (c. 455–died after 380) lived at Athens for many years as a resident alien and supported himself by writing speeches when he lost his wealth. His speeches, some of them written for litigants of humble station, show dexterous adaptation to the character of the speaker, though the most interesting of all is his own attack on Eratosthenes, one of the Thirty Tyrants imposed on Athens by the Spartans in 404 bc.

The 12 extant speeches of Isaeus, who was active in the first half of the 4th century bc, throw light on aspects of Athenian law. Isocrates, who was influential in Athens for half a century before his death in 338, perfected a periodic prose style that, through the medium of Latin, was widely accepted as a pattern; and he helped give rhetoric its predominance in the educational system of the ancient world. In his writings, which took the form of speeches but were more like pamphlets, Isocrates shows some insight into the political troubles besetting Greece, with its endless bickering between cities incapable of cooperation.

The greatest of the orators was Demosthenes (384–322), supreme in vehemence and power, though lacking in some of the more delicate shadings of rhetorical skill. His speeches were mainly political, and he is best remembered for his energetic opposition to the rise of Macedonia under its king Philip II, embodied in the three “Philippics.” After Demosthenes, oratory faded, together with the political setting to which it owed its preeminence. Three more 4th-century-bc writers need only be mentioned: Aeschines (390–c. 314; the main political opponent of Demosthenes), Hyperides (c. 390–322), and Lycurgus (c. 390–324).


Late forms of poetry

The creative period of the Hellenistic Age was practically contained within the span of the 3rd century bc. To this period belonged three outstanding poets: Theocritus, Callimachus, and Apollonius of Rhodes.

Theocritus (c. 310–250), born at Syracuse, is best known as the inventor of bucolic mime, or pastoral poetry, in which he presented scenes from the lives of shepherds and goatherds in Sicily and southern Italy. He also dramatized scenes from middle-class life; and in his second idyll the character Simaetha, who tries by incantations to recover the love of the man who has deserted her, touches the fringe of tragedy. He also used another Hellenistic form, the epyllion, a short scene of heroic narrative poetry in which heroic stature is often reduced by playful realism and delicate psychology. In his hands the hexameter attained a lyric purity and sweetness unrivaled elsewhere. He was the first of the nature poets, succeeded by Moschus and Bion.

Callimachus (flourished about 260) was a scholar as well as a poet. His most famous work, of which substantial fragments survive, was the Aitia, an elegiac poem describing the origins of various rites and customs. It was heavy with learning but diversified by passages of entertaining narrative. His six hymns show immense poetic expertise but no religious feeling, for the gods of Olympus had long since become obsolete. Callimachus also wrote epigrams, and fragments survive of iambi (“iambs”). The form was widely used throughout the 3rd century to denounce the vanities of the world. Sometimes, in a mixture of prose and verse, these pieces had links with satire; and their chief exponents were Bion the Borysthenite, Menippus of Gadara, Cercidas of Megalopolis, and Phoenix of Colophon. Callimachus avoided epic in favour of the greater intensity possible in shorter works.

The last surviving Classical Greek epic was written by his successor at Alexandria, Apollonius of Rhodes (born about 295). Apollonius’ account of the voyage of the Argonauts is so full of local legend that the coherence of the poem is lost; but the story of Medea’s wild passion for Jason, the leader of the Argonauts, is marked by a new sort of romantic awareness that is fully realized in the episode of Dido’s passion for Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid.


"Jason and the Golden Fleece"
 BOOK 1, 2, 3, 4

Herbert James Draper
The Golden Fleece


The desire to combine learning with poetry led to the revival of didactic verse. The Phaenomena of Aratus of Soli (c. 315–c. 245) is a versification of a treatise on the stars by Eudoxus of Cnidus (c. 390–c. 340). Chance has preserved the poems of Nicander (probably 2nd century) on the unlikely subjects of cures for bites and antidotes to poisons.

The mimes of Herodas (3rd century), short realistic sketches of low life in iambic verse, have affinities with the non-pastoral mimes of Theocritus. They perhaps give a hint as to the character of the literature of popular entertainment, now largely lost. Mime, especially pantomime, was the main entertainment throughout the early Roman Empire.

After the middle of the 3rd century, poetic activity largely died away, though the great period of scholarship at Alexandria and at Pergamum was still to come. The names of a few poets are known: Euphorion (born about 275) of Chalcis and Parthenius (flourished 1st century bc), the teacher of Virgil. Thereafter Greek poetry practically ceased, apart from a sporadic revival in the 4th century ad. An exception exists in the case of epigrammatic poetry in elegiac couplets, surviving mainly in two compilations, the Planudean and Palatine anthologies.




born c. 300 bc, Syracuse, Sicily [Italy]
died after 260 bc

Greek poet, the creator of pastoral poetry. His poems were termed eidyllia (“idylls”), a diminutive of eidos, which may mean “little poems.”

There are no certain facts as to Theocritus’s life beyond those supplied by the idylls themselves. Certainly he lived in Sicily and at various times in Cos and Alexandria and perhaps in Rhodes. The surviving poems by Theocritus that are generally held to be authentic comprise bucolics (pastoral poetry), mimes with either rural or urban settings, brief poems in epic or lyric metres, and epigrams.

The bucolics are the most characteristic and influential of Theocritus’s works. They introduced the pastoral setting in which shepherds wooed nymphs and shepherdesses and held singing contests with their rivals. They were the sources of Virgil’s Eclogues and much of the poetry and drama of the Renaissance and were the ancestors of the famous English pastoral elegies, John Milton’s “Lycidas,” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Adonais,” and Matthew Arnold’s “Thyrsis.” Among the best known of his idylls are Thyrsis (Idyll 1), a lament for Daphnis, the original shepherd poet, who died of unrequited love; Cyclops, a humorous depiction of ugly Polyphemus vainly wooing the sea nymph Galatea; and Thalysia (“Harvest Home,” Idyll 7), describing a festival on the island of Cos. In this the poet speaks in the first person and introduces contemporary friends and rivals in the guise of rustics.

Theocritus’s idylls have none of the artificial prettiness of the pastoral poetry of a later age. They have been criticized as attributing to peasants sentiments and language beyond their capacity, but Theocritus’s realism was intentionally partial and selective. He was not trying to write documentaries of peasant life. Even so, comparison with modern Greek folk songs, which owe little to literary influences, reveals striking resemblances between them and Theocritus’s bucolics, and there can be little doubt that both derive from real life.




born c. 305 bc, Cyrene, North Africa [now Shaḥḥāt, Libya]
died c. 240

Greek poet and scholar, the most representative poet of the erudite and sophisticated Alexandrian school.

Callimachus migrated to Alexandria, where King Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt gave him employment in the Library of Alexandria, the most important in the Hellenistic world. Of Callimachus’s voluminous writings, only 6 hymns, about 60 epigrams, and fragments survive, many of them discovered in the 20th century. His most famous poetical work, illustrative of his antiquarian interests, was the Aitia (Causes), probably produced between 270 and 245 bc. This work is a narrative elegy in four books, containing a medley of recondite tales from Greek mythology and history by which the author seeks to explain the legendary origin of obscure customs, festivals, and names. The structure of the poem, with its short episodes loosely connected by a common theme, became the model for the Fasti and Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid. Of his elegies for special occasions, the best known is the Lock of Berenice (itself included in the Aitia as the last episode of the collection), a polished piece of court poetry later freely adapted into Latin by Catullus.

Callimachus’s other works include the Iambi, 13 short poems on occasional themes; the Hecale, a small-scale epic, or epyllion, which set a new poetic fashion for concise, miniaturistic detail; and the Ibis, a polemical poem that was directed against an unknown enemy (ancient biography identified him with the poet’s former pupil Apollonius of Rhodes). Callimachus himself insisted on the exercise of consummate literary craftsmanship and virtuosity within poems of relatively short length. He raised the hexameter to new heights of order and euphony, and his poetry may well be considered the peak of refinement of Greek verse of the period. In the Hymns, Callimachus adapted the traditional religious form of the Homeric Hymns to an original and purely literary use. The Epigrams treat a variety of personal themes with consummate artistry. Of his prolific prose works, certainly the most famous was the Pinakes (“Tablets”) in 120 books. This work consisted of an elaborate critical and biographical catalog of the authors of the works held in the Library of Alexandria. Discoveries in the 19th and 20th centuries of ancient Egyptian papyruses confirm the fame and popularity of Callimachus; no other Greek poet except Homer is so often quoted by the grammarians of late antiquity. He was taken as a model by many Roman poets, notably Catullus and Propertius, and by the most sophisticated Greek poets, from Euphorion, Nicander, and Parthenius to Nonnus and his followers in the 5th century ad.


Late forms of prose

Almost all of the great mass of Hellenistic prose—and later prose, historical, scholarly, and scientific—has perished. Among historians Polybius (c. 200–c. 118 bc), the most outstanding, has survived in a fragmentary condition. Present at Rome when it was succumbing to the first influences of Greek literature, he wrote mainly of events of which he had direct experience, often with great insight; his work covered the period from 264 to 146. Diodorus Siculus’ universal history (1st century bc) is important for the sources quoted there. The most considerable of lost historians was Timaeus (c. 356–c. 260), whose history of the Greeks in the west down to 264 provided Polybius with his starting point. Later historians were Dionysius of Halicarnassus (flourished about 20 bc); Appian of Alexandria (2nd century ad), who wrote on Rome and its conquests; and Arrian (c. ad 96–c. 180) from Bithynia, who is the most valuable source on Alexander the Great.

The most important works of criticism, of which little has survived, were by Dionysius of Halicarnassus and the obscure Longinus. Longinus’ treatise On the Sublime (c. ad 40) is exceptional in its penetrating analysis of creative literature. The Bibliotheca attributed to Apollodorus (c. 180 bc) is a handy compendium of mythology.

Scientific work such as the astronomy and geography of Eratosthenes (c. 276–c. 194) of Alexandria is known mainly from later summaries; but much that was written by the mathematicians, especially Euclid (flourished c. 300 bc) and Archimedes (c. 287–212), has been preserved.

Much survives of the writings of the physician Galen (ad 129–199). His contemporary Sextus Empiricus is an important source for the history of Greek philosophy. The survey of the Mediterranean by Strabo in the time of Augustus preserved much valuable information; and so, in a more limited field, did the description of Greece by Pausanias (2nd century ad). Greek achievement in astronomy and geography was summed up in the work of Ptolemy of Alexandria in the 2nd century ad.

Greek became the language of the large settlement of Jews at Alexandria, and the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, was completed by about the end of the 2nd century bc. Much of the Apocrypha was composed in Greek, and the New Testament was written in popular Greek (Koine). Of the early Christian writers in Greek the most notable were Clement of Alexandria (c. ad 150–c. 215) and Origen (c. ad 185–c. 254), together with Clement I and Ignatius of Antioch.


"The Parallel Lives of famous Greeks and Romans"  
BOOKS: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

The most popular classical writer during the Renaissance was Plutarch (died c.125), a Greek, whose "Lives", in the translation by Sir Thomas North (1579), were the chief source for Shakespeare's Roman plays.

The Parallel Lives of famous Greeks and Romans by Plutarch (c. ad 46–c. 119) of Chaeronea in Boeotia was for centuries one of the formative books for educated Europeans. Great figures from an idealized past are presented for the edification of the lesser people of his own day; and the anecdotes with which the Lives abound are of various degrees of credibility. They belong to biography rather than to history, though they are an important source for historians. A number of shorter works on a wide variety of subjects have come down under the Latin title Moralia (Greek Ethica), which show the intellectual tide of Greece on the ebb.

There was much concern over a question that had been argued ever since the days when Athens had ceased to be a free city: to what extent was Attic prose a norm that writers and especially orators were bound to follow? Many had shunned it in favour of a more ornamental Asiatic style. But at the end of the 1st century ad there was a revival of the Attic dialect. Speeches and essays were written for wide circulation. This revival is known as the Second Sophistic movement, and chief among its writers were Dion Chrysostom (1st century ad), Aelius Aristides (2nd century), and Philostratus (early 3rd century). The only writer of consequence, however, was Lucian (c. 120–c. 190). His works are mainly slight and satirical; but his gift of humour, even though repetitive, cannot be denied. Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers was a valuable work of the 3rd century by Diogenes Laërtius, a writer otherwise unknown.

Philosophical activity in the early empire was mainly confined to moralizings based on Stoicism, a philosophy advocating a life in harmony with nature and indifference to pleasure and pain. Epictetus (born about ad 55) influenced especially the philosophic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180), whose Meditations have taken their place beside works of Christian devotion. Many of Plutarch’s Moralia were Platonic, with vaguely mystical tendencies; but Plotinus (c. 205–260/270) was the last major thinker in the Classical world, giving new direction to Platonic and Pythagorean mysticism.

The latest creation of the Greek genius was the novel, or erotic romance. It may have originated as early as the 1st century bc; but its roots reach back to such plays of triumphant love as the lost Andromeda of Euripides, to the New Comedy, to Xenophon’s daydreams about the education of Cyrus, and to the largely fictitious narratives that were one extreme of what passed for history from the 3rd century bc onward. Of these last, the best known examples are the Alexander romances, a wildly distorted and embroidered version of the exploits of Alexander the Great, which supplied some of the favourite reading of the Middle Ages. Erotic elegy and epigram may have contributed something and so may the lost Milesian Tales of Aristides of Miletus (c. 100 bc), though these last appear to have depended on a pornographic interest that is almost completely absent from the Greek romances. Only fragments survive of the Ninus romance (dealing with the love of Ninus, legendary founder of Nineveh), which was probably of the 1st century bc; but full-length works survive by Chariton (2nd century ad), Achilles Tatius (2nd century ad), Xenophon of Ephesus (2nd or 3rd century ad), and Heliodorus (3rd century ad or later). All deal with true lovers separated by innumerable obstacles of human wickedness and natural catastrophe and then finally united.

Daphnis and Chloe by Longus (between 2nd and 3rd century ad) stands apart from the others because of its pastoral, rather than quasi-historical, setting. The works of Dictys Cretensis and Dares Phrygius belong to the same period. They claim to give a pre-Homeric account of the Trojan War. The Greek originals are almost wholly lost, but the Latin version was for the Middle Ages the main source for the story of Troy.

Donald William Lucas


("The Pastorals, or the Loves of Daphnis and Chloe")

Illustrations by Marc Chagall   PART I, PART II

Longus "The Pastorals, or the Loves of Daphnis and Chloe"
illustrations by Marc Chagall



born c. 200 bc, Megalopolis, Arcadia, Greece
died c. 118

Greek statesman and historian who wrote of the rise of Rome to world prominence.

Early life
Polybius was the son of Lycortas, a distinguished Achaean statesman, and he received the upbringing considered appropriate for a son of rich landowners. His youthful biography of Philopoemen reflected his admiration for that great Achaean leader, and an interest in military matters found expression in his lost book, Tactics. He enjoyed riding and hunting, but his knowledge of literature was rather specialized (apart from the historians) and his acquaintance with philosophy superficial.

Before 170/169, when he was hipparch (cavalry commander) in the Achaean Confederation, almost nothing is known of his career. But he then became involved in critical events. Encumbered by their war with Perseus of Macedonia, the Romans were watching for disloyalty in the Greek states. Although Polybius declared for open support of Rome and was sent as an envoy to the consul Quintus Marcius Philippus, Achaean help was rejected. After Perseus’ defeat at Pydna in 168, Polybius was one of 1,000 eminent Achaeans who were deported to Rome and detained in Italy without trial.

Residence in Rome
At Rome, Polybius had the good fortune to attract the friendship of the great Roman general Scipio Aemilianus; he became Scipio’s mentor and through his family’s influence was allowed to remain in Rome. It is probable that Polybius accompanied Scipio to Spain in 151, went with him to Africa (where he saw the Numidian king Masinissa), and crossed the Alps in Hannibal’s footsteps on his way back to Italy. Shortly afterward, when his political detention had ended, Polybius joined Scipio at Carthage and was present at its siege and destruction in 146; and it is likely that he then undertook a voyage of exploration in the Atlantic, which is related in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.

Meanwhile, hostilities had broken out between Achaea and Rome, and Polybius was in Corinth shortly after its destruction, in 146. He devoted himself to securing as favourable a settlement as possible for his countrymen and to reestablishing order; and, as the geographer Pausanias states, Achaean gratitude found expression in the erection of statues in his honour at Tegea, Pallantium, Mantineia, Lycosura—where the inscription declared that “Greece would never have come to grief, had she obeyed Polybius in all things, and having come to grief, she found succour through him alone”—and Megalopolis, where it was recorded that “he had roamed over all the earth and sea, had been the ally of the Romans, and had quenched their wrath against Greece.”

Of Polybius’ life after 146 little is known. At some date he visited Alexandria and Sardis. He is known to have discussed political problems with Scipio and Panaetius of Rhodes. He wrote a history of the Numantine War, evidently after 133 bc, and also a treatise on the habitability of the equatorial region; but when he composed the latter is unknown.

Polybius’ history of Rome
The Histories on which his reputation rests consisted of 40 books, the last being indexes. Books I–V are extant. For the rest there are various excerpts, including those contained in the collection of passages from Greek historians assembled in the 10th century and rediscovered and published by various editors from the 16th to the 19th century.

Polybius’ original purpose was to narrate the history of the 53 years (220–168 bc)—from Hannibal’s Spanish campaign to the Battle of Pydna—during which Rome had made itself master of the world. Books I–II form an introduction covering Roman history from the crossing into Sicily against the Carthaginians in 264 and including events in various other parts of the world (especially Achaea) between 264 and 220. In Book III, Polybius sketches a modified plan, proposing to add an account of how the Romans exercised their supremacy and to extend coverage to the destruction of Carthage, in 146.

The events of 168–146 were related in Books XXX–XXXIX. Polybius probably conceived his revision after 146, having by this date completed his narrative down to the end of the Second Punic War. At least Books I–VI seem to have been published by about 150; there is no information as to when the rest of the work, including the revised plan in Book III, appeared.

Conception of history
“All historians,” according to Polybius,

have insisted that the soundest education and training for political activity is the study of history, and that the surest and indeed the only way to learn how to bear bravely the vicissitudes of fortune is to recall the disasters of others.

Practical experience and fortitude in facing calamity are the rewards of studying history and are stressed repeatedly throughout the work. History is essentially didactic. Pleasure is not to be wholly excluded, but the scale comes down sharply on the side of profit. To be really profitable, history must deal with political and military matters; and this is pragmatiké historia, in contrast to other sorts of history (IX, 1–2)—genealogies and mythical stories, appealing to the casual reader, and accounts of colonies, foundations of cities, and ties of kindred, which attract the man with antiquarian interests. Its nature is austere, though it may include contemporary developments in art and science. He stands in contrast to the sensationalism of many of his predecessors, who confuse history with tragedy.

In Book II, in which he attacks the Greek historian Phylarchus for practices that might be called unprofessional today, Polybius states:

A historian should not try to astonish his readers by sensationalism, nor, like the tragic poets, seek after men’s probable utterances and enumerate all the possible consequences of the events under consideration, but simply record what really happened and was said, however commonplace. For the object of history is the very opposite of that of tragedy. The tragic writer seeks by the most plausible language to thrill and charm the audience temporarily; the historian by real facts and real speeches seeks to instruct and convince serious students for all time. There it is the probable that counts, even though it be false, the object being to beguile the spectator; here it is the truth, the object being to benefit the student.

This attack on Phylarchus is not isolated. Similar faults are castigated in other historians judged guilty of sensationalism (cf. II, 16, 13–15; III, 48, 8; VII, 7, 1–2; XV, 34, 1–36). Nor are these their only weaknesses. Many historians are prone to exaggeration—and that for a special reason. As writers of monographs whose subjects are simple and monotonous, they are driven “to magnify small matters, to touch up and elaborate brief statements and to transform incidents of no importance into momentous events and actions” (XXIX, 12, 3). In contrast to such practices, Polybius stresses the universal character of his own theme, which is to narrate “how and thanks to what kind of constitution the Romans in under 53 years have subjected nearly the whole inhabited world to their sole government—a thing unique in history” (I, 1, 5).

Polybius believed that he had a particular reason for adopting a comprehensive view of history, apart from his own predilection for such a view. He wrote:

Hitherto the affairs of the world had been as it were dispersed . . .; since this date [220 bc] history has formed an organic whole, and the affairs of Italy and Africa have been interlinked with those of Greece and Asia, all tending towards one end (I, 3, 3–4).

Indeed, only universal history is capable of adequately treating Rome’s rise to world power—the historian’s synoptic view matches the organic character of history itself:

What gives my work its peculiar quality, and is nowadays most remarkable, is this. Tyche [Fortune] having guided almost all the world’s affairs in one direction and having inclined them to one and the same goal, so the historian must bring under one conspectus for his readers the operations by which she has accomplished her general purpose. For it was chiefly this consideration, coupled with the fact that none of my contemporaries has attempted a general history, which incited and encouraged me to undertake my task (I, 4, 1–2).

The role here allotted to Fortune is somewhat unusual. For clearly the value of history as a source of practical lessons is diminished if cause and effect are at the mercy of an incalculable and capricious power. Usually, although Polybius uses Fortune to cover a variety of phenomena, ranging from pure chance to something very like a purposeful providence, much of the apparent inconsistency springs from his use of purely verbal elaboration or the careless adoption of current Hellenistic terminology, which habitually made Fortune a goddess. Here, however, Fortune seems to be a real directive power, which raised Rome to world dominion—because Rome deserved it. Normally, Polybius lays great emphasis on causality, and his distinction (III, 6) between the causes of an event (aitiai) and its immediate origins (archai) is useful up to a point, though it is more mechanical than that of the great Greek historian Thucydides and allows nothing for the dialectical character of real historical situations.

An important place in Polybius’ work is occupied by his study of the Roman constitution and army and the early history of the city in Book VI. His analysis of the mixed constitution, which had enabled Rome to avoid the cycle of change and deterioration to which simple constitutional forms were liable, is full of problems, but it has exercised widespread influence, from Cicero’s De republica down to Machiavelli and Montesquieu.

Sources of information
Polybius defines the historian’s task as the study and collation of documents, acquaintance with relevant geographical features, and, finally, political experience (XII, 25e); of these the last two are the most essential. And he practiced what he preached, for he possessed good political and military experience and had traveled widely throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. Nor did he neglect written sources; indeed, for his introductory books, covering the period from 264 to 220, they were essential. For the main part of his history, from 220 onward, he consulted many writers, Greek and Roman, but, following precedent, he rarely names them.

He had access to private sources; for example, Publius Cornelius Scipio’s letter to Philip V of Macedonia describing the capture in Spain, in 209 bc, of New Carthage (X, 9, 3), and a letter of Scipio Nasica to some Hellenistic king about the campaigns of the Third Macedonian War (XXIX, 14, 3). He almost certainly consulted the Achaean record office and must have drawn on Roman records for such material as the treaty between Carthage and Philip V (VII, 9). It has not been proved that he had access to the Rhodian records. His detailed figures for Hannibal’s troop formations in Italy came from an inscription left by Hannibal, which he found in the Temple of Juno on the Lacinian promontory.

Polybius regarded oral sources as his most important, and the questioning of witnesses as the most vital part of a historian’s task; indeed, this is one reason why he chose to begin his main history at the year 220. Anything else would be “hearsay at one remove,” a safe foundation for neither judgments nor statements.

Style and qualities as a historian
Writing in the 1st century bc, Dionysius of Halicarnassus reckons Polybius among those who “have left behind them compositions which no one endures to read to the end”; that his successors shared this view of Polybius’ style is confirmed by the failure of his works to survive except in an incomplete form. The infelicity of Polybius’ Greek (which frequently reproduces the conventional phrases of the Hellenistic chancelleries familiar from contemporary inscriptions) lies in its awkward use of long and cumbersome circumlocutions, vague abstract nouns, and pedantic repetitions. To the scholar his style is, however, no great obstacle; and, though in his anxiety to improve his reader he moralizes and belabours the obvious, the perennial interest and importance of his theme will always ensure him a following among those who can enjoy a historian who is accurate, serious, and sensible, who understands the events of which he writes, and, above all, who asks the right questions.

Frank W. Walbank


Dionysius of Halicarnassus

Greek Dionysios

flourished c. 20 bc, Halicarnassus, Caria, Asia Minor [now in Turkey]

Greek historian and teacher of rhetoric whose history of Rome is, with Livy’s, the most valuable source from early Roman history. This work, called Rhōmaïke archaiologia (Roman Antiquities), treats Rome from its origins to the First Punic War. Though clearly written from a pro-Roman standpoint, it was carefully researched.

Dionysius migrated to Rome in 30 bc, and his history, which sought to justify the Romans to the Greeks, began to appear in 7 bc. Of its 20 books, only the first 11 (to 441 bc) survive in complete form. He is believed to have used this work as a practical demonstration of rhetorical principles. Peri mimēseos (On Imitation; in three books) survives in fragments and seems to have influenced the great Roman educator Quintilian. Dionysius’s individual essays on the 4th-century-bc Attic orators Lysias, Isocrates, Isaeus, and Demosthenes begin with a praise of Roman writers for turning away from Hellenistic Greek models (Asianism) toward Classical authors (Atticism). He discussed the eminent historian Thucydides in an important essay and in a letter to his friend Ammaeus. His essay “Peri syntheseos onomaton” (“On the Arrangement of Words” ; often cited by its Latin title, “De compositione verborum” ) is the only extant ancient discussion of word order. Dionysius was a mediocre historian but a first-rate literary critic who examined authors’ style and historical context.



died after 120 bc

Greek scholar of wide interests who is best known for his Chronika (Chronicle) of Greek history. Apollodorus was a colleague of the Homeric scholar Aristarchus of Samothrace (both served as librarians of the great library in Alexandria, Egypt). Apollodorus left Alexandria about 146 for Pergamum and eventually settled at Athens. The Chronicle, written in the iambic trimeter used in Greek comedy, covers the period from the fall of Troy (1184 bc) to 144 bc in three books and was later continued to 119 bc in a fourth book.

Apollodorus’s publications extended to philology, geography, and mythology. He wrote commentaries (in at least 4 books) on the Sicilian author of mimes Sophron and (in 10 books) on the playwright Epicharmus, as well as a work that consisted of glosses explaining rare words. Much of his 12-book commentary on the “Catalogue of Ships” in Book II of Homer’s Iliad survives in the work of the ancient geographer Strabo (Geography, Books VIII–X). His work Peri theōn (On the Gods), in 24 books, was scholarly in character and influenced the Epicurean Philodemus. A compendium to Greek mythology, called Bibliothēke (often Latinized as Bibliotheca; The Library), extant under his name, is in fact not by him but was composed in the 1st or 2nd century ad, as was a (lost) guidebook in comic trimeters, A Map of the Earth.


Eucleides of Megara


Euclid (or Eucleides) of Megara, a Greek Socratic philosopher who lived around 400 BC, founded the Megarian school of philosophy. Editors and translators in the Middle Ages often confused him with Euclid of Alexandria when discussing the latter's Elements. Most modern translations of Plato's Theaetetus render his name "Euclides."

The Megaric sect was instituted by Euclides of Megara, and took its name from the place which gave birth to its founder. From its disputatious character, it also received the appellation of Eristic ( Eristiki, from erizein, " to contend") ; and it was likewise termed the Dialectic, not because it gave rise to dialectics or logical debates, which had before this time exercised the ingenuity of philosophers, particularly in the Eleatic school, but because the discourses and writings of this class of philosophers commonly took the form of a dialogue.

Euclides was a native of Megara, the capital of the district of Megaris. According to some less probable accounts, he was born at Gela, in Sicily. He was one of the chief disciples of Socrates, but, before becoming such, he had studied the doctrines, and especially the dialectics of the Eleatics. Socrates on one occasion reproved him for his fondness for subtle and captious disputes. On the death of Socrates, Euclides, with most of the other pupils of that philosopher, took refuge in Megara, and there established a school which distinguished itself by the cultivation of dialectics. The doctrines of the Eleatics formed the basis of his philosophical system. With these he blended the ethical and dialectical principles of Socrates. The Eleatic dogma, that there is one universal, unchangeable existence, he viewed in a moral aspect, calling this one existence the Good, but giving it also other names (as Reason, Intelligence, etc.), perhaps for the purpose of explaining how the real, though one, appeared to be many. He rejected demonstration, attacking not so much the premises assumed as the conclusions drawn, and also reasoning from analogy. He is said to have been a man of a somewhat indolent and procrastinating disposition. Euclides was the author of six dialogues, no one of which, however, has come down to us. He has frequently been erroneously confounded with the mathematician of the same name.

Euclides introduced new subtleties into the art of disputation, several of which, though often mentioned as examples of great ingenuity, deserve only to be remembered as proofs of egregious trifling. Of these sophistical modes of reasoning, called by Aristotle Eristic syllogisms, a few examples may suffice.
1. The Lying sophism : If, when you speak the truth, you say, you lie, you lie : but you say you lie, when you speak the truth ; therefore, in speaking the truth, you lie.
2. The Occult : Do you know your father ? Yes. Do you know this man who is veiled ? No. Then you do not know your father, for it is your father who is veiled.
3. The Sorties : Is one grain a heap ? No. Two grains ? No. Three grains ? No. Go on, adding one by one ; and, if one grain be not a heap, it will be impossible to say what number of grains make a heap.

In such high repute were these silly inventions for perplexing plain truth, that Chrysippus wrote six books upon the first of these sophisms ; and Philetas, a Coan, died of consumption, which he had contracted by the close study that he had bestowed upon it.

Euclides' philosophy was a synthesis of Eleatic and Socratic ideas. He identified the Eleatic idea of "The One" with the Socratic "Form of the Good," which he called "Reason," "God," "Mind," "Wisdom," etc. This was the true essence of being, and was eternal and unchangeable. As he said, "The Good is One, but we can call it by several names, sometimes as wisdom, sometimes as God, sometimes as Reason," and he declared, "the opposite of Good does not exists." While these doctrines may appear to contradict empirical reality, he argued that, since non-being cannot exist without becoming a species of being (i.e., no longer "non-being"), and since the essence of Being is the Good, the opposite of the Good cannot exist. His doctrinal heirs, the Stoic logicians, inaugurated the most important school of logic in antiquity other than Aristotle's peripatetics.

Euclides had three important pupils: Eubulides of Miletus, Ichtyas – the second leader of the Megarian school – and Thrasymachus of Corinth. This last one was the master of Stilpo, who was the master of Zeno of Citium, the founder of the stoic school.




Archimedes Thoughtful by Fetti

born c. 290–280 bce, Syracuse, Sicily [now in Italy]
died 212/211 bce, Syracuse

the most famous mathematician and inventor of ancient Greece. Archimedes is especially important for his discovery of the relation between the surface and volume of a sphere and its circumscribing cyclinder. He is known for his formulation of a hydrostatic principle (known as Archimedes’ principle) and a device for raising water, still used in developing countries, known as the Archimedes screw.

His life
Archimedes probably spent some time in Egypt early in his career, but he resided for most of his life in Syracuse, the principal Greek city-state in Sicily, where he was on intimate terms with its king, Hieron II. Archimedes published his works in the form of correspondence with the principal mathematicians of his time, including the Alexandrian scholars Conon of Samos and Eratosthenes of Cyrene. He played an important role in the defense of Syracuse against the siege laid by the Romans in 213 bce by constructing war machines so effective that they long delayed the capture of the city. When Syracuse eventually fell to the Roman general Marcus Claudius Marcellus in the autumn of 212 or spring of 211 bce, Archimedes was killed in the sack of the city.

Far more details survive about the life of Archimedes than about any other ancient scientist, but they are largely anecdotal, reflecting the impression that his mechanical genius made on the popular imagination. Thus, he is credited with inventing the Archimedes screw, and he is supposed to have made two “spheres” that Marcellus took back to Rome—one a star globe and the other a device (the details of which are uncertain) for mechanically representing the motions of the Sun, the Moon, and the planets. The story that he determined the proportion of gold and silver in a wreath made for Hieron by weighing it in water is probably true, but the version that has him leaping from the bath in which he supposedly got the idea and running naked through the streets shouting “Heurēka!” (“I have found it!”) is popular embellishment. Equally apocryphal are the stories that he used a huge array of mirrors to burn the Roman ships besieging Syracuse; that he said, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth”; and that a Roman soldier killed him because he refused to leave his mathematical diagrams—although all are popular reflections of his real interest in catoptrics (the branch of optics dealing with the reflection of light from mirrors, plane or curved), mechanics, and pure mathematics.

According to Plutarch (c. 46–119 ce), Archimedes had so low an opinion of the kind of practical invention at which he excelled and to which he owed his contemporary fame that he left no written work on such subjects. While it is true that—apart from a dubious reference to a treatise, “On Sphere-Making”—all of his known works were of a theoretical character, his interest in mechanics nevertheless deeply influenced his mathematical thinking. Not only did he write works on theoretical mechanics and hydrostatics, but his treatise Method Concerning Mechanical Theorems shows that he used mechanical reasoning as a heuristic device for the discovery of new mathematical theorems.

His works
There are nine extant treatises by Archimedes in Greek. The principal results in On the Sphere and Cylinder (in two books) are that the surface area of any sphere of radius r is four times that of its greatest circle (in modern notation, S = 4πr2) and that the volume of a sphere is two-thirds that of the cylinder in which it is inscribed (leading immediately to the formula for the volume, V = 4/3πr3). Archimedes was proud enough of the latter discovery to leave instructions for his tomb to be marked with a sphere inscribed in a cylinder. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 bce) found the tomb, overgrown with vegetation, a century and a half after Archimedes’ death.

Measurement of the Circle is a fragment of a longer work in which π (pi), the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle, is shown to lie between the limits of 3 10/71 and 3 1/7. Archimedes’ approach to determining π, which consists of inscribing and circumscribing regular polygons with a large number of sides (see the animation), was followed by everyone until the development of infinite series expansions in India during the 15th century and in Europe during the 17th century. This work also contains accurate approximations (expressed as ratios of integers) to the square roots of 3 and several large numbers.

On Conoids and Spheroids deals with determining the volumes of the segments of solids formed by the revolution of a conic section (circle, ellipse, parabola, or hyperbola) about its axis. In modern terms, these are problems of integration. (See calculus.) On Spirals develops many properties of tangents to, and areas associated with, the spiral of Archimedes—i.e., the locus of a point moving with uniform speed along a straight line that itself is rotating with uniform speed about a fixed point. It was one of only a few curves beyond the straight line and the conic sections known in antiquity.

On the Equilibrium of Planes (or Centres of Gravity of Planes; in two books) is mainly concerned with establishing the centres of gravity of various rectilinear plane figures and segments of the parabola and the paraboloid. The first book purports to establish the “law of the lever” (magnitudes balance at distances from the fulcrum in inverse ratio to their weights), and it is mainly on the basis of this treatise that Archimedes has been called the founder of theoretical mechanics. Much of this book, however, is undoubtedly not authentic, consisting as it does of inept later additions or reworkings, and it seems likely that the basic principle of the law of the lever and—possibly—the concept of the centre of gravity were established on a mathematical basis by scholars earlier than Archimedes. His contribution was rather to extend these concepts to conic sections.

Quadrature of the Parabola demonstrates, first by “mechanical” means (as in Method, discussed below) and then by conventional geometric methods, that the area of any segment of a parabola is 4/3 of the area of the triangle having the same base and height as that segment. This is, again, a problem in integration.

The Sand-Reckoner is a small treatise that is a jeu d’esprit written for the layman—it is addressed to Gelon, son of Hieron—that nevertheless contains some profoundly original mathematics. Its object is to remedy the inadequacies of the Greek numerical notation system by showing how to express a huge number—the number of grains of sand that it would take to fill the whole of the universe. What Archimedes does, in effect, is to create a place-value system of notation, with a base of 100,000,000. (This was apparently a completely original idea, since he had no knowledge of the contemporary Babylonian place-value system with base 60.) The work is also of interest because it gives the most detailed surviving description of the heliocentric system of Aristarchus of Samos (c. 310–230 bce) and because it contains an account of an ingenious procedure that Archimedes used to determine the Sun’s apparent diameter by observation with an instrument.

Method Concerning Mechanical Theorems describes a process of discovery in mathematics. It is the sole surviving work from antiquity, and one of the few from any period, that deals with this topic. In it Archimedes recounts how he used a “mechanical” method to arrive at some of his key discoveries, including the area of a parabolic segment and the surface area and volume of a sphere. The technique consists of dividing each of two figures into an infinite but equal number of infinitesimally thin strips, then “weighing” each corresponding pair of these strips against each other on a notional balance to obtain the ratio of the two original figures. Archimedes emphasizes that, though useful as a heuristic method, this procedure does not constitute a rigorous proof.

On Floating Bodies (in two books) survives only partly in Greek, the rest in medieval Latin translation from the Greek. It is the first known work on hydrostatics, of which Archimedes is recognized as the founder. Its purpose is to determine the positions that various solids will assume when floating in a fluid, according to their form and the variation in their specific gravities. In the first book various general principles are established, notably what has come to be known as Archimedes’ principle: a solid denser than a fluid will, when immersed in that fluid, be lighter by the weight of the fluid it displaces. The second book is a mathematical tour de force unmatched in antiquity and rarely equaled since. In it Archimedes determines the different positions of stability that a right paraboloid of revolution assumes when floating in a fluid of greater specific gravity, according to geometric and hydrostatic variations.

Archimedes is known, from references of later authors, to have written a number of other works that have not survived. Of particular interest are treatises on catoptrics, in which he discussed, among other things, the phenomenon of refraction; on the 13 semiregular (Archimedean) polyhedra (those bodies bounded by regular polygons, not necessarily all of the same type, that can be inscribed in a sphere); and the “Cattle Problem” (preserved in a Greek epigram), which poses a problem in indeterminate analysis, with eight unknowns. In addition to these, there survive several works in Arabic translation ascribed to Archimedes that cannot have been composed by him in their present form, although they may contain “Archimedean” elements. These include a work on inscribing the regular heptagon in a circle; a collection of lemmas (propositions assumed to be true that are used to prove a theorem) and a book, On Touching Circles, both having to do with elementary plane geometry; and the Stomachion (parts of which also survive in Greek), dealing with a square divided into 14 pieces for a game or puzzle.

Archimedes’ mathematical proofs and presentation exhibit great boldness and originality of thought on the one hand and extreme rigour on the other, meeting the highest standards of contemporary geometry. While the Method shows that he arrived at the formulas for the surface area and volume of a sphere by “mechanical” reasoning involving infinitesimals, in his actual proofs of the results in Sphere and Cylinder he uses only the rigorous methods of successive finite approximation that had been invented by Eudoxus of Cnidus in the 4th century bce. These methods, of which Archimedes was a master, are the standard procedure in all his works on higher geometry that deal with proving results about areas and volumes. Their mathematical rigour stands in strong contrast to the “proofs” of the first practitioners of integral calculus in the 17th century, when infinitesimals were reintroduced into mathematics. Yet Archimedes’ results are no less impressive than theirs. The same freedom from conventional ways of thinking is apparent in the arithmetical field in Sand-Reckoner, which shows a deep understanding of the nature of the numerical system.

In antiquity Archimedes was also known as an outstanding astronomer: his observations of solstices were used by Hipparchus (flourished c. 140 bce), the foremost ancient astronomer. Very little is known of this side of Archimedes’ activity, although Sand-Reckoner reveals his keen astronomical interest and practical observational ability. There has, however, been handed down a set of numbers attributed to him giving the distances of the various heavenly bodies from the Earth, which has been shown to be based not on observed astronomical data but on a “Pythagorean” theory associating the spatial intervals between the planets with musical intervals. Surprising though it is to find these metaphysical speculations in the work of a practicing astronomer, there is good reason to believe that their attribution to Archimedes is correct.

His influence
Given the magnitude and originality of Archimedes’ achievement, the influence of his mathematics in antiquity was rather small. Those of his results that could be simply expressed—such as the formulas for the surface area and volume of a sphere—became mathematical commonplaces, and one of the bounds he established for π, 22/7, was adopted as the usual approximation to it in antiquity and the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, his mathematical work was not continued or developed, as far as is known, in any important way in ancient times, despite his hope expressed in Method that its publication would enable others to make new discoveries. However, when some of his treatises were translated into Arabic in the late 8th or 9th century, several mathematicians of medieval Islam were inspired to equal or improve on his achievements. This holds particularly in the determination of the volumes of solids of revolution, but his influence is also evident in the determination of centres of gravity and in geometric construction problems. Thus, several meritorious works by medieval Islamic mathematicians were inspired by their study of Archimedes.

The greatest impact of Archimedes’ work on later mathematicians came in the 16th and 17th centuries with the printing of texts derived from the Greek, and eventually of the Greek text itself, the Editio Princeps, in Basel in 1544. The Latin translation of many of Archimedes’ works by Federico Commandino in 1558 contributed greatly to the spread of knowledge of them, which was reflected in the work of the foremost mathematicians and physicists of the time, including Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) and Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). David Rivault’s edition and Latin translation (1615) of the complete works, including the ancient commentaries, was enormously influential in the work of some of the best mathematicians of the 17th century, notably René Descartes (1596–1650) and Pierre de Fermat (1601–1665). Without the background of the rediscovered ancient mathematicians, among whom Archimedes was paramount, the development of mathematics in Europe in the century between 1550 and 1650 is inconceivable. It is unfortunate that Method remained unknown to both Arabic and Renaissance mathematicians (it was only rediscovered in the late 19th century), for they might have fulfilled Archimedes’ hope that the work would prove useful in the discovery of theorems.

Gerald J. Toomer



Sextus Empiricus

Greek philosopher

flourished 3rd century

ancient Greek philosopher-historian who produced the only extant comprehensive account of Greek Skepticism in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism and Against the Dogmatists.

As a major exponent of Pyrrhonistic “suspension of judgment,” Sextus elaborated the 10 tropes of Aenesidemus and attacked syllogistic proofs in every area of speculative knowledge. Almost all details of his life are conjectural except that he was a medical doctor and headed a Skeptical school during the decline of Greek Skepticism. The republication of his Hypotyposes in 1562 had far-reaching effects on European philosophical thought. Indeed, much of the philosophy of the 17th and 18th centuries can be interpreted in terms of diverse efforts to grapple with the ancient Skeptical arguments handed down through Sextus.



Discuss Art

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

| privacy