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Homer. Glyptothek, München (Germany). Photo Marco Prins. The Greeks and Romans always thought that the legendary poet Homer was the greatest author ever. However, we know hardly anything about the man or men who composed the Iliad (a long epic on the wrath of the warrior Achilles, which endangered the Greek expedition to Troy) or the Odyssey (an equally long poem on the difficult voyage home of Odysseus). At the moment, most scholars agree that these texts were dictated to a writer by a very capable bard, who used older, oral traditions, at the beginning of the eighth century BCE. We do not know to what extent later poets have made additions or changes to the two epics.
Glyptothek, Munich



Hesiod. Bust at the British museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins. In the mid-eighth century, a sailor settled at Ascra in Boeotia, where his son started to write a poem on farming, Works and days. The poet is usually called Hesiod, after another Boeotian poet, who had composed a primitive but systematic account of the history of the gods, full of dark forces, deities, and violence: the Theogony. The ancients believed that both poems were written by the same man, but many modern classicists agree that the author of the Works and days was influenced by Homer, whereas the author of the Theogony, Hesiod, seems to have been Homer's contemporary. Both works are fascinating: the younger because of its superior style, the other because it offers an important introduction to Greek mythology.
British Museum, London
 

Sappho. Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
To a certain extent, the beauty of Sappho's poetry is caused by the fact that it is fragmentary. Her poetry is quoted by later authors, but most of these quotes are short and offer us a tantalizing glimpse of what once must have been a poem of great quality. Unlike Homer and Hesiod, Sappho and the other lyric poets tried to express private sentiments. Because almost none of her poems is complete, it is hard to understand them, and many interpretations tell us more about the classicist than about the author, who lived c.600 in Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos. Most scholars agree, however, that Sappho had a school where young aristocratic women received education before marriage. Sappho is often called lesbian, but this is in fact an oversimplification, because the Greeks had other ideas about homosexuality than we have.
Musei Capitolini, Roma



Pindar. Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy).
The name of the Boeotian poet Pindar (518-438) will forever be connected with the Isthmian, Pythian, Nemean, and Olympic games. Any victorious aristocratic athlete could rent the services of Pindar, who would write an ode to his patron, whose victory was always presented as a manifestation of the power of the eternal gods. These odes are extremely formal poems, which make great demands on the poet's ability to employ identical metres. Pindar's world was that of the old aristocratic families, but in the second half of his life, this world was rapidly disappearing when Athens became the leading power in Greece. Nevertheless, Pindar praised the city that had twice warded off a Persian invasion with the famous words that it was the "violet-crowned bulwark of Greece". And although he was conservative in his opinions, Pindar was responsible for the introduction of a new god in Greece: Zeus Ammon.
Musei Capitolini, Roma; ©**



Aeschylus. Bust at the Neues Museum, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering. Together with Sophocles and Euripides, Aeschylus (525-456) is one of the best-known Athenian tragic poets. In his plays, he addresses complex theological problems. For example, in the trilogy Agamemnon - Choephoroi - Eumenides, he describes how the gods punish a family for a series of murders. The Persians is a superb play, in which the Athenian victory at Salamis (480) is celebrated, written seven years after the event. Aeschylus was highly esteemed; fifty years after his death, the comic poet Aristophanes wrote a play, The Frogs, in which Aeschylus and Euripides are presented as the greatest playwrights. Aeschylus himself did not care about his fame: he wanted to be remembered not for his tragedies, but for the fact that he had fought at Marathon. (Neues Museum, Berlin)



Sophocles. Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering. Sophocles (497-406) is the second of the three great Athenian tragic poets, and the one with whose plays we are most familiar: the names of Ajax, Antigone, and Oedipus are well-known. Of his 118 plays, however, only seven remain, in which people are confronted with extremely difficult situations. It is said that to express his ideas, he had to change the way tragedies were played, by adding a third (and once even a fourth) actor, and enlarging the chorus. Sophocles was also active in Athenian politics. In 441/440, 428, and 423/422 he served as army commander, and after the defeat at Sicily, he was given special responsibilities to lead Athens out of this crisis (413). The playwright was a personal friend of Pericles and Herodotus of Halicarnassus. After his death, he received heroic honors.
Musei Capitolini, Roma



Euripides. Antikensammlung, Berlin (Germany). Photo Marco Prins. The last of Athens' great tragic poets is Euripides (485-406). His plays are more exuberant than those of Sophocles and Aeschylus; often, he has the heroes and heroines face difficult choices, which are finally solved by the sudden appearance of a god (deus ex machina). Medea is probably his most famous play, and the Trojan Women can be interpreted as a protest against warfare. At the end of his life, he settled in Macedonia, where he wrote the Bacchae, a shockingly strange tragedy, which has been interpreted in many ways. His greatness was recognized by the comic poet Aristophanes, who gives Euripides many appearances in his plays and often parodies scenes from his tragedies. 
Altes Museum, Berlin



Aristophanes. Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
The comedies of the Athenian playwright Aristophanes (c.445-c.380) are a bit like our cabaret, full of jokes about actuality and politicians (especially Cleon), and parodies of contemporary literature (Euripides and Herodotus are among Aristophanes' victims). The jokes are not very subtle. Usually, someone comes up with a crazy plan (a private peace treaty, curing the blindness of the god of wealth...), and after some complications there is a happy ending with a nice dinner. Aristophanes' most famous play is the Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece decide not to have sex with their husbands, unless they end the war between Athens and Sparta. In another play, The Clouds, the philosopher Socrates is ridiculed. In The Frogs, Euripides and Aeschylus are debating who is the better poet. It is the world's oldest piece of literary criticism.
Musei Capitolini, Roma



Menander, bust from Ephesus, now at the museum of Selçuk (Turkey). Photo Marco Prins. The comedies of the Athenian playwright Menander (342-291) are completely different from those of Aristophanes. Classicists distinguish the Old and New Comedy. In the plays of Menander, the story is more or less credible (if one is willing to accept doppelgänger and frequent cases of mistaken identity and misunderstanding) and the characters are realistic. Often, the comedy also contains a tragic element, which makes it even more convincing. Unfortunately, only one play, The bad-tempered man, survives, together with considerable portions of a further five. However, many of Menander's comedies were translated into Latin and adapted by authors like Terentius and Plautus, and these plays have survived. During the Renaissance, several of them were translated into modern languages.
Archaeological Museum of
Selçuk




Callimachus was born in Cyrene in c.310, and moved to Alexandria, where he lived at the court of the Ptolemaic king Ptolemy II Philadelphus, a great patron of the arts. Here, Callimachus innovated poetry, and it is not much exaggerated to state that it was at Alexandria that literature as we know it was invented: quite useless but entertaining. Callimachus' contribution consisted of no less than 800 books, but almost everything is lost, including his Pinakes, a classification of Greek literature in 120 books. However, we can reconstruct his Origins (of several religious rituals), Iambic poems, a short epic called Hekale, and six Hymns to several gods. In these works, Callimachus presents himself as a scholar who delights in surprising his reader with unexpected turns, learned literary allusions, and technical refinement and sophistication. Among his students were Apollonius of Rhodes and Eratosthenes of Cyrene.




Callimachus of Cyrene had avoided writing long poems, comparing them to a muddy river, but his student Apollonius of Rhodes chose exactly this genre. His epic Argonautica, which deals with Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece, is written, like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, in hexameters and is comparable to these epic poems. Often, Apollonius paraphrases the old master. There is a big difference with Homer, however: Callimachus' heroes and heroines are, from a psychological point of view, more complex and credible.



Bust of Plutarch. Museum of Delphi (Greece). Photo Jona Lendering.
In his own age, the Delphian oracle priest Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-c.122) was immensely popular because he was, like Posidonius of Apamea, able to explain philosophical discussions to a general audience. Among his Moral treatises are treatises like Checking anger, the useful The art of listening, the fascinating How to know whether one progresses to virtue, and the charming Advice to bride and groom. Plutarch also wrote double biographies, in which he usually compared a Greek to a Roman (e.g., Alexander and Julius Caesar). In the epilogue, he analyzed their respective characters. The result is not only an entertaining biography, but also a better understanding of a morally exemplary person, which the reader can use for his own progress to virtue.
Museum of Delphi



Herodes Atticus. Bust at the British museum, London (Britain). Herodes Atticus (c.102-177) was living in the past. Under the Roman empire, many Greeks felt that their culture was very special, and they hated the fact that they were powerless. The only way to cope with their own irrelevance was to exaggerate the Greek past. People like Herodes Atticus, the richest man in Athens, took to the stage, where they delivered speeches on famous historical subjects: Leonidas inspires his men to fight until death, Wounded Athenian soldiers ask their comrades to kill them or Pericles asks the Athenians to declare war on Sparta. It was a celebration of a great past. This cultural activity is sometimes called the Second Sophistic, and Herodes Atticus was considered to be the greatest of these orators. Almost none of his speeches has remained, which is disappointing because of his immense cultural influence.
Louvre, Paris




No text has had more influence on the development of the study of classical archaeology than the Description of Greece by Pausanias. He was probably born c.125 and wrote his travel guide between 155 and 180. The author takes us on a tour trough the mainland of Greece, and describes all buildings of some importance. We are fortunate that he did so after the building boom at the beginning of the second century and before the economic crisis of the third century. Pausanias has a serious interest in the cults of the Greek countryside, which were in his age in the process of being slowly replaced by oriental religions. His often melancholic Description of Greece is therefore not only a treasury for classical archaeologists, but also for students of ancient religion.

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