ANCIENT GREEK CULTURE AND LITERATURE

ANCIENT GREEK CULTURE

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Pompeii Muses
The Greeks found aesthetics in everything. Ancient Greece was one of the first civilizations to widely use writing as a form of literary and personal expression. For the Mesopotamians and Egyptians it was used mainly to make records and write down incantations for the dead. The Greeks, by contrast wrote dramas, histories and philosophical and scientific pieces. Even so most people were illiterate and writing was seen mainly as something that helped the memory and aided the spoken word. From what can be ascertained people read aloud rather than silently to themselves.

Greece reached its zenith during the Golden Age of Athens (457 B.C. to 430 B.C.) when great temples were built in Athens and Olympia and they were decorated with wonderful sculptures and reliefs. Hellenistic arts imitated life realistically, especially in sculpture and literature.

The Muses were the goddesses of arts and sciences and the keepers of the Arts. The Greeks believed the Goddess of Memory (Mnemosyne) gave birth to all nine Muses and was the mother of the arts. The nine daughters of King Pierus once challenged the muses to a singing contest and lost. For their boldness the nine daughters were punished by being turned into magpies, birds capable of screeching out only one monotonous note. The nine Muses are: 1) Epic poetry (Calliope), 2) History (Clo), 3) Flute Playing (Euterpe), 4) Tragedy (Melpomene), 5) Dancing (Terposchore), 6) the Lyre (Erato), 7) Sacred Song (Polyhymnia), 8) Astronomy (Urania), and 9) Comedy (Thalia).

Myths, See Religion; Drama, See Theater

Greek Versus Roman Culture

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Greek vase painting
Art from ancient Greece and Rome is often called classical art. This is a reference to the fact that the art was not only beautiful and of high quality but that it came from a Golden Age in the past and was passed down to us today. Greek art influenced Roman art and both of them were an inspiration for the Renaissance

The Greeks have been described as idealistic, imaginative and spiritual while the Romans were slighted for being too closely bound to the world they saw in front of them. The Greeks produced the Olympics and great works of art while the Romans devised gladiator contests and copied Greek art. In Ode on a Grecian Urn , John Keats wrote: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, “that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

In the Aeneid Virgil, a Roman, wrote: The Greeks shape bronze statues so real they they seem to breathe. And craft cold marble until it almost comes to life. The Greeks compose great orations. and measure The heavens so well they can predict the rising of the stars. But you, Romans, remember your great arts; To govern the peoples with authority. To establish peace under the rule of law. To conquer the mighty, and show them mercy once they are conquered.

Greek Heroes, Sometimes Behaving Badly

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Hercules
Heros and heroism were central to Greek literature, art and religion. Karen Rosenberg wrote in the New York Times, “The ancient Greeks did not require perfection of their heroes, only greatness. They would certainly recognize some of our heroic figures (trapped miners, soldiers, quick-thinking pilots), but not our shock at the personal conduct of others (sports stars, politicians). Greek heroes misbehaved frequently, and when they did---Achilles dragging Hector’s body behind his chariot, Odysseus boasting to the Cyclops Polyphemus---it was a matter to be settled between the hero and the gods.[Source: Karen Rosenberg, New York Times, October 21, 2010]

This is one of the points made at the 2010 exhibition “Heroes, Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece” at the the Onassis Cultural Center in New York. Rosenberg wrote, “The exhibition begins with a parade of four figures---Odysseus, Achilles, Hercules and Helen---as seen on painted vessels and in sculpture. Later sections widen the focus to include athletes, soldiers and other local heroes who are now obscure.

The shaggy, bearded Odysseus in a Roman bust looks like a humble fisherman, but a one-eyed head of Polyphemus nearby reminds you of Odysseus--- harrowing escape from the Cyclops’s cave. Recalling the episode in further detail, a krater attributed to the Sappho Painter shows a grimacing Odysseus making his way to safety while strapped to the underbelly of a sheep.Not surprisingly, artists delighted in depicting some of Odysseus’ less fortunate crew members. The painting on a tall lekythos, or oil jug, from the National Archaeological Museum in Athens shows two men transforming into pigs under the spell of the sorceress Circe.

Cunning was Odysseus’ chief attribute, as Homer constantly reminds us. Achilles, meanwhile, was admired for his martial intelligence that, if unchecked, could result in vengeance of the ugliest variety. But the objects here show his softer side: his education by the centaur Chiron, his board-game sessions with Ajax and his eventual release of Hector’s brutalized body after pleas from Priam. Depicted on a huge amphora from the Toledo Museum of Art, that scene is one of the exhibition’s most intense. It shows an imperious Achilles reclining on a chaise above Hector’s bloodied corpse, as a supplicating Priam seems to reach forward for his son with every muscle in his body. Behind him Hermes gives a nudge to a servant bearing gifts---a reminder that the gods had the power to make or break heroes. Heroism as destiny is the subtext of several images of the young Achilles (and his parents, the mortal Peleus and the sea nymph Thetis). Many Greek heroes had one divine parent and were, in essence, groomed for greatness from birth.

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Wrath of Achilles
The show’s main heroine is Helen, the bride of Menelaus and catalyst of the Trojan War. She’s a passive hero, a gorgeous liability. Or so it seems to modern-day viewers, seeing her passed from Menelaus to Paris and back again. Yet the ancient Greeks worshiped her, particularly the young women of Sparta, who made ritual offerings to Helen in the hope that she would bless them with fertile marriages.

The show’s final sections include many other examples of hero-cult activity, mainly small votives and large reliefs that were placed at tombs or shrines. Many of these heroes and their deeds, unlike those in the myths and epics, are unknown to us. Some were soldiers who died in battle, depicted in memoriam as idealized, beardless youths. (The inscription on one striking image of a warrior reads, “The boy is beautiful.”) Others were mere children. (In the show’s substantial catalog, the scholar John H. Oakley has a fascinating and unsettling essay on child-heroes in Greek art.)

Athletic competitions were also a form of hero worship, linked to Hercules and other strongmen. Horse racers, wrestlers and disc throwers populate the show’s final gallery, inviting comparisons with contemporary sports celebrities. That idea can be misleading; the Panhellenic Games, for instance, were as much a religious and musical festival as a sporting event.

Why did the Greeks pay so much attention to heroes, especially minor ones, when they already had an entire pantheon of gods? One reason is that heroes, in death, were believed to have godlike powers over the living---powers they could use for good or evil. They were ultimately mortal---a point underscored in the opening lines of the Iliad, in which “strong souls of heroes” are “hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades” but fame gave them a kind of immortality. (As W. H. Auden wrote, “No hero is immortal till he dies.”)

Mary Beard and Christopher Jones on Greek Heroes

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Orpheus's death
In a review of Christopher P Jones’ book New Heroes in Antiquity , Mary Beard wrote in the New York Review of Books, “Modern heroism---as in “hero worship,” “culture hero,” “working class hero,” and so on---is not quite the same as the ancient version. The heroes that Jones discusses were divine or semi-divine figures, occupying part of that large grey area between “proper” Olympian gods and poor suffering, ordinary humanity. For the Greeks and Romans, “hero-worship” was not a metaphor. The grave of a hero would become a religious shrine (in Greek, heroon) and receive sacrifices and offerings from those who came, literally, to worship. [Source: , Mary Beard, New York Review of Books, March 3, 2010]

It is impossible to pin down exactly what the qualifications were for ancient heroic status. Like many ancient religious categories it was capacious and its boundaries conveniently vague (as a general rule, Greco-Roman polytheism tended to incorporate rather than exclude). For a start, anyone who fought in the Trojan War was a “hero”---for the ancient Greeks saw this as the great former age when all “mortals” were “heroes.” Some were even given their own shrines. Visitors to Sparta in the fifth century BCE would have been able to visit the Menelaion---an impressive sanctuary of King Menelaos and his errant wife Helen (also a “hero” on this definition---and worshipped in Sparta well into the Roman period, and probably for longer than Menelaos himself). There are some tremendous ancient images of this kind of hero in a stunning new exhibition, Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece, organized by the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, currently on show at the Frist Center in Nashville.

But Jones is more concerned with heroes who were created from the classical period of Greece on. He starts from the Spartan general Brasidas who died fighting the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War and was worshipped as a “hero” in the city where he had fallen, with sacrifices and annual games. He shows that it was probably “heroization” that Cicero had in mind when, four centuries later, he planned a “shrine” (Latin fanum), to be erected for his dead daughter, Tullia. And his last main example from pagan antiquity is Antinous---whose cult, as established by Hadrian, he sees very much in ancient “heroic” terms.

Book New Heroes in Antiquity: From Achilles to Antinoos by Christopher P. Jones (Harvard University Press, 2010)

Ancient Greek Literature

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Aristotle tutoring Alexander
As a rule Greek literature and drama was meant to be read and heard aloud not to be read quietly from a book. Most classic works were recited by traveling bards or written for drama competitions. Reading wasn’t popular because reading from unrolled scroll was not an easy thing to do.

Myth and the Homeric epics infused everyday life. By examining literature and drama, historians have been able to draw great insights into everyday Greek life.

Translating Greek literature and poetry presents great difficulty because Greeks phrases tend to express things that the English language needs at least twice as many words to express. Literal translations of Greek are awkward and repetitive. The best translations are often the ones that have taken the most liberties. any Greek words have multiple meanings or meanings that are difficult to translate exactly.

Also See Philosophy Under Science and Philosophy


Scrolls in Ancient Greece and Reading Them

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Plato Symposium papyrus
The Egyptian and Greeks wrote on papyrus or parchment with expensive inks or chiseled letters into stone. Romans commonly used small wooden tablets covered with a thin coat of wax, on which words could be inscribed with a sharp object and then the wax could be smeared again and new words could be written. The first books were perhaps sheets of wood coated and bound together (the first books in fact were called "codexes," meaning "tree trunk board"). ["The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

The averages scroll was perhaps 40 feet long and the longest were 150 feet. To cover a long story took several scrolls. The Iliad and Odyssey , for example, required 36 scrolls. Compared to books they had many disadvantages. Suppose you wanted to took look up something in the middle of a scroll you had to unwind it to the place you wanted and then wind back for the next person (the same way you should rewind a video cassette after watching a movie). Furthermore scrolls were relatively fragile. Every time one was unrolled and rolled that was wear and tear on the scroll. ["The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

Mary Beard, a professor of classics at Cambridge University, wrote in the New York Times: The books Greeks and Romans read “were not “books” in our sense but, at least up to the second century. The “book rolls” “long strips of papyrus, rolled up on two wooden rods at either end. To read the work in question, you unrolled the papyrus from the left-hand rod, to the right, leaving a “page” stretched between the two. It was considered the height of bad manners to leave the text on the right hand rod when you had finished reading, so that the next reader had to rewind back to the beginning to find the title page, bad manners---but a common fault, no doubt, Some scribes helpfully repeated the title of the books at the very end, with just this problem in mind.”

“These cumbersome rolls made reading a very different experience than it is with the modern book,” Beard wrote. “Skimming, for example, was much more difficult, as looking back a few pages to check out the name you had forgotten (as it is on Kindle). Not to mention the fact that at some periods of Roman history, it was fashionable to copy a the text with no breaks between words, but as a river of letters. In comparison, deciphering the most challenging postmodern text (or “Finnegan’s Wake,” for that matter) looks easy.”

See Papyrus and Vellum, Under Language, Written Language

Books and Libraries in Ancient Greece

The first books, or codexes, had no page numbers or table of contents. The author was seldom identified, but the scribe often was. He after all was the one who did all the work to make the book. Parchment, unlike papyrus, could be written on both sides. To make a codex, the ends of sheets were folded and sewn together.

Popular novels and treatises were "published" in Roman times by teams of slave scribes who copied the work by hand onto papyrus scrolls with ink made of soot, resin, wine dregs and cuttlefish. In ancient Greece books were so common that jokes were made in Greek comedies about book worms.

Early libraries were located in temples, public baths and palaces. The scrolls for books like the Iliad and Odyssey were kept in buckets and stored on shelves. There was no Dewey decimal system. Books were organized haphazardly and often not labeled. If you were looking for a particular book it was probably hard to find.

Book: Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson (Yale University Press, 2001)

Alexandria Library

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Alexandria Library Inscription
The great library of Alexandria was “first ample repository of the west's literary inheritance." It was inaugurated by in 298 B.C. Ptolemy I. According to legend Alexandria the Great envisioned a great library but it was Ptolemy I who proposed collecting “books of all the peoples of the world.” He sent letters to rulers in the known world and asked them for works by “poets, and prose-writers, rhetoricians and sophists, doctors and soothsayers, historians.” "Ptolemy II enlarged the library, adding a museum and research center. [Source: Alexander Stille, New Yorker, May 8, 2000, Lionel Casson, Smithsonian Magazine.

Before the establishment of the Alexandria Library, most book collections belong to private owners. Aristotle and Alexander the Great supposedly had large libraries. Libraries were not a new idea. The Egyptians built papyrus libraries in 3200 B.C. and Athens had a library in the 4th century. But the size and scope of the Alexandria Library was on a scale the world had never seen.

Probably modeled on the Lyceum, Aristotle’s library and school in Athens, the Alexandria Library was located in the Mouseion, the Temple of Muses. No one knows exactly where that was except that it was part of the Royal Court of the Ptolemy, a huge complex that covered a large area and included a zoo and botanical gardens.

According to Strabo, who visited Alexandria in 20 B.C., the library "was part of the royal palaces, it had a walk, an arcade, a large house in which was a refractory for members of the Mouseion."

The great library of Alexandria was an ancient think tank, a meeting place for scholars from throughout the known world. Scholars lived together in a communal residence and ate together in a dining hall. Among their achievement was creating Euclidian geometry, performing the first dissections of human bodies, translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek, and compiling Homer's epic poems.

Around 200 B.C. a large library was established in Pergamum on Asia Minor that competed with the Alexandria library to get its hands on the best books. The family that inherited Aristotle's collection reportedly hid all their books when their town was ruled by Pergamom. Eventually the Pergammon collections was transferred to Alexandria when Antony gave Cleopatra Asia Minor as a gift.

Alexandria Library Book: The Vanishing Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World by Luciano Canfora.

Contents of the Alexandria Library

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Ptolemy II and Jews
The Alexandria Library boasted it had a copy of every known manuscript. It probably contained about a 490,000 scrolls. Scholars debate whether 490,000 scrolls represented 490,000 individual works or the total number of scrolls. Many works contained multiple scrolls. The 24 books of Homer's Odyssey , for example, was probably represented by 24 scrolls. It there were duplicates it may have contained 700,000 or copies. It was rivaled only by the Perguman library which had 200,000 scrolls.

Most of the books in the Alexandria Library were written on foot-wide, 20-feet-long scrolls. Many were written on both sides and on average one scroll contained the equivalent of sixty pages of text from a modern book. Books were collected from leaders in the known world. The Athenians were tricked into handing over a stash of major Greek tragedies and paid a fortune for library said to belonging to Aristotle. Many new works were obtained from ships anchored in the city's harbor, which were required to hand over books to the library which were copied as "special rapid-copying shops." Sometimes the libraries officials kept the original and gave the owner back a copy.

The Alexandria Library is believed to be one of the first places where books were arranged in alphabetical order by author’s last name, and authoritative text editions, glossaries and indexes were kept. The scrolls were kept in warehouses and shelf-lined rooms, often stored in bucket-like containers.

Alexandria Library as an Intellectual Center

The Alexandria Library also contained a museum, or literally "a Place of Museum." Unlike a modern museum it was gathering places for scholars and intellectuals. According to one classics professor, "it had a dining hall in which they took their meals in common, private studies, laboratories, a cloisterlike promenade for thoughtful strolling, and so forth, all funded by generous endowment from the crown." Strabo wrote, "They formed a community who held property in common with priest appointed by the kings."

Among the great minds who worked there were the mathematicians Eratosthenes and Euclid, the physicists Archimedes, the poet Theocritus and, and the philosophers Zeno and Epicurus. Euclid completed his famous Elements at the library. Eratosthenes, who made his famous measurement of earth's circumference, worked as a librarian of the library. Others worked out the principal of the steam engine, dissected human bodies and worked out the brain was the center of the nervous system and intelligence.

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Alexandria Library

The Alexandria Library was "the seedbed of the ancient Greek Renaissance.” Scholars there mapped the stars and planets, created geometry, came up with the idea of the "leap years," revived Plato and Aristotle, translated works by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and collected Buddhist, Jewish and Zoroastrian texts. Greek Grammar by Dionysus Thrax was used as a guide to grammar and style until the 12th century.

One of the greatest achievements was the essential creation of the Old Testament by seventy-two Jewish scholars, when they translated the Hebrew Bible (the Torah), "which from its beginning was enshrouded in legend and folklore," into Greek. The scholars were brought together by Ptolemy I. According to a Jewish legend, he asked each of the Jewish scholars individually to translate the whole Hebrew Bible and miraculously the result, was 72 identical versions. Modern copies of the Bible are all based on the Greek translation.

Burning of the Alexandria Library

The loss of the contents of the Alexandria Library by a massive fire is regarded by some as the worst intellectual tragedy ever. All that remains today are fragments and copies that appeared on later texts. Scholars still debate how the Alexandria Library came to a fiery end. Many believed the some of scrolls were destroyed in a fire in 48 B.C. and the library itself was destroyed by Christians in A.D. 391.

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Alexandria Fire by Hermann Goll (1876)

Some blame Caesar. Both Seneca and Plutarch wrote that Caesar set fire to boats during his conquest of Alexandria in 48 B.C. According to Seneca the fire spread and 40,000 scrolls were destroyed. He said these scrolls were in the warehouse. Even if they were part of the library, they were only a fraction of the total collection.

Some blame early Christian who went on a campaign against paganism in A.D. 391 under the Roman-Byzantine Emperor Theodosius. The Christians smashed idols, destroyed the Temple of Serapis and terrorized Alexandria’s intellectual community in a way that brings to mind the way the Taliban act in Afghanistan. In A.D. 415 Christian kidnapped and tortured to death the female philosopher and mathematician Hypatia, regarded as one greatest thinkers of her time. However there is no record of anything happening to the library.

Others say it was the Arabs who destroyed the library when they conquered Egypt in the 7th century. According to one account, the Arabs entered Alexandria and used 700,000 books from the famous library to kindle fires in the city's 4,000 public baths because they contained "matter not in accord with the book of Allah." The problem with the account is that it was written 600 years after the purported event happened. A 7th century letter form a Muslim conqueror to the Muslim caliph, cited in the account, reportedly asks what to do with all the books. The caliph answered: “As for the book you mention, if what was written in them agrees with the book of God, they are not required; if it disagrees, they are not desired. Destroy them therefore.”

It is likely that most of the scrolls just withered away. The idea that the entire library was destroyed in a single catastrophic event is probably in accurate. Even if there was no fire, the scrolls would probably not survived for centuries because they were mostly written on papyrus, a very fragile, perishable material. There are virtually no remains from other great ancient libraries in Pergamun, Athens and Rome. The Dead Sea scrolls and papyrus texts from ancient Egypt have survived because they were placed in containers and stored in caves or tombs in very dry places.

Sex and Literature in Ancient Greece

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Theater slave
Ancient Greek literature is filled with sex, violence and scandal. Some of the most famous works by Aristophanes---including The Birds , Lysistrata and especially Women at the Thesmoporia “are filled with obscenities and sexual innuendos. The reasons why some of the works are relatively clean today---and more boring than the otherwise might be---is that many of the translations were done by Victorian era Britons.

Greek dramas often featured liberal use actors of with giant phalluses and references to homosexuality. In Clouds Aristophanes wrote: "How to be modest, sitting so as not to expose his crotch, smoothing out the sand when he arose so that the impress of his buttocks would not be visible, and how to be strong...The emphasis was on beauty...A beautiful boy is a good boy. Education is bound up with male love, an idea that is part of the pro-Spartan ideology of Athens...A youth who is inspired by his love of an older male will attempt to emulate him, the heart of educational experience. The older male in his desire of the beauty of the youth will do whatever he can improve it."

In Aristophanes's The Birds , one older man says to another with disgust: "Well, this is a fine state of affairs, you demanded desperado! You meet my son just as he comes out of the gymnasium, all rise from the bath, and don't kiss him, you don't say a word to him, you don't hug him, you don't feel his balls! And you're supposed to be a friend of ours!"

Aesop and His Fables

Aesops Fables are said to date back to around 6th-century B.C. Greece. It is not known whether Aesop was a real person. According to tradition, Aesop lived from about 620 to 560 B.C. and was a clever former slave with a deformed body. After he was freed by his master he made reputation for himself telling stories and was invited to live with Croeseus, King of Lydia. He died in Delphi, where it is said he was sent by Croeseus, and so angered the Delphians he was thrown off a cliff.

If Aesop was a real person it is likely that he was illiterate and didn’t write the fables down. Instead they were passed down orally and first written down in Athens in the 4th century B.C. Later a medieval Greek named Babrius collected them. His copy was lost for over a thousand years and found at a monastery in Mount Athos in 1844. Some of the fables that have been handed down to us today are versions by Jean de la Fontaine, a writer who lived in France in the 17th century.

Aesop’s fables are simple stories with and having a moral lesson, usually involving animals, which fit stereotypes such as the strong lion or sly fox. The stories are oriented towards children with words of wisdom they are expected to take to heart. Famous Aesop’s fables include the 1) The Tortoise and the Hare ; 2) The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing ; 3) The Fox and the Grapes ; 4) The Lion and the Mouse ; 5) The Fox and the Stork .

In The Lion and the Mouse a mouse scrambles across the face of a lion and wakes the lion up. The angry lion catches the mouse in his paw and threatens to kill him. The mouse pleads for his life and the lion lets him go. Some time later on the lions gets caught in a hunter’s trap. He roars. He mouse hears the roar, arrives, and gnaws at the ropes of the trap and sets the lion free. The moral: “Sometimes the weakest can help the strongest.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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