5 Key Works of Greek Literature

Sarah Roller

Ancient and Classical Ancient Greece
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Although works produced in Ancient Greece are well over 2000 years old, they remain as popular and important to the Western literary canon as ever: many of the tragedies and comedies written are still performed today, political philosophy is still debated and discussed as hotly as ever, and epic poems are still enjoyed by readers across the globe.

So, here are five of the most important works of literature to have been produced in Ancient Greece.

The Iliad & The Odyssey

Homer’s two epic poems are often referred to in the same breath, and for good reason. Both works were based on ancient myths and legends, and tell the story of the Trojan War through two different protagonists: Achilles and Odysseus.

It is not just the historical perspective these narratives provide that makes them so famous, but the very human element that Homer brings to his characters. Achilles and Odysseus are flawed heroes, men who make mistakes as well as do noble deeds.

Similarly, although these epics were written over 3000 years ago, the horror and pain of war have not changed, nor the internal conflicts of those who participate in them.

Many critics view these works as the foundation of the literary canon, and they still prove popular today, not least because Homer’s stories reflect themes surrounding humanity, war, love and loss that have kept their relevance.

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Plato’s Republic

Plato’s Republic is one of the most important works in the history of politics and philosophy: in fact, he was the first thinker to apply philosophy to politics, making the Republic important in this sense too.

Plato breaks the world down into three types of people (producers, auxiliaries, and guardians), and within this, every soul has three parts (rational, spirited and appetitive). How these forms link with each other and the world around them forms much of the hypothetical discussions in the treatise.

Regardless of whether or not you’ve read it, the arguments and thoughts he sets out on the topic of justice, injustice, and how to build a society around these feed into political and legal structures in our world today.

An illustration of The Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic. Image credit: 4edges / CC

Medea

Euripedes’ Medea is one of the great Ancient Greek tragedies, centring on Medea, and her desire to exact revenge on Jason, her unfaithful husband – ultimately, this takes the form of the murder. When it was first performed in 431BC, it took third place in a playwriting competition in the city of Dionysia.

However, it has become one of the most performed dramas in western theatre in more recent years: the somewhat shocking content of the play, and themes of love, vengeance, motherhood and female identity Euripedes explored have ensured it remains relevant today.

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The Theban Trilogy

Better known by the name of the protagonist, Oedipus, these three plays by Sophocles are widely perceived to be the pinnacle of their genre – Ancient Greek tragedy.

Oedipus was the subject of a prophecy, in which he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Abandoned at birth by his parents, both events occur precisely because Oedipus does not know or recognise either of them. The play draws out questions of fate, and whether our destiny can be decided for us, regardless of the choices we make.

More relevant in the modern world perhaps, Oedipus never fails to seek out the truth, no matter how horrific or uncomfortable it may be, and this quest for truth is viewed by many as intrinsic to the human condition.

oedipus sphinx
Attic red-figure pelike, Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx and frees Thebes, by the Achilleus painter, 450-440 BC, Altes Museum Berlin. Image credit: Carole Raddato / CC

The Histories

Herodotus’ Histories earned him the title ‘The Father of History’ from Cicero. Covering the Greco-Persian Wars and events such as the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae, the Histories is the first known historical narrative which used systematic collection and interrogation of information to transform facts into a coherent, critical historical narrative.

This is not to say Herodotus wrote history in the way we do today – he often embellished and fancified certain parts to add more colour or drama – but Histories mark an important moment in historical investigation as well as providing a detailed account of the Greco-Persian wars.

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Sarah Roller