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Masterpieces of Ancient Greek Literature


All our lives, we've been taught the importance of the ancient Greeks to so much of the world that came after them, and particularly to our own way of living in and seeing that world. Mention politics, philosophy, law, medicine, history, even the visual arts, and we barely scratch the surface of what we owe this extraordinary culture.

How can we best learn about these people who have given us so much; who have deepened and enriched our understanding of ourselves?

We can look to modern historians for perspectives on the origins of their own discipline, and on the two thinkers, Herodotus and Thucydides, whose contributions to that discipline were immense. To political scientists for the links between the U.S. Senate and the councils of Athens. And to teachers of philosophy for insights to illuminate the deepest implications found in Plato. 

But there is an entirely different perspective found in another of their great legacies—the classic Greek literature that is still read today and that is still able to engage and enthrall us. Would we find that Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plato might engage us in advanced levels of understanding when their works are examined as not only history or philosophy, but as literature, their words weighed and forms shaped as carefully as those of any poem or drama?

To Know Them Is to Know Ourselves 

From the viewpoint of Professor David J. Schenker, the answer is "absolutely yes." In Masterpieces of Ancient Greek Literature he offers a view of literature that roams beyond a common definition of the word. By introducing us to a world that remains far closer than we might imagine, he opens up to us the epics of Homer; the dramatic genius of the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes; and the poems of Archilochus, Sappho, and many others. He includes some of the world's greatest works of history and philosophy, and he gives rhetoric and oratory their proper due as well.

"We might disagree with the Romantic poet Shelley that 'we are all Greeks,'" Professor Schenker notes. "But we can indeed trace back to them, in some cases through them, much of what makes us who we are today. ... To study the Greeks is a valuable lesson in what we can call cultural literacy. To know them is to know ourselves. Or, as the Roman statesman Cicero said, 'If you don't know where you come from, you'll always be a child.'

"We do, in many ways, come from the Greeks, and in order to function as responsible and productive human beings, it's important that we know something about the Greeks."

Beginning with Homer and the two great epics credited to him, the Iliad and the Odyssey—including a provocative discussion of whether Homer even existed—Professor Schenker offers a wide-ranging overview of the subject that is instructive and entertaining.

For example, you'll learn that the arming scenes so familiar to us in action films, the moments when heroes prepare for the climactic battle—clicking magazines into assault rifles, tossing ammunition belts over shoulders, and slamming sharpened bayonets into scabbards—go all the way back to Homer and perhaps even earlier. 

In epics like the Iliad and Odyssey, the tension is built very slowly during a traditional formulaic scene, with the hero shown preparing for battle one piece of armor or a single weapon at a time, donning breastplate, helmet, shield, sword, and other paraphernalia of war one by one before venturing out to meet his opponent. 

In another example of Professor Schenker's ability to entertain while he informs, you'll experience a famous moment from Euripides's Medea as its original Athenian audiences might have.

Hear a Change of Language Turn a Statement into a Hiss 

After Professor Schenker reads, first in English, an enraged and murderous Medea's tirade to Jason, the lover who has betrayed her, he repeats its famous first line, "I saved your life, and every Greek knows I saved it" in Greek.

Esosa s’os isasin hosoi, he intones, and you hear how the repetitive sibilants must have sounded centuries ago, hovering in the Athenian air like the cold threat of a hissing snake.

That moment's impact echoes throughout the lectures. Professor Schenker presents his material largely chronologically, with occasional breaks to group works by genre. He delivers again and again on what he calls the course's guiding principle: "These are not museum pieces to be venerated because of their age, but works of great literature that remain compelling, meaningful, and enjoyable."

And often startling, as well: Greek authors of the Classical period, including those as revered as Aristophanes, Herodotus, and Plato, did not cede to Homer alone recognition as the originator of Greek literature; they included in the same breath the name of the poet Hesiod (c. 750 B.C.E.). You'll learn about his Theogony, which includes in its 1,000 lines a gold mine of mythological data about the births of the gods and their organization of the world, as well as a compelling narrative about Zeus and his rise to power as king of the gods.

Equally remarkable is the story told of the debut of Aeschylus's The Eumenides, first staged in Athens in 458 B.C.E. It is said to have elicited full-blown terror in its audience. When the Furies—the hideous, avenging spirits roused from sleep by the ghost of the murdered Clytemnestra—appeared in the audience, men shrieked and fainted, and pregnant women miscarried on the spot!

A Partnership of Knowledge and Ruthlessness

The unmatched manuscript collection of the great Library of Alexandria—which, after the death of Alexander the Great, became the intellectual heart of the Greek-speaking world—was assembled through the ruthlessness of the ruling Ptolemies. Visitors to the city, or any arriving ship, had to surrender all manuscripts in their possession for the library's scribes to copy, with the copies returned to their owners and the originals kept by the library! In fact, when the city of Athens allowed the Ptolemies to borrow, with a high security payment, its precious copies of the Athenian tragedies, the Ptolemies chose to forfeit the security payment. Those manuscripts were added to a collection so vast that estimates place its numbers in the hundreds of thousands of volumes.

Almost no complete works by lyric poet Sappho, who is referred to by some in antiquity as the Tenth Muse, have survived. Although her collected works filled nine papyrus scrolls in the Library of Alexandria, most of what we have today, with few exceptions, are fragments—sometimes single lines, often only a word or two—that came from scraps of papyrus or quotations from later authors. Nevertheless, her reputation as one of the ancient world's most passionate voices is secure. The 2005 confirmation of a newly discovered Sappho poem on a piece of papyrus used in a mummy wrapping was, in Professor Schenker's words, "cause for celebration."

The same can be said about Masterpieces of Ancient Greek Literature and the opportunity it gives us to deepen our understanding of a culture that has given us so much. In these ancient works we can confront, as Professor Schenker notes when discussing the Iliad and Odyssey, "timeless questions and problems that define our human condition." Moreover, these questions serve, for us as much as for the ancient Greeks, "as foundation for all that follows."

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