10 Ancient Greek Writers You May Have Forgotten About
We've all heard of Aristotle and Socrates, of Plato and Homer, of tragedians like Euripides and Sophocles, historians like Herodotus, and mathematicians like Archimedes. But they weren't the only ones whose writings were effective and influential contributions to history, literature, philosophy, mathematics, and other aspects of society. Though they sometimes may be overlooked when it comes to studying the more prominent figures, many other great writers made their mark on Ancient Greek civilization.
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Ever heard of the Theogony ? Written by farmer-and-shepherd turned Boeotian poet, Hesiod, the Theogony opens with devotions to the muses, and describes the family tree of the Olympians. It starts with Chaos and the titans, and goes on to tell how Zeus became king of the gods, including the Gigantomachy and the Titanomachy stories (wars with the giants and the titans). It is largely due to this work that we understand the genealogy of the gods and the titans, as well as other myths of creation, such as the creation of mankind. In addition, Hesiod’s Works and Days provides another source of mythology stories related to farming.
Xenophon was an Athenian who became a mercenary soldier in Sparta after the war between Athens and Sparta. He is considered a Greek historian because he recorded the events of the march of Cyrus against Antixerxes, and the journey home from Persia for the 10,000 Greeks, culminated in his work, Anabasis; Xenophon himself plays a significant role, and his personal account is the only major source for that event. What's interesting to note about Xenophon is that he wrote about himself in the third person; he also purposefully did not include any legends in his writing (though he does describe a dream he had), preferring instead to stick to what he considered fact and real life. His other works include Hellenica and Cyropaedia.
Sometimes referred to as “The Poetess,” Sappho was a female lyric poet from the island of Lesbos, whose few surviving poems are famous for their devotion to Aphrodite, and their declarations of love for women she was associated with (though she also wrote love poems for men). One of her most famous poems was her Hymn to Aphrodite; the Roman poet Ovid so admired her work that he considered her the greatest Greek love poet, and considered himself her Roman counterpart.
Very little else is known about her; it's possible she ran a finishing school for girls on Lesbos, but this is only one of a few theories. And, as you may have guessed, it's because of Sappho that we have the term lesbian.
Aeschylus was that other tragedian. (But really, he was one of the three great tragedians). He entered tragedy competitions right along with Euripides and Sophocles, and is responsible for works such as The Persians, Seven Against Thebes, Prometheus Bound, and The Suppliants. One of his greatest works was The Orestia trilogy (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides), which followed the story of the House of Atreus from the time that Agamemnon returned home from the Trojan War, to Athena’s exoneration of Orestes from the Furies. He died in 456 BC, fifty years before both Euripides and Sophocles, which is perhaps why his works are sometimes left out of the spotlight.
Thucydides was a historian, and an Athenian general during the Peloponnesian war (the war of Athens versus Sparta), which was the main subject of his writing. It's because of Thucydides that we have accounts of the Peloponnesian war; he considered it to be the greatest war in history, and gives his own eyewitness account, as well as accounts of others. His writings are well known for their recordings of speeches, especially the funeral oration of Pericles, which promoted democracy in Athens; he also gives vivid accounts of the Athenian plague, the Mitylenian Revolt and Debate, the Melian Debate, and the Sicilian Expedition. Though he was banished from Athens for twenty years, Thucydides still considered Athens superior to Sparta.
Active in the Aechean League, Polybius became a historian after being captured by the Romans. Though the Romans killed his father, he wrote with favor about the superiority of the Roman empire, which included the Punic and Carthaginian wars; in his works he compares Rome to other empires, giving conclusions as to why he thinks it's so successful. He also became close friends with Scipio, who had a penchant for all things Greek. He stressed the importance of archival research, believed that history should evaluate causes and connections, not just state the facts, and emphasized that history should teach lessons; he was also the first historian to state that history tends to repeat itself.
Pindar was a poet from an aristocratic family in Thebes, known mostly for his Isthmian, Nemean, Olympian, and Pythian Odes, which are all that survive of his work. These odes are lyric poems celebrating victors in the Olympic, Isthmian, Nemean, and Pythian games; they're also another source of mythological storytelling, from lesser stories, such as the daughters of Danaus, to feature myths, like the deification of Heracles. Historical record shows that Pindar went to study poetry in Athens, and there around 497 or 496 BC, he entered a poetry contest and won first prize. It is not known exactly when he died, only that it was sometime after 446 BC.
Plutarch was a Platonist biographer and philosopher who also studied mathematics. He studied in Athens, but was also an avid traveler; he traveled many times to Rome to give philosophy lectures, and even attained Roman citizenship. It is also possible he was friends with emperors Trajan and Hadrian. In Athens, under the philosopher Ammonius, he studied philosophy, physics and mathematics, and rhetoric. His most well known works include Parallel Lives, which describes many notable Greek and Roman citizens, and the Ethica, and Moralia, which span a wide variety of topics, from ethics, to religion, politics, metaphysics, theology, and more. In total, Plutarch had around 227 writings.
Apollonius was a mathematician who forwarded much knowledge of geometry; he was sometimes called “The Great Geometer.” He studied geometry with students of Euclid, and his treatise, the Conics, advanced knowledge of circles, ellipses, parabolas, and hyperbolas. Though he had many other writings, such as his Collection, the Conics is one of the few that survive. A handful of his other works are known only by description from other writers and mathematicians, such as Pappus of Alexandria, Ptolemy, and more, who describe his findings in their own studies, including some astronomy, optics, and other geometrical arguments. He died in Alexandria around 190 BC.
10. Dionysus of Halicarnassus
Not to be confused with the Greek party god of wine, Dionysus of Halicarnassus was a historian who was born in Greece, but eventually moved to Rome. His history, Roman Antiquities, covers early periods in Rome, from its inception and mythology, to the First Punic War. The main purpose of this work was to convince the Greeks that Rome was not so bad, but it was also used to teach principles of rhetoric. It contained 20 books, but only 11 of them survived antiquity. His rhetoric work On Imitation, and other essays also only remain in pieces. Though he was not considered a great or reputable historian, he was considered a very capable literary critic.