1902 Encyclopedia > Greece > The Attic Literature

(Part 23)



II. The Attic Literature

The Ionians of Asia Minor, the /Eolians, and the Dorians had now performed their special parts in the development of Greek literature. Epic poetry had interpreted the heroic legends of warlike deeds done by Zeus-nourished kings and chiefs. Then, as the individual life became more and more, elegiac and iambic poetry had become the social expression of that life in all its varied interests and feelings. Lastly, lyric poetry had arisen to satisfy a twofold need-—to be the more intense utterance of personal emotion, or to give choral voice, at stirring moments, to the faith or fame, the triumph or the sorrow, of a city or a race. A new form of poetry was now to be created, with elements borrowed from all the rest. And this was to be achieved by the people of Attica, in whose character and language the distinctive traits of an Ionian descent were tempered with some of the best qualities of the Dorian stock.
Origin of The drama arose from the festivals of Dionysus, the
drama, god of wine, which were held at intervals from the beginning of winter to the beginning of spring. A troop of rustic worshippers would gather around the altar of the god, and sing a hymn in his honour, telling of his victories or sufferings in his progress over the earth,
Tragedy. "Tragedy" meant "the goat-song," a goat being sacrificed to Dionysus before the hymn was sung. " Comedy," " the village-song," is the same hymn regarded as an occasion for rustic jest. Then the leader of the chorus would assume the part of a messenger from Dionysus, or even that of the god himself, and recite an adventure to the worshippers, who made choral response. The next step was to arrange a dialogue between the leader [coryphaeus) and one chosen member of the chorus, hence called " the answerer" (hypocrites, afterwards the ordinary word for " actor"). This last improvement is ascribed to the Attic Thespis (about 536 B.C.). The elements of drama were now ready. The choral hymn to Dionysus (the " dithyramb") had received an artistic form from the Dorians; dialogue, though only between the leader of the chorus and a single actor, had been introduced in Attica. Phrynichus, an Athenian, celebrated in this manner some events of the Persian wars ; but in his " drama " there was still only one actor.
iEschylua. jEschylus (born 525 B.C.) became the real founder of tragedy by introducing a second actor, and thus rendering the dialogue independent of the chorus. At the same time the choral song—hitherto the principal part of the performance—became subordinate to the dialogue; and drama was mature. ^Eschylus is also said to have made various improvements of detail in costume and the like: and it was early in his career that the theatre of Dionysus under the acropolis was commenced—the first permanent home of Greek drama, in place of the temporary wooden platforms which had hitherto been used. The system of the " trilogy " and the " tetralogy " is further ascribed to ^Eschylus,—the " trilogy " being properly a series of three tragedies connected in subject, such as the Agamemnon, Choepliori, Eumenides, which together form the Oresteia, or Story of Orestes. The "tetralogy" is such a triad with a "satyric drama " added—that is, a drama in which " satyrs," the grotesque woodland beings who attended on Dionysus, formed the chorus, as in the earlier dithyramb from which drama sprang. The Cyclops of Euripides is a satyric drama. In the seven tragedies which alone remain of the seventy which yEschylus is said to have composed, the forms of kings and heroes have a grandeur which is truly Homeric; there is a spirit of Panhellenic patriotism such as the Persian wars in which he fought might well quicken in a soldier-poet; and, pervading all, there is a strain of speculative thought which seeks to reconcile the apparent conflicts between the gods of heaven and of the underworld by the doctrine that both alike, constrained by necessity, are working out the law of righteousness. Sophocles, who was born thirty years after Sophocles. iEschylus (495 B.C.), is the most perfect artist of the ancient drama. No one before or after him gave to Greek tragedy so high a degree of ideal beauty, or appreciated so finely the possibilities and the limitations of its sphere. He excels especially in drawing character; his Antigone. hSsAjax, his (Edipus—indeed, all the chief persons of his dramas— are typical studies in the great primary emotions of human nature. He gave a freer scope to tragic dialogue by adding a third actor; and in one of his later plays, the CEdipus at Golonus, a fourth actor is required. From the time when he won the tragic prize against iEschylus in 468 to his death in 405 B.C. he was the favourite dramatist of Athens; and for us he is not only a great dramatist, but also the most spiritual representative of the age of Pericles. The distinctive interest of Euripides is of another kind. He Euripides, was only fifteen years younger than Sophocles; but when he entered on his poetical career, the old inspirations of tragedy were already failing. Euripides marks a period of transition in the tragic art, and is, in fact, the mediator between the classical and the romantic drama. The myths and traditions with which the elder dramatists had dealt no longer commanded an unquestioning faith. Euripides him-self was imbued with the new intellectual scepticism of the day; and the speculative views which were conflicting in his own mind are reflected in his plays. He had much picturesque and pathetic power; he was a master of expres-sion ; and he shows ingenuity in devising fresh resources for tragedy—especially in his management of the choral songs. iEschylus is Panhellenic, Sophocles is Athenian, Euripides is cosmopolitan. He stands nearer to the modern world than either of his predecessors; and though with him Attic tragedy loses its highest beauty, it acquires new elements of familiar human interest.

In Attica, as in England, a period of rather less than fifty years sufficed for the complete development of the tragic art. The two distinctive characteristics of Athenian drama are its originality and its abundance. The Greeks of Attica were not the only inventors of drama, but they were the first people who made drama a complete work of art. And the great tragic poets of Attica were remark-ably prolific. iEschylus was the reputed author of 70 tragedies, Sophocles of 113, Euripides of 92; and there were others whose productiveness was equally great.
Comedy represented the lighter side, as tragedy the Comsdj graver side, of the Dionysiac worship; it was the joy of spring following the gloom of winter. The process of growth was nearly the same as in tragedy; but the Dorians, not the Ionians of Attica, were the first who added dialogue to the comic chorus. Susarion, a Dorian of Megara, exhibited about 580 B.C. pieces of the kind known as "Megarian farces." The more artistic form of comedy seems, however, to have been developed in Attica. The greatest names before Aristophanes are those of Cratinus and Eupolis ; but from about 470 B.C. there seems to have been a continuous succession of comic dramatists. Aristo- Aristophanes came forward as a comic poet in 427 B.C., and re- phane^ tained his popularity for about forty years. He presents

a perhaps unique union of bold fancy, exquisite humour, critical acumen, and lyrical power. His eleven extant comedies may be divided into three groups^ according as the licence of political satire becomes more and more restricted. In the Acharnians, Knights, Clouds, Wasps, and Peace (425-421) the poet uses unrestrained freedom. In the Birds, Lysistrata, Thesmophoriaztisai, and Frogs (414-405) a greater reserve may be perceived. Lastly, in the Ecclesiazusoe and the Pluttts (392-388) personal satire is almost wholly avoided. The same general tendency continued. The so-called "Middle Comedy" (390-320) represents the transition from the Old Comedy, or political satire, to satire of a literary or social nature. The " New Comedy" (320-250) resembled the modern " comedy of manners." These successive periods cannot be sharply or precisely marked off. The change which gradually passed over the comic drama was simply the reflexion of the change which passed over the political and social life of Athens. The Old Comedy, as we see it in the earlier plays of Aristo-phanes, was probably the most powerful engine of public criticism that has ever existed in any community. Unspar- i ing personality was its essence. The comic poefc used this recognized right on an occasion at once festive and sacred, in a society where every man of any note was known by name and sight to the rest. The same thousands who heard a policy or a character denounced or lauded in the theatre might be required to pass sentence on it in the popular assembly or in the courts of law.
The development of Greek poetry had been completed ! before a prose literature had begun to exist. The earliest name in extant Greek prose literature is that of Herodotus ; and, when he wrote, the Attic drama had already passed its prime. There had been, indeed, writers of prose before Herodotus; but there had not been, in the proper sense of the term, a prose literature. The causes of this compara lively late origin of Greek literary prose are independent of the question as to the time at which the art of writing-began to be generally used for literary purposes. Epic poetry exercised for a very long period a sovereign spell over the Greek mind. In it was deposited all that the race possessed of history, theology, philosophy, oratory. Even after an age of reflexion had begun, elegiac poetry, the first offshoot of epic, was, with iambic verse, the vehicle of much which among other races would have been com-mitted to prose. The basis of Greek culture was essentially poetical. A political cause worked in the same direction. In the Eastern monarchies the king was the centre of all, and the royal records afforded the elements of history from a remote date. The Greek nation was broken up into small states, each busied with its own affairs and its own men. It was the collision between the Greek and the barbarian world which first provided a national subject for a Greek historian. The work of Herodotus, in its relation to Greek prose, is so far analogous to the Iliad in its relation to Greek poetry, that it is the earliest work of art, and that it bears a Panhellenic stamp.
The sense and the degree in which Herodotus was original may be inferred from what is known of earlier ' prose-writers. For about a century before Herodotus there had been a series of writers in philosophy, mytho- J logy, geography, and history. The earliest, or among I the earliest, of the philosophical writers were Phere-cydes of Syro3 (550 B.C.) and the Ionian Anaximenes and Anaximander. The Ionian writers, especially called logographi, " narrators in prose" (as distinguished from epopoii, makers of verse), were those who compiled the myths, especially in genealogies, or who described foreign countries, their physical features, usages, and traditions. Hecataeus of Miletus (500 B.C.) is the best-known repre-sentative of the logographi in both these branches. Hel-lanicus of Mitylene (450 B.C.), among whose works was a history of Attica, appears to have made a nearer approach to the character of a systematic historian.
Herodotus was born in 484 B.C; and his history was Hero-probably not completed before the beginning of the Pelo- dotas, ponnesian War (431 B.C.). His subject is the struggle between Greece and Asia, which he deduces from the legendary rape of the Argive Io by Phoenicians, and traces down to the final victory of the Greeks over the invading host of Xerxes. His literary kinship with the historical or geographical writers who had preceded him is seen mainly in two things. First, though he draws a line between the mythological and the historical age, he still holds that myths, as such, are worthy to be reported, and that in certain cases it is part of his duty to report them. Secondly, he follows the example of such writers as Hecataeus in describing the natural and social features of countries. He seeks to combine the part of the geographer or intelligent traveller with his proper part as historian. But when we turn from these minor traits to the larger aspects of his work. Herodotus stands forth as an artist whose conception and whose method were his own. His history has an epic unity. Various as are the subor-dinate parts, the action narrated is one, great and complete; and the unity is due to this that Herodotus refers all events of human history to the principle of divine Nemesis. If Sophocles had told the story of CEdipus in the (Edipms Tyranmis alone, and had not added to it the CEdipus at Colonics, it would have been comparable to the story of Xerxes as told by Herodotus. Great as an artist, great too in the largeness of his historical conception, Herodotus fails chiefly by lack of insight into political cause and effect, and by a general silence in regard to the history of political institutions. Both his strength and his weakness are seen most clearly when he is contrasted with that other historian who was strictly his contemporary, and who yet seems divided from him by centuries.
Thucydides was only thirteen years younger than Tnucy-Herodotus; but the intellectual space between the men dides. is so great that they seem to belong to different ages. Herodotus is the first artist in historical writing; Thucy-dides is the first thinker. Herodotus interweaves two threads of causation'—human agency, represented by the good or bad qualities of men, and divine agency, represented by the vigilance of the gods on behalf of justice. Thucydides concentrates his attention on the human agency (without, however, denying the other), and strives to trace its exact course. The subject of Thucydides is the Peloponnesian War. In resolving to write its history, he was moved, he says, by these considerations. It was probably the greatest movement which had ever affected Hellas collectively. It was possible for him as a contení porary to record it with approximate accuracy. And this record was likely to have a general value, over and above its particular interest as a record, seeing that the political future was likely to resemble the political past. This is what Thucydides means when he calls his work "a possession for ever." The speeches which he ascribes to the persons of the history are, as regards form, his own essays in rhetoric of the school to which Antiphon belongs. As regards matter, they are always so far dramatic that the thoughts and senti-ments are such as he conceived possible for the supposed speaker. Thucydides abstains, as a rule, from moral com-ment ; but he tells his story as no one could have told it who did not profoundly feel its tragic force; and his gene-ral claim to the merit of impartiality is not invalidated by the possible exceptions'—difficult to estimate—in the cases of Cleon and Hyperbolus.

Strong as is the contrast between Herodotus and Xeno-Thucydides, their works havs yet a character which dis- plion.

tinguisk both alike from the historical work of Xeno-phon in the Anabasis and the Heilenica. Herodotus gives us a vivid drama with the unity of an epic. Tkucy-dides takes a great chapter of contemporary history and traces the causes which are at work throughout it, so as to give the whole a scientific unity. Xenophon has not the grasp either of the dramatist or of the philosopher. His work does not possess the higher unity either of art or of science. The true distinction of Xenophon consists in his thorough combination of the practical with the literary character. He was an accomplished soldier, who had done and seen much. He was also a good writer, who could make a story both clear and lively. But the several parts of the story are not grouped around any central idea, such as a divine Nemesis is for Herodotus, or such as Thucydides finds in the nature of political man. The seven books of the Heilenica form a supplement to the history of Thucy-dides, beginning in 411 and going clown to 362 B.C. The chief blot on the Heilenica is the author's partiality to Sparta, and in particular to Agesilaus. Some of the greatest achievements of Epaminondas and Pelopidas are passed over in silence. On the whole, Xenophon is perhaps seen at his best in his narrative of the Retreat of the Ten Thousand—a subject which exactly suits him. The Gyro-pcedia is a romance of little historical worth, but with many good passages. The Recollections of Socrates, on the other hand, derive their principal value from being uniformly matter-of-fact. In his minor pieces on various subjects Xenophon appears as the earliest essayist. It may be noted that one of the essays erroneously ascribed to him—that On the Athenian Polity—is probably the oldest specimen in existence of literary Attic prose, Oratory. The steps by which an Attic prose style was developed, and the principal forms which it assumed, can be traced most clearly in the Attic orators. Every Athenian citizen who aspired to take part in the affairs of the city, or even to be qualified for self-defence before a law-court, required to have some degree of skill in public speaking; and an Athenian audience looked upon public debate, whether political or forensic, as a competitive trial of proficiency in a fine art. Hence the speaker, no less than the writer, was necessarily a student of finished expression ; and oratory had a more direct influence on the general structure of literary prose than has ever perhaps been the case else-where. A systematic rhetoric took its rise in Sicily, where Corax of Syracuse (466 B.C.) devised his Art of Words to assist those who were pleading before the law-courts; and it was brought to Athens by his disciple Tisias. The teach-ing of the Sophists, again, directed attention, though in a superficial and imperfect way, to the elements of grammar and logic; and Gorgias of Leontini—whose declamation, however turgid, must have been striking—gave an impulse at Athens to the taste for elaborate rhetorical brilliancy. The Attic Antiphon represents the earliest, and what has been called orators, the grand, style of Attic prose; its chief characteristics are a grave, dignified movement, a frequent emphasis on verbal contrasts, and a certain austere elevation. The interest of Andocides is mainly historical; but he has graphic power. Lysias, the representative of the " plain style," breaks through the rigid mannerism of the elder school, and uses the language of daily life with an ease and grace which, though the result of study, do not betray their art. He is, in his own way, the canon of an Attic style; and his speeches, written for others, exhibit also a high degree of dramatic skill. Isocrates, whose manner may be regarded as intermediate between that of Antiphon and that of Lysias, wrote for readers rather than for hearers. The type of literary prose which he founded is distinguished by ample periods, by studied smoothness, and by the temperate use of rhetorical ornament. From the middle of the 4th century B.C. the
Isocratic style of prose became general in Greek literature. From the school of Bhodes, in which it became more florid, it passed to Cicero, and through him it has helped to shape the literary prose of the modern world. The speeches of Isasus in will-cases are interesting,—apart from their bearing on Attic life,—because in them we see, as Dionysius says, " the seeds and the beginnings " of that technical mastery in rhetorical argument which Demosthenes carries to perfection. Iseeus has also, in a degree, some of the qualities of Lysias. Demosthenes excels all other Demo-masters of Greek prose not only in power but in variety ; sthenes. his political speeches, his orations in public or private causes, show his consummate and versatile command over all the resources of the language. In him the development of Attic prose is completed, and the best elements in each of its earlier phases are united. The modern world can more easily appreciate Demosthenes as a great natural orator than as an elaborate artist. But, in order to appre-hend his place in the history of Attic prose, we must re-member that the ancients felt him to be both; and that he was even reproached by detractors with excessive study of effect. iEschines is the most theatrical of the Greek orators; he is vehement, and often brilliant, but seldom persuasive. Hyperides was, after Demosthenes, probably the most effect-ive ; he had much of the grace of Lysias, but also a wit, a fire, and a pathos which were his own. The one oration of Lycurgus which remains to us is earnest and stately, re-minding us both of Antiphon and of Isocrates. Dinarchus was merely a bad imitator of Demosthenes. There seems more reason to regret that Demades is not. represented by larger fragments. The decline of Attic oratory may be dated from Demetrius of Phalerum (318 B.C.), the pupil of Aristotle. Cicero names him as the first who impaired the vigour of the earlier eloquence, " preferring his own sweetness to the weight and dignity of his predecessors,"
The place of Plato in the history of Greek literature is Phuoso-as unique as his place in the history of Greek thought. The phical literary genius shown in the dialogues is many-sided: it pj°^~ d includes dramatic power, remarkable skill in parody, a subtle Aristotle, faculty of satire, and, generally, a command over the finer tones of language. In passages of continuous exposition, where the argument rises into the higher regions of discus-sion, Plato's prose takes a more decidedly poetical colouring —never florid or sentimental, however, but lofty and austere. In Plato's later works—-such, for instance, as the Laws, Timceus, Gritias—we can perceive that his style did not remain unaffected by the smooth literary prose which con-temporary writers had developed. Aristotle's influence on the form of Attic prose literature would probably have been considerable if his Rhetoric had been published while Attic oratory had still a vigorous life before it. But in this, as in other departments of mental effort, it was Aristotle's lot to set in order what the Greek intellect had done in that creative period which had now come to an end. His own chief contribution to the original achievements of the race was the most fitting one that could have been made by him in whose lifetime they were closed. He bequeathed an instrument by which analysis could be carried further, he founded a science of reasoning, and left those who fol lowed him to apply it in all those provinces of knowledge which he had mapped out. Theophrastus, his pupil and his successor in the Lyceum, opens the new age of research and scientific classification with his extant works on botany, but is better known to modern readers by his lively Characters, the prototypes of such sketches in our own literature as those of Hall, Overbury, and Earle.

Read the rest of this article:
Greece - Table of Contents

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries