The earliest known Greek writings are in Linear B, a Mycenaean script dating from 1500 to 1200 B.C. found on clay tablets, and refer to trade. The earliest literary works found are 8th- or 9th-century-B.C. epic poems by Homer: the Iliad, on the Trojan War; and the Odyssey, on the journeys of Odysseus (Ulysses). Both were written in ancient Greek, the oldest language in continuous use and the one on which the Latin alphabet is based. Hesiod (ca. 700 B.C.) wrote about his difficult rural life and a history of mankind, including the gods. Lyric poetry was sung in a chorus and accompanied by a lyre, also dating to about 700 B.C.
The ancient Greeks also invented drama, which told the stories of past heroes and legends in both tragedy and comedy. These performances were attended as religious festivals in honor of Dionysus. At the theater dedicated to him below the Acropolis, awards for best plays were bestowed and displayed on Tripodon Street in Plaka. Aristophanes wrote bold comedies that sometimes poked fun at democracy.
Herodotus first wrote literary prose, while Thucydides meticulously researched his account of the Peloponnesian War, influencing the scholarship of later historians. In the 4th century B.C., Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (a student at Plato’s Academy) wrote treatises on logic, science, politics, ethics, government, and dramatic interpretation that have been the centerpieces of learning for millennia.
The 20th century saw the international fame of two Greek masters. Nikos Kazantzakis (1883–1957) was born in Iraklion, Crete, when the island was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Zorba the Greek and other novels earned Kazantzakis nine Nobel Prize nominations and made him the most celebrated Greek writer of his time. Zorba and his novel Last Temptation of Christ were also made into internationally acclaimed films. Constantine Cafavy (1863–1933), born in Alexandria, Egypt, of Greek parents, is one of the most important figures in modern poetry. His most famous work is the beautiful “Ithaca,” “When you depart for Ithaca, wish for the road to be long, full of adventure, full of knowledge.” Anyone heading to Spetses, the Sarnoic Gulf island near Athens, might want to plunge into John Fowles’ dark psychological novel The Magus, based partly on the author’s experiences while teaching on the island in the 1950s. Travelers bound for the delightful little island of Patmos will want to read The Summer of My Greek Taverna: A Memoir, by Tom Stone, as much a cautionary tale as it is an evocation of island life.
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