CHAPTER XXII. SKETCH OF THE HISTORY OF GREEK LITERATURE FROM THE EARLIEST TIMES TO THE REIGN OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT.
The Greeks possessed two large collections of epic poetry. The one comprised poems relating to the great events and enterprises of the Heroic age, and characterised by a certain poetical unity; the other included works tamer in character and more desultory in their mode of treatment, containing the genealogies of men and gods, narratives of the exploits of separate heroes, and descriptions of the ordinary pursuits of life. The poems of the former class passed under the name of Homer; while those of the latter were in the same general way ascribed to Hesiod. The former were the productions of the Ionic and AEolic minstrels in Asia Minor, among whom Homer stood pre-eminent and eclipsed the brightness of the rest: the latter were the compositions of a school of bards in the neighbourhood of Mount Helicon in Boeotia, among whom in like manner Hesiod enjoyed the greatest celebrity. The poems of both schools were composed in the hexameter metre and in a similar dialect; but they differed widely in almost every other feature.
Of the Homeric poems the Iliad and the Odyssey were the most distinguished and have alone come down to us. The subject of the Iliad was the exploits of Achilles and of the other Grecian heroes before Ilium or Troy; that of the Odyssey was the wanderings and adventures of Odysseus or Ulysses after the capture of Troy on his return to his native island. Throughout the flourishing period of Greek literature these unrivalled works were universally regarded as the productions of a single mind; but there was very little agreement respecting the place of the poet's birth the details of his life, or the time in which he lived. Seven cities laid claim to Homer's birth, and most of them had legends to tell respecting his romantic parentage, his alleged blindness, and his life of an itinerant bard acquainted with poverty and sorrow. It cannot be disputed that he was an Asiatic Greek; but this is the only fact in his life which can be regarded as certain. Several of the best writers of antiquity supposed him to have been a native of the island of Chios; but most modern scholars believe Smyrna to have been his birthplace. His most probable date is about B.C. 850.
The mode in which these poems were preserved has occasioned great controversy in modern times. Even if they were committed to writing by the poet himself, and were handed down to posterity in this manner, it is certain that they were rarely read. We must endeavour to realise the difference between ancient Greece and our own times. During the most flourishing period of Athenian literature manuscripts were indifferently written, without division into parts, and without marks of punctuation. They were scarce and costly, could be obtained only by the wealthy, and read only by those who had had considerable literary training. Under these circumstances the Greeks could never become a reading people; and thus the great mass even of the Athenians became acquainted with the productions of the leading poets of Greece only by hearing them recited at their solemn festivals and on other public occasions. This was more strikingly the case at an earlier period. The Iliad and the Odyssey were not read by individuals in private, but were sung or recited at festivals or to assembled companies. The bard originally sung his own lays to the accompaniment of his lyre. He was succeeded by a body of professional reciters, called Rhapsodists, who rehearsed the poems of others. and who appear at early times to have had exclusive possession of the Homeric poems. But in the seventh century before the Christian era literary culture began to prevail among the Greeks; and men of education and wealth were naturally desirous of obtaining copies of the great poet of the nation. From this cause copies came to be circulated among the Greeks; but most of them contained only separate portions of the poems, or single rhapsodes, as they were called. Pisistratus, the tyrant or despot of Athens, is said to have been the first person who collected and arranged the poems in their present form, in order that they might be recited at the great Panathenaic festival at Athens.
Three works have come down to us bearing the name of Hesiod - the 'Works and Days,' the 'Theogony,' and a description of the 'Shield of Hercules.' Many ancient critics believed the 'Works and Days' to be the only genuine work of Hesiod, and their opinion has been adopted by most modern scholars. We learn from this work that Hesiod was a native of Ascra, a village at the foot of Mount Helicon, to which his father had migrated from the AEolian Cyme in Asia Minor. He further tells us that he gained the prize at Chalcis in a poetical contest; and that he was robbed of a fair share of his heritage by the unrighteous decision of judges who had been bribed by his brother Perses. The latter became afterwards reduced in circumstances, and applied to his brother for relief; and it is to him that Hesiod addresses his didactic poem of the 'Works and Days,' in which he lays down various moral and social maxims for the regulation of his conduct and his life. It contains an interesting representation of the feelings, habits, and superstitions of the rural population of Greece in the earlier ages. Respecting the date of Hesiod nothing certain can be affirmed. Modern writers usually suppose him to have flourished two or three generations later than Homer.