Period Introduction Overview

Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern LiteratureIndia's Ancient Epics and TalesEarly Chinese Literature and Thought

The Invention of Writing and the Earliest Literatures

  1. While it is somewhat of a contradiction of terms (because "literature" comes from the Latin for "letters"), the earliest literature took the form of oral, not written, stories and songs.
  2. In the oral tradition, elements like repetition and the use of stock phrases and characters were often prized, whereas these might be identified as weakness in written literature.
  3. The transition from preliterate (or "oral") culture to literate culture was gradual and did not occur at the same time for all societies.
  4. Even as cultures became increasingly literate, many authors harkened back to an oral heritage, referring to themselves as "bards" who "sing" their poetry.
  5. Writing first developed in Mesopotamia, largely as a means to record political, legal, and administrative information (not as a means to record stories or to create new imaginative works).
  6. The earliest written texts date from 3300-2990 B.C.E.
  7. The most basic form of writing—pictographs (in which characters look like the word they represent)—evolved into the earliest known script, called cuneiform (about 2500 B.C.E.).
  8. Egyptian culture developed a system of hieroglyphics: this used pictures (like the earliest pictographic writing) but hieroglyphics were much more elaborate and could communicate more information.
  9. The ancient writing system that would be most familiar to contemporary Western readers is that of the Phoenicians. The Phoenician system used 22 characters, each of which stood for a consonant sound (rather than a single character representing a particular object in the world).
  10. The Greeks, in the eighth or ninth century B.C.E., modified the Phoenician system by adding characters that stood for vowel sounds. The Romans, picking up from the Greeks, used an alphabet that would be, at least in part, recognizable to us today.

Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean Cultures

  1. Ancient cultures in the Mediterranean developed primarily in areas that were close to basic natural resources and in particular those areas that could support farming: the Nile valley in Egypt and the Tigris and Euphrates valleys in the Near and Middle East (modern Iraq).
  2. Cities developed in these areas, which included Thebes, Memphis, Babylon, and Nineveh.
  3. Various cultures developed in the Mediterranean and Near East (like the Greeks, Hebrews, and Romans), and though they possessed considerable differences (and were geographically separate from one another), early trade and colonization enabled cross-cultural exchange.
  4. Most ancient cultures were polytheistic (they believed in a pantheon of gods). Religious stories and characters were shared, and reinvented, across cultures. This produced a complicated case of same-but-different, as often diverse religions seemed to share fundamentally similar narratives and characters (though adapted to local contexts).
  5. For early cultures, religion did not necessarily provide a moral code of conduct, nor were divine characters meant to be understood as representative of "correct" moral behavior. An early exception, however, was the Hebrew tradition, which understood religion as outlining a moral code and belief system to which all believers should adhere.

The Greeks

  1. The earliest inhabitants of Greece were a mix of native tribes and Indo-European invaders. The language they spoke shows evidence of this mix in its combination of European influence (Italic and Celtic, for example) but also its Indian influence.
  2. In its earliest history, Greek culture developed on the island of Crete and also on the mainland.
  3. After a devastating fire destroyed mainland palaces, the Greeks entered a "Dark Ages": they lost their writing system, their arts and crafts enterprises, and most of their wealth.
  4. During Greece's Dark Ages, oral literature grew in prominence once again (and from this tradition would come Homer's Iliad and Odyssey). It was not until the eighth century B.C.E. that the Greeks (re)developed a writing system, this time borrowed from the Phoenicians (the 22-character set representing consonant sounds).
  5. In part due to Greece's fragmented geography (scattered islands and mountainous terrain), numerous individual city-states developed, rather than a single cultural and economic center.
  6. At the time of Greece's reemergence from its Dark Ages, the Persian Empire ruled a vast territory stretching from Asia Minor (eastern Greece/western Turkey on a modern map) all the way east into India.
  7. Despite its power, however, the Persian Empire was not able to capture areas of mainland Greece, like Athens or Sparta (which repelled Persian invasions from 490 to 479 B.C.E.). The "underdog" story of the Greeks repelling Persian invaders received modern Hollywood treatment in the 2006 film 300, in which King Leonidas defends Thermopylae with his army of "300" men.
  8. During the fifth century B.C.E. Greek culture produced its most important literary and cultural achievements.
  9. Two primary cities emerged during this time: Sparta and Athens. While Sparta was ruled by a strict, military oligarchy (rule by the few), Athens cultivated an active democracy (rule by the people).
  10. Athenian "democracy," as relatively progressive as it was, still included only a small percentage of "the people" in governance, and then only male citizens held any rights. Women and slaves—unfortunately often spoken of as having the same social status—were allowed no voice in politics, had no legal rights, and could not own property.
  11. Sparta and Athens, so different in their social organization, eventually went to war against each other in 431 B.C.E. Athens was defeated in 404 B.C.E.
  12. Prior to this defeat, however, Athenian culture reached new heights. With growing interest in new ideas, a new system of education began to develop and a new role for teachers emerged: that of Sophist, or "wisdom teacher." These professional tutors taught diverse subjects such as rhetoric, history, ethics, literature, and astronomy.
  13. One of the most famous Sophists was Socrates, who would be defended by his equally famous pupil, Plato, as a true teacher of wisdom, especially as the term "sophist" grew to denote not just teacher but one who could use words to twist the truth (and thus corrupt his pupils).
  14. Socrates was eventually executed for his supposed corruption of the young.
  15. With Greek city-states in disarray following the war between Athens and Sparta, Greece fell under Macedonian power. The son of the Macedonian King Philip—who would come to be known as Alexander the Great—eventually took control of the Greek city-states and then led successful campaigns against the Persians. His victories would produce a massive empire.
  16. The Hellenistic period (323-146 B.C.E.) followed after Alexander's death and the fragmentation of the empire into independent kingdoms. But into these disparate kingdoms had spread Greek cultural influence, including language, literature, art, and political models.


  1. Following Alexander's death in 323 B.C.E. and through most of the following Hellenistic period (323-146 B.C.E.), Rome (which would eventually become an empire of its own) was slowly expanding its territory throughout Italy, Spain, and into Carthage (North Africa).
  2. The Roman political system was modeled as a republic: a system wherein power is distributed among a number of different governing bodies, which included elected officials, upper-class Senators, and Assemblies of common citizens. This division of power would provide a fundamental framework for the political structure in the United States many hundreds of years later.
  3. Romans prided themselves on upholding their cultural traditions of virtue and integrity. It was through unity, the Romans believed, that they derived their power.
  4. Roman governance was also efficient and practical: the Romans built roads, sewers, and bridges, some of which are still standing.
  5. Despite its practical orientation, Roman culture produced an early literature that often challenged ideals of propriety and uniform belief and behavior.
  6. Roman literature developed once the empire had reached its height, and it borrowed quite openly from its Greek models.
  7. The centuries immediately before and after the Common Era saw a long line of Roman emperors (beginning with Augustus, who defeated Antony and his ally/lover Cleopatra). The Roman Empire, stretching from modern Britain to North Africa and into the Middle East, left an indelible cultural imprint. This sense of a world-state would pave the way for Rome to once again rise as an empire in the tenth century C.E., though it would be an explicitly religious one in its next incarnation: The Holy Roman Empire.