The history of Greek literature is also, for the most part, the history of the Greek spirit, considered in all the forms of its progressive development. If among any people, in general, literary, or properly aesthetic, expressions cannot and must not be separated from the remaining forms of spiritual life, among the Greeks, in particular, they were almost always intimately associated with all the purposes of knowledge and civilization. Art and science were one thing for a long time; and they did not become truly distinct and autonomous until when Greek literature had already completed the greater part of its creative cycle, that is, almost at the beginning of the Alexandrian age.
This intimate and somewhat primitive connection with the various forms of the spiritual life makes the study of Greek literature extremely complex, obliging us to take into account a number of works and aspects that would seem to be mostly extraneous to the subject. The complexity, then, is further increased by another no less important and significant fact: that is, by the great dispersion of literary phenomena, which very often do not allow themselves to be traced back to a single line of development. Evidently the lack of unity observed in the political history of the Greeks finds, not without reason, exact confirmation also in their literary history, all fragmented and divided by lineage, dialect, genre, etc. That if literature, language, art, Thought are precisely the elements from which the consciousness of their national unity was born and nourished in the Greeks, on the other hand this consciousness was not strong enough or determined to actually overcome all obstacles and to form both a state and a Greek national literature. In the political field, the consciousness of unity almost never reached its true realization, or only partially and late, in the Alexandrian age. Similarly, in the literary field, too, it was conducted slowly and hesitantly. In fact, for a long time, and it can be said almost to the very beginnings of Alexandrianism, we did not have a comprehensive and unitary production, but a quantity of isolated manifestations, which flourished – with certainly marvelous richness and with artistic vigor no longer reached after d ‘ then – in the various centers of Hellenic life. They flourish, in different forms and dialects, in the different cities of the motherland and in the colonies, among the different lineages, of the Ionians, the Ionian-Attics, the Aeolians and the Dorians.
The division of the Greek people, not only in contrasting cities, but especially in lineages of different traditions and dialects, is an essential presupposition that has profoundly influenced the nature and appearance of this literature: it has harmed its unity, but at the same time it benefited from its incomparable richness and variety. Think of the luxuriant flowering of the so-called literary genres, which rightly or wrongly are considered almost as an invention of the Greek genius. Well, the literary genres, which in Greece appear so many and so characteristic (and which, before being defined with schematic rigor by grammarians, were really formed and developed in the practice of art), derive mainly from the condition of things described above. Indeed, in the different lineages and places the artistic spirit, exuberant with youth, naturally manifested itself in different forms; which gradually became typical – for a certain imitative inclination which is also typical of the Greeks – and always reproduced themselves, even outside the original contingencies, constituting genres, with their own dialect, with their meter, with their intonations (v.literary genre). Therefore, in correspondence with the colorful political and ethnic framework of the nation, we have the colorful framework of literature, rich in such multiple and disparate forms: which are not only disparate, as happens everywhere, for the various personalities of the artists, but for the difference of lineages and the conditions and places to which each of them respectively belongs. Greece seems to have invented these forms, in its creative impulse: not because they actually arose out of nowhere, without examples and without precedents (this is now not very credible; and we will see it later); but because they coexisted there, or succeeded one another with special abundance, and above all they assumed a typical value. In any case, Greece then communicated them and transmitted them to other nations, to Roman literature and subsequent European literatures, applying its indelible impression on all of them: a formal literary impression, in which however a profound influence of spiritual content was implicit and indissolubly linked. The Hellenic specimens, that is not only the single masterpieces, the single works of art, but their abstract type, the genres raised to an ideal value, were like a foundation on which the literatures of ‘West. This propagation constitutes the so-called phenomenon of classicism: which for one aspect has helped to spread culture, to suggest appropriate inspirations, to nourish the sense of order and harmony; but it has also produced significant damage,
In the midst of the multiplicity and dispersion with which the manifestations of Greek literature appear to us, we can nevertheless distinguish some lines of greater importance. They coincide in principle, as is natural, with those which are usually observed in the great picture of political history: which, although, as has been said, very disorganized, it nevertheless allows us to glimpse a certain framework, marked by the emergence of one lineage, or one city, above the others, by the struggles for hegemony, by the slow and arduous but undeniable tendency to overcome the narrow circle of the polis and achieve greater unity. Therefore, in correspondence with the general movement of history and culture, which by intricate ways on one side or the other aim at dominance and unification.
With a non-historical but stylistic criterion, the periods of Greek literature are usually distinguished in pre-classical, classical and post-classical: where the term of comparison is constituted by the masterpieces (considered as classics par excellence) of Athenian production, between 500 and 300 approximately to. C. But these same periods acquire a deeper and more acceptable significance, when the stylistic reasons (which are illusory, because only in the will of grammarians and rhetoricians can there be a perfect style, to be valid as classic) are replaced by real reasons of history and culture. Then the first period, pre-classical, takes the name of Hellenic or ionico; and reflects the essentially divided condition in which the various cities and colonies of Greece lived and worked during the first centuries; hence almost all regions and Hellenic lineages participate more sporadically than ever in the intellectual and literary flourishing; but also, among them, the Ionians already have a certain prevalence, and exert a wider influence, as is shown above all by the great importance and diffusion of the epic. It goes from the origins, around 800 BC. C., at the outbreak of the Persian wars, about 500 BC. C. The second, classical period is more conveniently called Attic: and marks a progress towards unity, as the artistic and spiritual fervor is truly centered in Athens, heir and continuator of the Ionian culture, and radiates from Athens, coinciding with the hegemonic position or empire that it, the capital of Attica, the polis par excellence, has managed to conquer itself. It goes from the Persian wars, about 500 BC. C., to the disintegration of the polis and the establishment of the monarchical order by Philip and Alexander the Macedonian, about 320 BC. C. The third period, postclassic, represents the definitive propagation and unification of Hellenism: propagation through the East and the Mediterranean, over an infinitely larger and more compact terrain, unified first by the Hellenistic monarchies and, later, above all from the Roman Empire . Hellenistic or Alexandrian, from the foundation of the Hellenistic monarchies, about 320 BC. C., to the reduction of Egypt to a Roman province, 30 a. C .; Roman period, from this period up to about the time of the Emperor Justinian, 527 d. C.