7 junio, 2024

Ancient literature: what it is, characteristics, history, authors, works

We call ancient literature that which developed between the year 3000 BC and the 5th century AD in various regions of the world, but especially in Asia, Africa and Europe.

There are literary records that occurred from the invention of writing (4th millennium BC) by various cultures, which almost immediately printed words and ideas, myths, poems and stories on stone, clay, wood, papyrus. , paper and parchment.

For this reason we know, and we can currently continue reading, ancient works from Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Greece and Rome, among other voices of antiquity that are still among us.

Features of ancient literature

Oral tradition

Although human records begin with the invention of writing, much of what we now think of as literature was transmitted orally: myths, poems, historical facts, heroic tales, and so on.

In fact, there are current testimonies of peoples without writing with a rich oral literature, such as the Amazonian or Oceanian cultures.

Supports for written literature

The first literary texts, or currently considered as literary, were written on various supports: stone, clay tablets, papyrus, parchment and paper (appearing in China around the first century AD).

Myths and gods, the first themes

The content of the first literary manifestations deals with creation myths, gods and goddesses, stories of the founding of cities and empires, etc. The oldest known literary text is the Epic of Gilgamesh (between 2500 and 2000 BC).

Literature and religion

Currently, works that originally would have had a religious character, such as Sumerian poems, the theogony of Hesiod, or the Book of the Dead Egyptian.

Literary genres

Between 2500 BC and 500 AD almost all known literary genres appear, especially in the Greco-Roman sphere: epic and lyric poetry, dramaturgical texts (tragedy and comedy), short stories, novels, critical texts, etc.

Themes and contents

Once literature distances itself from religion, with the development of the epic and the lyric, literature expands on the same themes of contemporary literature: life and death, destiny, war, the relationship of individuals with status, love, travel and adventure, etc.


Texts written during this period continue to exert a great influence on world literature, such as Greco-Roman literature, Chinese texts such as the Tao Te Ching, or the growing interest in Sumerian texts.

Ancient literatures from Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Greece and Rome


Between and around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (present-day Iraq) writing and the first cities and empires arose, in which the Akkadian, Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian cultures participated.

The writing, whose oldest origin is in this region, was used for administrative tasks, but soon it was used to transcribe myths and legends, as well as hymns to the gods.

The oldest known literary text originates in Sumer, around 2500 BC, Gilgameshepic poem whose influence reaches, according to some scholars, biblical texts (such as the reference to the flood) and the Odysseyfrom Homer.

We must also highlight the figure of Enheduanna (2285 BC), princess and priestess of the god Nannar (the moon), in Ur, considered the first author to sign a literary work: poems dedicated to the lunar deity.


It is considered, along with Sumerian, as the oldest literature we know. Although, as we have already commented, the texts that we currently appreciate as literature have not been qualified as such by the ancient Egyptians.

The oldest texts (2500 BC) are of a funerary nature: poems, letters, hymns and biographical portraits; but the most famous work of this period, and which continues to receive the attention of specialists and lay readers, is the Book of the Dead (1540 BC).

This book, intended to accompany the dead on their journey beyond the grave, was a papyrus roll that could be up to forty meters long.

Also considered important Egyptian literary texts are stories such as the History of Sinuhe and the story of the eloquent peasant (1900 BC).


Chinese literature dates back to 2200 BC, and although it may not be the oldest, it is the one that has enjoyed the greatest continuity in history. The oldest literary and philosophical texts are attributed to Confucius, and as founding works are mentioned the five classics (wu jing).

Due to the influence they continue to exert, Chinese works such as the Tao Te Ching (6th century BC), the I Ching (he book of mutationsone of the Five Classicsfrom the 11th century BC), and The Art of Warby Sun Tzu (5th century BC).


With the iliad and the Odyssey (8th century BC), many authors consider that the history of Western literature begins. Both epic poems are attributed to Homer, and have exerted a notable influence on world culture.

Ancient Greece is also the cradle of tragedy, with authors such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides (6th and 5th centuries BC), of comedy, with Aristophanes (444 BC), and of other genres, such as lyric poetry, the novel and the biographical essay, among others.

The expansion of the Greek language, thanks to the conquests of Alexander the Great and the adoption of his tastes and values ​​by the later Roman Empire, made Greece one of the cradles of Western culture and a radiating center for everything that was considered art. .


Although some scholars perceive Rome as a popularizer of Greek values, the Romans forged their own literature, original even when they tried to imitate the Greeks.

Poets such as Catullus (84 BC) stood out, author of numerous poems and compositions with satirical and loving features, whose originality was to give the elegy the subjective, intimate and personal character that this poetic form presents to this day.

Other notable poets included Ovid (43 BC), remembered for texts such as the Metamorphosis and The art of Loving; Horace (65 BC), lyric poet and satirist; Virgil (70 BC), author of the Aeneid; and Martial (AD 40), author of offensive and witty epigrams.

The Romans also developed comedy more masterfully than the Greeks, with authors such as Plautus (254 BC) and Terence (185 BC).

They also stood out in disciplines such as rhetoric, with authors such as Marco Tulio Cicero (106 BC), and in historiography, as a literary genre and as a humanistic discipline, with Tito Livio (59 BC), Tacitus (58 AD) and Suetonius (70 AD). ).

During the dominance of the Roman Empire, genres such as the novel and tragedy were also cultivated (with less success than the Greeks). And later they have left their mark on all the languages ​​descended from Latin.


Toohey, P. G., Toohey, PM (2004). Melancholy, love and time: boundaries of the sefl in ancient literature. Taken from books.google.com.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead (2016). Taken from historia.nationalgeographic.com.es.
Ten curiosities to discover Chinese literature (2018). Taken from llibres.com.ar.
Lichtheim, M. (2019). Ancient egyptian literature. Taken from academia.edu.
History of Ancient Literature (2020). Taken from bloghemia.com.
Pryke, L. (2020). Enheduana, the princess and priestess author of the first signed literary work in history. Taken from bbc.com.
History of Literature (2021). Taken from es.wikipedia.org.

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