7 junio, 2024

Classical literature: what it is, characteristics, genres, authors, works

We explain what classical literature is, its characteristics, genres, authors and representative works

What is classical literature?

The classic literature It is the set of works written in Greek and Latin during the Ancient Age, and ranges from texts attributed to Homer in the 8th century BC, to works written by Roman authors in the first centuries after Christ.

Other cultures with a long literary tradition, such as India and China, have classic texts from that period, such as the Ramayana or the Tao Te King, but when talking about classical texts it is in reference to the ancient literature of Greece and Rome.

This set of works are defined as classics because they have been read and reread, visited by readers and critics of all time, leaving a deep mark on universal (at least Western) culture.

The classics are those books that everyone knows without having read them, or rather, in the words of a contemporary classic, Jorge Luis Borges: «a classic is that book that a nation or a group of nations or a long time has decided to read as if in their pages all this was deliberate, fatal, deep as the cosmos and capable of endless interpretations.

Characteristics of classical literature

classical greek and latin

Classical literature is made up of texts originally written in two dead languages: ancient Greek and Latin, although today they are translated into almost all modern languages.

genre initiators

Most of the main literary genres begin with the Greek and Latin texts: epic and lyrical poetry, tragedy and comedy, satire, the novel, oratory, etc. The first texts of philosophy and history and biographies are included among the classics.

Gods, myths and legends

In classical literature there are continuous references or participation of gods, monsters and mythological figures, heroes and demigods. Some stories, such as the Trojan War, have a historical basis, although the events narrated in Homer’s works are fictitious, the result of the popular imagination or the poet.

classical greek literature

The Greek classics are those written in ancient Greek, including some authors and texts after the Roman occupation and rule. Modern Greek texts are not part of classical literature.

classic latin literature

The Latin classics are those texts published in Latin from the time of the consolidation of the republic (1st century BC) until the fall of the Western Roman Empire (5th century AD). Writing in Latin continued throughout the Middle Ages, but these works are considered part of medieval literature.

Presence of the classics

In Why read the Classics the Italian writer Italo Calvino (another contemporary classic), affirms that «every reading of a classic is really a rereading», with which perhaps he was trying to say that all of us who have grown up in Western culture know what the classics are about without having seen them. read.

His themes –such as the Trojan War, Greek myths or the adventures of Ulysses– are present in later authors, in movies and even in comics and cartoons.

Greco-Latin classics and national classics

Classical literature (literature of ancient Rome and Greece) must be differentiated from national and modern classics, such as the Quixote of Cervantes, the works of Shakespeare or authors like Dante or Molière.

Each language and each country have their classic authors and some, like Shakespeare or Cervantes, are considered universal classics, but they are not part of classical literature in the sense that this concept has been given since the Middle Ages.

Interpretation and validity of the classics

Another statement by Calvino is that «a classic is a book that never stops saying.» Texts of classical literature continue to be republished and read because they continue to communicate with readers from different eras and cultures. Each generation and each era reads the classics in a different way.

Genres of classical literature

The main genres that originate and are represented in classical literature are epic, lyric, tragedy, comedy, fable, novel, philosophy, history and oratory.

epic poetry

Most literary critics and historians agree that universal literature was born with two Greek epic poems, attributed to Homer: the iliad and the Odysseywhose composition dates are estimated around the 8th century BC

Epic poetry narrates war stories, myths and adventures of legendary heroes in verses structured in songs. This genus was also cultivated by the Romans and during the Middle Ages

lyrical poetry

It developed among the Greeks in forms such as the hymn and the elegy, and passed from myths to love poetry, especially in Latin poetry. Among the Greeks, poets such as Pindar, Sappho, Archilochus, Anacreon stood out, and among the Romans Ovid, Catullus, Horace and Martial, among others.

The tragedy

Western dramaturgy has its cradle in Greece, and was born by the hand of three Greek authors: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Works of all three have survived that continue to be staged in different theaters around the world, such as King Oedipus, Antigone either Iphigenia in Aulis.

The comedy

It arises in Greece with authors like Aristophanes, but it has a greater development in Rome, thanks to writers like Plautus and Terence.

The fable

This genre of short stories with a moral and generally with animals as protagonists, has as its main classic the Greek Aesop, whose stories are still read in different versions, especially in children’s literature.

The novel

This literary genre of narrative fiction began to develop among the Greeks in the Hellenistic period, but it generated classic texts in Rome, with authors such as Petronius and Apuleius.

The philosophy

Western philosophy was also born in Greece, and has among its main classic texts the presocratic fragments (texts by Thales, Pythagoras, Diogenes, Heraclitus, Parmenides, etc.), the dialogues Plato and the works of Aristotle.

In Rome, the philosophical texts of Seneca and the meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, among others.

The history

As in philosophy, the fathers of history as a discipline were Greeks and Romans such as Herodotus, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch.


This genre, associated with the discourse and the exercise of politics, had its maximum representative in the Roman Marco Tulio Cicero.

Authors and representative works

The list of authors of classical literature is quite extensive, although their importance and influence have varied over the centuries.

Homer (8th century BC)

To this aedus (poets who sang epics in the courts of the Greek cities) are attributed the iliad (About the war of Trhey) and the Odyssey (on the return of Ulysses to his homeland). Both poems were originally oral stories.

Aeschylus (526-456 BC)

He is considered the father of classical Greek tragedy and among his works we can mention his trilogy the oresteia and chained prometheus.

Sophocles (496-406 BC)

Another of the great Athenian playwrights. Among his works that have survived stands out greatly King Oedipus.

Euripides (484 406 BC)

He is the third great Greek dramatic poet and by whom most works have survived. He has left several great female characters for posterity, in works such as Iphigenia in Aulis, helena, Medea and the trojans.

Aristophanes (444-385 BC)

He is the main exponent of Greek comedy, he satirized politics, and the life and customs of Athens in his works. Among his works are Clouds, lysistrata and The bees.

Terence (194-159 BC)

Despite his brief existence, 35 years, this author from the times of the Roman Republic wrote six comedies that have been preserved, among which he particularly stands out The tormentor of himself.

Pindar (518-438)

He is one of the most famous Greek lyric poets of Antiquity, especially remembered for the songs composed to the winners of the Olympic Games, the epistarts.

Sappho of Mytilene (650-580 BC)

Also called Sappho of Lesbos, she was an important lyrical poetess, qualified by the Greeks as the «tenth muse». Among her love texts, the Hymn in honor of Aphrodite.

Plato (427-347 BC)

Athenian philosopher, disciple of Socrates and author of the dialoguesvalued as philosophical and literary works, and among which are often cited the Feastthe Republic and Phaedrus.

Aristotle (384-322)

Disciple of Plato and one of the most influential figures in Western culture (his work goes beyond philosophy). One of his most valid classic texts is the Poetics.

Catullus (87-57 BC)

He is considered the initiator of the Roman elegy, loaded with subjectivism and autobiographical elements. He wrote love poems, but also diatribes, political and personal attacks. He was a great admirer of Sappho’s poetry.

Virgil (70-19 BC)

He is considered one of the greatest Latin poets, author of the bucolic and Georgicsand is especially remembered for his epic poem the Aeneid.

Ovid (43-17 BC)

Roman poet remembered especially for two books: The art of Loving and the metamorphoses.

Seneca (4 BC- 65 AD)

Philosopher, politician and Roman writer born in Corduba (present-day Córdoba). He was the author of dialogues, letters, tragedies and epigrams, and is one of the most widely read and commented Roman thinkers throughout history.

Petronius (c.14-c. 65)

Roman writer and politician, he was the author of a satirical novel, the satiriconconsidered the first example of a picaresque novel.

Martial (40-104)

Roman poet born in Calatayud (then called Bilbilis), he was a disciple of Seneca and famous for his magisterial and extensive production of epigrams, of which he wrote around 1,500.

Marcus Aurelius (121-180)

He was emperor of the Roman Empire and representative of Stoic philosophy. The meditations by Marco Aurelio, written in Hellenistic Greek, is considered a work of extraordinary value and a pioneer of the essay genre.


Calvino, I. (1995). Why read the Classics. Taken from academia.edu.
Characteristics, works and authors of classical and lyrical literature (2011). Taken from elrinconliterariodelilo.blogspot.com.
Western Classical Literature and its Origin Greece and Rome (2012). Taken from alquiblaweb.com.
Classic Literature (2021). Taken from es.wikipedia.org.
Classics (2021). Taken from en.wikipedia.org.

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