Period Introduction Overview

Mediterranean and Near Eastern Literature, India's Ancient Epics and Stories, and Early Chinese Literature and Thought

Ancient Mediterranean & Near Eastern LiteratureIndia's Ancient Epics & TalesEarly Chinese Literature & 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.

Circling the Mediterranean, India's Classical Age, Medieval Chinese Literature, and Japan's Classical Age

Circling the MediterraneanIndia's Classical AgeMedieval Chinese LiteratureJapan's Classical Age

Circling the Mediterranean

  1. From antiquity to the Middle Ages (ending in the fifteenth century or so), the Mediterranean Sea enabled the exchange of goods and ideas from diverse cultures that included Europe, North Africa, and the Near and Middle East.
  2. Despite the fact that early scholars generally understood the "European" and "Islamic" worlds of the Middle Ages to be quite distinct and often at odds with one another, we now see great variation within each of these worlds along with intimate links between them.
  3. People of the Middle Ages rarely referred to themselves as "European"; rather they identified themselves with more specific cultural groups, like "Normans" or "English."
  4. The literary traditions of pre-Renaissance Europe were by no means derived from ancient Greek and Roman traditions alone. Rather, they were influenced by Arabic and Persian traditions as well. The fact of this cultural mixing stands in contrast to common misconceptions of a pure European heritage derived just from Western literary and philosophical traditions.

Christianity and Platonism

  1. Between the years 100 and 400 C.E. the Roman Empire saw the rise of various brands of Christianity (and Judaism) that organized themselves around different religious principles; these emerging belief systems included elements of the relatively new Christian gospel but also included earlier Greek traditions as well.
  2. In 382 Saint Jerome was commissioned to produce a Bible that was written in Latin. This became known as the Vulgate (or "commonly used") version, and it helped to codify the various brands of Christian belief into a more unified, single doctrine.
  3. Emerging Christianity rejected much of the importance that earlier Roman culture had placed on the arts, except where art could be used to glorify God, as in religious painting, hymn, and liturgical music.
  4. Christianity, though it was just one of a number of competing religious sects, ultimately became the state religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine in the fourth century.
  5. The Roman Empire under Constantine stretched so widely that it had two recognized capitals: Rome in the West and Byzantium (renamed Constantinople, after emperor Constantine) in the East.
  6. The diaspora, or "scattering," of Jews from Jerusalem in 70 C.E. would provide the basis for an archetypal mythic figure—the wandering Jew—that would inform many later literary traditions. For example, works as contemporary (and as famous) as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein revisit the figure of the wandering Jew. So too might Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale" from his Canterbury Tales (NAWOL, Volume B).

The Spread of Islam

  1. The dissemination of the Qur'an by Muhammad and his followers in the seventh century had a profound effect on cultures of the Mediterranean.
  2. Islamic rule grew rapidly and by 750 C.E. ranged from areas of Spain in the West to India in the East.
  3. Islam fashioned itself in conformity with dictates in the Qur'an and the exemplary life lived by its prophet, Muhammad.
  4. However, Islamic cultures were not uniformly identical across the empire.
  5. The most important religious division within the Islamic empire was between Sunni and Shi'a.
  6. Religious divisions were accompanied by political divisions in medieval Islam; this led to their being a number of political and religious "centers" such as Damascus (Syria), Baghdad (Iraq), and Cairo (Egypt). Despite variations among Islamic cultures, they all shared Arabic as a common language, which helped to enable an exchange of ideas.
  7. The early Islamic empire fell to Mongol invaders in the thirteenth century. The Mongols, however, converted to Islam. They too would eventually fall when the Ottoman Empire consolidated its power in the eastern Mediterranean in the fifteenth century.
  8. One particularly rich source of literary and mythological influence on early Islam was Persia (modern-day Iran, though the Persian Empire stretched well beyond this). Persian influence continued into the Ottoman Empire, which held Persian art and language in high esteem.
  9. Early Islamic literature, especially under Persian influence, provides examples of sophisticated narrative techniques that remain common today, such as the frame narrative (or frame tale) in which a story, or a series of stories, is told within the "frame" of another story. The Thousand and One Nights is an excellent example (NAWOL, Volume B): a Persian king has bitterly decided that all women are unfaithful and has married, but subsequently executed the next morning, a succession of virgins; his latest wife, Shahrazad, postpones her own death by beginning a new tale each night—the "thousand and one" tales within the frame; the king wants to hear how each tale turns out so he lets Shahrazad live.

The Invention of the West

  1. Early Islamic writers did not equate "the West" with Christian Europe. This identification, which is common today, did not emerge until the late Middle Ages.
  2. Early Christian Europe relied almost exclusively on Latin as the language of science, the arts, politics, and religion. It was not until the twelfth century that local, or vernacular languages, became more commonly used for anything but daily conversation.
  3. The medieval Christian Crusades, beginning in 1095, solidified the identity of "Christian Europe" in opposition to perceived, non-Christian enemies: Muslims and Jews.
  4. The simplistic opposition of Christian versus non-Christian has had horrible historic consequence, and it permeated the Christian literature of the Middle Ages.
  5. Central to medieval Western literature became the figure of the knight (and, more specifically, the crusading knight). His public deeds were epic and chivalrous, his private deeds romantic and gentlemanly.
  6. Late medieval literature began to be written in vernacular languages (i.e., those other than Latin, such as Italian, English, and French). However, many authors of the medieval period still held the legacy of Roman culture and literature to be deeply important. This foreshadows what would become a defining characteristic of the next literary age—the Renaissance—,which was named for the so-called re-birth of Greek and Roman literary and philosophical ideas.

Encounters with Islam, Europe and the New World

Encounters with IslamEurope and the New WorldEast Asian Drama

Encounters with Islam

  1. During the seventh century, diverse Arab tribes united. Their combined cultural and political force extended beyond the Persian Empire to Spain, Central Asia, and Afghanistan, and then further still to West Africa and China.
  2. Arab traders established an extensive network of trading routes, facilitating the exchange of goods and culture and the movement of armies.
  3. Islam became the dominant religion of the ruling classes in various Arab empires. Because the Islamic religion was not imposed on indigenous cultures, however, local religious practices often existed alongside Islam.
  4. In addition to facilitating trade in material goods, Arab trading networks made the exchange of ideas and artistic styles equally possible. This made for the emergence of dynamic literary forms and styles throughout the Islamic world.

Islam and Pre-Islamic Culture in North Africa

  1. Between 640 and 700 C.E. economic revolution fueled by Arab conquest united disparate, and often failing, economies in North and West Africa.
  2. Arab trading networks extended from the Atlantic Ocean to East Asia and reached from the equator to as far north as northern Europe: this was, in other words, a vast commercial trading network (though not one that imposed a single unifying culture or religion on its various components).
  3. Muslim traders brought Islam to West Africa, and while Islam became a common aspect of the cultural landscape, it did not occlude earlier religious and cultural practices. This produced a vibrant multiculturalism whereby new ideas were often assimilated with old ones.
  4. Often, new literary traditions were adopted and adapted to fit local mythic and literary traditions.

The Ottoman Empire

  1. Though the Ottoman Empire started in one of many borderland principalities, within a century (during the 1300s and a few decades beyond) it expanded to Asia Minor and to southeastern Europe.
  2. In 1453 C.E. the Ottoman Empire conquered the city of Constantinople (in modern-day Turkey), solidifying it as the new imperial power that would replace the old Roman Empire in the east.
  3. As the Ottoman Empire solidified, aspects of its previously nomadic culture faded away. However, the idea and figure of "the nomad" remained a staple in literature.
  4. The cultural elite of the Ottoman Empire were typically Christians who were converted to Islam and socialized into Ottoman-Turkish cultural practices and beliefs.
  5. The Ottoman Empire was linguistically and religiously diverse. The ruling elite did not attempt to impose a single, unifying cultural or religious identity throughout the Empire. This apparent "tolerance" did not mean, however, that all people were treated equally.

Islam and Hinduism in South Asia

  1. Starting in the eighth century and continuing for the next 300 years, immigrants from across the Muslim world established settlements throughout western and northern India.
  2. In the early sixteenth century the Delhi Sultanate, which had ruled a Muslim empire in northern India for three centuries, was overthrown by Mughals, a dynasty that ruled most of South Asia from 1526 to 1857. This Mughal dynasty would become the most powerful political force in Asia and in combination with its Delhi Sultanate predecessor would provide a cultural tradition that is still evident in South Asia today.
  3. Prior to the arrival of Islam to the Indian subcontinent, the polytheistic practice of Hinduism was the most common religion. The belief systems of Islam (monotheistic and against idol-worship) often conflicted with Hinduism (polytheistic and centered on idol-worship).
  4. There were some points of connection between Islam and Hinduism, such as the practice of Islamic Sufism, which emphasized a mysticism that resonated with Hindu belief in spiritualism.
  5. Poets of this area and era often explored the cross-cultural tensions that resulted when belief systems confronted one another.