Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Classical Greek

Print this page

Learning in Classical Greek

The place of Classical Greek and the heritage of the ancient Greek world

The Classical Greek language belongs to the Indo-European linguistic family. It is thus related to most of the languages of Europe, to Old Persian and, through Sanskrit, to several major Indian languages.

Classical Greek is defined as the literary Attic–Ionic dialect used by prominent Greek writers in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, such as the playwrights Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides, the philosophers Plato and Aristotle and the orators Lysias and Demosthenes. Students of Classical Greek also develop the linguistic knowledge to access earlier works, such as the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, and later works, such as Hellenistic literature and the New Testament.

From the 8th century BCE, Greeks established settlements across the Mediterranean area, in Spain, Sicily, Italy, North Africa, Asia Minor and the Black Sea coast. These communities identified as Greek in language and culture, and regularly took part in festivals for Greeks only, such as the Olympic Games. The conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE extended the influence of Greek language and culture in western Asia and Egypt and resulted in the upsurge in Greek literature and learning known to us as the Hellenistic Age. During this period, a common dialect of Greek known as koiné became the lingua franca of the eastern half of the Mediterranean basin, persisting under Roman administration and surviving the fall of the western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE. The eastern Roman Empire, based at Constantinople, continued as a Greek-speaking, Christian community until it was conquered by the Turks in 1453 CE. Christian missionaries from Constantinople spread Orthodox Christianity and the Greek alphabet to Russia, where the Cyrillic alphabet developed from the Greek.

After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, many Greek scholars moved to western Europe, stimulating the revival of Classical Greek learning, art and culture during the Renaissance period.

The Greek language continued to evolve and to absorb influences from other languages until the present day. Modern Greek uses the same alphabet, and much of the written language bears a strong resemblance to its Classical ‘mother’ language.

As Classical Greek is the oldest Indo-European language readily accessible to English speakers, it gives students the opportunity to engage with the evolution of language and the connections among related languages. In addition, the intellectual flowering of the Renaissance brought to English a literary and scientific vocabulary from Greek in order to discuss and describe the new ideas. It is no accident that many school subjects have names of Greek origin such as history, geography, mathematics, physics, economics, music, drama, biology and athletics. The vocabulary of academic discourse is heavily indebted to Greek, and students of Classical Greek acquire a deep understanding of specialised words and an enriched personal vocabulary to enable them to discuss academic concepts.

The enduring achievements and rich legacy of the ancient Greek world are still evident in today’s world, in modern values, customs and beliefs, our laws and the form of our governments, our buildings and our art and literature.

The nature of learning Classical Greek

Classical Greek is a highly inflected language, with three distinct genders and numbers, noun cases and verb conjugations, including tenses, moods and voices. The Classical Greek alphabet has 24 letters, ordered from alpha to omega, and is essentially the same as the Modern Greek alphabet.

Students learn Classical Greek systematically within an authentic historical, social and cultural context. They absorb the ambience, history, society and values of ancient Greece as they read, and are encouraged to relate their discoveries to life in the modern world.

As they learn Classical Greek, students make connections with English and other languages. They expand their English vocabulary by exploring words derived from Classical Greek, and examine the complex inflexions of Classical Greek, making comparisons with how meaning is conveyed in English. Their growing awareness of grammar equips them to understand the workings of other languages they may already know or wish to learn.

From synthetic reading material, students may progress to authentic Classical Greek texts, encountering selections from famous works of poetry and prose which have influenced Western literature and thought for two millennia. Students are encouraged to discuss the ideas and values embedded in texts and to convey their meaning and tone in English. They analyse how language and style are used to convey the author’s purpose. As Classical Greek literature was composed to be delivered orally, students learn to read aloud, using the restored Classical pronunciation, and are encouraged to listen to oral performances so as to appreciate the impact of these works on their intended audiences.

Scroll to the top of the page