Ancient literature

Ancient literature

The history of literature begins with the history of writing, in Bronze Age Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. Writing develops out of proto-literate sign systems by the 30th century BC, although the oldest literary texts that have come down to us are several centuries younger, dating to the 27th or 26th century BC.

Literature of the Iron Age includes the earliest texts preserved in manuscript tradition (as opposed to archaeologically), including the Avestan Gathas (see date of Zoroaster), the Indian Vedas (see Vedic period) and the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible (see dating the Bible).

Classical Antiquity is usually considered to begin with Homer in the 8th century BC and continues until the decline of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, joined by Latin literature from the 3rd century BC. Besides the classics of the Western canon, this period also comprises the development of both classical Sanskrit literature and Sangam literature in India, and the Chinese classics in China, and the beginning of classical Syriac and Middle Persian literatures by Late Antiquity.

The following is a chronological list of historical literary works up to the 5th century AD, the conventional end of Classical Antiquity. Literature of the 6th to 9th centuries is covered separately, at Early Medieval literature. This cut-off date is of course somewhat arbitrary.

For a list of earliest testimony of each language, see list of languages by first written accounts.


List of ancient texts

Bronze Age

See also: Sumerian literature, Akkadian literature, Ancient Egyptian literature, Hittite texts, Vedic Sanskrit

Early Bronze Age: 3rd millennium BC (approximate dates shown) The earliest written literature dates from about 2600 BC (classical Sumerian).[1] The earliest literary authors known by name are Shuruppak and Urukagina, dating to ca. the 27th and 24th centuries BC, respectively. Certain literary texts are difficult to date, such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead which was recorded in the Papyrus of Ani around 1240 BC, but other versions of the book probably date from about the 18th century BC.

Middle Bronze Age: ca. 2000 to 1600 BC (approximate dates shown)

Late Bronze Age: ca. 1600 to 1200 BC (approximate dates shown)

Iron Age

See also Sanskrit literature, Chinese literature

Iron Age texts predating Classical Antiquity: 12th to 8th centuries BC

Classical Antiquity

See also Ancient Greek literature, Syriac literature, Latin literature, Indian literature, Hebrew literature, Avesta
See also: centuries in poetry: 7th, 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st

8th century BC

7th century BC

6th century BC

5th century BC

4th century BC

3rd century BC

2nd century BC

1st century BC
See also: Pahlavi literature, centuries in poetry: 1st, 2nd and 3rd
1st century AD
2nd century
3rd century

Late Antiquity

See also: 4th century in poetry, 5th century in poetry
4th century
5th century

See also


  1. ^ Grimbly, Shona (2000). Encyclopedia of the Ancient World. Taylor & Francis. p. 216. ISBN 9781579582814. "The earliest written literature dates from about 2600 BC, when the Sumerians started to write down their long epic poems." 
  2. ^ Clay, Albert T. (2003). Atrahasis: An Ancient Hebrew Deluge Story. Book Tree. p. 34. ISBN 9781585092284. "This fragment of an old version of the Etana Legend was written about 2000 years earlier than the fragments found in the Library of Ashurbanipal (668-626 BC)." 
  3. ^ Jones, Mark (2006). Criminals of the Bible: Twenty-Five Case Studies of Biblical Crimes and Outlaws. FaithWalk Publishing. p. 6. ISBN 9781932902648. "The Sumerian code of Urukagina was written around 2400 BC." 
  4. ^ Eccles, Sir John Carew (1989). Evolution of the Brain: Creation of the Self. Routledge. p. 118. ISBN 9780415032247. "The Epic of Gilgamesh, written in Sumer about 2200 BC." 
  5. ^ Oberlies (1998:155) gives an estimate of 1100 BC for the youngest hymns in book 10. Estimates for a terminus post quem of the earliest hymns are far more uncertain. Oberlies (p. 158) based on 'cumulative evidence' sets wide range of 1700–1100
  6. ^ Noonan, John T. (1987). Bribes. University of California Press. p. 4. ISBN 9780520061545. "The Poor Man of Nippur dates from about 1500 BC." 
  7. ^ Thorkild Jacobsen (1978). The treasures of darkness: a history of Mesopotamian religion. Yale University Press. pp. 167-168, 231.  “Perhaps it was brought east with the Amorites of the First Dynasty of Babylon.”
  8. ^ Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol.2, 1980, p.203

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