In the history of world literature, there have been iconic writings that prove invaluable to how we see and understand the ancients. Here are some of the most famous and oldest pieces of literature (defined somewhat loosely) that have helped to shape our views of the past.
Though it’s not the oldest written text, The Epic of Gilgamesh is, by all accounts, the most ancient piece of literature in the world (yet discovered, anyway) [PDF]. Its roots are in older Sumerian stories and poetry that are associated with the reign of Gilgamesh (approximately 2500 BCE). There were many versions of The Epic of Gilgamesh written over a long period, from as early as 1700 BCE to as late as around 127 BCE—but the most famous (and important) is the Akkadian version, written in cuneiform sometime between 1300 and 1000 BCE.
The tablets were part of a library destroyed by the Babylonians in 612 BCE, and were rediscovered, damaged, in modern-day Iraq in the middle of the 19th century. (The incomplete 12th tablet seems to have been added on later than the first 11 and is repetitious.) Some experts believe that The Epic of Gilgamesh may have also influenced later epic tales like The Odyssey.
The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, written on papyrus sometime during 2000–1900 BCE, “is the oldest surviving ancient Egyptian story,” James P. Allen writes in Middle Egyptian Literature. Its ultimate origins are a mystery, but it was found in a museum in the Russian city of St. Petersburg in the 19th century and is currently kept in Moscow. The supernatural tale is written in Egyptian Hieratic script and is of debated completeness, though recent research has suggested that the beginning—which to the modern reader seems to start mid-story—is a perfectly acceptable way to start an ancient Egyptian story and the text we have is more or less complete.
The Book of Job’s date of composition is a controversial issue: Some argue that the Hebrew (with its hints of Aramaic) places its time of writing as post-Babylonian era (after around 540 BCE), though many other clues—including Job’s wealth being categorized in the number of animals and servants he had rather than money—point to it being written much earlier (some argue closer to 2000 BCE). There is also some debate about who the book’s author is: Some say Moses, some say Solomon—but most scholars say there’s no way of knowing.
Written toward the end of the reign of Hammurabi (1792–1750 BCE), Hammurabi’s Code was etched in Akkadian on several black stone steles, of which one survives nearly complete. While the code isn’t the first legal document in history—the Laws of Ur-Nammu are a few centuries older and there are edicts even older than that—Hammurabi’s laws “show the most coherent and elaborate engagement with questions of justice in early world history, unequaled so far as we know for more than a millennium,” according to historian Marc Van De Mieroop. The code’s prose is comparable to the Biblical book of Exodus [PDF] and proclaims the piety and justice of Hammurabi, while its legalism is contingent on the era’s belief in “an eye for an eye.” In these terms, punishment was meted out in severe forms, such as cutting off the convicted person’s tongue, hands, eye, or ear; justice varied depending on whether the offender belonged to the upper, middle, or lower classes.
The Book of the Dead, or The Book of Coming Forth by Day, is one of the most iconic pieces of ancient Egyptian writing. The compilation of around 200 papyrus sheets of texts dates from 1500 BCE (though its text was inspired by much older writings) and was used mostly in the New Kingdom. The authors are many and the passages were tailored to whomever they were commissioned by—meaning that no copies are identical—but they were all meant to be used as a guide for the deceased on the path to the afterlife.
The Vedas were written in Vedic Sanskrit anywhere from 1500 to 1200 BCE, though a definite date can’t be assigned to them. Also known as “books of knowledge,” they consist of hymns, poems, and rituals, among other things, all of which were originally contributed and passed down in spoken form. The texts are among the most vital pieces of sacred literature in Hinduism and have great value to the culture itself. There are four Vedas total: the Rig Veda, which contains hymns; the Sama Veda, which contains songs and chants; the Yajur Veda, which contains an understanding of how to perform the religious rituals; and the Atharva Veda, which is focused on spells of protection.
The Odyssey of Homer is an epic of more than 12,000 lines, written by the ancient Greek poet Homer around 725–675 BCE, that tells of Odysseus’s decade-long journey home from the Trojan war. “The Poet,” as Greeks called Homer, wrote The Odyssey in a slightly different style than The Iliad (a copy of which, according to Plutarch, Alexander the Great kept under his pillow when he slept—though that story likely isn’t as straightforward as it might seem). But some believe the plainer expressions and reduced emphasis on the power of the gods may simply be due to different phases of Homer’s life. Another theory is that the two works are by different authors and the singular genius “Homer” is a very old fiction.
Euripides’s great drama [PDF], written around 431 BCE, is an example of social and political struggles of the era. Medea was thought of as dangerous because she defended herself as a woman and challenged the power of a man at a time when doing so went against the status quo. Her name is likely taken from the word cunning, which may have originally been a device used to portray her as a witch. It’s theorized that Euripides’s close friend Socrates may have had an influence on his work, due to the philosophical angles of the plots in his plays—especially those relating to the effects of passions—being explored.
Ancient Greek symposia were lively gatherings where close male friends of high status gathered to share poetry, talk about the topics of the day, play music and sing songs in honor of the gods, or even tell jokes and gossip about the people they knew in order to escape the monotony of their daily lives. Plato’s Symposium, written circa 385 BCE, was an imagined depiction of one such intellectual event that dove deep into philosophical discussion with those he had idolized in his youth; other contemporary disciples of Socrates (Plato’s teacher) wrote their own, similar discourses.
Though The Tale of Gengi [PDF] is much younger than the other ancient writings on this list, it’s commonly listed as the first novel ever written (though that is very much dependent on your definition of novel). It’s also the only book on this list that was definitively written by a woman—but the real name of the author, who’s known as Murasaki Shikibu, is a mystery.
The story of the life of Prince Genji is nearly 1300 pages of translation; its 54 books were written around 1000 CE, a time in Japan known for its poetry and fiction penned by Heian court ladies, who were daughters of privilege with an abundance of free time. Men wrote in scholarly Chinese during this era, rather than in the syllabic Japanese script that women used. In part because of the high standard of education the women enjoyed, the Chinese referred to Japan as “Queen Country” during this time.