Literature of the Ancient World

The literature of the ancient world can provide a motivating way for students to explore history.

By Daniella Garran


literature of the ancient world lesson plans

Literature of the ancient world is dramatic, complicated and full of adventure and love interests, much like today’s Hollywood blockbuster movies. Initially, stories were passed down through oral tradition in all civilizations. Gradually, as cultures began to develop systems of writing, they wrote down their myths, stories and epics. Virtually every culture boasts a creation tale and, not surprisingly, many of them share similar elements or events.

Myths and fables were most abundant in the cultures living near the Mediterranean. The Olympian gods found in Greek lore were believed to be responsible for everything, including natural phenomena and human behavior. Aesop’s fables were also widely popular in the Hellenic world. These short stories helped to impart important values and morals to the Greeks; many of these stories, such as "The Tortoise and the Hare," are still read around the world today. The Romans later adopted and then adapted many of the Greeks’ deities and practices.

Epics played a different role and the epic hero was often a character central to the culture’s history. They were often reflective of a culture’s values and belief systems, but, more importantly, they played a pivotal role in defining the identity of that culture.

Teachers have many options when teaching about the literature of the ancient world. Any study of ancient literature will be vastly improved by analyzing the art of that culture. Often, myths and epics provided the subject matter for the art of the ancient world. For example, the Greeks frequently depicted scenes from a variety of myths and epics on vases and in murals. People from India regularly showed scenes from the Mahabharata in paintings or in temple sculptures. Students are sure to enjoy creating their own illustrations of the literature they read as well. In addition, there are many skits and dramatic interpretations of epics, fables and myths available for teachers which are suited for a range of ages.

If a number of different pieces of literature are being studied, students are sure to enjoy a Jeopardy-style game testing their knowledge of the various characters, settings and quotes. This kind of game is always a helpful way to review prior to a test, or simply to provide a change of pace for students.

Students should enjoy writing a "mash up" of ancient literature. Have three different baskets of slips of paper from which students choose a character, a setting and a conflict or a moral (for example, Odysseus from "The Odyssey," Uruk in Mesopotamia (from "The Epic of Gilgamesh") and "slow and steady wins the race" from Aesop's fables). Have them write a short story incorporating as many different literary elements as possible.

Students can find it amusing to write and respond to their own "Dear Abby" letters. Students write a letter from a main or supporting character in the literature they have been reading expressing concern for another character, or about a series of events. Then they respond from "Abby's" perspective about a productive way to remedy the situation.

Finally, visual learners and artistic students will relish the opportunity to create a drawing, painting or sculpture of a scene or character from the ancient literature they have read in class. Some students may also enjoy writing a "Guide to Greek Monsters" or "Encyclopedia of the Ramayana" to demonstrate their understanding of the different people, places and events of the story. What follows are more literature of the ancient world lesson plans.

Literature of the Ancient World Lesson Plans:

A Story of Epic Proportions

Some of the most influential literature written in ancient times was epic poems such as "The Epic of Gilgamesh," "The Iliad," "The Odyssey" and "The Aeneid." All epics follow a specific formula and the protagonist goes through an epic hero cycle which involves being charged with a quest and ultimately finding restitution. Teaching about the epic is especially relevant and interesting to students because many of today’s popular novels and films are actually epics. Examples include the Harry Potter series, "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "Star Wars." 

The Odyssey

Homer’s epic poem "The Odyssey" is rich with teaching opportunities. Not only can students learn about the epic hero cycle, but they can also learn a great deal about ancient Greek culture and values. There is no shortage of lessons about "The Odyssey." 

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The ancient Mesopotamians were among the first to record their stories in writing following the advent of cuneiform, their system of writing. "The Epic of Gilgamesh" tells the story of a selfish king who sought immortality and ultimately found it in the hearts of his people. There are many similarities between aspects of Gilgamesh’s tale and stories in the Bible including the Flood and the Garden of Eden. Comparing and contrasting these tales will certainly prove a fruitful exercise for students seeking to learn about literature of the ancient world. 

The Ramayana 

India’s "Ramayana" is another important epic which can be attributed to an ancient culture. This epic was also, at one time, passed on through oral tradition until the Indians developed a system of writing. "The Ramayana" also helps students to understand the culture, beliefs and practices of Indian culture. Teaching about "The Ramayana" is also an excellent opportunity for students to compare and contrast eastern and western literature and cultures.

Mythology and Creation Stories

Mythology of the ancient world is a topic of perpetual fascination for students of all ages. In addition, mythology is a crucial type of literature which pervaded virtually every culture in the ancient world. It reveals for us the beliefs of the ancient people and their explanation for a host of phenomena including weather, natural disasters and human behavior.