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date: 22 April 2024

Epic Cyclefree

Epic Cyclefree

  • Martin Litchfield West


  • Greek Literature

Epic Cycle, ἐπικὸς κύκλος‎, a collection of early Greek epics, artificially arranged in a series so as to make a narrative extending from the beginning of the world to the end of the heroic age. Apart from the Iliad and Odyssey (see homer), we possess only meagre fragments of the poems involved, and our knowledge of what poems were involved is itself incomplete. We are best informed about those that dealt with the Trojan War and related events: there were six besides the Iliad and Odyssey, and summaries of their contents are preserved in some Homer manuscripts as an extract from the Chrestomathia of Proclus (see neoplatonism; but some think an earlier Proclus). Apollodorus (6) and Hyginus (3) (see mythographers) draw on a related source for their accounts of the Trojan War. Among monumental sources, the ‘Tabulae Iliacae’ (IG 14. 1284 ff.; Nina Valenzuela Montenegro, Die Tabulae Iliacae, 2004) is of particular interest.


The poems were composed by various men, mainly or wholly in the 7th and 6th cents. bce. (Earlier dates given by chroniclers are valueless.) The Cycle is not mentioned as a whole before the 2nd cent. ce. But a Trojan Cycle, at least, seems to have been drawn up not later than the 4th cent. bce, since Aristoxenus (fr. 91a Wehrli) knew an alternative beginning to the Iliad evidently meant to link it to a preceding poem. Indeed, some of the Trojan epics seem designed merely to cover an allotted span of events; Aristotle Poet. 1459ab criticizes the Cypria and Little Iliad for their lack of a unifying theme.


The cyclic poems (this term by convention excludes the Iliad and Odyssey) were sometimes loosely attributed to Homer; but Herodotus rejects this for the Cypria (2. 117) and queries it for the Epigoni (4. 32), and later writers generally use the names of obscurer poets or the expression ὁ (τὰ Κύπρια‎, etc.) ποιήσας‎, ‘the author of (the Cypria, etc.)’. The poems seem to have been well known in the 5th and 4th cents., but little read later; no papyrus fragment of them has been identified. Proclus' knowledge of them is demonstrably indirect.


The poems known or presumed to have been included in the Cycle, and the poets to whom they were ascribed, were as follows.


In first place stood a theogony (OCT Homeri Opera 5. 96–8). Comparison with Apollodorus and Orphica indicates that an Orphic theogony was chosen, but doctored.


Titanomachia Eumelus or Arctinus of Miletus.


Oidipodeia (6,600 lines): Cinaethon of Lacedaemon.


Thebais (7,000 lines): Homer (but more often anonymous). Highly esteemed by Pausanias (9. 9. 5), who says that even Callinus knew the poem as Homer's; but even if Callinus named Homer in connection with the Theban legend, he could not have specified a particular epic poem. On the subject of this and the following poem, see adrastus (1).


Epigoni (7,000 lines): Homer. (‘Antimachus’ in schol. Ar. Pax 1270 might mean Antimachus of Teos, but may be a confusion with the Thebais of Antimachus of Colophon). Cited by Herodotus and parodied by Aristophanes (1). The first line survives, and implies another poem preceding. See epigoni.


Cypria (11 books): Homer, Stasinus of Cyprus, or Hegesias of (Cyprian) Salamis. The poem dealt with the preliminaries of the Trojan War (births of Achilles and Helen, judgement of Paris, rape of Helen) and all the earlier part of the war down to the point where the Iliad begins. Fr. 1 implies no poem preceding. It was familiar to Herodotus, Euripides, Plato (1), and Aristotle. The title seems to refer to the poem's place of origin.


Iliad There were alternative versions of the beginning and end which linked it with the adjacent poems (above, § 2; schol. Il. 24. 804a).


Aethiopis (5 books): Homer or Arctinus. The main events were the deaths of Penthesilea, Thersites, Memnon (1), and Achilles. The title refers to Memnon's Ethiopians; there was an alternative title Amazonia.


Little Iliad (4 books): Homer, Lesches of Mytilene or Pyrrha, Thestorides of Phocaea, Cinaethon, or Diodorus of Erythrae. The suicide of Aias (1), the fetching of Philoctetes and Neoptolemus (1), the Wooden Horse, Sinon, the entry into Troy. (The last part, which overlaps the Iliu Persis, is omitted by Proclus.) The Odyssey shows extensive acquaintance with this subject matter. The poem must have acquired the name Ἰλιάς‎ independently of the Iliad, and then been called ‘little’ (μικρά‎) to distinguish it.


Iliu Persis (Ἰλίου πέρσις‎, gen. -ιδος‎) (2 books): Arctinus or Lesches. The Trojan debate about the horse, Laocoön, the sack of Troy, and departure of the Greeks. Aeneas left the city before the sack, not as in Virgil. The same title was given to a poem of Stesichorus.


Nostoi (5 books): Homer, Agias (or Hegias) of Troezen, or Eumelus. The returns of various Greek heroes, ending with the murder of Agamemnon, Orestes' revenge, and Menelaus' homecoming. The Odyssey alludes to these events, and its poet knew Ἀχαιῶν νόστος‎, ‘the Return of the Achaeans’, as a theme of song (1. 326, cf. 10. 15). Stesichorus also wrote Nostoi.


Odyssey Aristophanes (2) of Byzantium and Aristarchus (2) put the end of the poem at 23. 296, and so perhaps counted what followed as part of the Telegonia.


Telegonia (2 books): Eugammon of Cyrene or Cinaethon. An element of romantic fiction was conspicuous here (see odysseus). The appearance in a Cyrenean poet of Arcesilaus as a son of Odysseus suggests a 6th-cent. date (cf. arcesilas), and Eusebius dates Eugammon to 566.


  • M. Davies, Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta (1988).
  • Bernabé, Poetae Epici Graeci 1 1.
  • M. L. West, Greek Epic Fragments.
  • M. L. West, The Epic Cycle: A Commentary on the Lost Troy Epics (2013).
  • F. G. Welcker, Der epische Cyclus, 2nd edn. (1865–82).
  • D. B. Monro, Homer's Odyssey, Books XIII–XXIV (1901), 340 ff..
  • A. Severyns, Le Cycle épique dans l' école d' Aristarque (1928).
  • A. Rzach, Real-Encyclopädie d. klassischen Altertumswissenschaft 11. 2347 ff..
  • W. Kullmann, Die Quellen der Ilias (1960).
  • G. L. Huxley, Greek Epic Poetry (1969).
  • J. Griffin, Journal of Hellenic Studies 1977, 39 ff..
  • M. Davies, The Epic Cycle (1989).
  • J. S. Burgess, The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle (2001).
  • A. Debiasi, L'epica perduta (2004).