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date: 24 February 2024

Epic Cyclefree

Epic Cyclefree

  • Jonathan Burgess


Epic Cycle refers to an ancient gathering of thematically linked epics of the Archaic Age on the origins of the gods, the Theban Wars, and the Trojan War. The poems are lost, with few fragments remaining; testimony for their contents and authors. The 9th-century ce Photius provides a general overview. Summaries of the Trojan War epics by Proclus, a 5th-century ce scholar (the date is disputed in modern scholarship), have survived in the manuscript tradition of the Iliad. The contents of the epics were popular throughout Greco-Roman antiquity.


  • Greek Literature

Updated in this version

Article revised to reflect current scholarship.

Epic Cycle (ἐπικὸς κύκλος‎) is the term given to a gathering of originally independent epics of the Archaic Age. The poems are mostly lost: less than a hundred and fifty lines of verse survive. Our primary source of information is a concise summary by Proclus of the Trojan war section of the Cycle, preserved in the famous 10th-century ce manuscript of the Iliad Venetus A. This Proclus may be the Neoplatonist of the 5th century ce; some modern scholars hypothesise a different Proclus, perhaps in the 2nd century ce. The 9th-century ce Photius, in his Bibliothēkē (library), reports that Proclus claimed in his Chrēstomatheia Grammatikē (“useful literary knowledge”) that the Cycle poems were preserved and studied for their continuous content and not for their poetic quality. Photius also indicates that the scope of the Cycle ranges from theogonic beginnings to the death of Odysseus. The phrase epic cycle does not occur until Imperial times, though most assume that some sort of cycle of epic was initiated in the late Classical or Hellenistic period. In Aristotle, we find collocations of epic with cycle, if not obviously in the sense of the epic cycle. The word κύκλος‎ (“circle”) had various applications, and one was compilation of myth or literature.

Proclus provides authors and number of books for the Trojan War epics: the Cypria in eleven books, the Aethiopis in five books by Arctinus of Miletus, the Little Iliad in four books by Lesches of Lesbos, the Iliou Persis (“Sack of Troy”) in two books by Arctinus of Miletus, the Nostoi (“Returns”) in five books by Agias of Troizen, and the Telegony in two books by Eugammon of Cyrene. Proclus does not name an author of the Cypria at the beginning of its summary, indicating that he will discuss the matter later. That section of Proclus is lost, but Photius paraphrases its contents: the poem was attributed to Stasinos of Cyprus, Hegesinos (Hegesias elsewhere) of Salamis, or Homer, though Proclus favoured a theory that the author was Cyprias. The summary by Proclus also indicates where the two Homeric epics fit into the narrative.

According to Proclus, the Cypria narrates the events of the war up until the Iliad, and the Aethiopis, Little Iliad, and Iliou Persis narrate post-Iliadic events through the sack of Troy. The Nostoi narrates the returns of the heroes from Troy; the Telegony relates further adventures of Odysseus after the Odyssey, including an extended stay in Thesprotia before a return to Ithaca, where he is killed by Telegonus, his son by Circe. Since the theogonic and Theban Wars sections of the Cycle in the summary by Proclus have not survived, it is not certain what epics were in them. The usual candidates are a Theogony (perhaps Orphic), the Titonomachy, the Oidipodeia, the Thebais, the Epigonoi, and the Alcmeonis. The authors of these epics are usually unknown or disputed, though there is indirect evidence that the Thebais and Epigonoi were sometimes attributed to Homer. Some of the epics in the Trojan Cycle were also attributed to Homer, perhaps because his name was equated with the genre of heroic epic. Many in antiquity preferred to refer to the poems anonymously (e.g., “the poet of the Cypria”).

Ancient dating is also inconsistent and unreliable. Arctinus, to whom both the Aethiopis and Iliou Persis are ascribed, is dated by Eusebius to the first half of the 8th century, which most modern scholars find implausible. Lexical and metrical features of the fragments are consistent with epic of the Archaic Age, though some anomalies have encouraged dating to the 6th century. The Telegony, ascribed to the Cyrenean poet Eugammon contained a son of Odysseus and Penelope in the poem named Arcesilaus, according to Eustathius, which would seem to link the epic to Cyrene under the Battiad dynasty in the 6th century. It has also been thought significant that the location of Achilles’ afterlife in the Aethiopis is the island Leuke; Arctinus was from Miletus, which in the 6th century founded colonies in the Black Sea region, where Leuke was eventually localized. Overall, the testimony suggests that the poems originated at different places and dates; modern scholars often suggest the 7th and 6th centuries bce.

Ancient discussion of the Cyclic poems indicates that the boundaries of the original poems are cropped in the Proclus summary. The Aethiopis includes the judgment of arms but not the subsequent suicide of Ajax, with which the Little Iliad abruptly begins. The Little Iliad ends with the Trojan horse dragged into Troy, but the Iliou Persis begins with the Trojans debating what to do with it outside the walls. The former poem seems have to continued on through the sack. Aristotle (Poetics 23) states that the Little Iliad could provide material for multiple dramas on this subject, and Pausanias (10.25–27.2) refers to Lesches (the poem’s author) when describing a painting of the sack. How and when the cropping occurred is unknown. Hypotheses include the alteration of the Proclus summary when it was added to the Iliad manuscript tradition, previous alteration of this or preceding summaries, and modification of the epics when they were compiled into a cycle.

Scholars are generally confident that Proclus is accurate about the content that he does report. However, Herodotus (2.117) states that Paris and Helen sailed to Troy quickly, whereas Proclus indicates that they were blown off course by a storm to Sidon, which Paris sacked. For Herodotus, this is reason to doubt that Homer composed the Cypria, since Paris is said to have been at Sidon on his way home at Iliad 6.289–292. It seems that either Herodotus or Proclus is mistaken, unless the Cypria existed in variant forms. Apollodorus (Epit. 3.4) agrees with Proclus on the return of Paris and Helen, so it may be that the Cypria or an epitome of it was modified to harmonize with the Iliad. As the inclusion of the Proclus summary in the Iliad manuscript tradition indicates, the Cycle was often valued for contextualization of the Homeric poems.

That the phraseology of Proclus is sometimes similar to Apollodorus’ narration of the Trojan War and the returns (Epitome 3.1–7.40) has caused suspicion. Since details in each are not found in the other, they must be independent. But one might conclude that Proclus made use of a preceding epitome, whether or not he knew the poems. Megarian clay “Homeric bowls” of Hellenistic date and stone “Iliac tables” of the Augustan Age also epitomize Homeric and Cyclic epic with text and iconography. Notable is the famous Capitoline tablet, which depicts the sack of Troy surrounded by pictorial and textual summaries of the Iliad. The tablet also refers to the Aethiopis and the Little Iliad of the Cycle, as well as, surprisingly, an lliou Persis by Stesichorus.

Scholars have long suspected interpolations and continuations in early epic (e.g., Iliad Bk. 10, the end of the Odyssey, and the end of the Theogony that transitions to the Hesiodic Catalogue). Explanations usually involve secondary bards and editors. Arguably, composers of Cycle poems responded to texts or relatively fixed forms of the Homeric epics and other Cyclic epics, filling in narrative gaps and providing continuity. But the Epic Cycle as we know it was not made by a committee of bards. For the Archaic Age, linking between epics could have occurred in a performance context, with different bards or rhapsodes implementing transitional or recapitulating passages. Some verse fragments may reflect performance, like the two lines of verse reported by a scholiast that seem to be a “join” between the Iliad and the Aethiopis, or the concise proem of the Iliad known by Aristoxenus that may have eased transition from the Cypria. Ancient references to cyclic manuscripts of the Homeric epics have encouraged such hypotheses.

The Panathenaic festival in 6th-century Athens has sometimes been thought to have featured both Homeric and Cyclic performances, which may have led to the fixation or textualization of early Greek epics. It is also possible to imagine that a notional cycle of connected traditional material preceded both the Homeric and Cyclic epics. The Iliad and the Odyssey refer explicitly and implicitly to a wide range of myth found in the Cycle. The Iliad references previous events in the war and stresses the future death of Achilles and the sack of Troy. The Odyssey often looks back to the war and the heroic returns, notably in the songs of the bards Phemius and Demodocus, and in reminiscences by Nestor, Menelaus, and shades in the underworld.

By the Hellenistic Age, the Homeric epics were more respected than the Epic Cycle poems, as the lack of papyri fragments that certainly derive from the Cyclic epics indicates. Epitomes of the epics in the Cycle perhaps indicate interest in their contents but not the epics themselves. A number of notable authors criticize the Cycle poems. Aristotle (Poetics 8.23) compares the linear and episodic nature of several Cyclic poems unfavourably with the unity of the Homeric epics. Callimachus (Epigram 28 Pfeiffer) expresses contempt for the “cyclic poem,” comparing it to the busy road, the wandering lover, and the public well. If the Cyclic epics are targeted, the wording may imply that their content as well as poetics was conventional. Horace comparably expresses disdain for the “cyclic poet” (Ars poet. 136–137), with more specific aesthetic reasoning. From the textualist perspective of antiquity, the Trojan War epics in the Cycle seemed to have mined details in the Iliad and Odyssey to provide prequels and sequels of them. That is certainly why the summary by Proclus was placed in the Iliad manuscript tradition. In antiquity, kyklikoi was a term to describe post-Homeric poets, often negatively characterized.

But negative portrayal of the Cycle was a relatively late development. Early Greek iconography favoured Cyclic subjects over Homeric ones, and Pindar and Attic drama were well versed in the same material. Athenaeus (7.277e; 8.347e) anecdotally reports that the Cycle pleased Sophocles, and that Aeschylus thought of his dramas as “slices from Homer’s banquet,” which probably refers to Cyclic material ascribed to “Homer.” Many did not distinguish the Homeric and Cyclic epics, as the frequent ascription of them to Homer indicates. Besides claiming that Callinus ascribed the Thebais to Homer, Pausanias (9.9.5) judges it inferior only to the Iliad and Odyssey. Herodotus challenges the ascription of the Cypria (2.117) and the Epigonoi (4.32) to Homer, but not for aesthetic reasons. Aristotle compares the plotting of Cyclic epic unfavorably with that of Homeric epic, but he does not judge its content. Interest in the Cyclical myths, at least, remained strong for all periods of Greco-Roman antiquity in multiple genres and media.

When the analytical school of thought in Homeric studies speculated about interpolation or amplification of the Homeric poems, its proponents often countenanced the possibility of the Homeric epics incorporating Cyclic verse or becoming influenced by Cyclic poems in later stages of additive composition. The neoanalytical school, meanwhile, often employs “problems” perceived by Analytical scholars as evidence of Homeric use of Cyclic material. The main focus of Neoanalytical scholars is an apparent correlation between the story in the Aethiopis of Achilles killing Memnon and the story in the Iliad of Achilles killing Hector. The Neoanalytical explanation is that the Iliad artistically transformed the basic plot of the Aethiopis, or a prototype deemed the Memnonis.

The seeming paradox of post-Homeric poems representing pre-Homeric myth is usually explained today by the postulation of oral prototypes of the Cycle poems. Oralist scholars influenced by neoanalysis assume a pre-Homeric tradition of Cyclic material that continued to be known in the Archaic period thanks to epic performance. Correlation between Homeric and Cyclic epics is thought to result from agonistic oral “intertextuality.” The process is seen as synchronic, if longstanding, with the Homeric epics eventually emerging as canonical. Many thus regard the Cycle epics as representatives of pre-Homeric traditions that respond to the Iliad and Odyssey.

Current scholarship generally assumes a certain distinction between the nature of Homeric and Cyclic poetry, in terms of both structure and content. For example, it appears that the Cyclic poems were more accommodating of supernatural phenomena, including the possibility of heroic immortality. Whether Cyclic qualities can be historically dated as post-Homeric is another issue. Whatever their date of composition or recording, the Cycle epics may preserve local cult and legend in a pre-Homeric form of epic. An apparent Cyclic interest in children of heroic characters (like Arcesilaus), for example, can be explained as interest in epichoric genealogy.

Reception theory provides a more positive portrayal of Cyclic response to Homer. The seemingly secondary or perverse nature of the Cycle can be described as intentionally creative responses to canonical texts, perhaps anticipating genres and styles that emerged later in Greco-Roman literature. An assumption of radically innovative Cyclic epics in the Archaic Age would be debatable, given testimony for the traditionality of much Cyclic content by early Greek iconography and the Homeric epics themselves. But appreciation of non-Homeric style and aesthetics in the Cycle can challenge a narrative of Homeric originary perfection followed by decline.

Primary Texts

  • Bernabé, Alberto. Poetae epici Graeci. testimonia et fragmenta. Vol. 1. Leipzig: Teubner, 1987. (Revised edition published in 1996.)
  • Davies, Malcolm. ed. Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1988.
  • West, M. L. ed. Greek Epic Fragments. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Further Reading

  • Burgess, Jonathan S. The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • Danek, Georg. Epos und Zitat. Studien zu den Quellen der Odyssee. Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1998.
  • Davies, Malcolm. The Greek Epic Cycle. 2nd ed. Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2001.
  • Davies, Malcolm. The Theban Epics. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2014.
  • Davies, Malcolm. The Aethiopis. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2016.
  • Debiasi, Andrea. L’epica perduta: Eumelo, il Ciclo, l’occidente. Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2004.
  • Fantuzzi, Marco, and Christos C. Tsagalis, eds. The Greek Epic Cycle and its Ancient Reception. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Griffin, Jasper. “The Epic Cycle and the Uniqueness of Homer.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 97 (1977): 39–53.
  • Kullmann, Wolfgang. Die Quellen der Ilias (troischer Sagenkreis). Wiesbaden: F. Steiner, 1960.
  • Monro, D. B. Homer’s Odyssey, Books XIIIXXIV. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901.
  • Sammons, Benjamin. Device and Composition in the Greek Epic Cycle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Severyns, Albert. Le Cycle Épique dans l’ école d’ Aristarque. Paris: Édouard Champion, 1928.
  • Welcker, Friedrich Gottlieb. Der epische Cyclus. 2nd ed., 2 vols. Hildesheim, Germany: Olms Verlag, 1981.
  • West, M. L. The Epic Cycle. A Commentary on the Lost Troy Epics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.