Summary and Keywords
At the summit of the ancient hierarchy of genres, epic narrates in hexameter verse the deeds of gods, heroes, and men The authority of Homer, the name given to the composer of the Iliad and the Odyssey, ensures that the forms and conventions of the Homeric poems are determinative for the whole of the Greco-Roman tradition of epic. From an early date, the production and reading of epic poems was accompanied by intensive scholarly and critical activity. Over the centuries, numerous epics were written on both legendary and historical subjects, as the genre responded to changing aesthetic and ideological conditions. In Rome, Virgil’s Aeneid successfully established for itself an authority comparable to that of the Homeric poems, and all later Latin epics place themselves within a Virgilian tradition. Epic in Greek and Latin continues to flourish in late antiquity, when Christian writers appropriate its forms to propagate their own messages and praise their own heroes.
Homer and the Greek Epic Tradition
The purely metrical ancient definition of epic, or ἔπος, ἔπη (lit. ‘word’ or ‘words’), as verse in successive hexameters includes such works as Hesiod’s didactic poems and the philosophical poems of the Presocratics (see didactic poetry). The commonality of metre and other features shared by the Hesiodic and Homeric poems ensured a close connection between didactic and epic poetry for the rest of antiquity. In that narrower, and now usual, acceptance epic refers to hexameter narrative poems on the deeds of gods, heroes, and men, a kind of poetry at the summit of the ancient hierarchy of genres. The cultural authority of epic throughout antiquity was inseparable from the name of Homer, generally held to be the earliest and greatest of Greek poets. The Iliad and the Odyssey establish norms for the presentation of the heroes and their relation with the gods, for the omniscience of the inspired epic narrator, and for formal features of the genre.1
Typical of epic in the Homeric tradition is the employment of the divine machinery of the family of gods, who act and debate on a plane separate from that of the human actors and who sometimes descend to earth to engage with the human actors. According to Herodotus (2.53), Homer and Hesiod established the names, functions, and forms of the Greek gods, although the Homeric poems are not comparable to the Judaeo-Christian bible as a sacred text for Greek religion. The epic narrator claims to rely for inspiration and information on the Muses, who are addressed in formal invocations. Epics contain a mixture of narrative sections interspersed with direct speech, often long formal speeches, in the mouths of the characters, in what Plato analysed as a compound form of diēgēsis (‘narrative’) and mimēsis (‘imitation, representation’ of speech) (Republic 3.392c–398b). Standard features of epic include stock scenes of arming, banqueting etc., the journey of a hero to the Underworld, funeral games, catalogues of troops or persons, descriptions of daybreak and nightfall, extended similes, and repeated formulaic epithets.
Many of these stock features reflect the origin of Homeric epic in an oral tradition, uncertainties concerning whose history are largely responsible for the issues of the Homeric question: are the Iliad and the Odyssey the work of one or more than one poet, and what is their date or dates; did Homer exist; were the Homeric poems as we have them composed orally or with the aid of writing; what were the routes of publication and transmission by which they came to take the form in which we know them today? More speculative still are questions about the relationship of early Greek epic to Mycenean traditions, to Indo-European traditions, and to Near Eastern and Mesopotamian epics such as the Epic of Gilgamesh.2
The Iliad and the Odyssey were two epics in the archaic Greek Epic Cycle, within which they stood out as poems granted a particular authority and quality, and from which they were distinguished by features that were determinative for much of the later epic tradition: a tendency to eschew excessively fantastic and miraculous elements; an avoidance of plots of intrigue and romance; an emphasis on the ineluctable and tragic mortality of the heroes; a tightly unified plot structure that satisfied the Aristotelian requirements for the unified tragic plot (Poetics 1451a16–35), and that launches the reader into the middle of the action (in medias res: Hor. Ars poetica 148).3
Despite the authority of Homer, and the near-divine status accorded him (a typical specimen of the biographical and critical idolatry of Homer in later antiquity is the pseudo-Plutarchan On the Life and Poetry of Homer), from the beginning the Greco-Roman epic tradition is marked by ongoing critique and revision, both by successive epic poets and by scholars and critics. Already the Odyssey can be read as responding to and revising the heroic values of the Iliad.4 From the 6th century bce onward, the Homeric epics were the object of scholarly interpretation and criticism on the part of grammarians, a tradition whose fragments survive in the Homeric scholia; for the rest of antiquity scholarly reception fed back into the creation of new epics.5 Allegorization of Homer, partly as a defence against criticism of the unseemly behaviour of the Homeric gods, and partly to discover new mysteries and profundities in the epics, goes back to the beginning of grammatical activity on the poems with Theagenes of Rhegium (see allegory, Greek).6
Post-cyclic Greek epics on mythical or legendary subjects included Panyassis’ Heraclea (5th century bce) and Antimachus of Colophon’s Thebais (late 5th century bce). Antimachus’ scholarly and self-conscious reworking of the epic traditions anticipated the Alexandrian scholar-poets, of whom Apollonius (1) Rhodius was the author of the surviving Argonautica (mid-3rd century bce), an epic that was widely influential in Rome, both on Latin Argonautic epics and on Virgil’s Aeneid. Historical epic began with Choerilus (2) of Samos’ Persica (late 5th century bce), and flourished in the panegyrical epics written to heroize the achievements of Alexander (3) the Great and his successors, as well as in nationalistic epics like Rhianus’ Messeniaca. But such works did not enjoy a long life (fragments in Supplementum Hellenisticum). Epic narrative combined with the aetiological concerns of the Hellenistic age in ktistic epics on the foundations of cities by Apollonius of Rhodes and others.
The history of epic in Rome begins with Livius Andronicus’ translation of the Odyssey in the native Saturnian verse (3rd century bce).7 This was followed by Naevius’ historical epic in Saturnians, the Bellum Poenicum; its combination of a narrative of the First Punic War with the legendary and divine background for the historical events anticipated Virgil’s very different interweaving of the legendary and the historical in the Aeneid. The commemorative and panegyrical functions of epic particularly appealed to the Romans; for a century and a half the national Roman epic was Ennius’ Annals, the narrative of Roman history from the foundation of Rome down to Ennius’ own day (finished before 169 bce), which established the Greek hexameter as the metre henceforth for Roman epic. Republican generals and statesmen had themselves commemorated in both Greek and Latin epics; Cicero gives a portrait of a typical Greek epic panegyrist in his speech in defence of A. Licinius Archias, and himself composed autobiographical epics on his own successes. Lucretius polemically exploits the resources of the epic tradition, in particular of Ennius, in the counter-cultural project of his didactic poem De Rerum Natura.
In the Aeneid, Virgil revolutionized the genre by daring to match his own epic directly with the Iliad and Odyssey, by building into it the generic comprehensiveness and cultural universality attributed by tradition to the Homeric epics, and by combining the legendary and the historical strands of epic. The Aeneid immediately established itself as the central classic of Roman literature. One of its earliest and most acute readers was Ovid, whose long narrative hexameter poem, the Metamorphoses, covering the whole of time, both legendary and historical, succeeds both in doing something radically different from the Aeneid and in providing a continuous commentary on the themes and poetics of the Aeneid. The surviving Latin epics of the later 1st century ce, both legendary (Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica, Statius’ Thebaid, and fragmentary Achilleid) and historical (Lucan’s Bellum civile, Silius Italicus’ Punica), are no pallid epigones in what was once disparaged as a Silver Age of Latin poetry, but worthy epic successors of Virgil, engaged in a continuous dialogue with the Aeneid and with the rest of the previous Roman poetic tradition.
Late Antique and Christian Epic
Epics continued to be produced in quantity to the end of classical antiquity. In Greek, the Trojan story provides material for Triphiodorus’ Capture of Troy (3rd or early 4th century ce), Quintus Smyrnaeus’ Posthomerica (probably 3rd century ce), and Colluthus’ Rape of Helen (late 5th century ce). Nonnus’ Dionysiaca (late 5th century ce), a vast and baroque 48-book epic on the career of the god Dionysus, challenged the Homeric epics and alluded learnedly to the whole of the previous Greek poetic tradition. Nonnus spawned a school of imitators.8
In later antiquity, panegyrical epic praised the emperors and generals of both the eastern and western empires (for the Greek fragments see E. Heitsch (ed.) Die griechischen Dichterfragmente der römischen Kaizerzeit: 1. Abh. der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen, ph.-hist. Kl. 3. Folge no. 49/1961 (2(1963); II. no. 58/1964 1). In Latin, Claudian, a key figure in the Theodosian renaissance, demonstrates a virtuoso allusivity in his command of the whole of the Virgilian and Ovidian epic tradition, both in his hexameter panegyrics on Honorius and Stilicho, and in his unfinished mythological epic, De raptu Proserpinae. Claudian’s epic panegyrics were a model for later works of this kind by Sidonius Apollinaris and Venantius Fortunatus.
Starting with Iuvencus Evangeliorum libri IV (before 330 ce), the resources of Latin epic were used to lend elevation to verse paraphrases of the Old and New Testament narratives, in a line of late antique biblical epics that find a later descendant in Milton’s Paradise Lost (see epic, biblical). Epic forms were also used by Christian poets for non-biblical subjects. Prudentius’ Psychomachia, on the battle in the soul between personified Virtues and Vices, is a major milestone in the long history of the allegorical epic.9 The lives of saints, the new heroes of Christianity, were narrated and celebrated in long poems in the epic manner, such as the hexameter lives of St Martin of Tours by Paulinus of Périgueux (460s ce) and Venantius Fortunatus.10
Parody, Epyllion, Cento
Epic, as a central cultural form, was subject to various kinds of deformation and fragmentation. Its lofty pretensions invited parody in the form of mock epic, for example in Greek the Batrachomyomachia (‘Battle of the frogs and mice’), attributed to Homer but of the 4th century bce or later, and in Latin the Culex (‘Gnat’), long believed to be an early work of Virgil (see Appendix Vergiliana). In the Alexandrian period the disinclination to challenge the Homeric poems at Homeric length led to exercises in the epyllion, short hexameter narrative poems of a kind which also enjoyed a vogue in Rome and in later antiquity. A more extreme form of fragmentation, but one that was a mark of the authority of Homer and Virgil, is the cento, poems on new subjects, both Christian and non-Christian, formed by stitching together fragments of the Homeric and Virgilian poems (typically between a half line and two lines).
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(2.) Martin West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Johannes Haubold, Greece and Mesopotamia: Dialogues in Literature (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013); and Bruno Currie, Homer’s Allusive Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
(3.) Jasper Griffin, “The Epic Cycle and the Uniqueness of Homer,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 97 (1977): 39–53.
(4.) Richard B. Rutherford, “From the Iliad to the Odyssey,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 38 (1991–1993): 47–54, reprinted in Oxford Readings in Homer’s Iliad (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001): 117–146.
(5.) Richard Hunter, The Measure of Homer. The Ancient Reception of the Iliad and the Odyssey (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2018); and Tilman Schmit-Neuerburg, Vergils Aeneis und die antike Homerexegese. Untersuchungen zum Einfluss ethischer und kritischer Homerrezeption auf imitatio und aemulatio Vergils (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1999).
(6.) Félix Buffière, Les Mythes d’Homère et la pensée grecque (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1956); and on late antique allegorization of Homer, see Robert Lamberton, Homer the Theologian (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986).
(7.) Denis Feeney, Beyond Greek. The Beginnings of Latin Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016): chp. 2.
(8.) On Greek epic in late antique Egypt, see Laura Miguélez Cavero, Poems in Context: Greek Poetry in the Egyptian Thebaid 200–600 AD (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2008).
(9.) C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936); and Michael Murrin, The Allegorical Epic: Essays in its Rise and Decline (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1980).
(10.) On Paulinus’ Vita Martini, see Martin Brooke, “Interpretatio Christiana: Imitation and Polemic in Late Antique Epic,” in Michael Whitby, Philip R. Hardie, Mary Whitby (eds.), Homo Viator: Classical Essays for John Bramble (Bristol, U.K.: Bristol Classical Press, 1987), 285–295.