The three most famous works of ancient epic poetry are the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer (ninth or eighth century BCE?) and the Aeneid by Virgil (70—19 BCE). This trio overshadows the many other extant examples of Greek and Roman epic poetry. Little wonder. These three poems represent the pinnacle of ancient literary achievement in the West. Their prominence, however, has led to the neglect both by classicists and by readers of modern literature of a number of other very interesting texts. This neglect tends to distort the manner by which ancient epic, and perhaps epic generally, is understood.
The range of what is normally understood as ancient epic is surprising in its size and variety. There are a number of poems, for example, whose appeal seems to be directed primarily at the wider community and its values. Their focus can be on either mythological events or on real historical events (see MYTHOLOGY). Homer's two poems (ca. 750 BCE) are examples of the former, as is Virgil's Aeneid (19 BCE). But there is also the Argonautica of Valerius Flaccus (early 90s CE), a retelling of the legends associated with Jason and the Argo and, amongst the historical exemplars of this form, the fragmentary epic on the First Punic War (264—241 BCE) by Naevius, and the Annales of Quintus Ennius on the Second Punic War (218—201 BCE); there are also Lucan's Civil War (ca. 63 CE), concerning the civil conflicts that closed the Roman Republic, and a seventeen-book Punica (ca. 80—90 CE, also on the Second Punic War) by Silius Italicus.
Other epic poems eschew the public role and seem to focus on the private realm of affect. Much of the Argonautic epic of Apollonius of Rhodes (third century BCE) concerns itself with love. Ovid's Metamorphoses (pub. 7—8 CE) represents the best example of this type of poem. But Ovid is following the example set, for example, by Callimachus in his Hecale (ca. 270 BCE), a small-scale epic on some of the more obscure events in the life of the mythological hero Theseus. Ovid is also indebted to Catullus's sixty-fourth poem (ca. 60s BCE), a small-scale or miniature epic, again concerning itself with Theseus but also Ariadne.
There is a third group of poems whose narrative is best characterized by the term “evasion”: this is a literature that involves the suspension of the circumstances of normal human actions (usually in order to illustrate a simple moral point) and which aims, through the evocation of an imaginary realm (inevitably mythological), to escape the real and the quotidian. Much of Ovid's Metamorphoses might be considered from this viewpoint. So too should Statius's Thebaid (pub. 90s CE), a poem which recounts the events relating to the “Seven against Thebes.”
What was Ancient Epic?
Were we asked to define the nature of such ancient epic poems, we would probably produce a definition that would emphasize the following: they contain narratives relating to the heroic actions of mythological or historical heroes, they display a concern for the relations between these heroes and divine powers, their length is matched with an elevation of style, they use the hexameter, they are an ostensible glorification of the past, and they are often accompanied by repetition of description, by catalogues, and by fixed descriptive formulas. Most of these poems also exhibit features such as similes, battles, set speeches, invocations of the Muses, councils of the gods and of the leaders, and the description of shields and other artifacts. But such a description may misrepresent the actual diversity of ancient epic.
Were we to look at the ancient definitions of epic and at the surviving hexametric poetry that matches these descriptions, then a much more diverse or even amorphous picture would emerge. Are there surviving ancient discussions of epic? Aristotle (384—322 BCE), in Poetics chaps. 23 and 24, offers some help. But his is a very prescriptive description (an epic must have a plot structure which is “dramatically” put together; the plot should present a single action “with beginning, middle and end”; epic should have a unity that is not merely temporal or sequential, nor one that is produced simply by concentrating on a single hero). Such an account, however sensible, does not provide definitions capable of embracing the full range of ancient epic literature. Quintilian (35-ca. 96 CE) and Manilius (f. first century CE) are more useful. Quintilian (Institutio Oratoria 10.1.46ff., 10.1.85ff.) includes, alongside mythological and historical epic, didactic and pastoral poetry, and even the miniature epic. Manilius, at the beginning of the second book of his Astronomica is comparably inclusive.
It appears that Quintilian and Manilius believed that there existed a variety of elastic, ill-defined, but nonetheless recognizable subspecies or subgenres of epic (Toohey, 1992; see GENRE). There is the mythological epic, whose description we have just seen. There is also the didactic epic (e.g., Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, or Virgil's Georgics; see Toohey, 1996) or, another form, the small-scale epic practiced by the Alexandrian writers in the third century BCE (e.g., Callimachus, and adapted to Rome by Catullus and Ovid). There was heroic epic based on real historical rather than mythological themes. There was even a comic or parodic epic (the pseudo-Homeric Battle of the Frogs and Mice; see PARODY). These subgenres could be blended. Some critics argue, for example, that to distinguish didactic from mythological epic is misleading. In Homer the technical and the didactic may be imperceptibly blended with a heroic, mythological narrative. Even length, that traditional synonym for epic, seems to be misleading. While many epics were very long, the average size was probably about six hundred or so lines. That would represent an easy evening's performance, or the average contents of a papyrus roll. The only element of ancient epic that tends to endure is the meter, mostly but not necessarily the hexameter. Were we, then, to attempt to reformulate the definition of epic, we could probably say little more than that Greek and Roman epic literature generally favored the hexameter as its medium and that it was built from units of a minimum length of about six hundred lines.
Paradoxically, it may have been the apparently indefinable nature of ancient epic that guaranteed its adaptability and its capacity to survive and to flourish. Its survival throughout all periods of antiquity is remarkable. When the themes of mythological epic, for example, became stale, the genre could and did reinvent itself in a historical mode. Thus Lucan's historical epic could be thought of as a response to the apparent impasse that Virgil's the Aeneid had led to. (How could a better mythological epic than the Aeneid be written? If it cannot be done, then why not attempt a different type of epic?) The miniature epic, as we see it in Ovid's Metamorphoses, can be easily understood as an interwoven concatenation of miniature epics (Crump) and could be read as an answer to the longeurs of the narrative of mythological epic. If mythological themes became dull in the miniature epic, focus could be shifted to didactic matters, anything from science, to gardening, to sex. The very abundance of extant epic poetry from most periods of classical antiquity points to the remarkable adaptability of the genre. The only development that seems to have threatened its survival was the increase in literacy within the ancient world that led inevitably to the dominance of prose. History writing, for example, came to displace one of the original functions of some branches of epic, the recording of public tradition. And scientific writing migrated from the hexameter to the prose treatise (see ANCIENT NARRATIVES, WEST).
Ancient Epic is Not a Monolithic Genre
In many ways the modern novel might be characterized by its very lack of generic parameters. Although definitions of the modern novel are not easily formulated, some aspects are clear: its capaciousness, its readiness to adapt and to adopt other generic types, its resultant ability to evolve, and its near-generic formlessness. None of these elements, however, necessarily causes us to deny, in generic terms, its reality. The modern novel seems to be almost infinitely adaptable because of its capacity to absorb and modify the characteristics of other genres. Mikhail bakhtin, in his famous essay, “Epic and Novel” (1941), also likes to stress this flexibility of the novel which could be attributed, among other things, to its lack of a generic canon. Bakhtin liked to contrast what he saw as the rigidity of the epic with the flexibility of the novel. This epic genre, he claimed possessed a finished quality that rendered adaptability difficult—marble to the novel's clay, as it were. In part this is because epic focuses on a past that in many ways seems superior to the imaginative territory of the novel, the present.
Bakhtin's famous contrasting characterization of epic and the novel has, despite its influence elsewhere, little applicability to the Greek and Roman versions of epic. That is, unless your ancient epic is limited to the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, the Aeneid of Virgil, and those other versions whose focus is primarily on the wider community and its values. For example, under the influence perhaps of Callimachus (ca. 305—240 BCE), Apollonius of Rhodes blended a variety of non-epic characteristics into his Argonautica: romance, the sentimental, the erotic, travel, scientific and didactic lore, humor (see COMEDY), a sharp juxtaposition of the heroic and bourgeois. So does the sprawling and picaresque epic of Nonnus (fl. 450—60 CE). The little-read Dionysiaca breaks all of the rules: it is at once compendious and specific; it blends romance, sexual innuendo, and religion, the heroic with the non-heroic, the humorous with the serious. Like the modern novel, its generic affiliations are promiscuous. Epic works such as the Argonautica, the Dionysiaca, and, to add a third, the Metamorphoses—indeed, all of those poems whose focus is on affect—all seem to have approached epic writing in a very different manner from the community orientations of Homer and Virgil, so much so that, in fact, 1960s scholars occasionally refused the status of epic for Metamorphoses. Both Quintilian and Manilius believed that Lucretius's first-century BCE On the Nature of the Universe, a hexameter poem on Epicurean science and philosophy, should be classed as an epic poem. Lucretius's epic, for that is what it is, defies classification under the schema adopted by Bakhtin. Where does this leave us? With the very simple conclusion that ancient epic, a most plastic medium, was characterized by great thematic diversity.
Ancient Epic and the Ancient Novel
But what of the ancient novel? What sort of a relationship does ancient epic display toward that version of the novel? Until recently, the ancient novel was characterized by an amalgamated and bowdlerized portrait derived from the five surviving Greek novels—Xenophon of Ephesus's Ephesiaca (ca. 100—150 CE), Chariton's Callirhoë (first century BCE—second century CE), Achilles Tatius's Leucippe and Clitophon (post-150 CE), and Heliodorus's Aethiopica (ca. 230 CE). The resultant portrait is termed the “idealized Greek novel.” It is, as that term suggests, highly stylized and, according to the usual description, more or less sui generis.
The idealized Greek novel is sometimes described as follows: a pair of young lovers, usually of upstanding virtue, form the focus of the novel, and their amatory experience is detailed in a series of travel and adventure episodes; love is thwarted by a variety of usually strange obstacles (abduction by pirates or bystanders), trials, and temptations in their search for one another. The gods favor their love and loyalty with a final happy reunion. The strict formality of such a prose narrative type might explain why so few examples remain. Such a description is, however, much less readily accepted these days. There exist other narratives, other fragments, and other summaries of novels which provide correctives to this idealized picture. There are a number of narratives relating to bizarre or violent sexuality. “There are fictional narratives with historical characters and settings...tales of fantastic journeys...epistolary fiction...fictional ’eye witness’ reports from Troy...Christian fiction...and Jewish fiction....[W]hat constitutes the ancient novel cannot be demarcated along discrete lines, and...the ’ideal’ romance novel is neither the generic standard nor the norm” (Morales, ix—x). It appears, therefore, that the genre of the ancient novel was as diverse and indeed as plastic as that of ancient epic.
Petronius's novel Satyricon (ca. 60 CE), as it is now termed, has a number of strong connections with epic literature. One of these is its “hero,” Encolpius, who seems deliberately to stand for everything an epic hero in Homer's or Virgil's community-directed poems does not, making a deliberate inverse of this form of epic hero. Elimar Klebs seems to have been the first to have asserted that Petronius's Satyricon was a parody of sorts of the Odyssey and comparable epics. Klebs was right to refer to comparable epics, for the Satyricon has epic elements that point beyond the Odyssey. So it is that the Satyricon details, like the Odyssey or the Argonautica, the picaresque wanderings of a persecuted hero. The links, however, are more precise: (1) Encolpius is hounded across land and sea by the wrath of a god, Priapus, rather than Odysseus's Poseidon (see Satyricon, 139.2); (2) when Giton, Encolpius's young paramour, hides beneath the bed to escape the rivalrous attentions of Ascyltus, he is compared to Odysseus hiding under a sheep to escape from the Cyclops's cave; (3) Encolpius's tortured liaison with Giton parodies that of Odysseus with Calypso and Circe; and (4) the whole of the Circe episode in the Satyricon is reminiscent of events in Odyssey 10 where the real Circe dominates the narrative. On a more general level, although the storm and the shipwreck passage in the Satyricon mirror Odyssey 5 (Croton, therefore, with its femme fatale must match and parody the Nausicaa episode), we might just as well have drawn a parallel to the arrival of Aeneas in North Africa in Aeneid 1 and 4. Trimalchio's banquet may well recall the banquets on Phaeacia of Odyssey 7—8, but they could also be compared to the banquet of Aeneid 1. And, finally, there is the prominent miniature-epic within the Satyricon, the Bellum civile, which is often taken to be a parody of Lucan's epic. These shared elements Satyricon hardly suggest parody. Instead, they indicate the easy generic relationship which novels such as that of Petronius held with some forms of epic. One simple way of understanding the Satyricon and its epic heritage is to suggest that it achieves its comedic status by inversing the template of the heroic epic associated especially with the Odyssey.
The precise link between certain exemplars of the ancient epic tradition (above all Homer's Odyssey and Lucan's first-century-CE Civil War) and Petronius's Satyricon does not prove that the novel is an offspring of epic. All that it demonstrates is that Petronius's novel was. The Greek novels bear no such clear relationship. In fact there is a bewildering array of theories designed to explain the origins of the novel: that it was descended from Greek New Comedy, the epic, the ancient pastoral, and so forth (Holzberg). It makes more sense to say that a prose medium such as the Greek or the Roman novel was the inevitable beneficiary of a world in which increased literacy eroded the generic primacy of epic. The fictional world of the novel piggybacks onto the fictional world of the epic. But, as we shall see, there is no clear filiation.
Eros, Marriage, Epic, and the Novel
Georg lukács is perhaps the most famous proponent of the view that the novel was spawned by epic, as he argued in The Theory of the Novel. Bakhtin believed that the epic and the novel were far too dissimilar for this to have been the case. In the case of ancient epic and the novel, the opinions of neither theorist prove to be especially helpful. The ancient epic, in some manifestations, certainly shares some of the concerns of the novel. But this is not so much a matter of direct influence as it is, presumably, of their sharing the same influences within the same world. Affect comes to matter more in a variety of ancient literary genres as the slow centuries of antiquity passed. In this arena the plastic genres of the ancient epic and the ancient novel, not surprisingly, came to resemble one another.
One way to chart the modes by which the epic seems to move closer to the concerns displayed by the novel is to look at its depiction of the connections between marriage and eros. (In epic such concerns seem to be limited primarily to poems whose focus is on the private realm of affect or on that of evasion.) In the five “canonical” Greek novels, marriage and eros are closely intertwined. In these novels the basis of the attraction between young women and men is erotic, and the anticipated culmination of the narrative resides in their marriage and sexual union. This linking of marriage and eros is a part of the condition termed “romantic love.” The linking of marriage and erotic longing is uncommon in ancient literature. It is certainly not common in ancient epic. It seems to appear later in the history of the genre and it does not establish a strong hold within it. It is almost as if the proper provenance of romantic love were the prose novel. At any rate, the linking within the epic of marriage and erotic longing is to be found in poems such as Apollonius of Rhodes's Argonau-tica 3, Catullus's sixty-fourth poem, Virgil's Aeneid 4, and Valerius Flaccus's Argonautica 6—8.
How were marriage and erotic longing or romantic love viewed elsewhere in the epic genre? Marriage in ancient epic is usually a fairly traditional affair. It has no necessary link to erotic longing nor to romantic love, since neither represented a precondition for marriage. In epic, marriage is like marriage generally in the ancient world: a socially or legally sanctioned union created for the purpose of the procreation of children. The basis of such marriages—invariably arranged—was neither romantic love, personal fulfillment, or sexual gratification, nor, necessarily, attraction. The basis was the will of one's family. A description of the affective basis of such a relationship might go as follows. It was a select and normally symmetrical relationship between non-kin grounded in mutual affection and loyalty and trust that may be played out in the context of periodical cohabitation and supplemented by sexual relations. Erotic fulfillment and erotic exclusivity play no part in this definition. Eros outside marriage, as you might expect, is seldom symmetrical, is short-lived, and rarely seems to have anything to do with children.
Most of the marriages that are depicted in any detail within ancient epic are of this traditional form. One would like to think that the relationship between Hector and Andromache as it is depicted in Iliad 6 was like this, but there is not enough of it in the Iliad to make this clear. The relationship between Odysseus and Penelope could certainly be described in this way. Odysseus, whom we know better than Penelope, displays remarkable loyalty, affection, and eventually trust in his wife. Children, or a child, are crucial to the relationship. Sexual exclusivity is not at issue and should not be confused with loyalty. The reverse side of this form of love and marriage can be seen in the relationship of Paris and Helen that is depicted in Iliad 6 alongside that of Hector and Andromache. They have a nonsymmetrical relationship (Helen is a foreigner to Troy; hence she lacks the prerequisite for citizenship and marriage), and one that is based solely on erotic attraction. Children are not involved. Their relationship is ultimately destructive. Paris perishes, Troy falls, and Helen is restored to her husband, Menelaus. Marriage and erotic longing, therefore, seem to be represented as polar opposites, the former as symmetrical and unlinked to erotic overtones, the latter as asymmetrical and dangerous. Marriage and eros, because they are affectively sundered, play little role in the earlier, community-directed epic.
The third book of Apollonius of Rhodes's Argonautica is justly famous and provides us with the first example of the conjunction of marriage and erotic desire. Its renown is drawn largely from the vivid description of the romance between the teenage Medea and a young Jason. Medea has been subject to a love charm directed at her by Eros. Athena is behind this. She wants Medea's help for her favorite, Jason (3.25—29). It is, for Medea, love at first sight when she meets Jason (3.275—98). The emotion quickly leads her to abandon her royal home and family (she is a princess) to follow Jason and to assist his pursuit of the Golden Fleece (protected and owned by her father King Aeetes). Medea's decision, however, is not achieved without considerable anguish (which is evoked in almost visceral detail by Apollonius, 3.443—71). The tension between her love for Jason and her loyalty to her family is realistically drawn. Love triumphs. Jason and Medea do elope. In the fourth book of the poem Alcinous, the Phaeacian king from the Odyssey, cobbles together a hasty marriage for the pair (4.1161—66). Thus become intertwined, probably for the first time in ancient epic, the themes of normal marriage and erotic longing. It is a heady and, in both senses, a novel brew. Many of the same elements are exploited three-and-a-half centuries later in the other epic retelling of this legend by the troubled Valerius Flaccus. There is no need, here, to go into the details of the depiction of affect, eros, and marriage in Catullus's sixty-fourth poem or in Virgil's Aeneid 4, but they demonstrate the same tendencies as are evident in Apollonius. In the former poem, the erotic longing of the abandoned Ariadne is contrasted with the initially felicitous marriage of Peleus and Thetis. In the latter we see the heady combination of erotic longing with a thwarted desire for marriage on the part of the unfortunate and doomed Dido.
The similarities between the epic and the novel do not indicate filiation, or, necessarily, any direct influence. It appears more likely that the causes were social. Marriage was approached in a different way. Individuals were allowed more freedom in their choice of partners. Romantic love, which is all about choice, became a respectable basis for marriage. It is as if societal change (presumably allowing individuals to participate in the choice of their partners, rather than having this choice made for them by their families) invents a whole new group who are susceptible to romantic love, and these are catered to in some of the novels and in some of the epics. It may be significant that the changes we are speaking of occur within those subgenres that focus on mythological narrative, which presumably allowed more flexibility and variety of story line than did the strictly historical narrative. But we should not make too much of this.
Epic seems to have been the most adaptable and the most long-lived of all ancient literary genres. The ancient novel does not seem to have been able to compete effectively with it. I suspect that this is because the more private concerns, which the novel seems to reflect, did not much outlast the rise of Christianity and the later eclipse of Roman civilization. Interest seems to have turned back to a literature that could espouse public or community rather than private values. Epic was good at this. We see therefore a minor flourishing of Christian epics, such as the Pyschomachia of Prudentius (348—?405 CE), the Eucharisticus of Paulinus of Pella (ca. 459 CE), the Life of St Martin by Venantius Fortunatus (ca. 540—600 CE), or, in a different vein, the epic paraphrase of the New Testament by Juvencus (mid-third-century CE). Further to the east there is the continuation of the epic tradition in texts such as the Posthomerica of Quintus Smyrnaeus (fourth century CE), the Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Panopolis (fifth century CE), the Johannis of Flavius Cresconius Corippus (composed after 548 CE), or even Hero and Leander by Musaeus (second half of the sixth century).
SEE ALSO: Ancient Narratives of China, Ancient Narratives of South Asia, History of the Novel, Theory of the Novel (20th Century).
1. Bakhtin, M.M. (1981), “Epic and Novel,” in Dialogic Imagination, ed. and trans. M. Holquist.
2. Crump, M.M. (1931), Epyllion from Theocritus to Ovid.
3. Heiserman, A. (1977), Novel before the Novel.
4. Holzberg, N. (1995), Ancient Novel, trans. C. Jackson-Holzberg.
5. Klebs, E. (1889), “ Zur Komposition von Petronius' Satirae,” Philologus 47: 623—35.
6. Lukács, G. (1971), Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock.
7. Morales, H. (2001), “ Introduction,” in Achilles Tatius, trans. T. Whitmarsh.
8. Toohey, P. (1992), Reading Epic.
9. Toohey, P. (1996), Epic Lessons.