The Main Epic Poems of Ancient Literature
When we refer to epic poetry in the context of ancient literature, we usually refer to the two Greek poems attributed to
1. The Iliad (about the role of Achilles in the Trojan War), and
2. The Odyssey (about the misadventures of Odysseus trying to return from the Trojan War and the shenanigans of the suitors trying to usurp his place back in Ithaca),
II. and the derivative one in Latin by Vergil,
- The Aeneid (about the travails of the Trojan prince Aeneas on his way from the Trojan War to Italy where he founds a new home for the future Romans).
These book-long poems are unlike most other poems we are familiar with, and not just for their length. They are different in that:
1. they switch around from scene to scene and
2. there is dialogue, like a play.
Epic = Drama + Narrative
Speeches make up so much of epic poems that Plato called epic poetry a mixture of dramatic and narrative literature, according to classical scholar Albin Lesky.
Oral Tradition of Epic Poetry
Lesky says the speeches might be a throwback to the oral tradition of epic, where the epic story was passed down, from master storyteller to pupil, possibly within a family. The storyteller or "rhapsode" played a lyre as he sang his improvised epic song. The epic song was composed of elements from myth and folklore welded into place by means of the rhapsode's skilled insertion of formulaic elements.
The central figure of ancient epic poetry is the hero. In the 3 major ancient classical epics, the heroes are
- the Greek Achilles, in the Iliad,
- the Greek Odysseus in the Odyssey, and
- the Trojan Aeneas in the Aeneid.
Characteristics of Epic Poetry
- Epic heroes come from the heroic era, which precedes the Archaic Age in ancient Greece and the founding of Rome by the legendary king Romulus.
- The heroes of epic literature are bound by a code of honor.
- The form of the epic is verse -- Dactylic Hexameters -- marking it immediately as poetry.
- The language of epic poetry is often formulaic.
- The material of epic poetry is elevated; it does not dwell on the banal details of life.
- Epic poetry tends to have catalogues. Catalogues (of things like ships or booty) tend to be long.
- Speeches are frequent.
Albin Lesky, A History of Greek Literature, translated by James Willis and Cornelis de heer. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Company. 1966.