Photograph of vase in British Museum. Dated circa 520BC. Photo by Cynthia Hart. Nikon S3300
December 12, 2012

Greek Epic Fragments

The two poems by Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey are the best known of the ancient Greek epics. There's one on the voyage of the Argo by Apollonius of Rhodes that's complete, but it's after the Athenian golden age, and there may be some other Greek ones after him. Vergil is the best known writer of Latin epic, though Ovid's Metamorphosis and the poem of Lucretius on nature might also qualify. However, the epic poems on the Trojan war that were composed around the time of Homer, and the epics on Thebes and on Hercules that were composed in the early classical era exist only in fragments or in summaries. The present volume brings together the fragments from these early epics, outside of the material that is attributed to Hesiod.

The big two epic topics in the ancient world were the Theban cycle and the Trojan cycle. Less popular were the poems on Heracles and Theseus. Popular might not be the best word here. There were no best-seller lists, so outside of the number of quotations by other writers there is no real measure of popularity. In any case, the Trojan cycle is the only one with complete surviving epics. Other topics for epic poetry included genealogical and antiquarian poetry.

Of all of the fragmentary epics Cypria is the most heavily quoted and documented epic. This is the one that introduces the whole cycle of Trojan poems, and it starts ab ovo, from the egg. There is much in the chronology of the Trojan war that is confusing, and people seem to grow up awfully fast and stay young and fit for a long time. I can't say that Cypria will straighten out these difficulties and make the hilly places flat, but it does provide some orientation.

Cypria mentions Troilus, who also appears, briefly, in The Iliad. Interestingly, Cressida is not mentioned, and appears to be a medieval addition to the story. While Troilus is a minor character in the Greek epics his story will be taken up by John Gower, in Confessio Amantis, Chaucer in Troilus and Creseyde, and most memorably in Shakespeare's Troilus and Crisseda.

One excellent piece of advice is contained in Cypria:

"οἶνόν τοι, Μενέλαε, θεοὶ ποίησαν ἄριστον θνητοῖς ἀνθρώποισιν ἀποσκεδάσαι μελεδῶνας.”
"Wine, Menelaus, is the best thing the gods have made for mortal men for dispelling cares.”*

*Martin L. West, Greek Epic Fragments Harvard, 2003. 96, 97.

Much of the material is interesting, but it's impossible to form an impression of the poetry of the epics themselves. There are a few scattered lines, but it's rather like trying to form an impression of Shakespeare from a snippet of a sonnet, a speech by Falstaff, and scattered half-lines of a soliloquy. You can't really say if there's any aesthetic reason to regret the loss of the epics, or if Homer is perhaps the high point of the epic tradition.

Next up, a very brief look at some Homeric apocrypha.