Theories of Epic Poetry (P. Hardie)

This chapter will analyse the range of ancient statements and debates about the nature and goals of epic poetry, both as formulated explicitly in surviving discussions in the ancient literary critics, chief among whom Plato, Aristotle, Horace, and the fragmented theory of epic to be excavated from the scholia; and as formulated implicitly in ‘werkintern’ or ‘werkimmanent’ representations within the epic texts: performances by fictional epic bards and the response thereto by internal audiences, ekphrasis, figures of fama, etc. Questions of authority and tradition in this most authoritative and traditional of genres prompt ancient theorization of the status and exemplarity of the two ‘gods’ of ancient epic, Homer and Virgil: topics will include the idea of the universality of Homer as source, and of Virgil, the Roman Homer; and the importance of allegorization as a means of defending the authority of epic, and of asserting the profundity of its doctrine.

The universalist view of Homer sees him as the source of all genres; ancient theory of epic is much concerned with the relationship of epic to other genres, both to other kinds of poetry within the broader category of hexameter epos (bucolic, didactic), and to other genres (tragedy, lyric, elegy, etc.). Within the genre of epic there is discussion and negotiation of subgenres, in their relationship to the ‘gold standard’ of Homer and Virgil: cyclical epic, historical epic, panegyrical epic, epyllion.

The chapter will also look forward to Renaissance and modern theories of epic, in terms of their reception both of ancient epic and of ancient theories of epic. For example the protracted Renaissance debate over epic and romance picks up on Ovid’s testing of the limits of Virgilian epic in his Metamorphoses. Bakhtin’s contrastive characterization of epic and the novel gives a negative cast to ancient epic’s claim to authority.