Genealogy and Aiteology (A. Walter)

Genealogy and aetiology are important elements of ancient epic storytelling. Not only does Hesiod in his Theogony present the genealogy of the gods, but he also essentially defines the Homeric heroes by their genealogy. Famous ancestors and a long line of ancestry are part of a hero’s claims to fame (kleos) and oblige him to live up to that heritage. Consequently, the recounting of genealogies pervades the narrative and the speeches of its protagonists in the Iliad and recurs in the Odyssey as well. Even if the image of the epic hero projected in Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica substantially differs from the Homeric model, genealogies continue to remain important. The same is true for Latin epic, where – even in the context of a decidedly Roman way of thinking – the name of the ancestors plays a key role in characterising epic characters. 

Aetiology – the explanation of the origin of e.g. a city, a ritual or a name – in epic has a more varied history. It is not a pervasive narrative mode in the Homeric epics, but it should be noted that at key points in the narrative (such as Odysseus’ recognition back in Ithaca), stories of origin are being told. The first strongly ‘aetiological’ epic is Apollonius’ Argonautica, where the narrator frequently refers to cults, names or landmarks which “even now” bear witness to the Argonauts’ voyage. Taking Apollonius (as well as Callimachus’ Aetia) as his model, Vergil introduces a further innovation in writing an epic that is aetiological in its overarching frame, telling of the foundation of Rome and the Roman gens, as well as containing a large number of individual – distinctly Roman – aetia. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, too, is heavily indebted to Hellenistic modes of aetiological storytelling. In the Flavian epoch, Valerius Flaccus in his Argonautica, following Apollonius, includes a number of aetia connected with the Argonautic voyage, yet notably fewer than his Greek predecessor. In Book 4 of Statius’ Thebaid, aetiology functions as a device that significantly delays the actual war narrative. Silius Italicus in his historic epic Punica also includes a few aetiological narratives which are partly indebted to Ovid’s Fasti.