Cities (T. Behm)


In the wake of the so-called spatial turn in the humanities in the last decades, literary scholarship has recognized the importance of space in literature. This applies to cities in ancient epic, too. From the Archaic time onward throughout Antiquity, we can observe the significance of urban landscapes in Greek and Latin epic poetry. The cityscape of Troy, for instance, is the indispensable setting for the action of the Homeric Iliad, while Rome represents the narrative aim of Vergil’s Aeneid.

The general significance of cities in epic can be demonstrated in a twofold way. On the macro level, this kind of narrative space often supports the division of a given work into books or main sections; on the micro level, cities can be a part of the evoked literary space of each single episode. On both levels the urban landscape is always inseparably connected to the plot, and the description of an urban space or a reference to a city can also fulfil important narrative functions by foreshadowing an action as a sort of prolepsis, by contributing to the characterization of a figure, or by clarifying borders and boundaries of all kinds.

This chapter contains sections on Thebes, Troy, Carthage, and Rome, with subsections on ‘minor’ cities like Buthrotum, Acesta, Pallanteum, and Saguntum. It investigates their literary representation by scrutinizing several ‘subtype scenes’ (i.e. a city before its foundation, the foundation of a city, a city under siege, at war, or civil war, the fall of a city, and the ‘afterlife’ of a fallen city) that can be traced back between individual authors and works. My analysis reveals that by a complex network of analepses and prolepses, every city represented in epic narrative refers backward to Troy and/or prefigures the capital of the Roman Empire.

Mythical Places (M. Kersten)

A place may be called mythical, for example, when it has a special (e.g. paradisiac or fantastical) appearance, when important things have happened there, or when god and man can have contact there. Especially in the tradition of the Odyssey, such places form an important part of the epic narrative.

Their description can be a point of rest within the plot in order to give ekphrastic descriptions of historical or geographical sites or facts. Literary interactions can be made visible at mythological places, which thereby are characterised as places of special intertextual relevance or even, quite literally, as τόποι. At the same time, however, what does (or does not) happen at such a place, may have some significance for the interpretation of the narrative as a whole.  

In this chapter, I want to scrutinise mythical places in epic poetry with regard to their narrative representation, the link between the readers’ and the characters’ knowledge about them, and the interpretive impact they may have. 


Olympus (F. Stürner)

In epic poetry, the development of action traditionally results from three motivational forces: human action, the influence of destiny (moira, fatum, fortuna), and, most notably, divine intervention. In studying the conventional deorum ministeria, scholars have explored a vast array of interpretative approaches that can be useful to account for the ongoing popularity of the divine machinery. Thus, the gods may serve as psychological allegories and externalizations of human passions and emotions or respond to the socio-political implications of ancient religio civilis. They may be symbolic visualizations of transpersonal cosmic powers or a convenient narrative strategy to call attention to the important problem of determinism and free will. Furthermore, the divine machinery may mirror and elucidate social constellations in a congruent or contrastive way. Famously, these ideological choices are articulated with a rather limited set of recurrent and stereotyped scene patterns allowing for instructive comparisons between individual authors.

This will be the focus of the article. In a first step, we develop a comprehensive inventory and typological description of the narrative patterns in question (e.g. assemblies of gods, dialogues between divine characters, monologues, interventions). In a second part, we intend to discuss extensively the formal development of this scenic repertory in individual authors from Homer to Claudian. A third and final part will assess the relevance of the results for current approaches of modern scholarship to the problem of the gods in epic.


Underworld (C. Reitz)

There are mainly two types of scenes that describe an epic character's meeting with the netherworld – the katabasis and the nekyia. Their main purpose is to meet a particular inhabitant of the underworld in order to receive advice from them for the future.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus recounts his encounter with the world of the dead as part of the apologoi in Bk. 11. In the nekyia the epic hero never really enters the netherworld, but the souls of the dead appear to him close to the entrance of their abode. On the other hand, the katabasis comprises a journey down to the Underworld as well as a description of its topography and inhabitants. Both kinds of scenes contain specific rituals and sometimes a guide person is needed to gain access.

The katabasis is a structural element of epic poetry that is also present in the narrative tradition of the Near Orient (e.g. the much older Epic of Gilgamesh). This ultimate adventure and proof of an epic hero’s courage and prowess is rarely absent in the epic tradition after Homer; however, it undergoes specific variations. Aeneas (Aeneid 6) is guided by the Sibyl and meets his dead father Anchises who unfolds the theory of metempsychosis in a long speech. Lucan (Bellum Civile 6) introduces the witch Erictho who performs a necromantic ritual on the corpse of a dead soldier in order to gather information about the outcome of the civil war. In Flavian Epic, probably under the influence of Senecan drama, the contact with the underworld is often established by appearances of the dead (e.g. Laius in Statius' Thebaid 2). Silius Italicus has Scipio Africanus seek solace and advice from his dead father and uncle (Punica 13). Claudian in De raptu Proserpinae uses the well-known myth to develop his description of the underworld. The topic of the visit to the dead is related to the motif of the journey to remote destinations – e.g. the Argonauts to Colchis, Telemachus to Helena and Menelaus (Odyssey 4), Aeneas to Andromache and Helenus (Aeneid 3).