Mythological Cycles (J. Farrell)

The most characteristic themes of Greek and Roman epic are warfare and voyaging. Most epics therefore develop or examine the proposition that “life is a battle” or that “life is a journey.” Epic treatments of both themes regard them as consummately heroic undertakings, but may present them either as unproblematically compatible with one another, or else as antithetical or complementary themes. Heracles, for instance, travels the world in what is a series of battles. For Achilles, on the other hand, a journey home stands in sharp contrast to the glorious but short life that he has chosen. But Odysseus’ long-delayed homecoming is the defining achievement of his heroic career. For Homer and most of his critics, Achilles and Odysseus are mutually incompatible, even antagonistic types of hero; but Vergil seems to suggest that Aeneas’ “Odyssean” wandering are a necessary prelude to his “Iliadic” victory.

These story patterns inform not only mythic but historical epic, as well, and once again in various ways. The pattern of voyage followed by war may have been intrinsic to the subgenre of ktisis (foundation) epic, particularly in the case of Greek cities that traced their origins to the colonization movement of the archaic period. Such poems seem also to have followed the practice of local historians and mythographers by tracing the origins of the cities and peoples that they celebrated back to the heroic period (as is most clearly visible in Ennius’ Annales, despite its fragmentary condition); alternatively, they correlated historical events with mythic antecedents in a typological way (as can be seen variously in the remains of Rhianus’ Messeniaca or Naevius’ Bellum Poenicum and with great clarity in Vergil’s Aeneid). Sophisticated responses to these tendencies are to be  found in Apollonius’ Argonautica, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lucan’s Bellum Civile, and in Flavian epic.