Neo-Latin Epic: 16th -18th Century (F. Schaffenrath)

In the 15th century, a remarkable renaissance of classical epic poetry began and eventually led to a resurgence of epic poetry with several hundred poems, e.g. on rulers, founders of religious orders, conquerors, on battles, wars and ruling families. Literary history often has the Neo-Latin period start with Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374); in his epic poem Africa he described the Second Punic War and thereby wrote a work comparable to Silius Italicus’ Punica. There is an uninterrupted series of Neo-Latin epic poems from the 15th century onwards, which significantly increases in the 16th and 17th century. One of the latest examples is Innocentius Polcari's poem on the Virgin Mary (Benevent 1905).

Epic poets were aware that their audience was expecting them to combine and make use of the traditional type scenes of epic poetry in an elegant way, and it was on these criteria that they were frequently judged. It is for this reason that we find very few texts without similes, speeches or catalogues etc. Most of these poems were written in a panegyric context and aimed to legitimate certain structures of power. The standard structural forms of epic, therefore, constituted a popular tool that allowed authors to provide an insight into the ruling family, on the future developments of an institution, or on the praise of a country. These might include, among many others, prophecies, descriptions of shields, ekphraseis or scenes where the highest god speaks about the great future of the hero. On the other hand, standard elements such as the simile offered the poet the possibility to write on current affairs or to include subjects from classical mythology or history into his work. In this way, poets were able to stress the literary tradition in which they wanted to inscribe themselves.

This contribution on the traditional structural elements of epic in Neo-Latin epic poetry cannot provide a complete overview, but will show how these elements were used in order to integrate either the modern or the classical world into the narrower context of their works.