Poetic form and narrative theme in early Greek and Akkadian epic
Abstract: This paper compares the narrative techniques of early Greek and Akkadian epic. My argument is developed in two parts. Starting with the seemingly unbridgeable divide between oral and literate poetry I ask, first, whether the art of the Greek bard can in any sense be compared to that of the Akkadian scribe. My answer is a cautious “yes”: while there are undoubted differences, Akkadian epic uses many of the forms and techniques that are also found in Greek epic, including ring composition, catalogues, traditional themes, type-scenes and formulae. The second half of my paper starts not from the differences between Greek and Akkadian epic but from their shared background in the narrative culture of the ancient Mediterranean and the Near East. I argue that Greek and Akkadian epic can be seen as local offshoots of a much wider tradition of storytelling about the history of gods and men. Both focus on the point in that history where attention shifts from the divine to the human plane. I argue that this has implications at the level of narrative form as well as theme. Thus, we see the double arc that is so characteristic of Babylonian epic narrative extended in the Epic of Gilgamesh (or just Gilgamesh) to allow for a third, properly human, chapter in the protagonist’s story. Likewise, Homer reworks standard narrative patterns of conflict and resolution among the gods to articulate a larger shift from a divine to a human perspective. I end by considering direct speech as, perhaps, the most important feature of epic storytelling in Homer and Gilgamesh. I argue that its prominence and specific use in these texts has nothing to do with oral or literate composition and everything with the shared project of telling the story of man in a world – and a literary genre – that is fundamentally dominated by the gods.
The transformation of the epic genre in Late Antiquity
Abstract: This chapter examines the reception and rhetorisation of traditional structural elements in Graeco-Roman epic poetry during Late Antiquity. The exemplary analysis focuses on the innovative use and function of two core structures of classical epic, speeches and similes, in the most prominent late antique epic poems. Before the reception of these traditional narrative patterns is discussed as part of a case study with a selection of the most relevant examples, an overview of the composition of epic poetry in Late Antiquity and its socio-historical background are provided. In addition to tracing the rhetorisation of already existing narrative patterns this contribution moreover examines the implementation of a new rhetorical structure, the epic preface, into the tradition of late antique epic poetry.
Greek biblical epic: Nonnus’ Paraphrase and Eudocia’s Homerocentones
Abstract: The term ‘Greek biblical epic’ is ambiguous because it suggests two concepts that have to be nuanced. It seems to refer to a subgenre of epic, but whether at all these poems can be considered as a group in terms of genre is doubtful. Alternative labels, which are sometimes used, are biblical paraphrase (which widens the scope to non-hexametric paraphrases) and cento poetry (which points out the formal relation with cento poetry on other topics, but separates Eudocia from Nonnus). One may also wonder to which degree the Greek examples of hexametric poetry with biblical topics indeed deserve the label ‘epic’ if at first sight their epic character is restricted to their versification and elements of vocabulary and style. Nonetheless, this chapter prefers the term ‘biblical epic’ over ‘biblical paraphrase’ because of the subtle presence of epic structural elements it aims to show in the two examples under consideration.
The first part of the chapter focuses on microstructural elements in Nonnus’ Paraphrase, which give his Gospel narrative epic grandeur. Moving from very small to slightly larger such elements, the chapter presents an analysis of the function of epithets, the occurrence of semi-formulaic speech introductions, the use of colourful descriptions of the passing of time, and the presence of a full-blown ekphrasis of a lamp as the poem’s lengthiest ‘original’ passage (i.e. without direct equivalent in the Gospel of John).
The second part of the chapter deals with the Homerocentones, which by definition consist of epic ‘building blocks’, i.e. of lines from Homer which are reordered to tell the story of the Old Testament and (mainly) the Gospels. This part of the chapter, therefore, necessarily focuses on different parameters. It looks at the overall structure of the Homerocentones (in the so-called ‘first redaction’), at the epic elements in the proem and at the way the centonist makes use of Homeric type-scenes (e.g. xenia and banquet) to give shape to similar scenes in the Gospels.
Between imitation and transformation: the (un)conventional use of epic structures in the Latin biblical poetry of Late Antiquity
Abstract: Precise definitions of genres and individual structures are notoriously difficult in the case of the biblical hexameter poetry of Late Antiquity. After a critical discussion of the status quaestionis, this contribution deals with different structurally significant parameters in order to determine both the late antique poets’ engagement with the classical epic tradition and with the existence of a generic identity.
The classical epic sea-storm, as it is narrated by Vergil (Aen. 1.24–179), has been chosen as a case study for this paper. The following texts are analysed in chronological order: Juvencus (2.25–42), Sedulius (carm. pasc. 3.46–69), Arator (act. 2.1067–155), the Heptateuch poet (Ps.-Cypr. Gen. 286–97 and Ps.-Cypr. Ex. 434–545), Marius Victorius (Aleth. 2.456–97), Dracontius (laud. dei 2.154–75 and 2.378–407), Avitus (4 and 5), as well as a few other shorter passages. All these texts combine biblical passages depicting sea-storms (i.e. Gen. 6–8, Ex. 14, Jonah 1, Ps. 107, Mt. 8.23–7, 14.22–38, and Acts 27) with the classical, mainly Vergilian model in varying degrees of intensity. As a result, it can be shown that the late antique authors are well aware of this traditional structural element, but none of them depicts a complete epic storm scene; instead, the poets favour a partial adaptation (i.e. Vergilian motifs, language, and style are partially recalled, sometimes in single details, and only rarely used and inserted in the narrative structure of the scene) or avoid this popular epic structure altogether. The multifunctional use of storm scenes, which is so characteristic of Vergil’s epic technique, is avoided entirely, except for its connection and importance for the characterisation of the principal hero.
As a matter of fact, the classical epic tradition generally only plays a small role in the description of storms in biblical hexameter poetry, which is defined by the poet’s attention to the text’s deeper meaning. Ultimately, the various ways in which the Bible poets deal with sea-storms attest to the heterogeneity of these texts, both in terms of their generic identity and of their relationship with the classical models.
Epic forms and structures in late antique Vergilian centos
Abstract: Vergilian centos are late antique literary forms stemming from and reflecting the epic tradition. They are based on the fact that it was a well-known tradition and, indeed, it was not by accident that the majority of the sixteen cento poems have been preserved in the Codex Salmasianus, such as the themata Vergiliana and the argumenta Aeneidis. Centos, however, differ from these other late antique texts in that they evoke specific parts from their sources by means of literal quotations and, in some cases, they create a certain tension between the new and the original texts.
The largest group of preserved late antique centos consists of minor mythological epyllia, while the most extensive, the Cento Probae, shares the features of heroic epic. There are significant generic markers already in its programmatic proem, which is not written using the cento technique. They predominantly refer to the Aeneid, but repeatedly also to Lucan’s Bellum Ciuile (and other epics). The opening outline of the poem’s contents (Cento Probae 1–7) nevertheless shows that Proba varies traditional epic structures, thus demonstrating her critical approach towards them: throughout seven verses, strongly inspired by the opening of Lucan’s poem, Proba makes readers/listeners believe that it is a traditional exordial topos only to frustrate their expectations and to disavow both its original (unpreserved) war epic and the entire epic tradition. The remaining verses of the proem contain specific motifs of distance (a rejection of the traditional exordial topoi) and introduce new Christian poetics. Likewise, the narrative part of the Cento Probae is rooted in epic structures which are, however, placed in new contexts and presented with a new function: the scene of the storm and Jesus’ walking on water (531–61), for instance, contains strong intertextual references to Vergil’s funeral games in Aeneid 5, which shape its meaning, especially the concept of the figure of Jesus.
References to epic structures in the cento epyllia are used with similar originality. The description of the race in the Hippodamia, for example, refers not only to Vergil’s ship race in Aeneid 5 but also to other events during the funeral games. De Opera Pistoria, a non-mythological poem, transposes the allusion to epic games to a mundane theme, in a clear parallel to the Ps.-Vergilian Moretum; the tension between the original and the new text therefore has features of a light-hearted parody. This is even more apparent in Ausonius’ non-epic Cento Nuptialis, in the last part of which (Imminutio) the connotations of games and the ultimate fight of the helmsman Palinurus in Aeneid 5 are transferred to the groom and the bride on the wedding night.
The tradition of epic poetry in Byzantine literature
Abstract: This chapter gives a selective overview of the reception and appropriation of the ancient Greek epic tradition in the Byzantine period. Epic poetry in its prototypical sense, i.e. heroic and mythological poems in hexameters, is almost absent in Byzantium, except for the classicising poems from the early Byzantine period. Yet, structural elements that go back to ancient epic are to be found in many literary genres and Homer was omnipresent in Byzantine literary culture and education. An introductory section discusses Homeric scholarship and imitation, illustrated primarily by the case of John Tzetzes. The remaining sections are devoted to important (quasi-)epic genres that flourished in the Greek Middle Ages, each time exemplified by iconic authors or texts.
Didactic poetry was very popular in Byzantium, and one of its earliest representatives, Gregory of Nazianzus ‘the Theologian’ (4th century AD) continued the ancient tradition of didactic epic in hexameters; this classical link between the genre and the dactylic meter gives way to new conventions in later periods. Encomiastic court poetry was also written throughout the capital- and emperor-centred Byzantine period, as is perhaps best illustrated by the historical, panegyrical epic of the metrical innovator George Pisides (7th century), who explicitly aims at surpassing Homer. Narratives in verse flourished especially during the later so-called Renaissances: the Komnenian and the Palaeologan periods, which produced several verse novels or romances in learned Greek as well as in the vernacular. The anonymous Digenis Akritis (12th century), sometimes called Byzantium’s only epic, raises questions and displays features and story patterns that indeed recall the Homeric epics.
The final section of this chapter deals with ekphrasis, an epic structure that has become an autonomous literary genre and was widespread in Byzantium, both in prose and in verse. Two examples are discussed in greater detail: Christodorus of Coptos’ Description of the Statues of Zeuxippus and John of Gaza’s Description of the Cosmic Tableau (both probably early to mid-6th century).
Medieval epicity and the deconstruction of classical epic
Abstract: In the literary history of epic poetry medieval Latin epics do not very often appear. Poems that conform to epical standards seem rare or even absent. Simultaneously, however, vernacular epic flourishes and is recognised as such. For that reason, one might wonder if the apparent absence of medieval Latin epic is not rather due to the scholars’ eyes that perhaps are too much preconditioned by a classicist understanding of ‘epicity’. This contribution wants to open up the discussion by presenting medieval Latin epicity as a very specific and conscious way of dealing with the classical models, more based upon deconstruction and recreation than on the imitation of normative models.
Narrative structures in Neo-Latin epic from 1440 to 1500
Abstract: For the humanist revival and appropriation of Latin epic and its structural elements and narrative patterns, the second half of the 15th century was pivotal. Although Petrarch’s Africa was left unfinished when its author died in 1374, it is generally thought to be the first Neo-Latin epic. The production of large-scale Latin epics was taken up again no sooner than in the 1440s in Italy when the genre gained appeal with poets and recipients. Many epics were produced for key figures in contemporary politics in important centres of the early Renaissance as well as for lords and leaders of rather modest importance in the cultural hinterland. They soon outnumbered the classical and medieval epic tradition with the majority of these texts treating events from contemporary history.
This approach, which most of the ancients avoided by means of recusatio, betrays a chief feature of early Neo-Latin epic: experimenting with and expanding the genre’s tradition led to a broad range of epic designs (in content and form) that were executed with varying results in skill and poetic quality. That early Neo- Latin epic poets were so prone to innovating the genre mainly has two reasons: on the one hand, humanist philology gave them access to an ever more stable and comprehensive corpus of Greek and Latin classics that Petrarch had not yet had, and, on the other hand, there was still a relative openness in literary expression, due to the lack of normative poetic treatises, which began to appear in the 16th century with the rise of vernacular epic. Reformation and Counter-Reformation had not yet defined limits to what could be treated in poetry, which was of particular importance for the poets’ discussion of a structural element that was essential for the narrative in classical epic: the supernatural.
Certain epic structures and narrative patterns – e.g. the divine machinery or ekphraseis of new forms of architecture or military technology – gave poets the opportunity to recalibrate their relationship with the ancients by more than just imitation, emulation, or typology, but to forge epic continuities between the Heroic Age, ancient history, and their own day. The early Neo-Latin epic therefore goes beyond reception and imitation by means of a conscious and self-confident continuation of the epic tradition. The article will examine this phenomenon with a selection of important epics from c. 1440 to 1500.
Narrative structures in Neo-Latin epic: 16th–19th century
Abstract: 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 Innocenzo 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 building blocks 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 important structures such as similes, speeches, or catalogues. Most of these poems were written in a panegyric context and aimed to legitimise 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 Neo-Latin epic from the 16th to the 19th century cannot provide a complete overview, but will show how these elements were used to integrate either the modern or the classical world into the narrower context of their works.