Volume I: Foundations
Part I: Theories of Epic
Ancient and modern theories of epic
Abstract: This chapter will analyse the range of ancient statements and debates about the nature and goals of epic poetry, both as formulated explicitly in surviving discussions in the ancient literary critics, chief among whom Plato, Aristotle, Horace, and the fragmented theory of epic to be excavated from the scholia; and as formulated implicitly in ‘werkintern’ or ‘werkimmanent’ representations within the epic texts: performances by fictional epic bards and the response thereto by internal audiences, ekphrasis, figures of fama, etc. Questions of authority and tradition in this most authoritative and traditional of genres prompt ancient theorisation of the status and exemplarity of the two ‘gods’ of ancient epic, Homer and Vergil: topics will include the idea of the universality of Homer as source, and of Vergil, the Roman Homer; and the importance of allegorisation as a means of defending the authority of epic, and of asserting the profundity of its doctrine.
The universalist view of Homer sees him as the source of all genres; ancient theory of epic is much concerned with the relationship of epic to other genres, both to other kinds of poetry within the broader category of hexameter epos (bucolic, didactic), and to other genres (tragedy, lyric, elegy, etc.). Within the genre of epic there is discussion and negotiation of subgenres, in their relationship to the ‘gold standard’ of Homer and Vergil: cyclical epic, historical epic, panegyrical epic, epyllion.
The chapter will also look forward to Renaissance and modern theories of epic, in terms of their reception both of ancient epic and of ancient theories of epic. For example the protracted Renaissance debate over epic and romance picks up on Ovid’s testing of the limits of Vergilian epic in his Metamorphoses. Bakhtin’s contrastive characterisation of epic and the novel gives a negative cast to ancient epic’s claim to authority.
Learning the epic formula
Abstract: This chapter offers a broad overview of oral-formulaic theory. It argues that the conditions for formulaic composition of epic poetry in hexametric verse are not confined to the historical context envisaged by oral-formulaic theory: the production of epic song in the complete absence of writing and texts. Reading and writing in their earliest stages do not end a poet’s reliance on the interplay between formulas and the verse. Nor are formulas as such a phenomenon that is confined to oral-formulaic poetry: ordinary language is full of ready-made phrases and word combinations, and the way in which an apprentice poet learns the epic language is not fundamentally different from the way in which children learn their native language. The chapter ends with a brief analysis of some lines of the late antique epic poet Quintus of Smyrna as an illustration that even under conditions of full literacy poets can acquire and interiorise the epic language.
Narratology and classical epic
Abstract: Narrative theory or narratology, to use the term coined by Tzvetan Todorov in the late 1960s, has in recent decades evolved into a key concept of literary theory. Its subject, the oral and written, literary and non-literary narrative has become almost a principal paradigm of Cultural Studies. In this view, narrative appears as an anthropologically given (culturally and socially variable) fact, as a ubiquitous means both of individual and collective interpretation of the world and of the making of cultural meaning. No other literary genre of modern literature is so closely linked to the aspect of the search for meaning in an increasingly fragmented and uncertain world as the novel.
This gives rise to two aspects that are relevant for the narratological interpretation of ancient Greek and Latin texts: first, a significant portion of current narratological theorizing takes place around the (modern) novel. Second, the special role of the ancient epic as an object of narratological analysis within the study of Classical Philology is given by the fact that epic poetry has been viewed as the literary precursor of the novel since the 18th century. The occasional objection that narratology, with a certain arbitrariness, imposes unfitting, modern theories upon ancient texts proves problematic since the earlier research of the 20th century – in a time when the term ‘narratology’ was still unfamiliar – was partially based upon the same theoretical approaches that, together with (French) structuralism, led to today’s concept of narratology.
The first part of this article deals with the history, methodology, and terminology of narratological research from the late 1960s until now both in the general field of Literary Studies and in Classics. The second part responds to the ‘clash of cultures’ between traditional hermeneutics and modern theory. The third and final section discusses themes and trends in the area of narratology and Classics.
Epic and rhetoric
Abstract: Speech and discourse are stock components of the narrative from the beginning of the epic tradition. The speakers’ rhetorical skills become part of the narrative discourse, as can be seen from Iliad 3: Helen in the teichoscopy characterises Odysseus by his rhetorical skills. Statistically speaking, 45% of the Iliad and 67% of the Odyssey are made up of direct speech. Epic speeches, both Greek and Latin, have been subjected to rhetorical analysis and theoretical discussion by the ancient critics, and epic poets have been evaluated – or denigrated, as in the case of Ovid and Lucan – by their use of rhetoric. In this survey, I concentrate on the interaction between theory and rhetorical practice, as evident from its use in epic poetry.
Alexandrian book division and its reception in Greek and Roman epic
Abstract: It remains a matter of debate when the two Homeric poems were divided into 24 books each. A wide range of suggestions has been offered: from a division that ultimately goes back to the poet himself to an attribution solely to the Alexandrian editors. Apollonius’ Argonautica, the first ancient epic after Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to survive in its entirety, exhibits clear characteristics of a book division very consciously made and one that refers back to the aforementioned predecessors. Its substantial reduction of book numbers, from 24 to 4, adds special weight to each book in terms of unity and separation. Additional proems to Books 3 and 4 underline the segmentation and its potential to create narrative meaning.
Composing an epic poem with special attention to book division becomes fashionable for Roman epicists, at least since Ennius: Livius Andronicus is likely to have adopted the book division of his Greek original; there is evidence for a posthumous, post-Ennian book division in Naevius’ Bellum Poenicum (Suet. gramm. 2). Ennius’ 18 books of the Annales show a division into triads. Fragments of the proems to Books 7 and 10 display metapoetic statements that emphasise the book division and make use of the special attention readers give to beginnings.
The prime importance of book division for the macrostructure of an epic poem is most prominent in the 12 books of Vergil’s Aeneid, without being employed schematically or pedantically: for example, the double structure of an Odyssean and an Iliadic half is suggested, but the proem in the middle in Book 7 is not situated directly at the beginning but a little later, thus undermining a clear-cut division. The reception of Vergil transformed his Aeneid into the model Roman epic. Just to mention two examples: playing with book divisions is characteristic for Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the 12-book structure serves as a benchmark for Statius’ Thebaid.
Accordingly, my paper focuses on the reception of the (Alexandrian-)Homeric book division in subsequent epics, including, of course, the reception of such receptions, in order to highlight how this structuring device, totally disconnected from its originally mostly pragmatic function, is employed by later epicists to add layers of meaning to their narrative.
Part II: Classification and genre
Intergeneric influences and interactions
Abstract: This chapter examines the genre-specific conventions of Graeco-Roman epic before the backdrop of intertextual and intergeneric references to epic poetry in other genres – and vice versa –, a dynamic process through which the reciprocal boundaries of the various genres have been defined and developed. In this context, the idea of the Homeric epics as the source of all other genres, which has been propagated mainly from the Hellenistic period onwards, is scrutinised (e.g. the view of the Homeric speeches as matrices of rhetoric in Quintilian), as well as the typological analysis of the relationship between epic and tragedy found in Aristotle’s Poetics and its further developments in Ps.-Longinus and the ancient commentary tradition. These formal approaches are then compared and contrasted with recent scholarship on Hellenistic and Roman epic. In particular, the literary-historical and structural cross-connections between epic and tragedy and the issue of ‘tragic epic’, which have been defined in widely diverging ways, are reviewed critically. Finally, a few select examples are adduced in order to demonstrate the impact of intergeneric interactions on specific epic type-scenes and structural elements, and the changes they undergo in the course of the epic tradition as a result of it. It is argued that self-conscious reflections of such processes can be found in certain epic similes that point to an immanent poetics of intergeneric exchange.
History and myth in Graeco-Roman epic
Abstract: This essay explores the boundaries that separate historical epic from mythological epic, concluding that these are much more malleable than one may think. By analysing specific structural elements that recur indiscriminately in both mythological and historical epic (e.g. type-scenes), I emphasise the similarities between these two modes of epic. In fact, diachronic, intertextual analysis of the epic tradition underscores how productive the cross-fertilisation between these two strands was. Select examples treated in this essay come from Homer, Choerilus of Samos, Apollonius, Ennius, Vergil, Lucan, and Flavian epic.
Didactic and epic: origins, continuity, and interactions
Abstract: This chapter explores the continuity, flexibility, and limits of genre classification between the hexameter genres of didactic and epic, and the interferences between didactic and epic poetry with regard to structural patterns and type-scenes.
The first section of the chapter explores the origins and the definitions of the didactic genre. Parallels with Near-Eastern instructional texts encourage us to consider its origins within the wider context of wisdom literature. Ancient sources do not provide a univocal definition of didactic poetry, but rather focus on some key features, such as meter, theme, intent, and author–addressee relationship. Most modern critics follow the same pattern; however, new critical perspectives have begun to shed light both on critical phases in the development of didactic poetry and on its fluid boundaries, in close relationship (and reciprocal influence) with other poetic genres but also with didactic prose.
After some introductory remarks on the coexistence and interaction of different types of didactic poetry from Hesiod to Roman authors up to the end of the first century AD, the second section of the chapter offers an overview of the presence of the addressee in Greek and Roman didactic poetry in chronological order. The discussion will focus on the following structural patterns: the presence of the addressee within the text, his relationship with the poetic persona, and the performative value of the didactic works.
The third and final section of the chapter uses illustrative examples of epic structures and formulas to explore the effect of the epic genre on didactic poetry, and, to a lesser extent, the reverse. The discussion explores the blurring of the boundaries between the two genres as well as the artful, even didactic, use of repetitions and formulas in epic poetry from Homer onwards.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses: the naughty boy of the Graeco-Roman epic tradition
Abstract: Where and how does Ovid’s extraordinary 15-book hexameter poem on stories of metamorphosis fit into the history of classical epic? At the turn of the eras, Latin epic had just found its definitive form in the shape of Vergil’s Aeneid, leaving an extraordinary challenge for anyone who might seek to pile Pelion on Ossa thereafter (to use, along with the Roman poets, the metaphor of Gigantomachy for the writing of epic). Ovid’s response to the Vergilian perfection is so outrageous that it risks stretching the generic boundaries beyond breaking point, and yet for every accusation of epic impropriety that could be made against the Metamorphoses, it would be possible also to find precedent in the epic tradition, including in the Aeneid itself. The argument of this chapter is that Ovid’s poem makes use of the traditional building blocks of epic in a way that is both conventional and daringly innovative. It is conventional in that all the parts are, in some way, present in the poem, but innovative in that those parts are tested near to or sometimes beyond the point of destruction. The overall effect is that all the elements of a proper epic poem can be identified within the Metamorphoses, but that the balance of parts, together with the Siren-like attraction of individual stories, constantly threatens to undermine the reader’s perception of the epic whole. After briefly considering the extensive cross-generic fertilisation of the poem (itself an epic feature with pedigree back to Homer, the source of all the genres) together with the problems of teleology and wholeness, my discussion concentrates on three major genre-defining building blocks of epic: battles, journeys, and hospitality. In each case, I argue that the poem consciously situates itself within epic convention, while constantly straining on the leash as if to undermine its epic status in the very act of claiming it – and equally to claim it in the act of undermining.
Abstract: The epic poems of antiquity that have survived to the present day in their complete form constitute only a small part of what originally was composed. In many cases, we only know the titles and/or have synopses of the numerous epics which are now lost, or we only have sparse fragments consisting of as little as single words or lines that were cited by grammarians and antiquarians, generally without much context. Fragments and summaries are therefore rarely sufficient to allow coherent propositions on structural elements and narrative patterns. In this chapter, several questions will be addressed that arise from the seemingly inescapable conflict between the fragmentary state of the poems in question and a narratological approach: is it possible to find recurrent structural elements and narrative patterns in epic fragments? Which methodological requirements could plausibly be useful with respect to analysing fragments along those lines? And, what additional value can be gained from such an analysis? To this end, a selection of important fragments from ancient epic is analysed and discussed. The first main section of the chapter addresses Greek epic (esp. the so-called Epic Cycle, Panyassis’ Heraclea, and Callimachus’ Hecale); the second part is devoted to Latin epic (esp. Livius Andronicus’ Odusia, Naevius’ Bellum Poenicum, and Ennius’ Annales).
Narrative patterns and structural elements in Greek epyllia
Abstract: This chapter examines how the experimentation with myths and traditional structures from epic poetry in shorter, self-contained Greek hexameter poems (epyllia) led to the creation of a rich spectrum of hybrid genres, such as epic idylls, narrative hymns, or mythological threnoi, and the continuous Protean development of the Greek epyllion. In a case study of selected epyllia from the Hellenistic period this paper analyses the versatile use of established narrative patterns and structural elements from the epic tradition in (Ps.-)Theocritus’ Idylls 13 (Hylas), 24 (Heracliscus), 25 (Heracles the Lion-Slayer), and 26 (The Bacchanals), (Ps.-)Moschus’ Europa and Megara, Bion’s Epitaph for Adonis, and the Ps.-Homeric Batrachomyomachia to determine if the limited scope of the poems and their different generic influences have an impact on the selection, combination, and functionalisation of the individual structures.
Epic structures in classical and post-classical Roman epyllia
Abstract: The epyllion or miniature epic – a literary subgenre that still today provokes debate over its definition and genesis – is especially apt for a literary analysis of epic structures. On the one hand, an epyllion-poet detaches familiar models of action and motifs from their original narrative and makes them productive for his smaller scale, and, in part, different subject-matters, narrative styles, structures, and the narrator’s attitude. By doing so he confirms the familiar way in which the structural form functions and he makes use of the recognition-value of these elements to evoke complex associations within a very small compass. Yet, on the other hand, by setting the structural forms into different narrative frameworks, assigning them to different characters, combining them with each other in new ways, or shifting their relation to each other, and markedly defamiliarising particular aspects of them, he is also able to activate a hitherto untapped potential for literary effect.
After first surveying the relevant texts (most of which do not survive), an analysis will be presented of the four surviving works – Catullus’ Carmen 64, the Ciris, Culex, and the Moretum from the Appendix Vergiliana – that can with good reason be considered examples of the epyllion of the classical and post-classical periods of Roman literature.
In research to date it has been primarily a parodic effect that has been detected, such as that, for example, which results from the carefully constructed discrepancy between the original and the new narrative contexts. By applying the typology of Gérard Genette these text-to-text relationships will be examined and classified in the present paper in a more systematic way than has been done before. In addition, the remoulding of traditional epic structures is here established as a further essential mechanism in the literary impact of all four of these epyllia: in Catullus’ Carmen 64, for example, this concerns ekphrasis; in the Ciris the narrative technique and the figure of the narrator; in the Culex the combination of katabasis and dream-vision; and in the Moretum the epic aristeia. Through their creative engagement with the epic tradition the authors offer more than just parody and Vergilian impersonatio and stand revealed as independent and constructively critical literary connoisseurs.
Part III: Core structures
The invocation of the Muses and the plea for inspiration
Abstract: From Homer onwards the epic poet’s inspired invocation of the Muse has become a core feature of epic poetry or, to be more precise, the introduction to an epic (external or initial proem) or one of its subsections (internal or medial proem) in which the invocation of the Muse is inserted within the epic plot itself. The invocation, on the one hand, ensures the favour of the inspiring addressee; on the other hand, it is also an opportunity for the epic poet to reveal the source of his information and verify his statements through a divine authority. At the same time, it is a means by which the poet can indicate which pieces of information he receives from the Muse and which he would like to present as his own creation: is the Muse responsible for the entire epic plot or only for the deeper causes that are not accessible for the human mind and its complex relations?
The placement alone can be indicative of the importance the poet assigns to the Muse in his epic narrative. As the invocation of the Muses is a constant feature of the epic proem, it is also highly significant when they have been replaced by other types of addresses and sources of inspiration like the god of poetry and divine prophecy, and the leader of the Muses, Apollo (Musagetes). Similarly, their function changes when another addressee, for example, a member of the ruling family, accompanies the Muses. Substitutions of the traditional Muse invocation, such as in late antique Christian poetry, at least partly still follow the model of the classical epic structure and retain its function.
This paper analyses the invocation of the Muse as an epic structure – while considering ancient theoretical statements on Muse invocation and the request for inspiration – and describes this structural element in its recurrent patterns and characteristics. By analysing the different Muse invocations in epic proems from Homer to Claudian the question will be raised, to what extent and in what respect a development of epic Muse invocations can be determined and in how far Muse invocations and pleas for inspiration, which at first glance seem traditional, are also innovative.
Closure and segmentation: endings, medial proems, book divisions
Abstract: This chapter considers various manifestations of closure in ancient epic: not only closure at the conclusion of a work (‘terminal closure’) and the associated forms of coda and (terminal) sphragis, but also internal devices of closure, including medial proems and book divisions. A typology of closural effects is established, according to whether they operate thematically, poetologically, or metapoetically. The first section consists of detailed examinations of the conclusions of the Iliad, the Odyssey, Apollonius’ Argonautica, Vergil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Statius’ Thebaid, and Silius’ Punica. The second section discusses the emergence of the coda (epilogue or terminal sphragis) as a formal device for imparting closure; this is followed by individual analyses of the epilogues in Apollonius’ Argonautica, Ennius’ Annales, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Statius’ Thebaid. The third and fourth sections more briefly consider localised or internal effects of closure created by, respectively, medial proems and book divisions.
‘Almost-episodes’ in Greek and Roman epic
Abstract: This contribution discusses the phenomenon of what could be called an ‘almost-episode’ (because in it something ‘almost’ happens or becomes reality, which is then prevented from happening at the last moment), which since the times of Homer played a considerable role in ancient epic, because it gave poets the possibility to enlarge their poem’s content – which usually was rather rigidly predetermined by the myth or the part of human history which they treated –, to emphasise the importance of turning points in the development of the action, or generally to augment its suspense by opening up vistas (mostly short, but sometimes more extensive) into possible alternative courses of action. Already the Homeric epic poems offer a wide range of such ‘almost-episodes’ (in scenes of battle and single combat, in adventures at sea, but also in important negotiations and momentous divine interventions), and this range is taken up and partially even enlarged (e.g. by creating sequences of several ‘almost-episodes’ in order to effect a story arc of ever more increasing suspense) by later poets. The contribution demonstrates this by discussing – after the Iliad and the Odyssey – works by the Greek epicists Apollonius of Rhodes, Quintus of Smyrna, and Nonnus of Panopolis as well as by the Latin epicists Vergil, Ovid, Lucan, Statius, and Claudian. The ‘Almost’-device can even be found in epic poets of more modern European times, as will be shown by select examples taken from Tasso’s La Gerusalemme Liberata, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Voltaire’s Henriade.
Aetiology and genealogy in ancient epic
Abstract: Genealogy and aetiology are important elements of ancient epic story-telling. Not only does Hesiod in his Theogony present the genealogy of the gods, but he also defines the Homeric heroes by their genealogy. Famous ancestors and a long line of ancestry are part of a hero’s claims to fame 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 the Odyssey as well. Even if the image of the epic hero projected in Apollonius’ 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, for example, a city, a ritual, or a name – has a more varied history in epic. It is not a pervasive narrative mode in the Homeric epics, but it should be noted that at key points in the narrative, stories of origin are being told. The first ‘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. In the Punica, Silius Italicus also includes a few aetiological narratives which are partly indebted to Ovid’s Fasti.
Abstract: The epic catalogue is one of the most striking features of ancient epic poetry. Why should a narrative include long lists of troops, as in our oldest example in Book 2 of the Iliad, of gifts, of places, of plants, and names of persons who are not important for the development of the plot? Research has long since shown that lists and catalogues are present in our tradition from the very beginning of writing, and probably even much earlier in oral form.
Lists appear in different contexts and pursue different aims – incantation, administration, and memorisation. Within an epic poem, the catalogue can provide a range of narrative functions: it broadens both the temporal and the geographical space of the narrative, it enhances the authority of the poet who is able to present broader or even complete knowledge about a certain topic to his audience, and it enrols divine help through a distinct invocation, thereby linking itself with the most prominent programmatic and poetological element of a poem, the proem. On the other hand, the catalogue offers manifold possibilities for poetic innovation. It can be included or transferred into a teichoscopy, into the description of a banquet, into the narration of a journey, and other epic structures.
Similes and comparisons in the epic tradition
Abstract: Hardly any other ancient literary genre is characterised by similes and comparisons in the way the narrative and didactic epic is. From Homer to Late Antiquity similes turn out to be components as constant as they are adaptable. They are used not only to visualise events told or not told, but they also take over a variety of tasks in the narrative. For example, they structure the text, slow down the action, increase tension, characterise persons, they point pro- and analeptically to events, support the interpretation, and become special forms of ‘Alexandrian footnotes’ because of their learnedness.
It is characteristic of similes that their context has to be determined. In the first instance this applies to their immediate context within the narrative. Even here it is difficult to determine their extent and possible correspondences. Then there is the intra- and infratextual context: that means the broader context which is established by complex correlations of similes throughout the whole text.
Furthermore, the intertextual context must be taken into consideration: by taking up the same or similar pictures and retextualising them within the same genre similes develop a code that recommends an interpretation as probable to the reader. At the same time similes are affected by variations of the inherent images. They implicitly carry the context of their pre-texts as ‘different’ but for the interpretation necessary external contexts. Finally, the cultural context has to be examined diachronically. The images usually belong to a context that is alien or complementary to the narrative context. The epic is thereby embedded into the cultural cosmos of its time (and tradition) or the latter is instilled into the epic respectively.
Artefact ekphrasis and narrative in epic poetry from Homer to Silius
Abstract: This contribution will look at the narrative function of artefact ekphrasis – here interpreted as the verbal description of objects – in Greek and Roman epic poetry and epyllia such as Moschus’ Europa and Catullus’ Carmen 64. Its primary focus will be on the way in which an ekphrasis can work as a prolepsis in narratological terms, a device by which a future portion of the story is recounted out of temporal sequence in the narrative. The use of ekphrasis in this proleptic role also raises the question of point of view or narrative focalisation, a technique which has been fruitfully applied to classical texts with interesting results. If a description within a narrative signifies future events it is likely to do so from a particular point of view, focalised by a particular character. The characters of the narrative, unless they themselves have gifts of foresight or of prophetic interpretation, will naturally be unable to recognise the significance of the proleptic ekphrasis in predicting the future course of the narrative, and the resulting gap of knowledge between the non- omniscient character and the omniscient character (e.g. a divinity), omniscient narrator, or omniscient (second-time) reader, is frequently a source of dramatic irony and pathos.
There also sometimes arises the issue of whether a prolepsis is intradiegetic, anticipating events inside the story of the narrative where it occurs, or extradiegetic, anticipating events outside the literary work, but familiar to its readers. Most proleptic ekphraseis in classical narrative texts are intradiegetic, but as we shall see there are examples of the extradiegetic kind, and indeed cases where it is difficult to decide. This issue in turn (like that of irony) raises the question of the role of the reader: where knowledge of events outside the story is required, we are clearly dealing with the horizons of expectation or the ‘repertoire’ of the intended reader of the work, without which such prolepsis will not function.