Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil (Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY; 1993) 280pp.


More than twenty five years had passed since Doubleday published The Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Epic Tradition now long since out of print in that edition and ciculating in reprints from  smaller houses.  I had so much more to say on the subject of epic poetry and very different ideas.  Cornell contracted with me to make an extensive revision; the result was an entirely new book.  The title is misleading, however, although, let us say, in an innocent way.  The book deals with the Iliad, Odyssey, Argonautica and Aeneid.  There are far many more surviving texts of ancient epic poetry than these four, and in addition large enough fragments of others supplemented by ancient testimony to demand a book of considerably greater scope if the title “Ancient Epic Poetry” is to convey the contents.  But there is also the canon from which teachers of classical literature have made their lectures and which they assign as reading for their students, namely, the texts I write about in the book.

One of the major changes is a much more subtle idea about the effect of orality on style in the Homeric epics, the natural result of reading and thinking about these two poems for so many years, especially when comparing them to the Argonautica and Aeneid which are texts written to be read.  The emphasis upon orality in this book, which has been criticized in reviews as excessive considering that the latter two texts are written and read is, I maintain, essential to do justice to the hold which the mechanics of early epic storytelling impose on it epigones.  To the extent that this very traditional genre reinvents itself by incorporating its past then the oral nature of the two founding texts is an essential element, a defining element, of the narratives that come later.


Having written a book on the Argonautica in the interval, I was ready to write an entire chapter on this poem, locating it as well into the tenuous chain of creation I was establishing from the Iliad through to the Aeneid.  Likewise I had been giving lots of attention to the Aeneid, having come a long way from those days when I sat in the parking lot of the Iowa City Public High School with my trot in my lap furiously memorizing the transation of the lines of the Aeneid assigned for the day’s class, and stomaching my revulsion with what I considered to be the old school clubman’s stuffiness of the title character.  Now I was absolutely fascinated with the way I saw the poet playing a literary game with his narrative and hero that would not only be in dialogue with the epic poems that preceded him but also be a statement about the world in which he found himself.  Aeneas as the wimp character I had so maligned had disappeared into the interesting symbol or subtext or concept I had made of him.


What the book truly lacked, however, is a chapter on Ovid’s   Metamorphoses since it is abundantly clear that Ovid is probably self-consciously playing Apollonius to Virgil’s Homer.  It would have been a great chapter but, since I am a Hellenist, and even working up the Aeneid taxed my faculties for appreciating Latin poetry, I had to let well enough alone.