Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil, reprinted with a chapter on the Gilgamesh Poems 313pp Bolchazy-Carducci (Wauconda IL 2006)


The first chapters of this book are a reprint of the Cornell University Press publication of 1993.  What I said of that book is true of this, quoting myself:  “The title is misleading, although 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.”

The important addition in this 2006 book is the chapter on the Gilgamesh poems.  I spent a considerable time gathering the results of the latest research in order to present a full account of these Sumerian-Akkadian texts.  There is no doubt in my mind although it cannot be proven other than by inference that they had real influence on the Iliad and Odyssey texts.  This connection means that students and teachers of so-called western literature have to enlarge the canon certainly to include these narratives.  Literature can no longer be said to begin with Homer. 

As I noted previously, and I will quote myself again, “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.”  The matter of orality takes on new importance in view of the fact that the Gilgamesh material survives from written cuneiform texts of the second millennium, although there is considerable evidence that these or similar narratives were passed on by the successive cultures in oral form.  What this means, of course, is some unclear but very problematic relationship between writing and orality with which the oralists who theorize about the Homeric texts will have to contend.  It makes the emphasis upon orality in the text of this book all the more relevant.

When  I said in that earlier description is still true, namely that “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.”  It is a kind of reverse symmetry that the beginning of this saga of epic poetry has been extended even if the ending remains truncated.