Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.02.20

David Konstan, Kurt A. Raaflaub (ed.), Epic and History.   Chichester/Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.  Pp. xiii, 442.  ISBN 9781405193078.  $149.95.  

Reviewed by Abram Ring, Franklin and Marshall College (


This volume contains a collection of essays on diverse epic or epic-like texts from ancient, medieval, and modern cultures from all over the world. Most of the essays were originally presented at a special conference at Brown University in December 2006, and fruit of this interdisciplinary discourse shows in the book’s coherence.1 As one might guess from the title, one of the key topics throughout is how the epics (or epic-like texts) reflect historical facts. Each essay addresses focal points outlined by Konstan and Raaflaub (4-5). How do the poems and narratives fit the categories of oral, heroic, or epic? How do they reflect or preserve historical events? How do they relate to the historical and social circumstances under which they were composed? What can they tell us about oral transmission? What social, political, religious, or ideological functions do they have? Consequently one may profitably compare South African izibongo praise poetry to the Iliad.

While all essays engage with the points outlined above, the emphasis varies in each. Some of the contributors such as Michalowski (Sumerian), Gilan (Hittite heroic tales), and Niditch (Book of Judges) productively question whether their subjects should even be called epic. Not all the traditions are even poetic, as we see in Niditch, Bossy (prose versions of the Roland tale), and Fulk (medieval Northwestern European). While some contributors such as Westenholz (Akkadian), Gilan, Bowie (Greek elegists), and especially Duggan (chansons de geste) carefully examine how much historical detail is preserved by the respective traditions, others including Bachvarova (Hittite moral tales), Grethlein (Homeric), Fitzgerald (Sanskrit), and Whitaker (modern South African) concentrate more on how the traditions reflect the historico-cultural environments in which they arose; indeed, all the essays deal somewhat with this relationship. A few of the essays, notably Goldberg (Roman republican epic), Marks (Silius and Roman imperial epic), and Grethlein, delve into close literary analysis while most helpfully concentrate on outlining the relevant epic corpus and its key traits for non-specialists. Finally, some of the authors, particularly Whitaker and Foley (modern South Slavic), suggest that our modern concept of historical truth is not always helpful in understanding the historical and cultural relevance of these traditions that often create an ideal past through which to view the present and future.

Often the essays are paired so as to complement each other; for example, Michalowski’s treatment of Sumerian heroic poetry claims that the epic narratives are almost complete fiction, while Westenholz’s following essay on the Akkadian tradition suggests a closer connection to historical facts—their bibliographies overlap, and they clearly represent differing scholarly viewpoints on the literature of ancient Mesopotamia. Gilan and Bachvarova similarly look at the Hittite tradition from different, supplementary angles. Whitaker and Reynolds (medieval and modern Arabic), though writing on completely different traditions, are productively juxtaposed as they have much to contribute about oral tradition.

One may of course quibble with certain points. For example, I found Grethlein’s concept of “plu-past” and his rhetoric against viewing Homeric epic as an amalgam contributed to obscuring the nature and extent of connections between Homeric epic and historical facts. However, such quibbles should not substantially detract from the synoptic power of the collection which makes so many separate traditions easily comparable in so many ways. No doubt, each reader will find her own unique connections between the essays and their respective traditions because the collection’s focus on key questions allows multiple points of contact between any pair of essays. I would recommend this volume both for scholars of epic and heroic literature (especially if they have interests in comparative literature or in questions of orality and historicity), who will no doubt enjoy its generally succinct essays with pertinent bibliography for each tradition, and for use in advanced undergraduate or graduate courses, where students could benefit from a wider cross-cultural view of epic and heroic narratives in order to highlight similarities and differences over time and space—the essays are more accessible on average than those in Blackwell’s recent Companion to Ancient Epic.2 Below I provide further detail on the select essays mentioned above, not on all essays in the volume. The selection, due to constraints of space, should not be understood to imply that only these essays are worth reading, as the reader will surely find useful and insightful comparative material in all the essays.

Michalowski deals with Sumerian heroic poetry which is preserved in writing exercises, though the narratives’ authority resided in memory, not in written records. He also discusses evidence for performance. The historicity of such kings as Gilgamesh is dubious; narratives come much later and present morally embellished tales—for example, Ur-Namma apparently used stories of Gilgamesh and Lugulbanda as foundation myths for his own divine kingship (20). Westenholz examines the Akkadian heroic tradition which was shaped by oral and written transmission (30). After reviewing possible historical facts, she concludes that sparse evidence often prevents us from confirming or denying the historicity of specific events (43), while, in the Akkadian view, these narratives provided “examples of how history was and always should be” (44).

Gilan argues that Hittite texts show no native epic heroes, while Hittite libraries contain foreign epics which are of little cultural significance. However, the Kumarbi Cycle could be called epic, since it may have been “of special importance to members of the Hittite court, far beyond the scribal academy” (60). Bachvarova discusses moralizing Hittite texts containing parables and metaphors or similes which compare people with animals—a trait arguably cognate with Homer’s animal similes and Hesiod’s parables.

Niditch shows that the Book of Judges is relevant to various Hebrew audiences from premonarchic times through the post-exilic period. She discusses its stylistic registers and identifies three voices, reflecting different historical strata: the epic-bardic voice (earliest), the voice of the theologian (from moralizing Deuteronomistic writers), and the humanist voice (influenced by Persian and Hellenistic culture). Formal and thematic features suggest that it can rightly be characterized as epic, especially since it had long-standing cultural influence.

Grethlein suggests that the Iliad is not an amalgam of various periods but a product of the early archaic period under the impressionistic influence of Mycenaean remains. He downplays the evidence of material, linguistic, and poetic features that predate the archaic period and interestingly emphasizes the way the poem’s internal “plu-past” (131) digressions, such as Nestor’s stories, provide an internal model for how to view the heroic past. Bowie shows that early Greek elegists poetically embellished accounts of recent history with old myths, though he denies that they were ignorant of generations between recent and mythical periods (157). He speculates that these elegies reflect the memory of a contemporary political elite and contrasts them with the poetic genealogies of the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, which appeal to the Muses.

Goldberg, on Roman republican epic, argues that the Saturnian meter was crystallized by Naevius whose Bellum Punicum influenced later aristocratic memorial inscriptions. Most Roman historical epics, he argues, were mere aristocratic propaganda pieces, but Ennius tried to popularize historical epic, as Cato had done with historical prose, and Vergil succeeded in this endeavor. Marks discusses how Silius’ Punica uses poet-warrior figures such as Ennius (12.390-414), Cicero (8.408-411), and the emperor Domitian (3.607-621) to argue that historical epic is superior to mythological epic. Silius’ connections with the self-aggrandizing epic poets Cicero and Domitian are emblematic of his own “self-absorbed epic activities” (199), which Martial apparently criticized in epigram 4.14. The death of historical epic thus results from its narrow relevance. An appendix usefully lists known Roman epics, on myth or history, from the third century BC to second century AD (200-205).

Duggan divides the chansons de geste into three groups based the length of time between the events and the writing of the texts. He then details the facts and fictions within each group in order to conclude that they are “historical roughly in inverse proportion to their distance from the historical events,” but he cautions that oral tradition still preserves historical facts in poems that deal with much earlier events (288). He strikingly traces the assonance of early French chansons back to spoken Latin poems (e.g. Suetonius Div. Jul. 51, 80). Bossy traces the Roland tale from chansons de geste to later prose chronicles, including the Grandes Chronique de France. These later accounts, whose manuscripts greatly outnumber the chansons’, remove ahistorical elements such as polytheistic Saracens and generally enhance “historical plausibility” (300) in order to provide authoritative histories.

Fulk considers medieval Scandinavian heroic literature in the context of Northwestern Europe. Whereas Anglo-Saxon epic lost many pagan features under Christian influence, and Irish and Welsh sources vaguely retain stories of magic and fairies, the Poetic Edda and Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda preserve a more faithfully historical view of pagan cultural beliefs and practices, largely because of Iceland’s linguistic conservatism (341-342). Likewise Icelandic prose sagas, based on the same conservatively structured skaldic tradition, preserve more truth than other Northwestern European parallels, perhaps with the exception of the Welsh Y Gododdin whose authenticity Fulk accepts (339-340).

Foley examines Muslim and Christian South Slavic epics with frequent cross-references to other epic traditions. Their incorporation of what we would call historical facts is noted, but he emphasizes their role as a “charter for group identity” (347). He constructs a concept of traditional history which highlights the subjective truth of the epics and argues persuasively that our preconceived idea of historical facts is merely another subjective construction of truth.

Whitaker discusses izibongo of South Africa and explains that these praise poems may be a one-line nickname or, in the case of Shaka Zulu, a poem of hundreds of lines. The izibongo include very little in the way of narrative and are not chronologically arranged. However, they preserve allusions to historical events and certainly present “history as drama, evaluation, and judgment” (389). They are rich with allusive metaphors and similes.

Reynolds emphasizes that poetry is often considered more trustworthy than prose in the Arab tradition (392-393). After describing the rich medieval tradition of Arab epic poems (396), he focuses on the Epic of the Banī Hilāl, which has the strongest oral tradition. He compares an eighteenth-century manuscript to twentieth-century performances that he attended and recorded. The resemblances are quite close, and citations from a related tradition in the fourteenth-century history of Ibn Khaldūn suggest that there may have already been a cognate oral epic at the time. Reynolds notes that modern Egyptian “master poets” could sing the same scene with a different rhyme scheme (405-406), expand or contract type scenes (404), and focus on particular heroes (405), but their performances of the most dramatic passages were far less variable even from poet to poet (404).

Miller’s epilogue impressionistically reviews all the essays in the collection and especially concentrates on its deconstruction of the idea that epic is fiction, while history is fact. While epic often presents what Foley calls “traditional history,” it is dangerous, says Miller, to reconfigure history to include such alternate realities, since this revolutionary idea might cause a civil war “between theorists of history and historiography and students of literature, especially oral literature” (424). The war, I believe, has already begun, and it promises to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the various scholarly approaches.3 I only hope that scholars display the kind of Homeric honor and respect that Ajax and Hector showed when they parted with gifts after their heroic duel.


1.   See the conference program.
2.   Foley, John Miles (ed.). A Companion to Ancient Epic Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. See BMCR 2007.09.41. Some scholars have contributed to both volumes.
3.   See J. E. Lendon, “Historians without History: against Roman Historiography,” in Andrew Feldherr (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Historians, pp. 41-62, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009, who provides bibliography for varying viewpoints in the debate on how to study ancient historical texts.

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