BMCR 2006.06.19

Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil, With a Chapter on the Gilgamesh Poems

, Ancient epic poetry : Homer, Apollonius, Virgil : with a chapter on the Gilgamesh poems. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci, 2006. x, 313 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0865166072. $35.00.

Table of Contents

This second augmented edition to Charles Rowan Beye’s 1993 analysis of epic traditions is most welcome. The book represents an excellent resource for undergraduates, graduates new to the field, or scholars of any field who want a readable and applied initiation into scholarly views of five epic traditions central to the western cultural experience. This 2006 expansion contains the same text as the 1993 edition, but adds a chapter on the Gilgamesh stories, a brief preface, and updated bibliography. Throughout, Beye is erudite and in control of his subject, while his engagement with the reader is lively. The investment he has made in each of these fields as a teaching scholar is immediately apparent. The two (1993/2006) annotated Further Reading sections and the annotated bibliography found at the end of chapter eight are expansive and well chosen, serving to continue most of the conversations found in the individual chapters. The annotated bibliography alone makes Ancient Epic Poetry very suitable as a text for graduate students, though it will require supplementation in accordance with particular course objectives. Beye’s work is divided into eight chapters, with the first three chapters providing an introduction to what follows.

Chapter One: Oral Poetry

Beye opens this chapter with a profusion of questions that readers of Homer might have. He is clear that dogmatism about the exact origins of the poems should be avoided, yet comes down clearly in favor of traditional oral performance as the best explanation for what he finds in the poems’ complex and deep narrative structures. He constructs the different perspective that an oral-traditional, rather than literary, audience would have—the former does not possess the time to “read over” the “text,” nor can the hearer “stop the performance” to review a scene (21). He rightly emphasizes the metonymic nature of traditional performance in his comments on Iliad 2-7, when he notes (38) that the audience is “familiar with details of the foreground and background” (thus making the story’s chronology tradition-dependent). Beye reviews examples of what he considers the “deep” structures that lie beneath an oral telling, listing elements such as repeated similes, folkloric turns from three to four, ring composition, and the repetition of elements within speeches, to name only the most prominent. Nor does he gloss over such problems as the difficulties involved in defining exactly what a formula is.

Chapter Two: The Poet’s World

This chapter is centered upon the world assumed within the Homeric epics. It is a world described by Beye as retaining a residue of earlier influence—Mycenaean and eastern—but more reflective of the migrations and developing culture of the Greeks in the archaic age. Yet the epics retain a certain “temporal limbo” (48), since artifacts retained within the poems, including places and items, reminded the audience of a former time (“imagine the chill running through the archaic-age audience who knew that Mycenae stood in their time as a magnificent hill of ruins” (49)). Professor Beye highlights the social assumptions within, and possible performance arena of, the epics—aristocratic and male—though he rightly sees a greater part played by strong females in the Odyssey. Relationships between heroes and groups are considered, including Achilles and Patroclus, Odysseus and Thersites, and Alcinous and his people (n.b. the Snell-like comment: “The poet has no word for ‘the people’ as opposed to the aristocracy” (67)). The roles of major Olympians are outlined.

Chapter Three: Poetic Technique

The chapter begins with topics related to the Homeric Question, and here as elsewhere there is an emphasis on folk tale motifs, stock stories, stereotypic characters, and type scenes. In Beye’s opinion, all of these elements work against too individualized a use of characterization, though, as he goes on to allow, there is nevertheless a certain amount of differentiation between characters, and heroes like Odysseus do stand apart. Further, the reader is cautioned against seeing oral poems as novels or taking the Alexandrian book divisions too seriously. One aspect of Homeric technique is a wish to cluster formulas and phrases, which Beye feels is indicative of an oral poet who kept something in his mind until it “slipped from his brain” (82). Beye also illustrates the influence of the type scene in oral versus written composition. Further, the catalogue is discussed at some length and seen as “a monumental gateway” (97), while similes are described as a significant epic feature that can reflect the third world of the epic (after the divine and heroic), the “contemporary world of quotidian events” (108). The chapter concludes with comments about the appositional nature of narrative and the central importance of ring composition (e.g. Iliad 1 and 24).

Chapter Four: The Iliad

This chapter begins a working out of the preceding chapters in the instances of particular epics and incorporates very full and insightful summaries as seen through the perspective of oral-derived literature.1 Agamemnon’s testing of the troops is seen as an “act without reason” (117), understood by neither the troops nor the narrator, indicative of the lack of the psychological in the Iliad, and pointing to an aristocratic rather than democratic audience. Professor Beye’s knowledge of scholarly arguments from secondary material is evident but not intrusive. The Presbeia, as it should, takes center stage and forms part of the tragedy of Achilles who “retreats from his society to take refuge in what is left, his individuality” (125). Mortality is seen as giving the human action in the epic definition and meaning, while the quarrel of Agamemnon and Achilles is regarded as necessary to sustain self in the face of a common realization of death’s inevitability. Beye sees Hector as very much the same as all “glory-seeking heroes” who are “victims of their audience in a shame-culture” (193).

Chapter Five: The Odyssey

The Odyssey is clearly demarcated in its three parts, each of which emphasizes a “distinct coloration” (145): the adventures of Telemachus (involving much material from heroic narrative and saga), Odysseus in “Wonderland” (where folklore and fairy tale prevail), and Odysseus’ struggle to regain his home and kingdom (“a kind of social, domestic story”). The Telemacheia stands as a kind of “rehearsal” for the travel stories of Odysseus yet-to-be-heard. The Odyssey itself is intent to provide an ethical basis for seeing human acts as acts of the will for which humans are responsible. Beye observes a more heightened narrative control than apparent in the Iliad, with almost every episode offering some variation on the typical scene of arrival and hosting. Further, while Hesiod’s poetry is openly misogynistic, in the Odyssey women can have a demonstrable strength, though, as Beye notes, powerful also means threatening with “a hint of danger” (166). Circe, Calypso, Arete, Nausikaa, and even Penelope function in this way. The apologos of Odysseus, like the Cretan tales he tells, may betray male fear, but also represents a creative fiction meant to mark Odysseus’ skill, rather than impart truth—unless it is “truth out of fiction” (175), since Odysseus is well able to speak many things as though true (Od. 19.203).

Chapter Six: The Argonautica

Beye begins with a description of the Alexandrian enterprise and its effects on how Homer, a textual artifact by this time, was construed. Wit and an “amused tone” (191) infuse Alexandrian compositions, a change from their Homeric predecessors. The Argonautica was written for elites and demanded a thorough knowledge of Homer but, unlike earlier epic and drama, spoke mainly to the cognoscenti. The Argonautica is a significant source for the scholarly preoccupations of the period, and Beye highlights Apollonius’ penchant for changing traditional forms and conventions from battle scenes to embassy. The characters are more private and less public than in Homer, and the readers’ expectations are constantly contradicted (Beye offers Jason as one example, but see my comments at the end of this review). Exceptional in this chapter are the explanation and examples of how written Alexandrian literature differs from the earlier oral traditional perspective, a subject Beye takes beyond typical discussions of formula counting to the aesthetics of perspective and presentation.2 For example, unlike characters in the Iliad, Medea is pictured as saying no “while she means yes” (205). Beye argues that characters of oral epic do not lie to themselves, and there is a more “immediate and complete symbiosis between speaker and audience” (204) than one finds in Apollonius. The chapter closes with a defense of Apollonius’ various approaches to the epic task, suggesting his creative use of ring composition and simile, along with a more developed and much more expressive portrayal of passion.

Chapter Seven: The Aeneid

Beye begins his analysis with a short history of Latin epic, including an acknowledgement of the precursors of the Aeneid and remarks about the constraints of hexameter meter on Latin epic word choice. Beye highlights salient influences that made up the core concern of Latin epic, including history, political structures, and religious and philosophical influences such as Stoicism. Virgil’s work is considered in relationship to its Alexandrian precursors. Rather than simply borrowing from the Alexandrians and Homer, however, Virgil is seen as making sophisticated allusion to texts that he expects his audience to recall (a position that Beye says in (the 2006 augmented) Further Reading Revisited has not been wholly accepted). Further, the chapter highlights the principal features of Virgil’s masterpiece, by the application of the same rigorous explication of story patterns (including type scene inversions and “incongruous juxtaposition beloved of the Alexandrians” (236)) that we witnessed with the Argonautica. Further, the Aeneid, quite differently from the Homeric epics, follows the Argonautica in having two central figures (Aeneas and Turnus) hold the reader’s attention in the second half of the epic. Beye ends by declaring that Turnus must die, and that the way he dies is through a male warrior-hero exercising “consummate rage” (255). Beye does not propose that this is in any way anti-Augustan, since he has already stated that a pro-Augustan poetic intent for Virgil is most likely.

Chapter Eight: Gilgamesh

Beye observes that western literary history has been profoundly changed by the cuneiform finds that make up the stories of Gilgamesh, an historic king who has been made into a figure of narrative fiction. The stories are indicative of orally conceived poems transmitted in writing. Beye summarizes the tradition and language of the various stories, classified according to tablet chronology and language as Sumerian pieces, the Old Babylonian “Surpassing All Kings,” and “He Who Saw the Deep.” The divisions, however, are not so very clear, since, as he notes, scholars who work with the latter stories also use the former tablets to fill in ‘missing’ parts of the narrative (though I am not sure we can ever have all the parts of any orally-derived story; nor does Beye suggest we could). Thus, as Beye points out, “He Who Saw the Deep” is not really the work of a single writer, but a composite created by modern scholars from stories recorded in different eras. The style of the Gilgamesh stories is seen as less panoramic than that of the Homeric epics, with an essential concern centered upon the inevitability of death and two central figures, Gilgamesh and Enkidu. However, Beye also offers many allusive points of contact with the oral aesthetics of the Homeric epics and even thinks that some tablets of the Gilgamesh epic may have been used as an “aide-memoire” (298) for oral performance.3 While Beye tenders the possibility of a bilingual singer as a conduit for the impact of the Gilgamesh stories on the Homeric epics, he also posits the direct influence of “some form of literacy” (301).

Two particular suppositions of Beye elicit further comment. First, Beye rightly argues that the outcome of the Odyssey, specifically Penelope’s fidelity in the face of the suitors’ bid for her hand, would have been no surprise to the traditional audience, but that the presentation of the story in the telling still held “tensions in the plot” which made even the “practiced listener…speculate and fantasize” (151). Thus, Beye has indicated, in essence, that surprise is not necessary for a good plot, which is especially important when one considers the prevalence and purpose of irony in oral-derived poetry like the Iliad and Odyssey (note Beye’s excellent and contrasting comments for Apollonius (204)).

Further, Beye contends that Apollonius has really contradicted the expectations of his readers in his presentation of a weakened Jason, that Apollonius is “absolutely original” (205; cf. 307). While Beye’s observations in general are convincing, I am not so sure of this point. I might rather agree with an alternative perspective—although Beye’s comments about Euripides (202-3) could perhaps allow for this view—that Apollonius has instead written his Jason to conform to, by then, the perhaps best-known picture available, the AMHXANOS Jason of Euripides’ Medea (in which play Jason is duped by the psychologically and heroically superior Medea). 4 As Beye rightly sees however, Jason is no traditional hero in many a scene, a picture prepared beforehand, I think, by Euripides.5


1. See John Miles Foley, Traditional Oral Epic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990) 5-8.

2. For a history of the definition of Homeric formulae and their use in determining orality, see Mark W. Edwards, “Homer and Oral Tradition: the Formula, Part I” Oral Tradition 1 (1986) 171-230.

3. For the media dynamics of oral and oral-derived poetry, see John Miles Foley, How to Read an Oral Poem (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002) 38-57.

4. Note the comments of Richard Hunter, The Argonautica of Apollonius (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 123: “The action of Euripides’ Medea hangs over the epic like a cloud about to burst.”

5. For an overview of scholarly opinion on Medea’s (and Jason’s) characterization, see Rainer Friedrich, “Medea Apolis : On Euripides’ Dramatization of the Crisis of the Polis” in Alan Sommerstein et al., eds., Tragedy, Comedy, and the Polis (Bari: Levante, 1993) 219-39.