BMCR 2007.09.41

A Companion to Ancient Epic

, A Companion to Ancient Epic. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. xxiv, 664. $149.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Blackwell’s Companion to Ancient Epic does just what the title suggests: it accompanies readers on journeys of exploration in this huge (in every sense) field. Just as importantly, the Companion will show new readers why they might want to immerse themselves in these poems.

“Judicious” was the word that kept coming to mind as I read. The distribution of articles ranges judiciously across epic-related issues and texts; individual articles are balanced judiciously so as to give a newcomer a clear sense of the resources and approaches available to her if she wishes to deepen her understanding of each topic. And the “ancient” in the volume’s title is not altogether a euphemism for “classical Latin and Greek”: after a group of essays on “Issues and Perspectives,” the book is divided into Near Eastern, Greek, and Roman sections.

An introductory collection of essays needs to be more than judicious, of course, if it is to serve its audience, which is envisaged as “a wide, interdisciplinary audience of advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and scholars in adjacent fields” (Foley, Introduction, 1). Individual essays will need to engage readers in the debates surrounding each topic, and (ideally) provide models both for thinking and for writing vividly about the texts and issues in question. Not all the essays in this collection fully achieve all three of these goals — presumably not all the contributors share this view of the work to be done by Blackwell’s series of Companions to the Ancient World. All the articles, however, succeed in at least one of those aims — some are especially lively in the writing; others give particularly explicit models for thinking about the material; almost all introduce recent scholarship in a way that shows readers just how many questions about ancient epic exist to be asked as well as answered. The best articles (and there are a lot of “bests” here) convey a sense of pleasure in their work — they give the impression that the contributors have found this a stimulating opportunity to revisit a text or a question and that they want to share this excitement with a new audience.

I have laid out a list of authors and titles below; the arrangement of the essays speaks for itself. My one reservation here — the only area where I’d perhaps withhold the “judicious” label — is that the first section, on “Issues and Perspectives,” seems a little unduly Helleno-centric, though it certainly does not ignore the Near East or Rome. The substantial section on Roman epic compensates to some extent, so as to provide a reasonable balance in quantity between Greek and Roman texts, at least. But a few more Roman and Near Eastern “Perspectives” would avoid even the slightest hint of reverse-teleology (defining epic as “stuff that looks like Homer — or perhaps Hesiod”), an approach that is in fact thoroughly at odds with the methods of the editor and contributors.

Obviously there are too many individual essays to respond usefully to each one and still keep this review to a reasonable length. Instead I consider the Companion from a teacher’s point of view. I have selected as examples for brief discussion just a few of the articles that show promise of being especially effective in the context of advanced undergraduate courses or in introductory level graduate courses.

Richard Martin’s essay on “Epic as Genre”, the first piece in the Companion, may become essential reading for anyone interested in theories of genre, as well as for students taking courses on epic or on methods in literary criticism. It not only distills ideas familiar from his own work1 and from Nagy’s,2 but also moves that enquiry forward. Martin treats epic as a functional category that can include in the field of enquiry relevant comparative material (from Africa and Asia, for example) which may not appear obviously like classical epic in its formal characteristics. He concludes by looking at the double status of epos and epea as unmarked and marked speech. When examined from a non-Eurocentric perspective, epic is analogous to these terms in its doubleness: like epos“it is as pervasive as everyday speech…it can embody any matter and make it significant” (18). At the same time, he suggests, like epea pteroenta, epic “is a mode of total communication, undertaking nothing less than the ideal expression of a culture.”

Richard Jenkyns’ “Epic and Other Genres in the Roman World,” placed at the other end of the volume, complements Martin’s article surprisingly well in both subject matter and approach. Asking students to read both Martin’s and Jenkyns’ essays (which could be regarded as incompatible in their approaches) should stimulate students to re-evaluate their own preconceptions about “genre” and “epic.” Jenkyns emphasizes precisely the formal characteristics that Martin displaces in favor of examining epic’s broader cultural function. Like most of the contributions in the last three sections of the Companion, Jenkyns’ article is shaped not as an argument so much as an exploration centered on specific observations about passages from Lucretius, Virgil, and Juvenal. Combined with its lively style, this focus on close reading makes the piece ideal for teaching: it is often hard to find short articles written specifically for novices that can help us persuade undergraduates not to heave blocks of quotation onto a page and leave them there unexplored and often unexplained.

More harmoniously complementary contributions are provided by Raaflaub on “Epic and History” and Sherratt on “Archaeological Contexts.” Both essays address the problems of epic historicity that tend simultaneously to perturb and excite students; both remind us with exemplary clarity how it is possible to introduce readers to basic information without implying that this is a matter of imparting neutral, uninterpreted matters of fact. Like many of the essays in the Companion, Raaflaub and Sherratt give readers who are new to the field the interpretive tools with which to investigate further and make their own assessments of the views presented here.

Armstrong’s “Translating Ancient Epic” sheds valuable light on issues that invariably crop up (explicitly or implicitly) during courses that involve either translating or reading translations — in other words, during almost all classical literature courses. Armstrong gives us what one might call “translation studies in a nutshell,” anchoring his introduction to theory in a thematically structured sampling of responses to Homer and Virgil. He shows in vivid detail how “the assumptions that frame the source text for the translator are the point of departure for the target text which will emerge” (177). Epic poems offer an exceptionally productive area for exploring the nature of translation because of epic’s peculiar cultural role (“on the level of ideology a metonymy for culture itself” as Martin puts it, 18). Changes in the target culture (the culture that is doing the translating or retelling) propel regular reconsiderations of epic source texts.

Other essays that I would feel especially happy giving to students include Haslam, Niditch, Slatkin, Nelson, Burgess, Gale, Putnam, Newlands, Bartsch, Marks, Trout, and Kallendorf. Apart from Haslam’s contribution on “The Physical Media,” these lucid and inviting essays are all in the sections on individual texts, authors, or groups of texts (Parts II, III, and ι and it appears that the participants (unlike the contributors for Part I) were asked to structure their pieces more as surveys or encyclopedia articles than as argument-shaped essays. The disadvantage of this approach is that it makes the essays in these sections a little less useful as models for student writing than the more argumentatively structured articles in Part I. The advantage is that opening up questions takes priority over making claims — readers are given the means (including briefly annotated lists of “Further Reading”) to explore the texts further and develop their own conclusions.

An accessibly priced paperback edition would be very welcome. It would be helpful for Blackwell to take the opportunity offered by a new edition to correct the text, clearing up the typographical errors that are scattered rather distractingly across several of the essays.

An issue is raised by the current emergence of so many Companions of this kind on various topics and authors (though the Blackwell, Cambridge, and Brill Companion series fulfill different purposes); this concerns the value of this volume precisely as a collection, beyond being easily located in library catalogues. The contrasting articles by Martin and Jenkyns took prime position in my discussion partly because gathering a large group of articles around a generic category invites sustained reflection on what constitutes “epic” — their pieces, along with Garner’s on “Epic and Other Genres in the Greek World,” help readers make the most of this opportunity to meditate on generic concerns. The many highlights in this Companion demonstrate the value of asking scholars to write for non-specialists. That endeavor provides a stimulus for new levels of focus and clarity; even ideas and materials that may be familiar become fresh again when they are presented in such succinct distillations.

Authors and Titles

Introduction: John Miles Foley

Part I: Issues and Perspectives

1 Epic as Genre: Richard P. Martin

2 The Indo-European Context: Joshua T. Katz

3 Epic and Myth: Lowell Edmunds

4 Performance: Minna Skafte Jensen

5 Epic and History: Kurt A. Raaflaub

6 The Epic Hero: Gregory Nagy

7 The Gods in Epic, or the Divine Economy: Bruce Louden

8 Women in Ancient Epic: Helene P. Foley

9 Archaeological Contexts: Susan Sherratt

10 The Physical Media: Tablet, Scroll, Codex: Michael W. Haslam

11 Ancient Reception: Robert Lamberton

12 Translating Ancient Epic: Richard Hamilton Armstrong

13 Analogues: Modern Oral Epics: John Miles Foley

Part II: Near Eastern Epic

14 Comparative Observations on the Near Eastern Epic Traditions: Jack M. Sasson

15 Mesopotamian Epic: Scott B. Noegel

16 Epic in Ugaritic Literature: N. Wyatt

17 Hittite and Hurrian Epic: Beckman: Gary Beckman

18 Persian/Iranian Epic: Olga M. Davidson

19 Hebrew Epic: Susan Niditch

Part III: Ancient Greek Epic

20 Near Eastern Connections: Walter Burkert

21 Homer’s Iliad: Mark W. Edwards

22 Homer’s Odyssey: Laura M. Slatkin

23 Hesiod: Stephanie Nelson

24 Epic Cycle and Fragments: Jonathan S. Burgess

25 Apollonius of Rhodes: D. P. Nelis

26 Quintus of Smyrna: Alan James

27 Nonnus: Robert Shorrock

28 Epic and Other Genres in the Ancient Greek World: R. Scott Garner

29 Homer’s Post-classical Legacy : Casey Du

Part IV: Roman Epic

30 The Origins and Essence of Roman Epic: Joseph Farrell

31 Early Republican Epic: Sander M. Goldberg

32 Lucretius: Monica R. Gale

33 Virgil’s Aeneid: Michael C. J. Putnam

34 Ovid: Carole E. Newlands

35 Lucan: Shadi Bartsch

36 Valerius Flaccus: Andrew Zissos

37 Statius: William J. Dominik

38 Silius Italicus: Raymond D. Marks

39 Claudian: Michael H. Barnes

40 Latin Christian Epics of Late Antiquity: Dennis E. Trout

41 Epic and Other Genres in the Roman World: R. Jenkyns

42 Virgil’s Post-classical Legacy: Craig Kallendorf.


1. Martin, Richard P. (1989) The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad. Ithaca and London.

2. Nagy, G. “Epic as Genre” in Beissinger, M., Tylus, J. and Wofford, S. (eds.) (1999) Epic Traditions in the Contemporary World: The Poetics of Community. Berkeley and Los Angeles.