BMCR 2022.04.25

Structures of epic poetry

, , Structures of epic poetry (4 vols.). Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. Pp. xxix, 2727 (4 vols.). ISBN 9783110492002 $290.00.

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

It is fitting that a work dedicated to the study of the structures of Greek and Latin epic poetry should itself be of epic proportions. The seventy-one chapters distributed over three volumes in four parts spanning over 2,700 pages survey set-pieces or type scenes in ancient epic – catalogues, storms, ekphraseis – which, in the quest for terminological stringency called for by the work, are named ‘structures’. Indeed, fundamental building blocks of the genre, these ‘structures’ correspond to the German Bauformen introduced by Lämmert and Jens,[1] and, alongside more or less obligatory set-pieces, comprise aspects of both narrative scope and style. In the following, given the vast scope of the publication, I will first look at some individual, more narrowly-focused contributions from all three volumes and offer my collective impressions at the end.

Volume I, entitled “Foundations,” reviews the elementa of the genre: epic qua genre, the rhetoric of epic, its subject-matter (history, myth, or didactic), as well as foundational structures such as invocations and addressees, closures and divisions, catalogues, similes, and ekphraseis, but also aspects of reception and imitation, intertextuality, and narratology. To begin our sample, Jason Nethercut explores the borderline between history and myth in Graeco-Roman epic. Is there such a thing as historical epic? Answering this question in the negative, Nethercut explains that, to be sure, there exist a number of poems written in hexameter that portray the same events that are narrated by the historians. But, aside from the subject-matter, there is not much that distinguishes these poems from their mythological counterparts. In fact, as Nethercut continues, the boundaries between allegedly historical epics, which often contain mythological elements, and mythological epics that narrate historial events are quite fluid. Although Homer, for example, whose poems can hardly be classified as narrating strictly historical events, was viewed as history in Antiquity, evidence for historical epic is mostly Roman. But even in Roman epic which purports to be depicting historical events, myth is not far off: over one third of Naevius’ Bellum Poenicum, for instance, is devoted to a mythological digression, and even when Vergil in the Aeneid is at his most historiographical, the divine apparatus hovers in the distance. The linear narrative of Roman history as displayed, for example, by the ‘Heldenschau’ in 6.752-829 occurs in the underworld in the company of a wide variety of monsters and mythological characters. Epic, then, blurs the line between history and myth. There is an interventionist divine apparatus in almost all historical epics. Even Lucan, the constant exception to epic ‘norms’, utilizes mythological material, but when he does, it is in the service of aetiology. The snakes that Cato encounters in the Libyan desert in book 9, for example, are where they are because of the story of Medusa and Perseus, which is told at 619-99. A particularly elucidating instance of this juxtaposition of myth and history occurs in the epic topos of tree-felling, which Nethercut utilizes as an example partially because it does not occur among the ‘structures’ of epic poetry as listed in the current volume. It is, nevertheless, an important Bauform indeed, since the “chopping down of woodland material inside the narrative reflects the compiling of poetic narrative that produces the narrative” (I, 202). Homer employs tree-felling both in the Iliad and the Odyssey for funeral pyres to be constructed or ships to be built. The former becomes the most commonly employed in the subsequent tradition, but the same topos is not to be encountered until Ennius and, after him, Vergil, both times in conventional ways. Lucan, again, is innovative. As part of the siege of Massilia in book 3, Lucan has Caesar desecrating a sacred grove by felling its trees to be used to construct war machines for the siege of Massilia. For Nethercut, this in itself may be regarded as a desecration of the epic tradition. The use of topoi like tree-felling does not differ between mythological and historical epic but rather constitutes, Nethercut concludes, the cement that seals them together throughout the tradition.

Reading on, in a lengthy contribution, Heinz-Günther Nesselrath provides a comprehensive survey of the of the fascinating poetic device of “Almost-Episodes” in Greek and Roman epic, ranging from Homer through the Flavian poets. An ‘almost-episode,’ in Nesselrath’s definition, is a story in which “something ‘almost’ happens or becomes reality, which is then prevented from happening at the last moment,” which, if it had not been prevented, would have had drastic consequences for the subsequent course of events. If Menelaos, for example, had been able to kill Paris in Iliad 3, the Trojan War would have come to an end; or if Aeneas had not abandoned his love affair with Dido, there would have been no founding of Rome. From its very beginnings, ancient epic is teeming with almost-episodes or ‘what-if’-stories and, like most other contributions in the work, Nesselrath proceeds by reviewing them chronologically: beginning with the Greeks and the Iliad and the Odyssey, Apollonius of Rhodes, Quintus of Smyrna, and Nonnus of Panoplis, he proceeds with the Romans, the Aeneid, the Metamorphoses, Lucan, the Flavian epicists, and ends with some late antique poets, Claudian, Prudentius, and Corippus before offering some brief considerations of almost-episodes in the early modern period (Tasso, Milton, and Voltaire). Taking their cue from Homer, almost-episodes in all these works and authors are principally concerned with battle-scenes, single combat, sea adventures, and various negotiations of importance for the narrative sequence. Whereas Greek epic even had a linguistic formula for introducing such episodes, και νύ κεν / ἔνθα κεν– εἰ μη / ἀλλά (“and then there would – if not / but …”), there seems to be no obvious Roman equivalent. Though Nesselrath’s list is impressive and seems wonderfully comprehensive I wonder if not yet subtler examples of almost-episodes, perhaps not strictly adhering to the definition provided by the genre, are still to be found in the literature. I am thinking of Lucan and of his Laus Neronis in book 1.33-66 in particular: quod si non aliam uenturo fata Neroni / inuenere uiam … in which the carnage and suffering of the Civil War are posited as the sine quibus non for the advent of the Principate and, with it, the ‘glorious’ Emperor Nero; that is, if there had been no Civil War, there would have been no Nero, which would have had drastic consequences not only for the sequence of history, but also for Lucan and his readers.

A very long chapter (seventy-two pages including bibliography) by Christiane Reitz, Cédric Scheidegger Lämmle, and Katharina Wesselman tackles the subject of epic catalogues. Impressively, all catalogues in all surviving Greek and Romans epics, from Homer to Silius Italicus, are at least mentioned, if not reviewed in some detail. The catalogues that are discussed are described and their features enumerated: variously discussed are the origins and dating of the catalogues, their length, form, and structure, the kind of language used (formulaic, anaphoric or not), the level of elaboration of detail, the type of enumeration, if there are numbers involved, what the contents are, etc. Whereas this survey of catalogues is impressive in its scope and comprehensiveness, the discussion of the purpose and meaning of the catalogues is on the lighter side, offering otiose interpretations that they “interrupt the narrative and mark significant transitions” (I, 672), and “reflect on and contribute to the narrative dynamics of the poem” (I, 698). Explanatory yet superficial is also the conclusion to the review of Lucan’s catalogues (I, 704), a poet who “uses the catalogues, long and short, to purvey the impression of historical objectivity and of epic conventionality. Yet, he counteracts and overturns both the traditional epic conventions and the claim to historical exactitude.” I cannot rid myself of the nagging feeling that Lucan intended more than this with his catalogues, and their place and function in his epic. The centrality of catalogues for epic narrative certainly warrants a lengthy treatment. The question why the epic narratives should include “long lists of troops […] of places, of plants, and names of persons,” posed at the opening of the chapter (I, 653) is, despite its length, never sufficiently answered. Perhaps this is why the concluding section is entitled “Outlook” and not ‘Conclusions.’ The chapter proffers an admirable review of its subject-matter, but it remains a catalogue of catalogues.

Volume II (divided into two books), entitled “Configuration,” narrows the perspective of the first volume’s more general purview into (i) battle scenes (comprising the full first book) including epic games and rituals of burial; (ii) journeys, including banquets, arrival scenes, receptions, departures, and, of course, storms; (iii) epic time; (iv) space in epic (landscapes and mythical places); and (v) communications, of which messenger scenes and prophecies of various kinds are amply treated. Surveying an integral part of the texture of epic poetry, the battles scenes volume contains much that is salient to the genre: aristeiai, single combat, mass combat, teichoscopies, and other occasions for battle narratives in classical epic. Since reading Glenn Most’s article, “Disiecti membra poetae: The Rhetoric of Dismemberment in Neronian Poetry” (R. Hexter and D. Selden, eds., Innovations of Antiquity. New York 1992: 391-419), I have been looking for a sustained treatment of the purpose of violence in classical epic. There is one contribution explicitly dedicated to this subject in volume II:1, penned by Martin Dinter. Although the treatment is thorough, dealing with concepts such as kleosand aristeia, and covering violence-imbued epics from the Iliad to the Punica and the Posthomerica, the question remains what the ancient authors were trying to accomplish by including detailed depictions of human destruction and what reactions they were trying to elicit in their audiences.

Again, in the second half of the second volume, the sense of cataloguing returns, for example in Markus Kersten’s contribution, “Mythical places in ancient epic.” Here, a survey, again of admirable scope (from Homer to Silius), of mythical loci – islands, caves, mountains, groves, valleys, or lakes, “where something extraordinary happens,” leaves the reader lacking a discussion of the deeper meaning and purpose of the inclusion of such places in the epic narrative. Although the caveat offered at the opening of the article that, unlike catalogues and similes, mythical places escape formal definitions, is promising, the description of the function of mythical places “to map the epic fabula” suggested by the author, leaves more to be wished for. Identifying, furthermore, the two “main types” of using myth(olog)ical places as offering a “learned or metapoetic account of a certain space,” and, in their role as ominous landscapes, “to symbolise abstract forces or to foreshadow future events,” while perfectly true at a certain level, seems to me to skirt the deeper significance to Greek and Roman audiences of the cosmic role of these landscapes in the narrative. The locus classicus in this genre, where Evander shows Aeneas the place of the future Capitolium (Aen. 8.347-54), is mentioned as defining the sense of ‘mythical’ as a place that “blurs the dimensions of space and time,” the remembrance and retelling of whose history is precisely what makes it mythical. Yet, Evander’s words, pointing up at the shaggy hill in the distance, ‘“hoc nemus, hunc’ inquit ‘frondoso vertice collem / (quis deus incertum est) habitat deus” (Aen. 8.351-52), seems to me not just to probe the depths Roman religiosity, but to touch upon something that is common to all of mankind and that is encountered in all cultures: the contrast between the sacred and the profane.

Because of my particular interest in Lucan, Finkmann’s chapter, “Necromancies in ancient epic,” captured my interest from the outset. The chapter opens with a series of definitions of this particular ‘structure,’ including a presentation of elements that ‘must’ be present for it to be a question of a proper νεκυομαντεία: there has to be (1) a consulter who requests the necromancy, (2) a necromancer who performs the rituals in order to summon (3) the ghost who will deliver the requested prophecy or message; and the scene in which the necromancy takes place ought to include “at least three stages”: (1) preparation, (2) invocation of the gods and the dead, and (3) conversation with the dead. Upon these defintions follow sections on typical consulters and necromancers (including chants and rituals employed), with examples from the six major epics which contain necromantic exercises: the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Lucan’s De bello ciuili, Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica, Statius’ Thebaid, and Silius’ Punica. In an ensuing section entitled ‘Macrostructures,’ we are treated to further detail taken from these five works. A final section surveys the ghosts from the six epic poems, and how their speech is restored (since it usually takes some special action to get the shades to communicate with the living). The chapter is then brought to a close with a brief summary of what has already been said. Like so many other contributions to this compendium, this chapter leaves me with a strong sense of artificiality: the workshop-like chiselling-out of character roles and structural divisions to fit them into the desired compartmentalizations. At least to my mind, it’s not as if the ancient poets were following some pre-established pattern that they were obliged to follow in crafting their narratives: wehave created these patterns on the basis of what the poets wrote. And the rest of the chapter is entirely descriptive, so much so that I wondered why I read these forty-five-odd pages when I could have (re)read the passages in the original epics instead.

Volume III is entitled “Continuity” and assumes a diachronic perspective in outlining the post-classical history of ancient epic, comprising chapters on Greek and Latin biblical epic, Byzantine, Medieval, and Neo-Latin epic, and Greco-Roman epyllia. Here, for example, Wim Verbaal traces the development of the epic genre in the Middle Ages, highlighting a fact often obscured by purists that epic evolved in this period to assume quite a different role that added something rather unusual, or at least something not so easily detectable in the ancient epics: humour. This may, of course, be part of an Entfremdungseffekt that is attributable to the greater distance between the classical epics and their culture(s) and ours than between ours and that of the Middle Ages. Or, more specifically, is it perhaps because a medieval sense of humour – drastic, ribald, and coarse – often seems to chime better with ours? Verbaal’s point is that medieval epic, although firmly based on its classical antecedent, is deliberately deconstructing its model, often resorting to humourous elements – not infrequently the burlesque and the bizarre – and thus utilizes the resulting material in creating a new genre, which Verbaal finds to be “one of the most experimental poetics that European literary history has known” (III, 252). Verbaal’s analysis, which is not a catalogue or purely empirical survey, discloses fundamental insights into the evolution of ancient epic in the medieval period and suggests how these insights could be used towards understanding the ontology of the genre and the essentiality of how it develops over time. This should be read as a foil to Hardie’s contribution, which brings us back to the first volume. Discussing ancient and modern theories of epic, Hardie asks the salient question of how much, absent ancient handbooks on the topic, we can generalize about the nature and goals of epic poetry based on literary critics (Plato, Aristotle, and Horace) and discussions in scholia and commentaries. It is in the sustained readaptation of the ancient epic performed by the emulators – medieval and early-modern – that we may be able to approach the heart of the genre. Since all epic is by necessity related, it is by observing features of intertextuality, emulation, and allusion that we come closer to comprehending the heart of the genre. “Epic poetry develops its power for innovation precisely out of the recognisability of its fixed structures,” say the volume editors (I, 7). The set forms allow readers to navigate the texture of epic narratives, conscious that his or her expectations either may be fulfilled or completely reimagined.

The volumes feature a healthy mix of seasoned classicists and emerging scholars. An obvious strength is, of course, that both Greek and Latin epic are treated, and that treatments of individual topics often cover both Greek and Latin literature. Volume I, all five parts in Volume II, and Volume III all receive a helpful short introduction to the subject-matter under review penned in all instances but one by the editors, and each individual chapter is followed by a (often extensive, though not annotated) bibliography for the reader inclined to follow up things that sometimes have been summarily treated. Thankfully, there are indices (locorum, nominum and rerum) to each volume, which help connecting the individual contributions. Speaking of connections, sometimes cross-references within the volumes are conspicuously lacking: they do occur, but not in the sustained manner that would have been ideal in a work of this scope and magnitude. Greater consistency in such cross-referencing would have contributed even more to the comprehensive handbook-character of the work.

As in any good handbook or vademecum, there is something for everyone here: the neophyte may find foundational concepts explained and contextualized; the more seasoned scholar coherent discussions of features and details of the epic genre that s/he may or may not have thought about, or always wondered about but not yet found a consistent treatment. On this topic, to further strengthen the notion of a one-stop shop, it would have been useful to have at some early stage in the first volume a list of definitions of terms that commonly occur throughout the volumes. Individual contributions, it is true, sometimes include a definition of the terms under discussion, but it is not a consistent practice.[2] To make it even more useful, even for beginners, and thus to widen its potential readership, one could imagine the utility of including a list or table of authors and epic works treated, with a short blurb on the contents and main characters of each (as in Nethercut’s partial table at I, 207-208, which only lists mythological versus historical epics).

Some concluding observations of a work that was not easy to review. Its enormous bulk, for one, made overview difficult, if not impossible, and the editors should be highly commended for having managed to bring it all together. A handbook of this kind is, of course, a desirable thing. To be able to unveil the structures that underlie epic poetry, that reveal the heart and soul of the genre, would be a fantastic tool that would help us understand this essential component of the classical, and thus human, heritage. The question that poses itself at this juncture, at least to this reviewer, is: does epic really allow itself to be “structured” in the ways proposed by the volume? Although ancient philologists recognized early that the object of their study, principally the Iliad and the Odyssey, was organized in a series of recognizable scenes, the systematic study of such set pieces or type-scenes is a relatively recent phenomenon dating back to the early, positivist 1900s. Although much, if not most, of what is said in these four volumes is of great value and interest, I cannot escape the feeling that, however much the ancients epics are analysed according to structures, something vital is lost in the process. Like all human activity, ancient epic is a complex beast, aspects of which will remain unchartable. Reading Structures of Epic Poetry, as I have been doing on and off for the past year-and-a-half, I cannot escape the irksome feeling of scientism, the view that if we only uncover and explain the ‘structures’ that allegedly lie behind the composition of ancient epic, as if they were some kind of natural phenomena, will we understand the nature and purpose of ancient epic. Indeed, this kind of dismembering of a carcass and extracting and displaying its bodily parts has taught me a great deal I did not previously know about elements of ancient epic, but it did not, as a whole, bring the carcass back to life. Only reading, and rereading the epics can do that.

That being said, Structures of Epic Poetry will be remain a valuable reference work for students of epic poetry for many years to come; it is accessible, comprehensive, and very well-edited. But it will only work as an accessory to the epics themselves: no companion will explain them and make us understand them as well as reading and re-reading them time and again.

Authors and titles

Vol. I: Foundations

Christiane Reitz and Simone Finkmann, Introduction

Part I: Theories of epic
Philip Hardie, Ancient and modern theories of epic
Joseph Farrell, The narrative forms and mythological materials of classical epic
Egbert Bakker, Learning the epic formula
Robert Kirstein, Andreas Abele, Hans-Peter Nill, Narratology and classical epic
Christiane Reitz, Epic and rhetoric
Gregor Bitto, Alexandrian book division and its reception in Greek and Roman epic

Part II: Classification and genre
Annemarie Ambühl, Intergeneric influences and interactions
Jason Nethercut, History and myth in Graeco-Roman epic
Abigail Buglass, Giulia Fanti, Manuel Galzerano, Didactic and epic: origins, continuity, and interactions
Alison Sharrock, Ovid’s Metamorphoses: the naughty boy of the Graeco-Roman epic tradition
Silvio Bär, Elisabeth Schedel, Epic fragments
Simone Finkmann, Narrative patterns and structural elements in Greek epyllia
Nicola Hömke, Epic structures in classical and post-classical Roman epyllia

Part III: Core structures
Claudia Schindler, The invocation of the Muses and the plea for inspiration
Andrew Zissos, Closure and segmentation: endings, medial proems, book divisions
Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, ‘Almost-episodes’ in Greek and Roman epic
Anke Walter, Aetiology and genealogy in ancient epic
Christiane Reitz, Cédric Scheidegger Lämmle, Katharina Wesselmann, Epic catalogues
Ursula Gärtner and Karen Blaschka, Similes and comparisons in the epic tradition
Stephen Harrison, Artefact ekphrasis and narrative in epic poetry from Homer to Silius

Vol. II.1/II.2: Configuration

Part I: Battle scenes
Christiane Reitz and Simone Finkmann, Battle scenes in ancient epic – a short introduction
Christiane Reitz, Arming scenes, war preparation, and spoils in ancient epic
Claire Stocks, Simply the best? Epic aristeiai
Joy Littlewood, Single combat in ancient epic
Jan Telg genannt Kortmann, Mass combat in ancient epic
Hans-Peter Nill, Chain-combats in ancient epic
Marco Fucecchi, Teichoscopies in classical and late antique epic
Martin Dinter, Simone Finkmann, Astrid Khoo, Nyktomachies in Graeco-Roman epic
T. J. Bolt, Theomachy in Greek and Roman epic
Thomas Biggs, Naval battles in Greek and Roman epics
Thomas Biggs, River battles in Greek and Roman epic
Paul Roche, Flight, pursuit, breach of contract, and ceasefire in classical epic
Helen Lovatt, Epic games: structure and competition
Martin Dinter, Death, wounds, and violence in ancient epic
Antony Augoustakis, Stephen Froedge, Adam Kozak and Clayton Schroer, Death, ritual, and burial from Homer to the Flavians

Part II: Journeys and related scenes
Christiane Reitz and Simone Finkmann, Epic journeys and related scenes – a short introduction
François Ripoll, Arrival and reception scenes in the epic tradition from Homer to Silius
Anja Bettenworth, Banquet scenes in ancient epic
François Ripoll, Scenes of departure by sea in the epic tradition from Homer to Silius
Thomas Biggs and Jessica Blum, Sea-storms in ancient epic

Part III: Time
Christiane Reitz and Simone Finkmann, Time in ancient epic – a short introduction
Otta Wenskus, Time in Greek epic
Anja Wolkenhauer, ‘Time as such’: chronotopes and periphrases of time in Latin epic

Part IV: Space
Robert Kirstein, An introduction to the concept of space in ancient epic
Torben Behm, Cities in ancient epic
Andreas Fuchs, Landscapes in Greek epic
Torben Behm, Landscapes in Latin epic
Markus Kersten, Mythical places in ancient epic
Markus Kersten, Abodes of the gods in ancient epic
Christiane Reitz, Abodes of the dead in ancient epic

Part V: Communication
Christiane Reitz, Simone Finkmann, Principles of communication in Greek and Roman epic-a short introduction
Martin Dinter, Astrid Khoo, Messenger scenes in Greek epic
Simone Finkmann, Messenger scenes in Roman epic
Astrid Khoo, Dream scenes in ancient epic
Deborah Beck, Prophecies in Greek epic
Simone Finkmann, Christiane Reitz, Anke Walter, Prophecies in Roman epic
Christiane Reitz, Apparition scenes in ancient epic
Christiane Reitz, Divine council scenes in ancient epic
Simone Finkmann, Necromancies in ancient epic

Vol. III: Continuity

Christiane Reitz, Simone Finkmann, The origin, tradition, and reinvention of epic structures – a short introduction
Johannes Haubold, Poetic form and narrative theme in early Greek and Akkadian epic
Simon Zuenelli, The transformation of the epic genre in Late Antiquity
Berenice Verhelst, Greek biblical epic: Nonnus’ Paraphrase and Eudocia’s Homerocentones
Christoph Schulbert, Between imitation and transformation: the (un)conventional use of epic structures in the Latin biblical poetry of Late Antiquity
Martin Bažil, Epic forms and structures in late antique Vergilian centos
Kristoffel Demoen, Berenice Verhelst, The tradition of epic poetry in Byzantine literature
Wim Verbaal, Medieval epicity and the deconstruction of classical epic
Christian Peters, Narrative structures in Neo-Latin epic from 1440 to 1500
Florian Schaffenrath, Narrative structures in Neo-Latin epic: 16th–19th century
Matteo Romanello, Experiments in digital publishing: creating a digital compendium
Overview: Graeco-Roman epyllia and epics from Homer to Late Antiquity


[1] E. Lämmert, Bauformen des Erzählens, Stuttgart 1955; W. Jens, Die Bauformen der griechischen Tragödie, Munich 1971.

[2] Whereas Walter, for instance, makes sure to define ‘aetiology’ in her contribution (I, 610-611), and Harrison ‘ekphrasis’ (I, 773-775), Hardie takes the reader’s comprehension of ‘sphragis’ for granted (I, 45).