Epic Cycle

Epic Cycle

The Epic Cycle ( _el. Επικός Κύκλος) was a collection of Ancient Greek epic poems that related the story of the Trojan War, which includes the "Kypria", the "Aithiopis", the "Iliou persis" ("The Sack of Troy"), the "Nostoi" ("Returns"), and the "Telegony". Scholars sometimes include the two Homeric epics, the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey", among the poems of the Epic Cycle, but the term is more often used to specify the non-Homeric poems as distinct from the Homeric ones.

Aside from the "Odyssey" and the "Iliad", the cyclic epics only survive in fragments, the most important of which is a detailed summary written by someone named Proclus (not the same person as the philosopher Proclus Diadochus). The epics were composed in dactylic hexameter verse.

The epic cycle was the distillation in literary form of an oral tradition that had developed during the Greek Dark Age, which was based in part on localised hero cults. The traditional material from which the literary epics were drawn treats of Mycenaean Bronze Age culture from the perspective of Iron Age and later Greece.

In modern scholarship the study of the historical and literary relationship between the Homeric epics and the rest of the Cycle is called Neoanalysis.


A longer Epic Cycle, as described by the 9th-century CE scholar and clergyman Photius in his "Bibliotheca", also included the "Titanomachy" and the Theban Cycle, which in turn comprised the "Oedipodea", the "Thebaid", the "Epigoni" and the "Alcmeonis". However, it is certain that none of the cyclic epics (other than Homer) survived to Photius' day, and it is likely that Proclus and Photius were not referring to a canonical collection. Modern scholars do not normally include the Theban Cycle when referring to the Epic Cycle.

Evidence for the Epic Cycle

Only the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" survive intact, although fragments of the other epics are quoted in later authors, and a few lines survive in the tattered remains of ancient papyri.

Most of our knowledge of the Cyclic epics comes from a broken summary of them which serves as part of the preface to the famous 10th-century CE "Iliad" manuscript known as Venetus A. This preface is damaged, missing the "Cypria", and has to be supplemented by other sources (the "Cypria" summary is preserved in several other manuscripts, each of which contains only the "Cypria" and none of the other epics). The summary is in turn an excerpt from a longer work.

This longer work was entitled "Chrestomathy", and written by someone named Proclus. This is known from evidence provided by the later scholar Photius, in his "Bibliotheca". Photius provides sufficient information about Proclus' "Chrestomathy" to demonstrate that the Venetus A excerpt is derived from the same work. [For further information see Monro 1883, and Severyns 1928, 1938a, 1938b, 1953, 1962, and 1963.] Little is known about Proclus, except that he is certainly not the philosopher Proclus Diadochus. Some have thought that it might be the same person as the lesser-known grammarian Eutychius Proclus, who lived in the 2nd century CE, [See e.g. Monro 1883.] but it is quite possible that he is simply an otherwise unknown figure.

Reception and influence

The non-Homeric epics are usually regarded as later than the "Iliad" and "Odyssey". There is no reliable evidence for this, however, and some Neoanalyst scholars operate on the premise that the Homeric epics were later than the Cyclic epics and drew on them extensively. Other Neoanalysts make the milder claim that the Homeric epics draw on legendary material which later came to crystallise into the Epic Cycle. This is an ongoing debate.

In antiquity the Homeric epics were considered to be the greatest works in the Cycle. For Hellenistic scholars the Cyclic poets, the authors to whom the other poems were commonly ascribed, were νεώτεροι ("neōteroi" "later poets"), and κυκλικός ("kyklikos" "cyclic") was synonymous with "formulaic": then, and in much modern scholarship, there has been an equation between poetry that is later and poetry that is inferior.

Famously Aristotle in his "Poetics" criticises the "Cypria" and "Little Iliad" for the piecemeal character of their plots:

But other poets compose a plot around one person, one time, and one plot with multiple parts; like the composer of the "Cypria" and the "Little Iliad". As a result, only one tragedy is made out of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey", but many from the "Cypria" many, and from the "Little Iliad" more than eight ... [Aristotle "Poetics" 1459a-b.]

Aristotle does not extend his criticism to the other epics in the Cycle; the "Aethiopis", "Iliou persis", and "Telegony" fare much better under his criteria for epic poetry.

In more recent times it has been argued that the fantastic and magical content of the non-Homeric epics mark them as inferior; [J. Griffin 1977, "The Epic Cycle and the Uniqueness of Homer", "Journal of Hellenic Studies" 97: 39-53.] on the other hand, parts of the "Iliad" and most of the "Odyssey" could sound just as fantastic if only brief summaries of them survived, with talking horses, a river chasing a man, and one-eyed man-eating monsters. It is certain that the poets of the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" knew the stories in the rest of the Cycle and drew upon them extensivelyFact|date=September 2007, and it is likely that the "Aethiopis" in particular was of relatively high qualityFact|date=September 2007.

The tales told in the Cycle are recounted by other ancient sources, notably Virgil's "Aeneid" (book 2) which recounts the sack of Troy from a Trojan perspective; Ovid's "Metamorphoses" (books 13-14), which describes the Greeks' landing at Troy (from the "Cypria") and the judgment of Achilles' arms ("Little Iliad"); Quintus of Smyrna's "Posthomerica", which narrates the events after Achilles' death up until the end of the war; and the death of Agamemnon and the vengeance taken by his son Orestes (the "Nostoi") are the subject of later Greek tragedy, especially Aeschylus's Oresteian trilogy.

Compilation of the Epic Cycle

How and when the eight epics of the Cycle came to be combined into a single collection and referred to as a "cycle" is a matter of ongoing debate. In the late 19th century, Monro argued that the scholastic use of the word κυκλικός did not refer to the Cycle as such, but meant "conventional", and that the Cycle was compiled in the Hellenistic period (perhaps as late as the 1st century BCE). [D.B. Monro 1883.] More recent scholars have preferred to push the date slightly earlier, but accept the general thrust of the argument.

The nature of the relationship between the Cyclic epics and Homer is also bound up in this question. As told by Proclus, the plots of the six non-Homeric epics look very much as though they are designed to fit around Homer, with no overlaps with one another. It is certain that this was not originally the case.

For example, a surviving quotation shows that the "Little Iliad" narrated how Neoptolemus took Andromache prisoner after the fall of Troy; ["Little Iliad" fr. 14 in West's edition.] however, in Proclus, the "Little Iliad" stops before the sack of Troy begins. Some scholars have argued that the "Cypria" as originally planned dealt with more of the Trojan War than Proclus' summary suggests; [E.g. J. Marks 2002, "The Junction between the "Kypria" and the "Iliad", "Phoenix" 56: 1-24; and Burgess 2001 argues that the "Cypria" originally narrated the entire war.] conversely, others argue that it was designed to lead up to the "Iliad", and that Proclus' account reflects the "Cypria" as originally designed. [E.g. J. Latacz 1996, "Homer, His Art and His World" tr. J. Holoka (Ann Arbor); R. Scaife 1995, "The "Kypria" and its early reception", "Classical Antiquity" 14: 164-97.]

It is certain that at least some editing or "stitching" was done to edit epics together. For the last line of the "Iliad",

ὣς οἵ γ᾽ ἀμφίεπον τάφον Ἕκτορος ἱπποδάμοιο.

In this way they performed the funeral of Hector, tamer of horses.

an alternative reading is preserved which is designed to lead directly into the "Aethiopis":

ὣς οἵ γ' ἀμφίεπον τάφον Ἕκτορος· ἦλθε δ' Ἀμαζών,
Ἄρηος θυγάτηρ μεγαλήτορος ἀνδροφόνοιο.

In this way they performed the funeral of Hector; then the Amazon [Penthesileia] came,
daughter of great-hearted man-slaughtering Ares. ...

There are contradictions between epics in the Cycle. For example, the Greek warrior who killed Hector's son Astyanax in the fall of Troy is Neoptolemus according to the "Little Iliad"; according to the "Iliou persis", it is Odysseus.



* Online editions (English translation):
** [http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/OMACL/Hesiod Online Medieval and Classical Library text] (translated by H.G. Evelyn-White, 1914; public domain)
** [http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/348 Project Gutenberg text] (translated by H.G. Evelyn-White, 1914)
** [http://www.stoa.org/hopper/text.jsp?doc=Stoa:text:2003.01.0004 Proklos' summary of the Epic Cycle, omitting the "Telegony"] (translated by Gregory Nagy)
* Print editions (Greek):
** Bernabé, A. 1987, "Poetarum epicorum Graecorum testimonia et fragmenta" pt. 1 (Leipzig). ISBN 3-322-00352-3
** Davies, M. 1988, "Epicorum Graecorum fragmenta" (Göttingen). ISBN 3-525-25747-3
* Print editions (Greek with English translation):
** Hesiod & Evelyn-White, H.G., 1914, "Hesiod: The Homeric Hymns and Homerica" (Loeb Classical Library) ISBN 0-674-99063-3
** West, M.L. 2003, "Greek Epic Fragments" (Cambridge, MA). ISBN 0-674-99605-4

Further reading

* Burgess, J.S. 2001, "The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle" (Baltimore). ISBN 0-8018-7890-X (pbk)
* Davies, M. 1989, "The Greek Epic Cycle" (Bristol). ISBN 1-85399-039-6 (pbk)
* Kullmann, W. 1960, "Die Quellen der Ilias (troischer Sagenkreis)" (Wiesbaden). ISBN 3-515-00235-9 (1998 reprint)
* Monro, D.B. 1883, "On the Fragment of Proclus' Abstract of the Epic Cycle Contained in the Codex Venetus of the "Iliad", "Journal of Hellenic Studies" 4: 305-334.
* Monro, D.B. 1901, "Homer's Odyssey, books XIII-XXIV" (Oxford), pp. 340-84. (Out of print)
* Severyns, A. 1928, "Le cycle épique dans l'école d'Aristarque" (Liège, Paris). (Out of print)
* Severyns, A. 1938, 1938, 1953, 1963, "Recherches sur la "Chrestomathie" de Proclos", 4 vols. ("Bibliothèque de la faculté de philosophie et lettres de l'université de Liège" fascc. 78, 79, 132, 170; Paris). (Vols. 1 and 2 are on Photius, 3 and 4 on other MSS.)
* Severyns, A. 1962, "Texte et apparat, histoire critique d'une tradition imprimée" (Brussels).


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