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1. Greek

Many indications point to the fact that the oldest poetry of the Greeks was connected with the worship of the gods, and that religious poetry of a mystical kind was composed by the priests of the Thracians, a musical and poetical people, and diffused in old times through Northern Greece. The worship of the Muses was thus derived from the Thracians, who in later times had disappeared from Greece Proper; and accordingly the oldest bards whose names are known to the Greeks— Orpheus, Musaeus, Eumolpus, Thamyris—are supposed to have been Thracians also. The current ideas of the nature and action of the gods tended more and more to take the form of poetical myths respecting their birth, actions, and sufferings. Hence, these compositions, of which an idea may be derived from some of the so-called Homeric Hymns, gradually assumed an epic character. In course of time the epic writers threw off their connection with religion, and struck out on independent lines. Confining themselves no longer to the myths about the gods, they celebrated the heroic deeds both of mythical antiquity and of the immediate past. Thus, in the Homeric descriptions of the epic age, while the bards Phemius and Demodocus appear as favourites of the gods, to whom they are indebted for the gift of song, they are not attached to any particular worship. The subjects of their song are not only stories about the gods, such as the loves of Ares and Aphrodité, but the events of recent times, the conquest of Troy by means of the wooden horse, and the tragic return of the Achaeans from Troy. Singers like these, appearing at public festivals, and at the tables of princes, to entertain the guests with their lays, must have existed early in Greece Proper. It was, however, the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor who first fully developed the capacities of epic poetry. By long practice, extending probably through centuries, a gradual progress was probably effected from short lays to long epic narratives; and at the same time a tradition delivered from master to scholar handed on and perfected the outer form of style and metre. Thus, about B.C. 900, epic poetry was brought to its highest perfection by the genius of Homer, the reputed author of the Iliad and Odyssey. After Homer it sank, never to rise again, from the height to which he had raised it. See Homerus.

It is true that in the following centuries a series of epics, more or less comprehensive, were composed by poets of the Ionic school in close imitation of the style and metre of Homer. But not one of them succeeded in coming even within measurable distance of their great master. The favourite topics of these writers were such fables as served either to introduce, or to extend and continue, the Iliad and Odyssey. They were called Cyclic Poets perhaps because the most important of their works were afterwards put together with the Iliad and Odyssey in an epic cycle, or circle of lays. The Cyprian poems (τὰ Κύπρια), of Stasinus of Salamis in Cyprus (B.C. 776), formed the introduction to the Iliad. These embraced the history of the period between the marriage of Peleus and the opening of the Iliad. At about the same time Arctinus of Miletus composed his Aethiopis in five books. This poem started from the conclusion of the Iliad, and described the death of Achilles, and of the Ethiopian prince Memnon, the contest for the arms of Achilles, and the suicide of Aias. The Destruction of Ilium, by the same author, was in two books. By way of supplement to the Homeric Iliad, Lesches of Mitylené, either about B.C. 708 or 664, wrote a Little Iliad, in four books. This embraced the contest for the arms of Achilles, the appearance of Neoptolemus and Philoctetes, and the capture of the city. The transition from the Iliad to the Odyssey was formed by the five books of Νόστοι (The Return of the Heroes), written by Agias of Troezen. The Telegonia, by Eugammon of Cyrené (about 570), continued the Odyssey. This was in two books, embracing the history of Odysseus from the burial of the suitors until his death at the hands of his son Telegonus. These poems and those of the other cyclics were, after Homer, the sources from which the later lyric and dramatic poets drew most of their information. But only fragments of them remain. See Cyclic Poets.

A new direction was given to epic poetry in Greece Proper by the didactic and genealogical poems of Hesiod of Ascra, about a hundred years after Homer. Hesiod was the founder of a school, the productions of which were often attributed to him as those of the Ionic school were to Homer. One of these disciples of Hesiod was Eumelus of Corinth (about B.C. 750), of the noble family of the Bacchiadae. But his poems, like those of the rest, are lost. See Hesiodus.

The most notable representatives of mythical epic poetry in the following centuries are Pisander of Camirus (about B.C. 640), and Panyasis of Halicarnassus (during the first half of the fifth century). In the second half of the fifth century Choerilus of Samos wrote a Perseïs on the Persian Wars, the first attempt in Greece at an historical epic. His younger contemporary, Antimachus of Colophon, also struck out a new line in his learned Thebaïs, the precursor and model of the later epic of Alexandria. The Alexandrians laid great stress on learning and artistic execution in detail, but usually confined themselves to poems of less magnitude. The chief representatives of the Alexandrian school are Callimachus (about B.C. 250), Rhianus, Euphorion, and Apollonius of Rhodes. The last made a futile attempt to return to the simplicity of Homer. His Argonautica is, with the exception of the Homeric poems, the only Greek epic which has survived from the ante-Christian era. In the 200 years between the fourth and sixth centuries A.D., the mythical epic is represented by Quintus Smyrnaeus, Nonnus, Colluthus, Tryphiodorus, Musaeus, and the apocryphal Orpheus. Nonnus, Colluthus, and Tryphiodorus were Egyptians. Nonnus and Musaeus, alone among these writers, have any claim to distinction. The talent of Nonnus is genuine, but undisciplined; Musaeus knows how to throw a charm into his treatment of a narrow subject. The whole series is closed by the Iliaca of Joannes Tzetzes, a learned but tasteless scholar of the twelfth century A.D. See Tzetzes.

As Homer was the master of the mythical, so Hesiod was the master of the didactic epic. After him this department of poetry was best represented by Xenophanes of Colophon, Parmenides of Elea, and Empedocles of Agrigentium, in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. In the Alexandrian period, didactic poetry was much taken up, and employed upon the greatest possible variety of subjects. But none of its representatives succeeded in writing more than poetic prose, or in handling their intractable material with the mastery which Vergil shows in his Georgics. The period produced the astronomical epic of Aratus of Sicyon (about B.C. 275), and two medical poems by Nicander of Colophon (about 150). Under the Roman Empire more didactic poetry was produced by the Greek writers. Maximus and the so-called Manetho wrote on astrology. Dionysius Periegetes on geography, Oppian on angling, and an imitator of Oppian on hunting. The Alexandrian period also produced didactic poems in iambic senarii, as, e. g., several on geography bearing the names of Dicaearchus and Scymnus, which still survive.

2. Roman

The Romans possibly had songs of an epic character from the earliest times; but these were soon forgotten. They had, however, a certain influence on the later and comparatively artificial literature, for both Livius Andronicus in his translation of the Odyssey, and Naevius in his Punic War, wrote in the traditional Italian metre, the versus Saturnius. Naevius was, it is true, a national poet, and so was his successor Ennius, but the latter employed the Greek hexameter metre, instead of the rude Saturnian. To follow the example of Ennius, and celebrate the achievements of their countrymen in the form of the Greek epic, was the ambition of several poets before the fall of the Republic. A succession of poets, as Hostius, the tragedian Attius, and Furius were the authors of poetical annals. Here it is proper also to mention cicero's epics on Marius and on his own consulship, besides the poem of Terentius Varro of Atax (Atacinus) on Caesar's war with the Sequani (Bellum Sequanicum). Latin epics on Greek mythical subjects seem to have been rare in the republican age. At least we know of only a few translations, as that of the Iliad by Mattius and Ninnius Crassus, and of the Cypria by Laevinus. Toward the end of the republican age it was a favourite form of literary activity to write in free imitation of the learned Alexandrians. Varro of Atax, for example, followed Apollonius of Rhodes in his Argonautica; others, like Helvius Cinna and the orator Licinius Calvus, preferred the shorter epics so much in favour with the Alexandrians. Only one example in this style is completely preserved, the quasi epithalamium (lxiv.) of Catullus. This is the only example we possess of the narrative epic of the Republic.

But in the Augustan Age both kinds of epic, the mythic and the historical, are represented by a number of poets. Varius Rufus, Rabirius, Cornelius Severus, and Pedo Albinovanus treated contemporary history in the epic style; Domitius Marsus and Macer turned their attention to the mythology. The Aeneid of Vergil, the noblest monument of Roman epic poetry, combines both characters. Of all the epic productions of this age, the only ones which are preserved intact are the Aeneid, a panegyric on Messala, which found its way into the poems of Tibullus, and perhaps two poems, the Culex and Ciris, both often attributed to Vergil. See Vergilius.

In the first century A.D. we have several examples of the historical epic: the Pharsalia of Lucan, the Punica of Silius Italicus, a Bellum Civile in the satirical romance of Petronius, and an anonymous panegyric on Calpurnius Piso, who was executed for conspiracy under Nero, A.D. 65. The heroic style is represented by the Argonautica of Valerius Flaccus, and the Thebaïs and Achilleïs of Statius, to which we may add the metrical epitome of the Iliad by the so-called Pindarus Thebanus. The politico-historical poems of the succeeding centuries, by Publius Porfirius Optatianus in the fourth century, Claudianus, Merobaudes, Sidonius Apollinaris in the fifth, Priscian, Corippus, and Venantius Fortunatus in the sixth, are entirely panegyric in character, and intended to do homage to the emperor or men of influence. Of all these poets, Claudianus is the most important. He and Dracontius (towards the end of the fifth century) are among the last who take their subjects from mythology.

Didactic poetry, which suited the serious character of the Romans, was early represented at Rome. In this the Romans were in many ways superior to the Greeks. Appius Claudius Caecus and the elder Cato were authors of gnomic poetry. Ennius, the tragedian Attius, and several of his contemporaries wrote didactic pieces; the satires of Lucilius and Varro were also in part didactic. It was, however, not till the end of the republican period that the influence of Greek literature gave predominance to the Greek epic form. It was then adopted by Varro of Atax, by M. Cicero, and above all by Lucretius, whose philosophical poem De Rerum Natura is the only didactic poem of this period that has been preserved intact, as it is one of the most splendid monuments of Roman genius. In the Augustan Age many writers were active in this field. Valgius Rufus and Aemilius Macer followed closely in the steps of the Alexandrians. Grattius wrote a poem on hunting, a part of which still survives; Manilius, an astronomical poem which survives entire. But the Georgics of Vergil throw all similar work, Greek or Latin, into the shade. Ovid employs the epic metre in his Metamorphoses and Halieutica, the elegiac in his Fasti.

In the first century A.D. Germanicus translated Aratus. Columella wrote a poem on gardening; an unknown author (often called Lucilius), the Aetna. The third century produced the medical poem of Sammonicus Serenus, and that of Nemesianus on hunting. In the fourth we have Ausonius, much of whose work is didactic; Palladius on agriculture; an adaptation of Aratus and of Dionysius Periegetes by Avienus, with a description of the sea-coasts of the known world in iambics; in the fifth, besides some of Claudianus's pieces, a description by Rutilius Namatianus in elegiacs of his return home. The book of Dionysius Periegetes was adapted by Priscian in the sixth century. A collection of proverbs, bearing the name of Cato , belongs to the fourth century. In most of these compositions the metrical form is a mere set off; and in the school verses of the grammarians, as in those by Terentianus Maurus on metres, and in those by an anonymous author on rhetorical figures, and on weights and measures, there is no pretence of poetry at all.

See Lang, Homer and the Epic (London, 1893); Haube, De Carminibus Epicis Saeculi Augusti (Breslau, 1870); id. Die Epen des silb. Zeitalters, etc. (Fraustadt, 1886); and an article by Winckelmann in Jahn's Archiv, ii. 558. On the language of Roman epic poetry, see Köne, Sprachgebrauch d. röm. Epiker (Münster, 1840).

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