Epic poems are long, serious poems that tell a story. As a literary form, the Romans adopted the epic poem from the Greeks. The Greek epics, such the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer and Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes, were mythological epics, inspired by Greece’s legendary past. While Roman epics were modeled on these Greek epics, Roman epics also included stories from recent history. Vergil, the greatest Roman epic poet, used both legend and history in the creation of his poem the Aeneid.
The history of epic poetry in Rome begins in the 200s B.C., when a Roman slave named Livius Andronicus translated the Odyssey into Latin.
PLAYING IT SAFE
During the Roman Empire, the fortunes of writers and poets often depended on the favor of the emperor. For example, the poet Ovid was exiled from Rome partly because his poetry offended the emperor Augustus. Maecenas, a friend and follower of Augustus, supported many poets but expected them to praise the emperor in their work. This appears to have been an attempt by Maecenas to improve the public image of Augustus. Some poets wrote epics to avoid either angering or flattering the emperor.
Shortly after that, his contemporary Naevius wrote the first original Roman epic. It related a contemporary story—the first Punic War between Rome and Carthage. Another poet of the period, Quintus Ennius, was considered by many later Roman writers to be the father of Latin literature. Ennius envisioned himself as a Roman Homer. In his epic Annales, published in 18 volumes, he told the story of Rome from its founding up to his own time. He combined the story of his country’s mythical past with stories of Rome’s glorious present.
In the first century B.C., the epic went out of fashion. Although the great orators* Cicero and Hortensius attempted to carry on the epic tradition (Cicero composed three epics and Hortensius wrote more than 50,000 verses), their poems were uninspired and showed little mastery of the epic form. Some people even jokingly suggested that Cicero’s epics were responsible for his exile from Rome. Around 60 B.C., a group of Roman writers known as the Neoterics, or new poets, rejected the epic form altogether. The Neoterics modeled their work after the Greek poet Callimachus,and they admired learning and intellectual cleverness. They continued to use the epyllion—a short epic that relates a single heroic deed or episode—but they rejected the grand historical and heroic vision of the epic.
The beginning of the Roman Empire in 31 B.C. brought with it a revival of epic poetry. The military victories of the new emperor Caesar Octavianus Augustus provided inspiration for a classic heroic epic. Taking up the challenge, the poet Vergil wrote the Aeneid—the tale of Aeneas, who survived the Trojan War and settled in Italy. Written between 29 B.C. and 19 B.C., the Aeneid became the classic* example of Roman literature, with Vergil replacing Ennius as the Homer of Rome.
Following Vergil, the poet Ovid wrote his Metamorphoses, which is more a series of connected myths than one sweeping tale. Statius’s Thebaid was also a mythological epic. The poet Lucan selected a theme from recent history for his work Bellum Civile (The Civil War), or Pharsalia, and Silius Italicus, an admirer of Lucan’s style, wrote Punica about the Second Punic War.
After Ovid, epic poetry was greatly influenced by the principles of rhetoric*. It was filled with many speeches and epigrams—short poems dealing pointedly, and sometimes satirically, with a single thought. The Roman orator Quintilian criticized such poetry as “a better example for orators than poets.” Nevertheless, of the types of literature the Romans adopted from the Greeks, the epic was the most successful. Vergil and the Latin poets who followed him were the main models for epic writers in western Europe throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. (See also Aeneid; Drama, Roman; Epic, Greek; Iliad; Literature, Roman; Odyssey; Oratory; Poetiy, Roman.)
* orator public speaker of great skill
* classic serving as an outstanding example of its kind
* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing