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GREEK EPICS

The greatest of all the world's epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are attributed to Homer, or Melesigenes, who is said to have lived some time between 1050 and 850 B.C. Ever since the second century before Christ, however, the question whether Homer is the originator of the poems, or whether, like the Rhapsodists, he merely recited extant verses, has been hotly disputed.

The events upon which the Iliad is based took place some time before 1100 B.C., and we are told the poems of Homer were collected and committed to writing by Pisistratus during the age of Epic Poetry, or second age of Greek literature, which ends 600 B.C.

It stands to reason that the Iliad must have been inspired by or at least based upon previous poems, since such perfection is not achieved at a single bound. Besides, we are aware of the existence of many shorter Greek epics, which have either been entirely lost or of which we now possess only fragments.

A number of these ancient epics form what is termed the Trojan Cycle, because all relate in some way to the War of Troy. Among them is the Cypria, in eleven books, by Stasimus of Cyprus (or by Arctinus of Miletus), wherein is related Jupiter's frustrated wooing of Thetis, her marriage with Peleus, the episode of the golden apple, the judgment of Paris, the kidnapping of Helen, the mustering of the Greek forces, and the main events of the first nine years of the Trojan War. The Iliad (of which a synopsis is given) follows this epic, taking up the story where the wrath of Achilles is aroused and ending it with the funeral of Hector.

This, however, does not conclude the story of the Trojan War, which is resumed in the "Aethiopia," in five books, by Arctinus of Miletus. After describing the arrival of Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, to aid the Trojans, the poet relates her death at the hand of Achilles, who, in his turn, is slain by Apollo and Paris. This epic concludes with the famous dispute between Ajax and Ulysses for the possession of Achilles' armor.

The Little Iliad, whose authorship is ascribed to sundry poets, including Homer, next describes the madness and death of Ajax, the arrival of Philoctetes with the arrows of Hercules, the death of Paris, the purloining of the Palladium, the stratagem of the wooden horse, and the death of Priam.

In the Ilion Persis, or Sack of Troy, by Arctinus, in two books, we find the Trojans hesitating whether to convey the wooden steed into their city, and discover the immortal tales of the traitor Sinon and that of Laocoon. We then behold the taking and sacking of the city, with the massacre of the men and the carrying off into captivity of the women.

In the Nostroi, or Homeward Voyage, by Agias of Troezene, the Atridae differ in opinion; so, while Agamemnon delays his departure to offer propitiatory sacrifices, Menelaus sets sail for Egypt, where he is detained. This poem also contains the narrative of Agamemnon's return, of his assassination, and of the way in which his death was avenged by his son Orestes.

Next in sequence of events comes the Odyssey of Homer (of which a complete synopsis follows), and then the Telegonia of Eugammon of Cyrene, in two books. This describes how, after the burial of the suitors, Ulysses renews his adventures, and visits Thesprotia, where he marries and leaves a son. We also have his death, a battle between two of his sons, and the marriage of Telemachus and Circe, as well as that of the widowed Penelope to Telegonus, one of Ulysses' descendants.

Another sequel, or addition to the Odyssey, is found in the
Telemachia, also a Greek poem, as well as in a far more modern work,
the French classic, Télémaque, written by Fénelon for his pupil the
Dauphin, in the age of Louis XIV.

Another great series of Greek poems is the Theban Cycle, which comprises the Thebais, by some unknown author, wherein is related in full the story of Oedipus, that of the Seven Kings before Thèbes, and the doings of the Epigoni.

There exist also cyclic poems in regard to the labors of Heracles, among others one called Oechalia, which has proved a priceless mine for poets, dramatists, painters, and sculptors.[1]

In the Alexandra by Lycophron (270 B.C.), and in a similar poem by
Quintus Smyrnaeus, in fourteen books, we find tedious sequels to the
Iliad, wherein Alexander is represented as a descendant of Achilles.
Indeed, the life and death of Alexander the Great are also the source
of innumerable epics, as well as of romances in Greek, Latin, French,
German, and English. The majority of these are based upon the epic of
Callisthenes, 110 A.D., wherein an attempt was made to prove that
Alexander descended directly from the Egyptian god Jupiter Ammon or,
at least, from his priest Nectanebus.

Besides being told in innumerable Greek versions, the tale of Troy has frequently been repeated in Latin, and it enjoyed immense popularity all throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. It was, however, most beloved in France, where Benoit de St. Maur's interminable "Roman de Troie," as well as his "Roman d'Alexandre," greatly delighted the lords and ladies of his time.

Besides the works based on the story of Troy or on the adventures of Alexander, we have in Greek the Theogony of Hesiod in some 1022 lines, a miniature Greek mythology, giving the story of the origin and the doings of the Greek gods, as well as the Greek theory in regard to the creation of the world.

Among later Greek works we must also note the Shield of Heracles and the Eoiae or Catalogue of the Boetian heroines who gave birth to demi-gods or heroes.

In 194 B.C. Apollonius Rhodius at Alexandria wrote the Argonautica, in four books, wherein he relates the adventures of Jason in quest of the golden fleece. This epic was received so coldly that the poet, in disgust, withdrew to Rhodes, where, having remodelled his work, he obtained immense applause.

The principal burlesque epic in Greek, the Bactrachomyomachia, or Battle of Frogs and Mice, is attributed to Homer, but only some 300 lines of this work remain, showing what it may have been.


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