Epic Poetry

The Athenian Age begins with the study of epic, and of Homer. The year is 600BC and the works of Homer are widely known and recited throughout the Greek world. The poet has found a home in the great festivals of Dionysus in Attica.

  • By 594BC Solon, a pre-eminent Greek statesman at the time, issued an ordnance that Homer’s poetry by recited in parts by rhapsodes.
  • After him, Pesistratus (ruled 560-527BC), was a keen collector of the work of Homer, and his son Hiparchus (527-514BC) had them recited at the Panathenea.

Thus, we see emerging in the 6th century BC a want to hone and study the great works of their own forefathers – and in so doing a propagation of the Greek historical narrative as a lived tradition.

It was not long then, before Homer found in his descendants those who would both imitate him and be inspired by him. The ‘most Homeric’ to use the phrase of Lorginus, of all of those influenced by Homer is Hesiod, who flourished around 720BC.

Pindar (522-443 BC), another influenced by the work, describe the rhapsodes as ‘sons of Homer’ and ‘singers of deftly woven lays’. Pindar’s Homeric influence can be found in his description of the slaying of the Chimaera in Pindar’s Olympians 13 line 90 and Homer’s Iliad book 6 line 182.

In Pindar’s days, poets were saturated with the work of Homer and Hesiod, and it was not long until the inspiration espoused from these epics found their way to writers of a different form: that drama, and of tragedy.

The chief tragedians are Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, whose plays often centre around the plots and intrigue of the Epic Cycle. Euripides’ Cyclops, as one example, is of direct influence from the tales of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey.

Aeschylus (523BC-456BC), the father of Athenian drama, described his work as ‘slices from the great banquets of Homer’.

Sophocles (c.497-c.406BC) is described by the Greeks as the ‘tragic Homer’. Indeed Aristotle, in his poetics, says of Sophocles that ‘he is Homeric in the ideal, yet human in the conception of his characters’. Aristotle was eluding to the trait among Sophoclean characters to maintain control, even in scenes of extreme violence. Plays of Sophocles drawn from the Epic Cycle include Ajax, and Philoctetes.

Euripides (480BC-406BC) has many dramas inspired by the Epic Cycle (Electra, Hecuba, Iphegenia at Tauris to name a few), though he interposes his tragedy often it into a realm of satyrs and tragicomedy.


Homer also found his influence among historians:

Herodotus (484BC-425BC) is our first chief historian. Among his works as such is his estimation on the life of Homer, which he places at 400 years before his own time (his time of writing being 430BC).

Thucydides (460BC-400BC) regarded in his writing the Phoenicians and Homeric catalogue as historical document.


Among the pre-Socratic philosophers, Democritus (460BC-370B) we find one of the earlier known treatise on Homer. Though now sadly lost, it is thought to have inspired the works of Circero.

The Sophists had Homer as the foundation of education, though this did not inhibit the likes of Protagoras from criticising its opening lines of the Iliad – stating that Homer made what was meant as a prayer to the muses as a form of command ‘minin aeide thea’

Hippias of Elis discussed its characters, comparing the ‘frank & straightforward’ Achilles and the ‘wily & false’ Odysseus.

And so, we begin to see the formation of Homer as an object worthy of study in the 6th century BC, in the 5th century we see its cementation in learning and recitation and the beginnings of its scholarship and criticism as a discipline. A typical view of how the Homeric sceptic side of the Athenian scholar of the age viewed the epic can be found from the words of Xenophanes of Colophon:

“Homer and Hesiod have imputed to the gods all that is blame and shame for men’

Heracleitus was also doubtful of some of the principles of the Homeric mythology, and disagreed with the conclusion found in Homer that happiness is dependant on the will of heaven.

Pythagoras is said to have descended into the underworld to see Homer and Hesiod undergoing torture for their treatment of the Gods.


As a reaction against the rationalisation of Homeric mythology, much of Homer began to be defended as allegorical.

Theagenes of Rhegium suggested a two-fold allegory, one moral, the other physical.

Metrororus of Lampasus maintained that Hera, Athene, and Zeus were elements of nature as expressed by Homer.


Little remains of the works of these men, though perhaps they were merely among those whom Aristotle, writing in his Metaphysics, categorised as ‘old Homerists’ who got hung up on small details without a larger picture of the epic.

This pedant precision was clearly a growing trend amongst Athenian scholars, Xenophon’sMemorabilia’ citing the rhapsodes as ‘very precise about the exact words of Homer, but very foolish themselves’. Similar sentiment is expressed in Plato’s ‘Ion’ 533D-E. Indeed, Homer is famously expelled from Plato’s Republic, as well as Hesiod, due to their false account of the nature of the Gods. (Rep. 377D-378E). To Plato Homer and Hesiod are imitators, who copy truth, but can never reach it.


Whether for or against Homer, it was clear that to be a scholar in the Athenian Age certainly meant one must have read and have a view on Homer. In Plutarch’s account of the Life of Alcibiades, he is stated as having struck a schoolmaster in the face for not having a copy of Homer on hand.

Homer was, of course, viewed in far more a positive than a negative light, as can be shown from the words of a few more notables of the Athenian Age:

In Aristophanes’ Frogs, Homer is among the noble poets, there as a representative of ‘the poet of the art of war’. It is not unfair to say that, more broadly, Homer was viewed as a representation of the poet. Full stop.

Isocrates also had great admiration for the early tragic poets, writing in his Panegyric that Homer created ‘a splendid eulogy to those who fought the foreign foe’, and defended his account of the Gods in his ‘Against the Sophists’.


Quoting Homer

Further emphasis of the Homeric legacy can be seen in translations and quotes – Thucydides uses Homer Hymn to Apollo as one worthy of re-utterance, and Plutarch attributes an Aristoteltian edition of Homer as the one kept by Alexander under his pillow, a famous ‘casket copy’ which he was closely by his side during his campaigns. Indeed, Alexander is said to have visited the tomb of Achilles on his way to Asia, and is doubtless to have found influence amongst the heroism espoused by Homer. To inform ourselves better of the effects of Homer on Alexander, it is worth realising that it was Aristotle’s Homer that found influence. So what was Aristotle’s Homer?


Aristotle has the following points to make on Homer:

  • Homer depicts men as ‘better than they are’ (from his Poetics)
  • Homer’s vividness of expression is to be praised (from Rhetoric) and states examples:
    • Sisyphus’ remorseless stone
    • Flying arrow yearning for its mark
    • Javelines thirsting for their target
    • Passionate spear-points

These are striving adjectives attached to masculine tasks of warfare and thoroughfare and should instil in the reader such same yearning and passion for emulation of their heroes. Movement and animation to things inanimate can stir the soul.

Yet Homer is not without problems for Aristotle, as he points out in his Poetics, discrepancies do persist between the Iliad and the Odyssey in terms of the flow of events.


Ultimately, it is through Homer’s exemplification of Greek heroism against foreign threats that endeared him to his posterity in the Greek world, a world that due to conflicts with Persia and Sparta were acutely aware of the limit of their civilization, and what comprised the Greek from the barbarian. Thus we find Aristotle revelling in Homer’s description of the barbarian Trojans’ reaction to Patroclus in Achilles’ armour:

“each several men peered round to seek escape from sheer destruction”


The Study of Hesiod

The Theogony of Hesiod was also a studied text in the Athenian Age, as well as his works and days. It is said Epicurus, dissatisfied at a young age with many of the questions it raised, was propelled into philosophy in pursuit of greater understanding.     Hesiod is also purported to have written a now lost piece on reverence and obedience, linking it with Achilles’ learning from the centaur Cheiron.


Two other writers of epic, who should be noted are Antimachus of Colphon, whose chief work was an epic, Thebais. According to Cicero, when reciting the epic to his Athenian audience, everyone slipped away except for that of Plato, who urged him to continue, whose presence was said to have been worth a thousand to Antimachus. The stature of Antimachus must be balances by the fact other notable readers of his epic, Callimachus and Catullus, were not enamoured by it.


Finally, Choerilus of Samos wrote an epic on the Persian war, though only fragments now remain. Aristotle considered the Homeric simile as a clearer one than that of Choerilus, though he does quote him ‘nun d’ote panta dedastai’ – now all has been apportioned. The full context of the phrase is fitting to round off the epic and its place in Athenian scholarship:

“Oh! The bards of olden ages, blessed bards in song-craft skill’d,

Happy henchmen of the Muses, when the field was yet untill’d.

All the land is now apportioned; bounds to all the Arts belong;

Left the last of all the poets, looking keenly, looking long,

I can find no bright new chariot for the race-course of my song”.


The Study of Lyric Poetry

So, we have seen that through epic, and the Homeric epic in particular, a Greek sense of scholarship and study was well formed by the close of the 5th century BC. Indeed, the study of the appropriate texts had been concentrated into a defined practice and learning. Let us look to Plato’s Protagoras for the framework:

“When the boys have learned their letters, and are beginning to understand the sense of what is written…their teachers set beside them the works of excellent poets, and compel the boys, while seated on the benches, to read them aloud and learn them by heart. In these are contained many admonitions, many detailed narratives and eulogies and laudations of brave men of old. These are learnt by heart, in order that the boy may emulate and imitate those brave men, and be eager to become like them….Then again, the teachers of the cithara, as soon as their pupils have learned to play on that instrument, instruct them in the works of other excellent poets, the composers of songs, which they set to music, forcing the very souls of the boys to becomes familiar with their rhythms and their melodies, in order that they may be more gentle, and be better fitted for speech and action by becoming more beautifully rhythmical and melodious; foe the whole of man’s life has need of beauty of rhythm and of melody. Besides all this, their parents send them to the master of gymnastic, in order that they may have their bodies in better condition to be able to minister the virtue of their minds, and not be compelled by the weakness of their bodies to play the coward either in war or in any other action”


The learning of the schoolboy in the Greek mind is summarised as   the following:

  1. Recitation of the words of brave men
  2. Learning of rhythm and melody
  3. Physical health to avoid cowardice, for a coward’s mind will forever be trapped to himself.


Scenes of this nature are found on the vase paintings of Douris.


If the epic helped fulfil the first of the 3 roles above, the study of lyric poetry played a similar role in the fulfilment of the second.

The lyrics themselves were instrumented by the lyre (from which the phrase lyric originates) and the cithara. Lyric poets were known as ‘melodoloi’ or ‘makers of meli’ or ‘songs’ (citharadoi)

The first direct mention of lyric poetry does not come until Dionysius of Thrax, an Alexandrian Age source, which indicates that this was the Greek equivalent of the folk song. Lyric poetry was to be sung, not written.

Aristophanes’ Clouds distinguishes between two types of lyric styles: and older style of Lamprocles, and a new one of Lesbian Phrynis.

The study of ‘melic’ poets in the Athenian Age may be partly inferred through citation, for instance, the echange of Alcaeus and Sappho (fl. 612BC) in Aristotle’s Rhetoric; Stesichorus in Plato’s Phaedrus. We hear of ‘Anacreon’ through Aristophanes’ Thesm.


In terms of names requiring greater attention we find Simonides – In Plato’s Republic the justice as defined as ‘paying one’s debts’ is ascribed to the poet. In Protagoras, it is a poem of Simonides that is worthy of discussion, namely: what Simonides meant in one of his poems that it is hard for a man to become good, whilst later criticising Pittacus for sayig ‘hard it is to be good’.  It is the recitifcaiton of this apparent contradiction which leads Socrates to draw a distinction between ‘being’ and ‘becoming’.

Simonides is also praised by figures such as Herodotus and Lycurgus, in particular his elegiac epigrams of Thermopylae and Marathon.

Pindar (522-443BC)

Chief of the lyric poets is Pindar, whose opinions on Homer we briefly discussed. Though a Theban by birth, Pindar adopted Athens as his spiritual home, recognising Salamis as the glory of the Athenians, and describing the city as ‘the gleaming city of the violet crown’ and ‘the bulwark of Hellas’. Pinar was fined by his Theban countrymen for his praise of Athens. His poems were cited frequently by figures as renowned as Plato, reached shores as far away as Hieron at Syracuse (where his lines from the 6th Olympian ode on Hieron were found stamped on ancient brick), and as far down time as to be mentioned by Milton, who, writing on the sack of Thebes by Aelxander (335BC) wrote:

“The great Emathian conqueror, bid spare

The house of Pindarus, when temple and tower

Went to ground”


Pindar’s chief rival was Bacchylides, nephew of Simonides. Pindar is deemed to be speaking of Bacchylides in his second Olympian when he states:

“many swift arrows have I beneath my bended arm within my quiver, arrows vocal to the intelligent, though for their full meaning they need interpreters. Wise is he that knoweth much by nature; but, when men have merely learnt their lore, they are turbulent and intemperate of tongue, even as a pari of crows idly chattering against the divine bird of Zeus.”

Baachylides too could say he ‘uttered words intelligible to the prudent’. Indeed there seems to have been a requisite amongst lyric poets of the age to declare their place as among a divine few, peering over the masses as to tell tales to move children’s hearts.


Instrumentation is important to the category of the lyric poet; while ‘melic’ poets were associated with the lyre or cithara, the elegiac and iambic poets were associated with the flute. Let us now briefly look at some of those whose poetry was apart of the latter group. Elegiacs include Tyrtaeus, quoted by Aristotle (Politics v6) and Plato (Laws), Solon, whose patriotic work on Athens was requested by Demosthenes in his prosecution of Aeschines, Theognis of Megara (fl. 540BC), who wrote verses of aristocratic type, and such did not find much love in democratic Athens. Of the iambic poets, Archilachus of Paros is worthy of mention, for he was much venerated of the lyric poets, fluroishing in 650BC. It is from him that we obtain the phrase ‘see the conquering hero comes’ – which was used as Britain’s great strain of victory during the height of its imperial pomp.


To close our chapter on the lyric poets, it is noteworthy that of the lyric poets, many found time for writing only occasionally, and their fame was ephemeral. Few beyond Pindar could say: “longer then deeds liveth the word”

The canon of Greek lyric poetry closes in 452 BC, with the last known odes of Pindar and Bacchydides, but at this point another form of study and criticism was emerging triumphant in the attic world: that of drama, and it is to drama that we will turn our attention to next.