Wednesday, April 27, 2016


Marco Fantuzzi, Christos Tsagalis (ed.), The Greek Epic Cycle and Its Ancient Reception: A Companion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xiii, 678. ISBN 9781107012592. $195.00.

Reviewed by Lyndsay Coo, University of Bristol (

Version at BMCR home site


Few texts from antiquity can be so simultaneously frustrating, intriguing and important as the remains of the Greek Epic Cycle. The role of these poems in shaping Titanomachic, Theban and Trojan myth will have been profound and yet only a handful of verbatim fragments survive, while our main testimonia for the Trojan epics, the summaries of Proclus, present their own problems of interpretation. This volume more than rises to the challenge of how to analyse and appreciate such recalcitrant texts by providing a rich overview of methodological approaches to the Cycle, close commentary on the epics themselves, and discussion of their reception in ancient literature and art. A review of this length can only hope to offer a small sample of the extraordinarily wide-ranging scope of this volume and the detailed work of its thirty-two contributors.

Part I, 'Approaches to the Epic Cycle', assembles an outstanding cast, many of whom have made fundamental contributions to the study of oral poetics and the Epic Cycle over the last few decades, including the editors of two of the three major critical editions of the Cycle, Alberto Bernabé and Martin L. West. Trenchant scholarly debates in this field are evident from how often this group of scholars, both in their chapters in this volume and elsewhere, have engaged with, refined and challenged each others' theoretical and methodological approaches: here we find Gregory Nagy and Martin West, not quite happily side-by-side, but buffered by John M. Foley and J. Arft's excellent chapter that situates Cyclic epic within the wider context of living oral traditions.

Many of these chapters stand as helpful, concise summaries of aspects of their author's definitive work on the Cycle: see, for example, Wolfgang Kullman on motif transference and Quellenforschung, or Margalit Finkelberg on the relationship between the Homeric poems and Cyclic tradition as 'meta-epic' or (drawing on Jonathan Burgess' term) 'meta-Cyclic'. However, in some cases this comes with a slightly disappointing, if understandable, tendency merely to rehearse already familiar contributions: Nagy's discussion of oral traditions, texts and authorship is assembled piecemeal from his many previous works on the subject, while West's chapter on the formation of the Cycle is simply cut-and-pasted from his The Epic Cycle: A Commentary on the Lost Troy Epics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). Other contributors have taken up the challenge to re-frame their work in fresh terms: Burgess's chapter, for example, offers a reminder of the uncertainties involved in analysing the Epic Cycle through an engagingly self-conscious critique of the assumptions underlying his own important book The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

Rounding off this overview of approaches to oral traditions and the textualization of the Cycle, we find chapters on stylistic aspects, so far as these can be ascertained: Bernabé surveys Cyclic language and metre, while Antonios Rengakos and David Konstan take on the difficult task of analysing, respectively, narrative technique, and the role of wit and irony, in texts that survive only in fragments and summaries. It is well-known that depictions of non-Homeric Trojan War episodes are much more common in early Greek art than the Homeric ones, and in the final chapter Thomas H. Carpenter argues that archaic artists had a particular interest in representing the 'unheroic' aspects of these myths, ending with the briefest of gestures towards how this might inform our understanding of the Cyclic texts.

Part II, 'Epics', comprises chapters on the individual poems: the Theogony and Titanomachy, the Theban poems (with the Alcmeonis, although it is acknowledged that there is debate over its inclusion in the canonical Cycle) and the Trojan poems. The nature of each poem's survival varies greatly; some have very few attributed fragments, and in the case of the Cyclic Theogony, there is only limited evidence for the poem's very existence. It is little surprise that, on the whole, the contributors who have been given more to work with tend to produce richer results. Each chapter includes commentary on some or all of the fragments and testimonia alongside, where possible, discussion of date, authorship and the 'character' of the epic. Aspects of these interpretations are necessarily speculative, but speculation does not have to be a bad thing when carried out self-consciously and sensibly. There are interesting suggestions here, such as Andrea Debiasi's situating of the Alcmeonis within the culture of Cypselid Corinth. Less plausible, to my mind, are hypothetical reconstructions such as Georg Danek's elaborate day-by-day 'time schedule' for the events of the Nostoi (pp. 373–4); the result is neat, but, as he himself acknowledges, 'the few fragments...give no hint at the plot structure.' (p. 355, n. 4). Most of these chapters are excellent; for this reviewer, the stand-out contribution is Adrian Kelly's discussion of the Ilias Parua, a model for how to balance close linguistic commentary with a thoughtful elucidation of the epic's wider narrative themes, movement and tone. Overall, this central section of the collection is extremely valuable and should be a first port of call for anyone seeking not only expert overviews of the evidence, but also stimulating suggestions for further research.

Part III, 'The Fortune of the Epic Cycle in the Ancient World', turns to ancient reception, taking us on a tour of ancient literary criticism, archaic lyric, Pindar, tragedy, the Hellenistic poets, Virgil, Ovid, Statius, the ancient novel, and imperial Greek epic. The refrain throughout is the need for caution, with almost every contributor acknowledging the difficulties both of establishing intertextuality with a non-extant text, and the near-impossibility of distinguishing any direct influence of the Epic Cycle poems from that of the many other artistic and literary versions of the same mythological material. The chapters that tackle this challenge head-on are among the highlights of the whole volume, such as Michael Squire's characteristically sophisticated and engaging examination of Hellenistic and Roman art. Drawing on his previous work on the Iliac tablets,1 he sets these objects alongside examples of Pompeiian domestic wall-painting and the so-called 'Homeric bowls', not in order to reconstruct aspects of the Epic Cycle or to note overlap with the extant fragments, but rather to show how these artworks actively participate in the re-cycling of Cyclic stories by engaging with what he terms a 'circular' semantics. There is of course an important place for the detection of textual correspondences and divergences, and the volume contains some very useful examples of precisely that: see A. H. Sommerstein's catalogue of tragedies based on Cyclic epics (pp. 481–6), Ursula Gärtner's table of Cyclic motifs posited in the Aeneid (pp. 560–4), or Silvio Bär and Manuel Baumbach's tracing of Cyclic influences and differences in Quintus and Triphidorus (pp. 608–13, 616–17). However, as these contributors show, this groundwork is most meaningful when coupled with a wider, critical reflection on methodology and what it might mean for an author to engage with the Epic Cycle within changing cultural contexts. In particular, Gärtner's careful and incisive chapter on the Aeneid, which begins by discussing how even the concept of Virgil's 'use' of the Cycle is a far from clear-cut term, demonstrates that we do not need direct verbal parallels, or even evidence that Virgil knew the original Cyclic texts, in order to trace a more general reception of the concept of Cyclic poetics.

There is an imbalance in this section: the first few chapters take a view of the Cyclic poems as a whole, but as we progress through it the Titanomachy and the Theban poems are increasingly excluded, with minimal or no mention of any non-Trojan Cyclic material in the later chapters on Hellenistic reception (Evina Sistakou), art (Squire), Ovid (Gianpiero Rosati), Statius (Charles McNelis), the ancient novel (David F. Elmer), and imperial Greek epic (Bär and Baumbach). This disparity is perhaps inevitable due to both the content of the texts chosen and the nature of the evidence. The remains of the Titanomachy and the Theban epics are even scantier than the Trojan ones, and the absence of anything comparable to Proclus' summaries means that the details of their content are even less secure. Nonetheless, some opportunities are missed: for example, the decision to restrict the chapter on Statius to an examination of the relationship between the Achilleid and the Cypria, while it leads to a focussed study, does not allow for consideration, however speculative the results might be, of that between the Thebaid and the Theban Cycle.

The book is beautifully produced in CUP's attractive wide-margin format. The footnotes contain helpfully abundant cross-referencing of chapters. I noted very few misprints and errors2; there are, as acknowledged at the start of the volume, some unproblematic inconsistencies of presentation between contributors. The policy of the volume when citing Cyclic fragments (although not followed in absolutely every case) is to give references to all three main editions in the order PEG, Davies, West. Since the numeration, classification and even inclusion of fragments and testimonia often differs between them, this certainly expedites locating references in whatever edition one happens to be using, but in paragraphs that contain very many references the overall effect is rather cluttered.3 A further consequence is that in the (admittedly infrequent) instances where a passage is quoted whose text differs between editions, there is no way of deducing from the references alone which one the author is following, or even that there may be differences between them at all.4

This is an excellent and important Companion that brings together, on an unprecedented scale for this material, clear and detailed summaries of the state of play in a notably complex field of scholarship. If uneven in parts, taken as a whole the volume strikes an admirable balance between reminders and demonstrations of the need for caution, and a more daring—often more interesting—willingness to engage in responsible speculation and to interrogate the very methodologies and assumptions by which one might go about analysing the content and reception of a lost text. The collection stands as a fitting memorial to two of its now sadly departed contributors, John M. Foley and Martin L. West, whose work has done so much to advance the study of ancient oral poetics, and it joins other recent publications on the Trojan and Theban poems in signalling a particularly productive era in our understanding of the Epic Cycle and its composition, transmission, qualities and appeal.5


1.   In particular, M. J. Squire, The Iliad in a Nutshell: Visualizing Epic on the Tabulae Iliacae (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
2.   E.g. for 'Arctinus', read 'Stasinus' (p. 23); a reference at p. 213, footnote 3 gives the page numbers as 000; there are very occasional odd intrusions of the wrong font or type colour. I found the volume's policy of abbreviating to FrgrHist rather than the standard FrGrHist rather jarring.
3.   To complicate matters further, Christos Tsagalis's chapter on the Telegony offers yet another re-numbering of the fragments of that epic to add to those of PEG, Davies and West.
4.   An example: Andrea Debiasi's chapter on the Alcmeonis uses West's text, which differs in several minor ways from those of Bernabé and Davies. At F 2.2 West (and thus Debiasi) prints προέθηκ' where PEG and Davies accept Meineke's παρέθηκ', but the reference provided merely states: 'PEG F 2 (= D., W.)'.
5.   Alongside M. L. West, The Epic Cycle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), see now M. Davies, The Theban Epics (Washington DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2015), which appeared too late for this volume to take into account; further commentaries on the Cyclic fragments are promised by Davies.

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