Reading Epic: An Introduction to the Ancient Narratives

By Peter Toohey | Go to book overview
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6

THE ALEXANDRIAN MINIATURE EPIC

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A MINOR GENRE

It is not often that we can watch the birth, death, and resurrection of a literary genre. We can do this with a version of the small-scale epic developed in Alexandria at the time of Apollonius. This type of poem (sometimes termed the 'epyllion', or the 'miniature' or even the 'minor' epic) became very popular, not just in Alexandria, but also in Rome. But it did die-some time in the first century of our era. The trouble was that, like the Tasmanian Tiger, it was too specialized. New literary predators and new literary colonists rendered it extinct.

What of the resurrection? That took place with a series of selfconscious revivals as late as the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries (Vessey 1970:38): from the sixteenth century there are Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (1593) and Rape of Lucrece (1594) (Donno 1963), then, much later, Pope's Rape of the Lock (Tillyard 1954).

Yet sometimes its very existence is denied (Allen 1940; Vessey 1970; but Hollis 1990). Rather, there were epics of considerably shorter length than those produced by Homer, Apollonius, Naevius, and Ennius (Newman 1986:31). Short epics had always been composed (Hollis 1990:25): Hesiod's Shield of Herades or his didactic Theogony and Works and Days may be typical; from late antiquity many examples survive (Chapter 11). During the Hellenistic period, however, there were at least two identifiable types. The first is simply a narrative on a mythological, sometimes heroic theme told sequentially and without the encumbrance of 'digressions' or multiple stories within the same poem. There was also a second, more eccentric type whose prime trait is the 'digression'. This second type

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