The Greek heroic tradition once embraced a much wider range of epic poems than merely the Iliad and the Odyssey with which it eventually became associated. Side by side with the Trojan cycle, to which the Homeric poems belong, additional heroic subjects were treated in epic cycles such as the Argonautic saga, the Theban cycle, and others, some of them also attributed to Homer. At an early stage, all the traditional poems dealing with the events of the Trojan War were assumed to be authored by Homer; later, only the Iliad and the Odyssey came to be seen as genuinely “Homeric”, whereas the other Trojan epics were attributed to other poets and subsumed under the so-called Epic Cycle. A handful of fragments and a brief summary of the contents excerpted from the Chrestomathy of Proclus is all that has remained of the Cyclic poems, and even less than that of other epics.1 Only the Iliad and the Odyssey survived transmission, eventually to form part of the so-called “Western Canon”. While it is pretty obvious that this outcome has much to do with the privileged status that the Homeric poems enjoyed in ancient Greece,2 it is much less obvious how they acquired this status. In what follows, I will argue that the Iliad and the Odyssey were intended to supersede the other traditional epics from the very beginning and that they achieved this goal by means of a thorough revision of the heroic tradition and its deliberate adaptation to the new self-image of Greek civilization that emerged in the early Archaic period.
1 For general collections see G. Kinkel, Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Vol. 1 (Leipzig, 1877); M. Davies, Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta (Göttingen, 1988); A. Bernabé, Poetarum Epicorum Graecorum Testimonia et Fragmenta. Vol. 1 (Stuttgart and Leipzig, 1996) (henceforth, Bernabé). For the Epic Cycle see T.W. Allen, Homeri Opera. Vol. 5 (Oxford, 1912) (henceforth Allen); H. Evelyn-White, Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica (Cambridge, Mass., 1914); E. Bethe, Homer, Dichtung und Sage (2nd ed.). Vol. 2 (Leipzig and Berlin, 1929) (reprinted as E. Bethe, Der Troische Epenkreis (Stuttgart, 1966)).
2 See M. Finkelberg, “The Cypria, the Iliad, and the Problem of Multiformity in Oral and Written Tradition”, Classical Philology 95 (2000), 1–11.