Epic Poetry

Along with The Odyssey, Homer’s other poem, The Iliad originated the epic poetry genre. The standard definition of an epic poem, sometimes also known as a heroic poem, typically emphasizes certain criteria. First, an epic poem is a long narrative on a serious subject, told in verse in a formal or elevated style. Second, it is centered on a heroic figure who may be quasi-divine or have some kind of superhuman abilities, whether physical or intellectual or both. Finally, the central hero’s actions must determine the fate of a community or nation. Homer’s Iliad fulfills all of these criteria. It is a long verse narrative on the very serious subject of war. The poet speaks in an elevated style quite distant from conventional speech. The poem centers on Achilles, who is the quasi-divine son of a human father and the sea nymph Thetis, and the poet tells of Achilles’s—and indeed of many others’—heroic deeds in a war that will determine the fates of both the Achaeans and the Trojans. 

In addition to these defining elements, The Iliad includes other features that have since become conventional in epic poetry. For instance, The Iliad opens with the poet stating his epic theme through an invocation to a muse: “Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.” The epic theme, sometimes called the “argument,” gives voice to the central problem or issue that incites the action of the poem. In the case of The Iliad, the poet is not interested in the reasons for the Trojan War itself, which began almost ten years before the poem is set. Instead, the poet emphasizes the conflict that erupted when Agamemnon laid claim to Achilles’s prized maiden. The epic theme of The Iliad is thus surprisingly human since it arises from feelings of betrayal, jealousy, and humiliation. Another epic convention is to begin in medias res, which is to say, “in the middle of things.” Epic poetry often plunges its audience into the middle of action, which The Iliad does by commencing in the middle of the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon.

However, what’s most significant about epic poetry is not the particular conventions that define its subject and style but the overall vastness of its scope. Epic poems like The Iliad recount extraordinary events that took place in a time beyond living memory. Consequently, such poems require a massive, sustained effort on the part of the poet to manage stories that span many places as well as mortal and immortal characters. In the case of The Iliad, the narrative moves swiftly between the Achaean and Trojan encampments, the violence of the battlefield, Achilles’s camp, and the gods’ home on Mount Olympus. In managing all of these locations and people, the poet doesn’t just tell a story about a seemingly unending war; he tells a story about how war and violence are a persistent and inescapable aspect of human existence. As such, The Iliad does what all epic poetry must: it gives voice to themes that shape the political and moral universe of a nation.

Read about an epic poem that draws from the tradition of The Iliad, John Milton’s Paradise Lost.