Few have better expressed the tumultuous rise and fall of civilizations better than the great Epic poets of ancient and modern times. By combining elevated language with war, betrayal, romance, adventure, and a whole lot of reflection, these twenty lengthy tomes have captured the essence of whole peoples in single (albeit gigantic) works, ranging from semi-fictional accounts of war to satirical mockeries of misguided heroism.
Epic poetry–or heroic poetry, as some of the medieval poets have called it–follows a certain time-tested formula to portray such grand representations of heroes and their followers. Here are a few recurring patterns to keep in mind when considering these texts:
- The invocation of a muse. These poets plea to the gods at the very beginning to grant them the power to tell these stories with a certain forcefulness, though some admittedly pretend to do so to claim they are divinely empowered.
- Many of these begin in medias res, in the middle of the story, and may digress into the past later on in the poem.
- There are many journeys into the underworld.
- There are grand battle-scenes punctuated by extended similes, ambitious analogies that stretch the imagination but strive for literary glory.
- Many will feature the might of armies in long digressions featuring weaponry and war games.
Here is a list of 20 of the greatest Epic poems in the tradition:
1. The Epic of Gilgamesh (~2000 BCE)
It is not surprising that even the oldest known work of literature in the world is an epic poem written on the grandest of scales. Based on the actual Assyrian king, Gilgamesh confronts many of the themes that Homer will tackle in his epic poetry: the human/deity divide, mortality, seduction, legacy. As a young god-king in the poem, Gilgamesh’s arrogant practices trouble the populace until Enkidu, a wildman created by a goddess, challenges the monarch’s power. Although it was written about 4000 years ago, critics have argued that it is a particularly humanistic work, as the demi-gods’ desire adventure and pleasure over ruthless destruction.
2.The Homeric Poems – The Iliad (~800 BCE)
Few details are known about who Homer actually was, but the poet’s (or poets’) identity is surely peripheral compared to the impact these two texts have had on Western Civilization. Sparked by the taking of Helen from Sparta, the Greeks, lead by Achilles, advance towards Troy to destroy their adversary. While there is some involvement from the gods, it is again the human factor that is much more significant, as the leader’s fateful spar with Hector is both a celebration of military heroism and a mournful ode to the losses of battle. Many common phrases have their origin in this poem, including the hero’s vulnerable “Achilles’ Heel”, as well as the famous symbol of deception, “the trojan horse”, the receptacle used to bring the soldiers into the Trojan stronghold.
3. The Homeric Poems – The Odyssey (~800 BCE)
The Odyssey, on the other hand, follows the warrior Odysseus as he tries to find his way home from Troy across the Peloponnesian sea. Not only must he fend off the malevolence of gods and the seduction of Calypso, but he must also get home before the suitors coerce his wife into marriage. As the basis for countless works that have followed it, many of the narrative and poetic devices employed in the poem have gone on to influence what we now consider to be Western Literature.
4. The Mahabharata (350 BCE)
The great Indian epic is one of the longest pieces of literature of all time, but its exhausting length has not stopped it from being a pivotal literary text in the formation of Hindu identity. Narrated by the sage Vyasa, the 220,000 line poem follows a human incarnation of the god Vishnu as two dynasties fight for supremacy in the mythical Elephant City. Not only does the poem itself contain another seminal Hindu text, The Bhagavad Gita, but its panoramic view of everything from spirituality to morality have had an impact on Indian society for thousands of years.
5. Virgil – The Aeneid The Aeneid (19 BCE)
Written at the height emperor Augustine’s reign, The Aeneid soon became the great Roman epic, the creation story of what was at that time the most mighty empire in the world. Starting off where the Iliad ends, the poem describes Aeneas’ travel from Troy to Carthage, where he has a brief relationship with Queen Dido. After he abandons her, he travels to Italy to ward off enemies and found Rome. Although he is not as passionate as Dido (she commits suicide in heartbroken misery), his stoic attitude towards his national duty speaks to the nationalistic pride Augustine attempted to impart upon his people.
6. Ovid - Metamorphoses (8 AD)
Ovid’s epic does not contain as much bloodshed and travel as Homer’s and Virgil’s, but his 15-part poem contains the elevated language of the epic. Written in epic dactylic hexameter (six long syllables staggered by shorter ones), the poem is less of a confirmation of myth as much as a retelling of it. While Virgil preached a certain inexorable push towards Roman supremacy, Ovid’s reconfiguration of the Greek and (slightly different) Roman myths emphasize how gods change to men. Some of the selections include the story of Pygmalion–the sculptor who falls in love with his statue, as well as the unforgettable transformation of Daphne into a tree while escaping a malicious suitor. It sought to deflate the hifalutin air surrounding myth while also educating the public.
7. Firdawsi – The Shahnameh (11th century)
One thing that the great Iranian epic has in common with the ancients is a sense of nostalgia from a lost past. Also known as The Book of Kings, The Shahnameh looks back at the old Zoroastrian traditions in the country while chronicling the entire history of the Persian Empire from its Eurasian reign to its demise in the Muslim conquests of the 7th century. While this may seem more historical than poetic, Firdawsi drives the work forward by including vivid accounts of political intrigue and betrayal.
8. Beowulf (~8th-11th century CE)
Some may know Beowulf as Britain’s national epic, but it is in fact celebrated as a national text in most Nordic countries. Purportedly the strongest man that ever lived, Beowulf is hired by Hrothgar to protect his domain from a grotesque swamp creature, Grendel. Not only does he vanquish him, but he also confronts his mother, various sea creatures a terrifying fire-breathing dragon. The poem was at first lauded for its fantastical elements, but further criticism revived its more important cultural implications–that the Kingdoms lining the North Sea were no longer joining forces to fend off outsiders, but were rather turning on each other, often for petty reasons.
9. The Nibelungenlied (13th century)
This fragmented collection of several thousand stanzas was only rediscovered several centuries after it was written, but this poem’s scale is so grand that it helped revive Teutonic mythology in Germany. About the slow but inevitable decline of the Burgundian people of the North Atlantic, the majority of the poem follows Siegfried, an Achilles-like figure who fights dragons, conquers Nibelungenland and uses his invisibility cloak to defeat enemies. 19th century composer Richard Wagner would later use material from this poem to produce his masterpiece The Ring-Cycle, though later German National Socialists would use it to propagate erroneous assertions about a “Teutonic race.”
10. The Song of Roland (11th-12th century)
As Western Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, Heroic Poetry combined chivalric lore with elevated verse to create many ambitiously-crafted works that reinforced the myth of the knight in shining armor. Le Chanson de Roland, as it was known, tells the story of the 8th century battles between the conquering muslims and the defending Franks as they vie for position in Iberia and the Pyrenees. The poem reinforced many of the knightly “virtues”–gallantry and martyrdom, to name a few, and not until the arrival of Cervantes’ Don Quixote would mark a gradual deflation of this genre’s popularity.
11. The Saga of Grettir the Strong (The Icelandic Sagas) – (13th-14th century)
The Icelandic Sagas are a collection of dozens of mythological prose histories centered around the Viking diaspora of the 10th-11th centuries. One of the most striking examples of these is the Saga of Grettir The Strong, about a powerful outlaw who fends off many enemies before his quick temper and overbearing strength prompts his slow decline. Not only is this a richly-described representation of the difficulties of Nordic life, but like Beowulf, it is also a time capsule marking Northern Europe’s eventual shift from paganism to Christianity.
12. Ludovico Ariosto – Orlando Furioso (1532)
Orlando continues the trend of heroic verse begun by Roland with this more fantastical interpretation of the battles between the Franks and the invading Saracens. Furioso is a valiant warrior charged to save his people, but he is sidetracked by a bout of madness caused by the seductions of Angelica. Just like Virgil’s Aeneid, Orlando Furioso juxtaposes valiant duty with passionate love, but it also romanticizes love by comparing it to a type of identity-subverting madness. Ariosto’s poem, however, recognizes that the passions are a weakness no knight should dabble with, and it always goes back to the importance of duty before anything else.
13. Dante – The Divine Comedy (1308-1321)
T.S. Eliot bestowed unequivocal praise upon Dante’s masterpiece, calling it “’the highest point that poetry has ever reached or ever can reach.” Just as Virgil started off where The Iliad ended, Dante takes Virgil along in his journey through the depth of sin in the first part of the poem, The Inferno. After funnelling through the seven, increasingly-sinful layers of Hell, he begins his ascent through The Purgatorio (Part 2) all the way to The Paradiso (Part 3). Deeply personal but cosmological in scope, the poem helped promote Italian vernacular in a time when the Latinate church reigned over his home country. It is now considered the greatest work of medieval poetry, sublimely connecting contemporary European thought with the then-untapped trove of Classical thought.
14. Luis de Camoëns – The Lusiads (1572)
Before war movies could use flag-bearing ad nauseam to propagate the enduring might of nations, Epic poetry served as a useful tool for empires trying to make a name for themselves. Telling the story of famed explorer Vasco de Gama, The Lusiads is the great Portuguese Epic, written at the height of their intercontinental imperialism. However, Camoëns’ masterpiece would go beyond the adventures, battles and romance to hint at a certain weariness with the conquering mentality of the European nations, sublimely describing the proverbial Saudade the explorers continually suffered from.
15. Edmund Spenser – The Faerie Queen (1590)
Drawing from many of the previous sources on this list, Spenser modeled his epic after the works of Virgil, Ariosto, as well as the philosophy of Aristotle and Cicero. About a knight seeking the hand of the virginal and veracious Una, Spenser tries to connect Queen Elizabeth to the most famous of all British ancestors, King Arthur. The poem was well received by the throne at the time, but the poet’s unique verse form is so enshrouded in ambiguity that few–including Spenser himself–have given clear answers to its more cryptic passages.
16. John Milton – Paradise Lost (1667)
Colloquially known as the great Protestant Epic, Milton retells both the story of the fall of Lucifer (Satan) in heaven and The fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The onset of blindness didn’t stop him from justifying “the ways of God to men” in this work, depicting Satan as an immensely-complex figure in the midst of a brutal war with God in the heavens. However, Milton successfully employs many of the Epic devices first introduced by Homer, including the invocation of the muse, an extensive amount of similes and a series of descriptions of heavenly war games.
17. Alexander Pope – The Rape of the Lock (1714)
The Rape of the Lock is perhaps one of the most hilarious poetic satires in English literature. Pope, however, uses the many of the aforementioned devices of Epic poetry to inflate the pointless uproar caused by an actual quarrel between two London families in this tale about a cut lock of hair. Considering the breadth of his cataloguing, the extravagant descriptions of card-playing, as well as the ridiculous journey into “the Cave of Spleen” (his own underworld), it is difficult to argue that it doesn’t belong with the more “serious” works in this list.
18. Epic of Manas (Published in 1792 – Actual Date Unknown)
The small Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan may not be well-known on the International stage for their literature, but the sheer immensity of this Epic poem is staggering. Considered one of the longest works of poetry in the world, it tells the story of the hero Manas, a kind of figurehead for the warring Kyrgyzs of yesteryear. Recited by traditional manaschi poets, Manas is a cultural icon that has lent its name to many of the country’s most significant institutions.
19. Lord Byron – Don Juan (1819)
Pope’s mock-epic wasn’t the only work to satirize the elevated stature of heroic verse. Byron, who always had a taste for extravagant presentation, uses the elements of Epic Poetry to retell the story of the infamous womanizer with with a particular reversal: instead of being the seducer, he actually gets seduced by the women he is interested in. At first derided by critics as smutty, public opinion soon changed when readers realized that the 16,000 line poem included the masterful use of Byron’s signature ottava rima.
20. Ezra Pound – The Cantos (1915-1962)
Pound’s Cantos is perhaps the most divisive work of the 20th century. Hailed as a masterpiece by some and wholly incoherent by others, it did not help that their initial success collided with his political views, which culminated in various fascist outpourings on Italian radio during the Second World War. Nevertheless, Pound attempts to connect dozens of classical works with modern times, including-but-not-limited-to The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Sapphic poems and even the writings of Confucius. Encyclopedic but scattered, you can see why their survival has largely been maintained by scholarly study and not public approval.