THE GREEK EPIC CYCLE AND ITS ANCIENT RECEPTION: A COMPANION

Ed. by M. Fantuzzi and C. Tsagalis

CUP (2015) h/b 679pp £120.00 (ISBN 9781197912592)

This book embodies the revival of the Epic Cycle, a collection of archaic Greek epics, now largely lost, surviving only in fragments and prose summaries, long considered second-rate, but once part of the cultural and mythological backdrop against which Homer composed the Iliad and Odyssey and was himself received. This volume sets the study of these poems on a whole new footing and makes a timely appearance, just after the publication of commentaries on the Troy epics by the late ML West (2013) and the Theban epics by M Davies (2015). It features a stellar cast: some of the greatest names in the field collaborate in this intellectual tour de force which surveys equally the formation of the Epic Cycle, the individual epics, and the Cycle’s reception in antiquity.

The scope of this collection is unprecedented: from in-depth discussions of the formation of the Epic Cycle and its relationship to other archaic epics, to discussion of its linguistic features and possible authorships (Chs 1-9), to contributions surveying the individual poems (Chs 11-21), to the reception of the Cycle from archaic lyric, to tragedy, Hellenistic poetry, Roman epic, the ancient novel, imperial Greek epic (Chs 22-32), and chapters on the Cycle in Graeco-Roman art (10 and 27). It is particularly pleasing to see the inclusion of the late John Foley (himself editor of the splendidly interdisciplinary Blackwell Companion to Ancient Epic, 2009) and Martin West, two giants in the field.

While the volume is excellent on the relationship between the Epic Cycle and Homer (especially Chs. 5 and 6)—a focus that is entirely justifiable in view of the thematic overlap—a separate chapter on Hesiod and the Cyclic epics would not have gone awry: the editors and Finkelberg (Ch. 6) do a good job of contextualizing the stories narrated in the Cycle within the framework of Hesiod’s Race of Heroes (the fourth generation in his Myth of Ages, ended by the Trojan War as the Catalogue of Women tells us), but more remains to be said. No doubt the editors, quite reasonably, felt that owing to to the fragmentary state of the Cyclic epics and Hesiod’s Catalogue such a chapter would have been excessively speculative and wanted to avoid reduplication of material discussed elsewhere in the volume. That said, even if Hesiod does not receive systematic treatment, in the Index locorum Homer and he do receive near-equal mention, with the balance paradoxically in favour of the latter (20 versus 21 loci).

Those with a general interest in the Cycle—I am thinking particularly of teachers of high school students or undergraduates wanting to contextualize Hesiod and Homer—may prefer M Davies’ hundred-page survey (Bristol, 1989; 2nd ed. 2009), but this volume is where the real gems are found. At times the discussion is hypothetical and technical, as is inevitable in discussing fragmentary poems with multiple ascriptions that have gone through multiple redactions after centuries of oral transmission, but the contributions on the individual epics may serve instructors as convenient background reading (either to refresh their own memories or those of their students), while those on the Cycle’s reception do excellent service as introductory readings explicating its presence (or absence) in authors such as Pindar, Euripides, Callimachus, Vergil, Ovid, and many others.

The book is handsomely produced, with lavish margins, full bibliography, and helpful, if selective, indices. Typos are few and far between and generally non-intrusive (though the accidental transferral of the Cypria’s authorship to Arctinus instead of Stasinus on p. 23 may cause a double-take); formatting could have been applied more consistently (cf. e.g. the [non]-italicizing of transliterated Greek on p. 73). ‘Gifts often deceive the minds and deeds of men’ (The Returns, F7 West), but this collection is truly a boon for those seeking guidance in exploring the Cycle.

Gary Vos

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