“…break me not with aching, nor with grief, Lady, tame my heart!” – Sappho, Ode to Aphrodite

Epic poetry

An epic poem is a long, narrative poem that is usually about heroic deeds and events that are significant to the culture of the poet. Many ancient writers used epic poetry to tell tales of intense adventures and heroic feats. Some of the most famous literary masterpieces in the world were written in the form of epic poetry.

Epic poems were particularly common in the ancient world because they were ideal for expressing stories orally. When we refer to epic poetry, in the context of ancient literature, we usually refer to the two Greek epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to Homer.

These book-long poems are unlike most other poems we are familiar with, and not just for their length. They are different in that they switch around from scene to scene and there is dialogue, like a play. Speeches make up so much of epic poems that Plato called epic poetry a mixture of dramatic and narrative literature.

Speeches might be a throwback to the oral tradition of epic, where the epic story was passed down, from master storyteller to pupil, possibly within a family. The storyteller or “rhapsode” played a lyre as he sang his improvised epic song. The epic song was composed of elements from myth and folklore welded into place by means of the rhapsode’s skilled insertion of formulaic elements.

The central figure of ancient epic poetry is the hero. In the 2 major Greek ancient classical epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the heroes are Achilles, in the Iliad, and Odysseus in the Odyssey. Other key characteristics of epic poetry include:

  • Epic heroes come from the heroic era, which precedes the Archaic Age in ancient Greece.
  • The heroes of epic literature are bound by a code of honour.
  • The form of the epic is verse – Dactylic Hexameters – marking it immediately as poetry.
  • The language of epic poetry is often formulaic.
  • The material of epic poetry is elevated; it does not dwell on the banal details of life.
  • Speeches are frequent.

Hesiod and Homer are the most famous ancient Greek epic poets.

Sappho, lyric poet

Lyric poetry

Anyone who has an ear for verse or song today will hear echoes of modern music in what the ancient Greeks called lyric poetry. After the age of epic when stately poems of extraordinary deeds—and length—reigned supreme, Greek tastes changed radically. Shorter, more personal poems written for feasts and weddings came into fashion. The greatest Greek lyric poet in ancient Greece was the incomparable Sappho, one of the rare women whose voice emerges from Greek antiquity.

The Lyric Age

For all his genius and narrative gifts, Homer composed in only one meter ever. From an oral poet, that’s to be expected. Besides telling a coherent story of great length and complexity based on the use of oral formulas and composed spontaneously in performance, are we also to require of him a mastery of many poetic forms? It would be unfair and unnecessary.

But as the pre-Classical Age began to dawn after 800 BCE, the Greeks opened their eyes to the larger world around them. With that, oral poetry, illiteracy, and nostalgia for the heroes of yore yielded to lyric poetry, writing and the love of innovation per se. Unlike in centuries prior, “new and different” was now good, experimentation prized and a will to explore one means of measuring someone’s greatness. In consequence, the Greeks of this age—in many ways, lived in one of the headiest times ever in history.

Where the art and taste for new modes of verse first arose isn’t clear, but by the seventh century BCE lyric poetry was spreading quickly across Greece, especially among the Ionian populations who lived along the shores of the Aegean Sea. In addition to experimenting with different meters, lyric poets also sang their songs to the accompaniment of a lyre, a stringed instrument plucked with the hand—if Homer had musical backup, it’s not evident in the text of his epics—thus, the name “lyric poetry.”

The lyre functioned much as the guitar does today, and indeed lyric poetry finds an interesting analogue in modern rock music. Where Homer had served up two voluminous tales, lyric poets wrote short, direct poems and many of them. This change resembles in some way the transition from opera to rock-and-roll in the modern world. Long, dramatic compositions focusing on heroes and tragic encounters gave way to poems embracing quick and pointed reflections on daily life and love. Modern poetry has moved in much the same direction.

Both arts also reflect their changing times. As Greece expanded, a restless crowd of enterprising merchants emerged. These entrepreneurs didn’t see their roots in the heroic past but sought from the arts an eloquent companion for their own experiences in the fast lane. To suit the temper of these nouveaux riches, a lyric poet’s work needed to be terse and varied.

Like modern audiences, too, their moods tended to centre around love: love lost, love found, love’s pain and joy. Lyric poetry swells with the excesses of erotic yearning, more than one of its poets was famous in antiquity for excessive behaviour and drunken escapades. That history has handed down to us none of the music which accompanied this genre is a terrible loss, and it is to the great credit of its artists that much of their original power still comes through the words of Greek lyric poetry even without the soundtrack. No poetry shows this better than Sappho’s.

Sappho, the greatest of the lyric poets, lived on the island of Lesbos in the northwestern Aegean. She flourished sometime around 600 BCE, that is, about a century or two after Homer. Little is known about her life. She may have gone into exile in Sicily at one point in her life, a biographical detail we can’t rule out given the perpetually stormy politics in her homeland. The rare truth that shines out among all these later tales is that Sappho ran a sort of finishing school for girls who were in training to be the companions of men since most of her poems are addressed with great affection to young ladies.

Typical of poets, however, Sappho isn’t easy to label with simple qualifiers like “lesbian” — though the adjective itself originates as a reference to her, its homosexual connotation arose only long after her lifetime —because her poetry centres less on the distant objects which attract her than the larger world around them and the even greater world within the poetess herself. As few others in western civilization have — she stands shoulder to shoulder with Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Keats — Sapphic verse explores the intensity of emotions surrounding love.

n the end, history has been unkind to Sappho. Fixating on the hollow vessels in which she poured her abundant love, many critics especially after antiquity condemned her for unnatural passions, when it’s clear her fascination is not with the girl but with feeling the depths of despair and heights of ecstasy love brings — that is, taking the journey, not reaching the destination — and as a consequence of their narrow-mindedness, history has also been unkind to her work, most of which now is lost. What little has survived the ravages of such deplorable bias consists of incomplete poems and scrappy fragments, an unspeakable tragedy to humankind. The failure of our predecessors to preserve her poetry is, simply put, the single most horrendous blunder in all of literary history.

All in all, another even more earth-shaking change underlies lyric poetry. It’s obvious that, although the lyric poets sang their verses in public much the same way their oral counterparts had in Homer’s age, lyric poetry rose out of a literate culture. Clearly, Sappho and her fellow poets wrote their works—that is, they didn’t compose them orally — and like modern singers, performed them as memorized pieces, not verses fabricated spontaneously and unique to each performance. At least to judge from the widespread appeal of some lyric poets, their poems probably circulated in written form, too. This new literature, in the truest sense of the word “written text,” looked ahead to the next stage in the evolution of ancient narrative arts when drama would dominate public attention.

Philosophers, historians, poetry, tragedy, comedy

Ancient Greek literature

Comedy and tragedyGo!
Greek philosophersGo!
Greek historiansGo!
Ancient Greek poetryGo!
Aesop's fables and anecdotesGo!

A small collection of ancient Greek poems (translated into English)

One girl

by Sappho (translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti)

Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,
Atop on the topmost twig, — which the pluckers forgot, somehow, —
Forget it not, nay; but got it not, for none could get it till now.

Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found,
Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound,
Until the purple blossom is trodden in the ground.

It’s no use / Mother dear…

by Sappho (translated by Mary Barnard)

It’s no use
Mother dear,
Ι can’t finish my weaving
You may blame Aphrodite

soft as she is
she has almost
killed me with
love for that boy

The first Olympic ode (excerpt)

by Pindar

Creatures for a day! What is a man?
What is he not? A dream of a shadow.
Is our mortal being. But when there comes to men
A gleam of splendour given of heaven,
Then rests on them a light of glory
And blessed are their days.

Various epigrams attributed to Simonides

by Simonides

Four thousand from Peloponnesus once fought here with three millions.
(On the general monument of all the Greeks who fell at Thermopylae)

Stranger, bear this message to the Spartans, that we lie here obedient to their laws.
(On the monument of the Spartans who fell at Thermopylae)

We lie here, having given our lives to save all Hellas when she stood on a razor’s edge.
(On the tomb of the Corinthians who fell at Salamis. The stone has been found)

External links: Wikipedia

Who are the most important ancient Greek poets?

Stay in touch.
Join our community!

Hellenism Forum