Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2008
THE CYCLIC EPICS
Homer and Hesiod, as the sole survivors of the earliest age of Greek literature, have conveyed such an impression of uniqueness that it requires some effort to recall that they were by no means without rivals and imitators. The formulaic nature of their verse, which implies a common bardic tradition, the recitations of Phemius and Demodocus in the Odyssey, and the occasion of Hesiod's competition at Chalcis all suggest that the eighth century was a period of lively poetic activity. When at Od. 12.70 the good ship Argo is said to be ‘of interest to all’, that surely alludes to some well-known treatment of the story of the Argonauts; and the brief résumé of Oedipus' story at Od. 11.271–80 must recall a more extended treatment elsewhere. We know that many early epic poems in fact survived from the archaic period alongside the works of Homer and Hesiod; at some (unknown) stage they were grouped into a sequence or ‘cycle’ starting at the remotest of beginnings with a Theogony and a Battle of the Titans and running through the legends of Thebes and the Trojan War. They were performed by professional reciters (rhapsodes) in competitions at festivals, and must have been widely known until at least well into the fifth century. Probably the term ‘cycle’ was originally used of most epic narrative poetry, Homeric and non-Homeric alike; it was only after the time of Aristotle that ‘cyclic’ meant something essentially different from ‘Homeric’.