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Epic & Epyllion


Modern scholars regularly use the term epyllion, or ‘little epic’, to describe a brief narrative poem written in hexameters. Such poems usually treat mythological themes. They often show a preference for lesser known myths, and treat these myths in a humorous or light-hearted way. Other features of some epyllia are interpolations in the story, which may take the form of internal narrators or extended descriptions.

In this module, we will study a range of texts which have been called, or might qualify as epyllia: Catullus’ carmina docta; the Aristaeus episode in Virgil Georgics 4; the Nisus and Euryalus episode in Aeneid 9; some episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; the pseudo-Virgilian Ciris, a poem about Scylla and her father Minos; and the epyllion of Hypsipyle in Statius Thebaid 5. We will analyse which traits these poems may share and how our understanding of these poems can be enriched through studying them collectively. We will also discuss the usefulness of the genre ‘epyllion’, and engage with theories of genre more broadly. Throughout our course we will compare epyllia to epic poetry, which is at the summit of the ancient hierarchies of genres. This will allow us to gain a better understanding of the traditions that epyllia follow and the innovations that they bring about.

Students outside the Classics department who want to take this module should be familiar Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid.




Set texts (in translation)

  • Catullus 63, 64, 65, 66, 68
  • Virgil Georgics 4
  • Virgil Aeneid (we will focus on Book 9)
  • Ovid Metamorphoses (we will look at selected passages from Books 2 and 8 in the lectures)
  • [Pseudo-Virgil] Ciris
  • Statius Thebaid (we will focus on book 5)


Recommended translations

  • The Poems of Catullus, edited with an introduction, translation and brief notes by Guy Lee (Oxford World's Classics 1991)
  • Virgil Georgics, a new translation by Peter Fallon, with an introduction and notes by E. Fantham (Georgic 4 only) (Oxford World’s Classics 2006)
  • Virgil The Aeneid, translated by David West (Penguin Classics 2003)
  • Ovid Metamorphoses, a new verse translation by David Raeburn (Penguin 2004)
  • A translation of the pseudo-Virgilian Ciris will be circulated in class
  • Statius: Thebaid. A Song of Thebes, translation with introduction, commentary and a glossary by Jane William Joyce (Cornell University Press 2008)

All texts are also available in the Loeb Classical Library, to which the university has digital access (click here to read the Loebs). The Loeb translations also contain a facing Latin text.


Set texts for Q800 students

Catullus 64

  • Goodwin, J. 1995. Poems 61-68, Warminster

Virgil Georgics 4.333-566

  • Thomas, R. F. 2008. Virgil: Georgics, Volume II: Books III-IV, Cambridge

Virgil Aeneid 9.176-445

  • Hardie, P. 1994. Virgil: Aeneid, Book IX, Cambridge

These Latin texts are to be read in addition to the primary set texts in English above. The primary set texts in English subsume the Latin prescriptions: they should be read for comprehension of how the prescribed part in Latin fits into the whole text to which it belongs.


Other primary texts

The following texts will be useful background reading for all students.

  • Homer Iliad
  • Homer Odyssey
  • Moschus Europa
  • Virgil Aeneid
  • Apollonius of Rhodes Argonautica
  • Callimachus Hecale; Aetia
  • Theocritus Idylls
  • ps-Virgil Culex
  • Ovid Fasti
  • Statius Achilleid
  • Claudian De raptu Proserpinae


Examples of epyllion in European literature

  • Pope The Rape of the Lock
  • Shakespeare Venus and Adonis; The Rape of Lucrece
  • Gongora Polyphemus and Galatea