The Epic Cycle, also called the Trojan Cycle because it narrates events related to the Trojan War, is a collection of eight poems composed in dactylic hexameter, the traditional type of verse of the Greco-Latin epic.
The two most famous, for having been preserved complete, are The Iliad and The Odyssey, both attributed to Homer. Of the remaining six, only fragments have reached us in later works (of some just a few lines), and a summary of each in Proclu’s Chrestomathy (a kind of anthology), a character of whom it is hardly known that he is not the neo-Platonic philosopher who lived in the 5th century AD). So we know their titles and argument.
They all have in common their origin in the oral tradition that developed in the Dark Ages of Greece, a period ranging from the disappearance or collapse of the Mycenaean world around 1200-1100 B.C. and the archaic epoch in the eighth century B.C., which would be when they begin to be put into writing.
They are attributed to different authors and, in chronological order are the following:
1. Cypria or Cyprian Chants
The title literally means that of Cyprus, and it is possible that this indicates the origin of its author or his relationship with Aphrodite, goddess born in Cyprus.
Its authorship is attributed to Stasinus of Cyprus or, according to Photius, to Hegesias. Some ancient authors attribute it to Homer himself, asserting that the Cypria were the wedding gift he gave to his daughter by marrying Stanisus. Pindar and other authors mention Stasinus as the author, and even Plato quotes Socrates saying the same on the Euthyphro.
Curiously, in 1995 an inscription appeared in Bodrum (the ancient Halicarnassus) with a list of Greek poets. Among them was the hitherto unknown Kypria, to which the inscription attributes the composition of Iliaka (Jonathan Burgess, Kyprias, 2002).
The poem consisted of 11 books, which narrated the events that had led to the Trojan War, as well as the first nine years of it, ending right where the Iliad begins. Herodotus revealed some contradictions between the two works, such as the fact that Cypria mentions that Paris had arrived in Troy directly from Sparta, while the Iliad states that it had previously passed through Sidon:
By these lines and by this passage it is also most clearly shown that the “Cyprian Epic” was not written by Homer but by some other man: for in this it is said that on the third day after leaving Sparta Alexander came to Ilion bringing with him Helen, having had a “gently-blowing wind and a smooth sea,” whereas in the Iliad it says that he wandered from his course when he brought herHerodotus, History II-98
It is not very clear whether Cypria was composed before or after the Iliad. Most experts are inclined to think that it was put into writing later. However, many are convinced that the Catalogue of Trojans, which lists the Trojan warriors and allies in the second book of the Iliad, may be extracted from Cypria.
After Cypria, in chronological order, would follow the events narrated in the Iliad and then the Aethiopis. These were five books attributed to Arctinus of Miletus, a legendary poet considered by some as a disciple of Homer, and others as Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the oldest known poet (Ancient History of Rome, I-68,2).
Aethiopis was named after Memnon, the Ethiopian king who fought alongside the Trojans after Hector’s death, and the story begins right where the Iliad ends. It starts with the arrival of Penthesileia, the queen of the Amazons (whom Achilles kills in combat), and ends with the death of Achilles and the confrontation between Ajax Telamonium and Odysseus for keeping their weapons.
Tethys comes with the Muses and their sisters and mourns for his son Achilles. After that, Tethys snatches him from the pyre and takes him to the island of Leuke. But the Achaeans raise their burial mound and hold funerary games, and a dispute breaks out between Odysseus and Ajax over the armor of AchillesSummary of Aethiopis, Chrestomathy (Proclus)
The events narrated in Aethiopis are among the most popular used by ancient Greek pottery painters.
3. Little Iliad
After Aethiopis would follow the four books of the Little Iliad, attributed to Lesches of Pyrrha (city of the island of Lesbos), a poet mentioned by Pausanias and who lived around 700 BC.
Here the events are narrated from the death of Achilles to the idea of the Greeks to enter Troy through the stratagem of the wooden horse. But the fall and destruction of the city is not included.
It is also one of the poems in the cycle of which the most original lines are preserved: thirty. Aristotle said of it that it had more plots than an epic poem should have.
The two books of the Iliupersis (Sack of Ilium), tell of the destruction of Troy, continuing what is told in the Little Iliad. The ancients attributed its authorship to Arctinus of Miletus, to whom we have already seen as responsible for Aethiopis.
The story begins with the Trojans discussing what to do with the wooden horse that the Greeks have left in the place where they had the camp. And it ends with the looting of the city, the death of King Priam at the hands of Neoptolemus (Achilles’ son) and the murder of Hector’s baby, Astyanax, by the hands of Odysseus.
Only ten lines of the original poem survived. One of the most interesting sources for the knowledge of its content is Virgil’s Aeneid, composed six centuries later, where the facts are told from the Trojan point of view.
In the sanctuary of Delphi the famous painter Polygnotus decorated in the 5th century BC a wall of the building known as Lesche de los Knidians with themes taken from the Iliupersis. The paintings, which no longer exist, were profusely described by Pausanias:
Beyond the Cassotis stands a building with paintings of Polygnotus. It was dedicated by the Cnidians, and is called by the Delphians Lesche, because here in days of old they used to meet and chat about the more serious matters and legendary history.[…] Inside this building the whole of the painting on the right depicts Troy taken and the Greeks sailing away. On the ship of Menelaus they are preparing to put to sea. The ship is painted with children among the grown-up sailors; amidships is Phrontis the steersman holding two boat-hooksPausanias, Description of Greece X–25 y ss.
Nostoi, which in Greek means returns home, were five books where, in fact, the returns of the heroes after the fall of Troy were narrated. Ancient sources attribute it to Agias of Troezen or to Eumelus of Corinth, two semi-legendary poets from the 8th century BC.
Diomedes and Nestor manage to get home without major problems. Menelaus was shipwrecked and arrived in Egypt, where he stayed for several years. Neoptolemus leaves by land and meets Odysseus on the way. Agamemnon manages to reach Mycenae, where he is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and his lover Aegisthus.
All Greek heroes make it home or die on the way, except one, Odysseus. The story of their return is told in the next poem in the cycle: The Odyssey.
The poem that puts an end to the Epic Cycle is Telegony, chronologically following the Odyssey. It is attributed to Eugammon of Cyrene, of whom Clement of Alexandria says that he stole the poem Tesprotis from the legendary poet Museum and changed its title.
The truth is that Eugammon must have followed the same oral tradition as previous poets, who could have written the same facts with different titles. Needless to say, none has been preserved.
Researchers believe that Telegony and Tesprotis are two titles of the same poem, or that the last could be the first book of Telegony. In any case, only two lines from the original poem have survived to the present day.
It narrates two facts, the journey from Odysseus to Tesprotis and the story of Telegonus. The first begins with the burial of Penelope’s suitors and continues with the journey to Tesprotis, where Odysseus makes the sacrifices entrusted to him by Tiresias in chant 11 of the Odyssey.
The second tells of the arrival in Ithaca of Telegonus, the son of Circe and Odysseus. Without recognizing each other, Telegonus struggles with Odysseus and hurts him to death. Once he realises his error, he takes his father’s body to Eea, the island of Circe, where Odysseus is buried. Circe makes Telegonus, Telemachus and Penelope immortals, and the story ends a little…weird: Telegonus marries Penelope, and Telemachus marries Circe.
When Telegonus heard from Circe that he was the son of Odysseus, he sailed in his quest. When Odysseus defended himself, Telegonus wounded him with the spear he had in his hands, which had a stinger on its tip, and Ulysses died from the wound. But when Telegonus recognized him, he lamented bitterly, and took the body and Penelope to Circe, and there he married Penelope.Apollodorus, Bibliotheca VII–36
It is not known when the eight poems were combined to form the Cycle. Some authors think that it happened as late as the 1st century B.C., while others delay that date a little longer. Herodotus, for example, already mentions Cypria in his History, written in the 5th century BC.
And Aristoxen, a philosopher who lived in the 4th century BC, knew a different beginning of the Iliad than Homer’s traditional one, as reflected in the first book of his Praxidamanteia. This alternative start was intended to link the story of the Iliad with its immediate predecessor, Cypria:
Tell me now Muses, who have Olympic houses, How rage and anger reached the son of Peleus, And also the brilliant son of Leto. Why [Achilles] was enraged against the king…
Sources: Fragmentos de épica griega arcaica / Sumarios del Cíclo Épico (Proclo)[en inglés] / The Oxford Classical Dictionary / Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns, and Homerica / Kyprias, the “Kypria”, and Multiformity, Jonathan Burgess, en Phoenix vol.56 No.3/4, 2002 / Sententiae Antiquae / Wikipedia.