An epic has been generally described as a long narrative poem, on a grand scale, about the deeds of warriors and heroes, kings and Gods. It is majestic both in theme and style. It is a polygonal heroic story incorporating myth, legend, folktale, religion, and historical events of national or universal significance, involving action of broad sweep and grandeur. Epics are mostly of national significance in the sense that they embody the history and aspirations of a nation in a lofty or grandiose manner. An epic is a cultural mirror with a fixed ideological stance, often reflecting the best and the noblest principles of a nation’s ethos.
“The Iliad” is an epic poem by the ancient Greek poet Homer, which recounts some of the significant events of the final weeks of the Trojan War and the Greek siege of the city of Troy. Written in the mid-8th Century BC, “The Iliad” is usually considered to be the earliest work in the whole Western literary tradition, and one of the best known and loved stories of all time. Through its portrayal of the epic subject matter of the Trojan War, the stirring scenes of bloody battle, the wrath of Achilles and the constant interventions of the gods, it explores themes of glory, wrath, homecoming and fate, and has provided subjects and stories for many other later Greek, Roman and Renaissance writings.
Epic poetry falls into two distinct categories: primary and secondary epic. The Iliad belongs to the former. A primary epic begins in medias res. In Medias Res is Latin for "it begins in the middle of things" and then has flashbacks to explain action leading up to that point. In THE ILIAD, for example, the story begins after the war between the combined forces of Greece and the forces of the walled city of Troy and their allies has been in progress for nearly ten years.
Like other primary epics, The Iliad also begins with an invocation to a god or gods. The poet, who in those days would have been reciting the epic to an audience, say, at a banquet, began by calling for a blessing--for a god or gods to attend this effort of his. They probably literally believed that the called upon god or muse came into them and, therefore, that it was not the poet who recited, but the god in the poet's body. Poet's, then, were considered very sacred, for they could call down a god and have the god in them, at least temporarily. We continue to have remnants of this belief, of course.We often think of poets or of any true artist as being different or touched by a special hand.In the case of the beginning of THE ILIAD, the poet says something like
"Sing, goddess of epic poetry, the story of the anger of Achilles."
In a primary epic the theme is usually stated at the beginning of the epic, because these poems are so long and so complex, although the basic stories would have been familiar to the audiences, the poet would begin with announcing what the recitation was to be about. The theme or central interest of The Iliad is the wrath of Achilles, which is stated at the beginning of the poem.
A primary epic usually has many epithets. These epithets are re-namings of the characters, gods, or things by stock phrases. An example is the re-naming of Agamemnon and Menelaus as "Atreus' two sons" or "the twin eagles." It is important for us to notice these epithets, first,because they add description, and second, because we get confused about who is doing what if do not recognize the epithets as well as the names.
In a primary epic, there are catalogues of things and characters; there are many lists, both long and short. Just as the Old Testament has catalogues of genealogies--you remember all those begets--just so do ancient epics keep track of the lists of history. In one book of THE ILIAD, for example, there is a list of the ships that sailed from Greece to Troy.
There are long and formal speeches by many characters. You will not have any trouble spotting these. Sometimes they happen in the heat of battle and other seemingly inappropriate times, but more often they occur at various kinds of meetings, as in an assembly of the chieftains.
In a primary epic, Gods intervene in the affairs of human beings in these stories. For example, in Book I of THE ILIAD, Achilles, getting very angry at Agamemnon, starts to pull out his dagger to kill him. Suddenly, a goddess rushes to the side of Achilles to warn him not to be so hasty.
The setting of an epic is vast. The setting of The Iliad is also vast encompassing both the Greek and Trojan islands.
Epics use the epic simile. An epic simile is a long comparison of two things that are in different classes. They make vivid an image and describe or clarify. An example can be found in the long comparison of Paris Alexander, a Trojan prince, to a fine horse that has been manger fed a long time in a stable. When released to pasture, it races out with quick, sure strides, neck arched, knees high, mane flowing, proud it its beauty and strength , to race to drink from a clear flowing stream. So Paris ran to battle.
The heroes embody the values of their civilization. The physical strength and stamina of Achilles, for example, is made much of. The lifting of the latch of the door of his stockade requires the strength of three soldiers, but Achilles lifts it with one hand. His spear, thrown so lightly, is eighteen feet long. He is a power machine. Today, we all know, a tiny female can have more killing power than Achilles ever dreamed of. We have created compensations--weapons.
Thus, we see that as an epic The Iliad fulfills almost all the requirements of a primary epic.