The term ‘epic’, when applied to ancient Greek literature, refers to a set of texts that may be loosely defined as narrative poetry about the deeds of gods and heroes. To a very large extent, this is a reflection of Homer's authority as the most famous epic poet. This article argues that recent comparisons between early Greek epic and modern oral traditions, as well as the discovery and investigation of ancient Hittite and Near Eastern texts, place Greek epic in a much wider literary and historical context.
This article suggests an appeal to a broader cultural contextualization, calling on scholars to look at the interactions between Greek and non-Greek cultures in the Hellenistic period, which followed the reign of Alexander, and in which he continued to enjoy cult status. It emphasizes contrasting trends that emerge in relation to ethnic identity: non-Greeks learn Greek and adopt Greek customs; while Greeks often marry into local non-Greek populations, speak native languages, and practise native manners and rituals. In the West, however, the centre of power is Rome, and, as indicated by contemporary literature and art, both Greeks and non-Greeks find themselves responding and adapting to its growing cultural and political dominance.
This article examines Hellenistic poetry by outlining the gradual separation between literary genres and the performance contexts within which they originally developed. The Hellenistic poets felt the gap and tried to reconstruct a literary past from which they felt separated. In a city like Alexandria, where different cultures and ethnicities coexisted, Greek identity was increasingly seen as a matter of cultural and literary competence, rather than as a function of one's place of birth – ‘Greece’ was becoming a place of the mind.
This article emphasizes the importance of context, and of what is lost, when people approach the study of lyric poetry: even the one complete poem by Sappho turns out to be a fragment, because people can no longer hear the tune to which it was sung, because they do not know for whom she was singing. It suggests that people need to rethink quite radically ancient processes of identification between poets, performers, and audiences; while, at the same time, the identification with the Greeks can be harnessed to understand their literature, and ourselves. For example, the dominance of the lyric poet-scholars in nineteenth-century Italian culture explains, in part, the current flourishing of Italian scholarship on ancient Greek lyric.