Epic literature comes from the oral traditions of ancient civilizations. Epic poems have been created throughout history, most famously by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Explore famous epic poem examples through excerpts.
Epic literature belongs to the narrative genre of poetry. A narrative poem tells a story of great civilizations and heroes. The subject matter includes topics of human interest. For example, one of the first known examples of epic literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh, a story about a king descended from gods, from ancient Mesopotamia.
“He who has seen everything, I will make known (?) to the lands. I will teach (?) about him who experienced all things, ... alike, Anu granted him the totality of knowledge of all. He saw the Secret, discovered the Hidden, he brought information of (the time) before the Flood. He went on a distant journey, pushing himself to exhaustion, but then was brought to peace. He carved on a stone stela all of his toils, and built the wall of Uruk-Haven, the wall of the sacred Eanna Temple, the holy sanctuary.”
The word epic comes from the Greek for word, poem or story. The stories deal with the significant events of a nation or culture and show the values of a society. Other characteristics of epics include:
- formal style
- brave heroes
- supernatural elements
- third-person narrator
- long in length
Some of the greatest epics examples come from ancient Greece.
The Iliad and The Odyssey are two Greek poems written by Homer that many think of when epics are discussed. See how these epic poems follow this characteristic style.
The Odyssey is about Odysseus and his return home to Ithaca. See this famous epic in action.
“Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.”
The works of many other great authors of past and present can also be classified as examples of epics. Consider the following examples, and note that many of these names may be familiar.
Dante Alighieri wrote a famous epic work that takes you on a journey through hell, purgatory and paradise. Explore an excerpt of The Divine Comedy.
“In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there”
John Milton’s epic poem is written in blank verse and includes two stories about Satan and Adam and Eve. See an excerpt of Milton’s epic poem.
“Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,”
If you are looking for a satirical epic poem, then look no further than Byron's take on Don Juan, the infamous womanizer. See how Byron composes this epic example.
“I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one;
Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan
— We all have seen him, in the pantomime,
Sent to the devil somewhat ere his time.”
The Roman poet Ovid created an epic poem that encompasses 15 books, almost 12,000 lines, covering the history of the world up to the death of Julius Caesar. Here is a taste of Ovid’s epic.
“Thus, while the mute creation downward bend
Their sight, and to their earthly mother tend,
Man looks aloft; and with erected eyes
Beholds his own hereditary skies.
From such rude principles our form began;
And earth was metamorphos'd into Man.”
Beowulf follows a young warrior through his adventures. Learn more about this great epic through this excerpt.
“Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements
The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of,
How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.
Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in numbers"
Epic poems weren't just written before the 1800s. Ezra Pound’s The Cantos is from the 1900s.
"And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe’s this craft, the trim-coifed goddess."
Examples of epic poetry can sometimes seem like dramatic poetry, because they also tell a story, and can be quite dramatic. But their main form is the narrative, whether they are satirical or dramatic. To see more examples of narrative poems, give ballad examples a try.