The classical world gave us many things, from philosophy to democracy to clean drains (cue the Monty Python ‘what have the Romans ever done for us’ routine). And, of course, the ancient world gave us poetry. But which ancient world? Below we’ve selected ten of the finest examples of classical poetry from ancient times, ranging from Middle Eastern epics to Roman lyrics.
Anonymous, The Descent of Inanna. What’s the oldest epic poem in the world? We need to go back into the very hazy early years of literary history. That honour should probably go to The Descent of Inanna, a Sumerian poem in which the titular goddess descends into the underworld, in order to observe the funeral rites of Gugalanna, the Bull of Heaven and to visit her sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the Dead. She leaves her minister Nincubura with instructions to guard the mortal world in her absence, and seek help from other priests and priestesses to ensure Inanna comes to no harm in the underworld. (The lacerating of Nincubura’s nose, ears, and buttocks is also requested.) Inanna goes to the underworld ‘armed’ with the seven divine powers, including a turban and wig on her head and beads of lapis lazuli around her neck. Not only is this arguably the oldest work of classical poetry that has survived, but it may well have been written by a woman: many early works of Sumerian religious verse were authored by priestesses. The poem is around 4,000 years old.
Anonymous, Epic of Gilgamesh. In 1850, a series of clay tablets came to light in the Middle East. They were shipped back to the British Museum, where they sat for some fifteen years before anyone got round to giving them any serious attention. Then, in 1865, a young man named George Smith was tasked with deciphering the cuneiform script inscribed on the tablets. In 1872, he published his translation of what we now know as The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem that had been lost from the literary canon for millennia but which has a claim to being one of the oldest surviving classical poems in the history of the world. The earliest surviving tablets which contain the story of Gilgamesh, known as the Old Babylonian tablets, date from c. 1800 BC, or a thousand or so years before Homer. The poem focuses on the titular Gilgamesh, king of Uruk in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), and his friend, the wild man named Enkidu. The second section of the poem, following the great Flood (which has similarities to the story concerning Noah and the Flood recounted in the Book of Genesis) concerns Gilgamesh’s quest for eternal life.
Homer, Odyssey. We could have opted for Homer’s telling of the final days in the mighty siege of Troy, the Iliad, but the Odyssey has arguably had an even greater impact on subsequent literature, and remains one of the greatest epic poems ever written. The character of Odysseus, or Ulysses in his Roman incarnation, looms large in modern literature: Tennyson wrote a dramatic monologue about his twilight years, while James Joyce used the narrative structure of the Odyssey as the rough basis for his modernist novel Ulysses (1922), which covers the events of one day in Dublin in 1904. The thing which makes Odysseus such a distinctive character, and the Odyssey such fun to read, is his cunning: known as the ‘man of many wiles’, he outwits the Cyclops Polyphemus, finds a way of hearing the Sirens’ song and living to tell the tale, and manages to make his way home to his wife, Penelope, on Ithaca. One of the first, and greatest, epic poems in all of Western literature.
Hesiod, Theogony. This poem was composed around the same time as Homer’s Odyssey, and although a very different work of classical poetry it is, in many ways, of equal significance. Composed around 700 BC, the Theogony details the origins of the cosmos and the genealogies of the ancient Greek gods. It’s a didactic poem rather than an epic, but would become an influential work of classical literature.
Sappho, [various fragments]. Probably the most famous lyric poet from ancient Greece, Sappho (also Psappho, and Psappha) was born in around 612 BC in Eresos, on the Greek island of Lesbos. Her contribution to poetry was to write lyrics (derived from the instrument, the lyre, which would be played as lyric poems were sung) about her personal thoughts and feelings rather than vast epic poems telling a story. Rather than choose one poem here, we’ve linked to a series of fragments from Sappho’s work, since much of her work has survived only as fragments.
Apollonius of Rhodes, The Argonautica. Something of a ‘wild card’ in this list of the greatest classical poems, The Argonautica – sometimes known as ‘The Voyage of Argo’ or ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ – tells of Jason’s quest to find the Golden Fleece, as well as his complicated relationship with his wife, Medea. The romantic plot of this epic, written around the time of Alexander the Great in the 3rd century BC, is credited with moving the epic poem in new directions, and inspired the love story of the next great epic on our list. It’s a conscious rewriting of the Homeric epic poem for a new readership, and would pave the way for Virgil’s great epic.
Virgil, The Aeneid. For his great epic about the events leading to the founding of Rome, a poem written to flatter Augustus (at least according to Alexander Pope), Virgil took a character from the Greek story of the Trojan War, Aeneas, and told his story. Like Homer’s Odysseus, Aeneas wanders the Mediterranean after the end of the war, having a passionate romance with Dido, Queen of Carthage before heading to Rome where his descendant, Romulus, will later found the Italian city of that name. Virgil is often cited as an example of the great national poet (T. S. Eliot certainly thought so) and The Aeneid is one of the greatest achievements in ancient literature.
Ovid, Metamorphoses. Ovid’s wasn’t the first Metamorphoses. Before him, there was Nicander’s Heteroeumena, whose title is usually translated as ‘metamorphoses’, but Nicander’s poem has been lost. It was Ovid’s vast retelling of the great myths of Greek and Roman civilisation that became the definitive classical text on the subject of transformation. But upon closer analysis, Ovid’s genius as a writer on love, lust, desire, jealousy, and a myriad other timeless human emotions and drives also becomes more apparent. He even added to what he borrowed: the story of Narcissus falling in love with his own reflection had existed for a long time before Ovid, as had the myth of Echo, but it took Ovid to see that the two stories belonged together, even if Echo and Narcissus themselves were destined never to belong together.
Martial, [selected epigrams]. As well as writing vast epic poems, the Romans also left us some brilliant epigrams: short poems which were often witty, sometimes satirical, and occasionally obscene. Martial is probably the best proponent of the classical Latin epigram; as with Sappho’s lyrics, we’ve linked to a selection of these short poems rather than just one, to give a greater sense of his work.
Catullus, [selected poems]. Gaius Valerius Catullus (84 – c. 54 BC) was a Latin poet of the late Roman Republic; like Sappho, he wrote about personal themes rather than offering grand narratives about famous heroes, often including sexual imagery and subject matter in his poems, many of which are about a woman, ‘Lesbia’, whom Catullus appears to have fallen in love with. As with Sappho and Martial, one poem simply isn’t enough to provide an accurate picture of Catullus’ style and themes, so we’ve linked to eleven of his poems in translation here.