What Is an Epic?

An epic is traditionally a long narrative poem that tells the story of a hero. Also called heroic poems, epic poems stretch back to the story "Gilgamesh" from Mesopotamia. Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" are the two earliest complete epic poems.

The most popular epics are from Greek and Roman times and include Homer's works and "The Aeneid" by Virgil. Later epic poems include "Beowulf" and Dante's "The Divine Comedy." Epic poems have a few key characteristics that set them apart from other narrative poetry.

Epics are told in a lofty, grand tone, and their heroes are larger than life and often have divine intervention or connections. There is typically a supernatural element in the stories that brings the gods directly into the plot. Most epics include a plea to the muse to guide the writer as he produces the text, and the narrator is often a character himself, in that he interacts with or speaks to the reader directly.

Epics typically include very detailed scenes and items, such as long battle scenes in "The Iliad" and a key shield in "The Aeneid." This helps set up the epic as a legend or myth that is important to the history of the culture. For example, "The Aeneid" sets up Augustus Caesar as having a claim to the title of Caesar.