Why Are Epics Called Poems?

by Amy
Mock Epic

Poetry, the ancient art form woven into the fabric of human expression, defies easy definition yet encompasses a plethora of characteristics. At its core, poetry is a literary medium distinguished by its rhythmic and expressive language, often imbued with heightened emotion and imagery. Epic poetry, a subcategory of this venerable tradition, encompasses lengthy narrative works that recount heroic adventures and mythological tales. What sets epic poetry apart is its grand scale, sweeping narratives, and profound thematic exploration.

Historical Context of Epics

The genesis of epic poetry lies deep within the annals of human history, emerging from the oral traditions of ancient civilizations. In the distant past, before the advent of writing, bards and storytellers regaled audiences with tales of gods and heroes, passing down cultural lore from generation to generation. Epic poems were the vehicles through which these stories were preserved and transmitted, reflecting the values, beliefs, and experiences of their societies. From the Homeric epics of ancient Greece to the Sanskrit epics of India, epic poetry has left an indelible mark on world literature.

Structural Elements of Epic Poems

The formal structure of epic poetry is characterized by its adherence to specific metrical patterns, such as dactylic hexameter in classical Greek and Latin epics. Meter, rhyme, and verse contribute to the rhythmic cadence and musicality of the poem, enhancing its aesthetic appeal. Additionally, epic poems often feature elaborate narrative structures, with recurring motifs, epic similes, and catalogues of heroes and events. These structural elements serve to engage the audience and reinforce the epic’s thematic complexity.

Stylistic Features of Epic Poetry

Epic poetry is renowned for its stylistic grandeur and rhetorical sophistication. The language of epics is elevated and ornate, befitting the heroic and mythic subject matter. Grand themes such as heroism, fate, and the struggle between gods and mortals permeate the verses, evoking a sense of awe and wonder. Moreover, epic poets employ a wide range of literary devices, including similes, metaphors, epithets, and allusions, to enrich the narrative and deepen its layers of meaning.

Narrative vs. Lyric Poetry

While epic poetry belongs to the broader category of narrative poetry, it is distinct from lyric poetry in both form and function. Narrative poetry, including epics, tells a story through a sequence of events and characters, often with a focus on external action and plot development. In contrast, lyric poetry expresses personal thoughts and emotions, often in a more introspective and subjective manner. While both forms share the fundamental attributes of poetry, they diverge in their approach to storytelling and poetic expression.

Examples of Epic Poems

The pantheon of epic poetry boasts illustrious works that have stood the test of time and captivated generations of readers. Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” the foundational epics of Western literature, recount the Trojan War and the perilous journey of Odysseus, respectively. Virgil’s “Aeneid” follows the legendary hero Aeneas as he embarks on a quest to found the city of Rome. In Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the epic tradition takes on a religious dimension, retelling the biblical story of the fall of man with epic grandeur and theological insight.

Functions and Purposes of Epic Poetry

In the ancient world, epic poetry served a multitude of functions, ranging from entertainment and education to cultural preservation and ideological dissemination. Epics provided audiences with moral and ethical lessons, celebrated the heroic deeds of legendary figures, and reinforced societal values and norms. Moreover, epic poems served as repositories of historical and cultural memory, immortalizing the achievements and struggles of past generations. Through their epic narratives, poets shaped the collective identity and consciousness of their societies, leaving an enduring legacy that continues to resonate in the modern world.


In conclusion, the classification of epics as poems is rooted in their formal structure, stylistic richness, and narrative complexity. Epic poetry transcends mere storytelling to become a transcendent art form that captures the essence of human experience and aspiration. From the heroic exploits of Achilles to the cosmic battles of Milton’s Satan, epic poems transport readers to realms of imagination and wonder, reaffirming their status as timeless masterpieces of literary art.

FAQs About Epics

1. Why are epics considered poems?

Epics are considered poems due to their formal structure and stylistic elements. They are written in verse, often adhering to specific metrical patterns such as dactylic hexameter. The language of epics is elevated and employs various poetic devices like similes, metaphors, and epithets, which enhance the narrative’s rhythmic and musical quality. Despite their length and complex storytelling, these features align epics with the broader category of poetry.

2. Why are epics called epics?

Epics are called “epics” because the term derives from the Greek word “epos,” meaning “word” or “story.” It signifies a long narrative poem that recounts the grand and heroic deeds of legendary figures or historical events. Epics are characterized by their vast scope, encompassing significant themes such as heroism, fate, and the struggle between good and evil. The term “epic” reflects the monumental and enduring nature of these stories.

3. Why is the Odyssey called an epic poem?

The “Odyssey” is called an epic poem because it embodies the defining characteristics of an epic. Composed by Homer, it is a lengthy narrative written in dactylic hexameter, detailing the adventures of the hero Odysseus as he strives to return home after the Trojan War. The “Odyssey” features grand themes, such as the hero’s journey, the power of the gods, and the struggle for identity and homecoming. Its elevated language, intricate plot, and use of literary devices further align it with the epic tradition.

4. Why is a story called an epic?

A story is called an epic when it meets specific criteria: it must be a long, narrative work that focuses on heroic deeds and significant events, often involving gods or supernatural forces. Epics typically explore grand themes, such as the conflict between good and evil, human destiny, and cultural values. The term “epic” also implies a certain stylistic grandeur, with the use of formal poetic structures, elevated language, and elaborate descriptions. These elements together create a narrative that transcends ordinary storytelling, imbuing the tale with timeless significance and cultural resonance.

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