Epic poets, or narrative poets, have gripped the imagination of readers and listeners all over the world for thousands of years. But who are the best epic poets? Which narrative poets have stood the test of time to tower above the rest? Below we explore the lives and work of 5 of the greatest and best epic poets.
Epic poetry is one of the oldest forms of literature, and entertainment. While we don’t sit around listening to epic poetry very much anymore, the stories from these epics poems still shape so much of our imaginative space.
In the future, the epic poem may rise again to be a dominant and popular form of entertainment. To understand the epic poem, and decide on who the greatest epic poets are, it’s a great idea to turn our attention to the past, to examine the titans of the form.
There are lots of extant ancient texts, and of course we wish there were even more. The fire of Alexandria destroyed so many. We’re all probably familiar with a few names: Homer, Sophocles, Virgil. Are their ancient texts worth reading now? Is it hard to read them? And which ones should we read?
Ancient epic poems are absolutely worth reading. If you can find a good translation, you will likely discover that people in the ancient world thought about the same problems you do. Just as people today have more in common than they think, so it is with people from the past.
If you can think of a benefit that reading contemporary texts may bring, it is likely that reading narrative poetry will offer similar rewards. Increased empathy, greater understanding of the human condition, emotional and intellectual satisfaction and stimulation – to name but a few benefits in store when you pick up an epic poem.
Where Should I Start with Epic Poetry?
You can start by examining the works of ancient Greece, China, Rome, Mesopotamia, and India. Of course there is no one place to start, and you should let your curiosity guide you. Let one civilisation guide you to another: the ancient texts of Greece will lead you to Egypt for instance. Below we have compiled a list of texts to check out to get you started.
Why are Epic Poets and Epic Poetry So Hard to Read?
Old books are hard to read because they ask more of us as readers: they ask us to imagine a world which no longer exists, and to place ourselves into unfamiliar cultures, with vastly different technology and different morals. It’s a challenge but very exciting and rewarding.
Which Epic Poets Should I Read?
When it comes to ancient narrative poems you should read Homer, the Mahābhārata, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Aeneid, and the Tao Te Ching. We’ve got lots of information about each below so keep reading. Of course these are just a starting point on your journey.
Should I Read Other Ancient Greek Literature Too?
When reading Ancient Greek literature, it is a great idea to start with Homer. The literature of the Ancient Greeks has mesmerised the world for nearly 3000 years.
There are also the playwrights! Chief among them Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. These characters invented modern drama and comedy as we know it. Then there are the poets like Sappho. Many of the intellectual traditions of the Western world saw their genesis in ancient Greece, and the miracle is that so much of it still survives for us to enjoy.
Who are the 5 Greatest Epic Poets?
Homer’s works are some of the most celebrated in global literature. His Iliad and Odyssey are two of the earliest examples of creative literature, both epic poems which depict the story of Helen of Troy, the Trojan War, and Odysseus’ troubled journey home after the battle. Check them out for some truly epics tales of love, death, jealousy, violence, revenge and divine intervention.
Much of what we know and love of the Greek Gods comes to us through Homer’s tales, and we have learned an enormous amount about the ancient world from these two works. Some scholars maintain that Homer was in fact two different poets, or indeed a collection of poets working together. It may never be entirely clear.
In the past it has generally been agreed that Homer is the best epic poet of all time, with some going as far as to refer to him as the father of all literature. Of course questions such as these are matters of subjective taste, but Homer’s works have fascinated readers and listeners like no other since they were written nearly 3000 years ago!
Krishna Dvaipayana, who was also known as Vyasa and Vedavyasa, is the author of the Mahābhārata. This epic poem written in Sanskrit was composed around 400 BCE and is the longest epic poem, at ten times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined (and they are long!).
It contains texts you are likely to recognise which are of great significance to Indian and global culture such as the Bhagavad Gita. The importance of this work to the development of world literature can’t be overstated.
Sîn-lēqi-unninni is one of the best epic poets of all time (and one of the earliest). The Epic of Gilgamesh was probably written during the Middle Babylonian Period which is approximately 1500 BC. There was probably a real King called Gilgamesh, but whether or not he really got up to the exploits detailed in this epic is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. So many tales from the ancient world contain a kernel of truth, and are no doubt embellished.
Discovered in the Library of Ashurbanipal, which H.G. Wells called the most precious source of historical material in the world, this epic poem is considered one of the earliest examples of notable literature, and the second oldest religious text after the Pyramid texts.
The tale from ancient Mesopotamia recounts the exploits of Gilgamesh and his buddy Enkidu.
Here’s a great video all about it.
Virgil is regarded as one of the greatest epics poets, and also one of the greatest writers of all time. To Ancient Rome! You should most definitely read the Aeneid if you like stories about Troy, and about the ancient Greek world. This work is regarded as one of the jewels of ancient literature, and it’s a fascinating story.
Virgil wrote this tale to glorify the rule of Augustus, the emperor whose stated aim was to bring stability, peace, and moral purity to the Rome after the fall of the Republic. The great narrative poet Virgil tells the tale of Aeneas, a refugee from the fall of Troy, which features in Homer’s Iliad.
It functions as a mythology for Rome itself, as we see Aeneas found Rome after his flight from Troy. The text ties the Augustan regime to ancient Greek mythology, and legitimises and celebrates Augustus’ authority, although some have noted a subversive and ultimately pessimistic tone in the work.
It’s a gripping tale, one of the greatest examples of epic poetry and regarded as Virgil’s masterpiece!
You should read the Tao Te Ching, esepecially if you are looking for a shorter Epic poem, or narrative poem, from the ancient world that is still widely revered. Check out this comparatively short text from the Chinese sage Laozi, written around the 6th Century BC. Laozi is regarded as one of the greatest narrative poets.
This is one of the most widely translated works in world literature, and is a fundamental text for Taoism as both religion and philosophy.
Here’s a taste to whet your appetite:
Holding a cup
and overfilling it
cannot be as good as stopping short
Remember you can find videos of people reading texts from the ancient world on Youtube and other platforms like Spotify. Many of the great epic poems were written in a way that made it easier for the poet to memorize (such as iambic pentameter or rhyme). Not everyone could read, or afford expensive books written by hand, so performers would memorize enormous poems and recite them to people as a form of entertainment. Arguably, epic poems are meant to be heard, not read at all!
We hope that this list of the greatest and best epic poets, or narrative poets, of all time has whet your appetite for futher investigation. These epic poets have been chosen from the ancient world, as their work has stood the test of the centuries (even millennia). There are plenty of epic poets writing today whose work is definitely worth checking out. While these poets are all blokes, there are plenty of female epic poets too. Check out this fascinating article for some leads to investigate!
We believe in the importance of literature and new writing. If you have a story or poem ready to go, make sure to take a look at our Letter Review Prize for Short Stories, and Prize for Poetry. Both offer great prize money, and publication at Letter Review. All entries are considered for publication. You can also submit to our regular submissions all year round.