Ancient Greek civilization produced the literary epic (especially Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey), while modern civilization produces very few epic but does produce novels in abundance. What are some possible reasons for this difference? Several explanations suggest themselves, including the following:
- Ancient Greek society was a primarily aristocratic society that celebrated the deeds of aristocratic heroes. Modern societies tend to be democratic societies, in which all people are presumed to be equals. Novels focus on the interactions between relatively equal persons; epics focus mainly on the interactions between aristocrats.
- The ancient Greeks believed in gods who took an active interest in human beings, especially in human aristocrats. The gods often actively intervened in the lives of these people, and indeed the gods themselves often resembled humans in their personalities and motives. Modern novels, with their interest in the behavior of actual human beings, very rarely present God as a character; to do so would almost seem sacrilegious. Christianity assumes that all humans are created equal in the eyes of God; therefore, the novel once again tends to focus on the interactions of people who are relatively equal. Consider, for instance, the opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, often considered one of the greatest novels ever written:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
The emphasis of this book, as in so many other novels, is on a distinctly human society operating in a decidedly recognizable human world.
In contrast, consider the opening of Homer’s Iliad:
Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.
Here the poem opens with a reference to a goddess, immediately mentions a great hero, and then stresses the sufferings of an entire people.
One significant difference, then, is that the novel tends to be a much more democratic, this-worldly genre than the ancient Greek epic, while the ancient Greek epic tends to be a much more aristocratic, supernaturally oriented genre, with a strong emphasis on gods and the direct interventions of gods in human affairs.