At Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Violence has long occupied a prominent place in Western literature. Accounts of violence may be serious or satirical. They sometimes involve natural violence, such as earthquakes, but usually describe human-caused disaster such as war, torture, crime, and abuse of others.

Two literary forms in which the earliest and most powerful treatments of violence appear are epics and dramas. Epics are long narrative poems; they need to be read rather than acted. Since they are about a hero or heroic event or the founding of a nation, it is logical that violence is involved in the epic genre. These criteria also make the epic poem important to cultural identity. No self-respecting nation could claim to be cultured without an epic.

Epic violence is natural and human in origin. Natural disaster is implied, for example, when Zeus is called “the earthquake-making god.” Human violence is much more prominent. Blood and gore are so much a part of the Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.), the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.), Beowulf (c. 1000), Cantar de mío Cid (early thirteenth century; Poem of the Cid, 1808), the Nibelungenlied (c. 1200), and other great epics, that they almost blot out the other aspects of the epic.

In the Iliad, Homer uses violence satirically, to show how ridiculous the Greeks are. Vergil, however, does not satirize his violence in the Aeneid. Roman literature is famous for its appetite for patriotic gore. Furthermore, the Greeks taunted their conquering Romans that, even though the Romans had superior military power, the Greeks had their epic poem and were therefore superior culturally. As a result, the Emperor Caesar Augustus commanded Vergil to write the great Roman epic, the Aeneid. Following his emperor’s orders, Vergil would not have dared call his heroes childish or silly, as Homer...

(The entire section is 797 words.)