An epic poem is a long narrative composed in verse rather than the shorter prose poetry form. Epic poetry is one of the oldest literary traditions of human civilization, existing since the ancient Mesopotamian era and continuously produced through modern times. These poems generally contain tales of historic or cultural significance and often follow the adventures of a hero or group of heroes.
Early epic poems may have served to reinforce shared cultural values within a nation and provide a mythic history for a people. Ancient classical epics contain references to gods and magic and often feature a hero beset by mystical forces. Many later poems imitate these earlier works and may use similar literary conventions, depending on the culture. Early poems based on oral traditions are often called primary epics, while the later works are called secondary or literary epics.
The ancient peoples of Mesopotamia, Greece, and India produced several important epics that have continued to influence the development and study of literature for thousands of years. Ancient poems first emerged as an oral tradition to be re-told by storytellers throughout a culture. The development of writing in these areas allowed these stories to be written down and preserved for later generations. The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Illiad, The Odyssey, and Mahabharata are early examples. Later Roman and other civilizations continued this literary tradition through the rest of the classical era.
Early medieval epics continued on primarily as an oral tradition. Beowulf, Song of Roland, and Poem of the Cid are well known European epics composed as songs for bards or minstrels. As literacy became more common, the epic poem gradually transitioned to a written form in the later medieval and early modern era. Some of these epics, such as The Divine Comedy, are important cultural artifacts but also helped to define the written language of emerging nations.
Epic poems continued to be an important literary tradition through the modern era, though they gradually lost their power to define a national history and value system. Some modern epics seek to imitate earlier classical forms, while others function within the poetic trends of their time period. Paradise Lost, Don Juan, and The Faerie Queene are significant epics from different points in the modern era. While poetry has lost much of its cultural significance in the 20th and early 21st centuries, writers continue to produce and publish notable epics in a variety of literary genres.