Who, contemplating the vast catalog of vanished works of literature from the ancient world, really regrets the lost epics about the Trojan War known as the Cypria and the Little Iliad? To have just one more complete poem by Sappho (bringing the grand total to two); to have any of the seventy-five lost plays of Aeschylus, the 116 by Sophocles, the seventy by Euripides; to recover Ovid’s lost Medea, or even a single one of the much-admired love elegies of Vergil’s friend Cornelius Gallus, which once comprised four whole books and of which a single line now survives; to have the crucial missing books of Tacitus’ Annals—for any one of these, there is very little that even the most upstanding classicist wouldn’t do. Any one of them, after all, would add immeasurably to our understanding of classical civilization; any one of them would, indeed, add unimaginably to the treasure house of world literature.
But for the Cypria and the Little Iliad, I suspect, no one apart from the most scrupulous philologue sheds a secret tear. These were just two of what was once a grand cycle of eight epic narratives in verse, composed at some point in the pre-classical Greek past, which together comprised many tens of thousands of lines and at least seventy-seven “books,” or papyrus scrolls, and narrated pretty much everything having to do with the Trojan War, from its remotest prehistory (the wedding of Achilles’ parents) to the final bizarre ramification of its most attenuated plotline (the murder of Odysseus, in his old age, by his son Telegonus, his child by the witch Circe). Of these eight, of course, only two survive: the Iliad and the Odyssey. But later summaries, paraphrases, and even quotations in learned commentaries on classical works that have survived give details about the other six. We know that the eleven books of the Cypria, for instance, made for rather an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink affair, covering all the action from the nuptials of Peleus and Thetis to the Judgment of Paris to the abduction of Helen, all the way through to the first nine years of the war up until the moment when Homer’s Iliad begins.
And we know that at some point after the Iliad came the so-called Little Iliad—also something of a laundry list of a poem, from the sound of it, narrating as it did much of the action after the death of Achilles, from the suicide of Ajax and the mission to fetch Philoctetes to the construction of the Trojan Horse, the deceitful embassy to the Trojans of the Greek soldier Sinon (who convinced the Trojans to take the wooden horse, saying that the Greeks, fearing plague, had returned home), and the Achaeans’ terrible entry into Troy. Various other poems filled in the blanks: the Aethiopis narrated the deaths of various ancillary characters like the Amazon queen Penthesilea and Memnon, an Ethiopian ally of the Trojans; another, called the Nostoi, or “Returns,” narrated the arduous homecomings …