We've spent a fair amount of time on this show exploring Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and talking about epics in general, of which there are many from the ancient Mediterranean (see episodes 3, 15, and 18). Today we're exploring a peculiar genre that the ancient Greeks and Romans classified as a kind of epic, but which might not look like epic story-telling to us. This genre is called didactic epic. "Didactic" in Greek means "instructional" or "educational."

Just like heroic epics, didactic epics were originally long songs or poems performed by bards in front of live audiences. Line after line, these poems flowed in a characteristic rhythmical pattern called dactylic hexameter, which served to keep the narrative flowing at a swift and exciting pace. The ancient Greeks only used this particular rhythm when they sang the exploits of heroes, or hymns to the gods, or this type of instructional poetry. We know of didactic epics on farming, astronomy, atomic theory (as it was understood back then), the origin of the world, and even flirting.

The oldest known examples of this kind of poetry are two works by Hesiod, who probably lived around the time that Homer did (probably during the 700s BC). Hesiod composed one work called the Theogony, which is about the creation of the world, and the successive generations of gods who ruled it, up until the triumph of Zeus and the Olympians over the earlier deities.

Hesiod's other didactic epic, which we're discussing today, is called Works and Days. While the Works and Days doesn't get much air time today, historically it has been so influential that you almost certainly know some of the stories it contains, such as the tales of Prometheus and Pandora.

Our guest today is widely recognized as having produced the best translation of the Works and Days into English. Alicia Stallings is an acclaimed poet, author, McArthur fellow, and translator of Hesiod and of Lucretius. If you would like to read the Works and Days, get yourself a copy of her translation in the Penguin Classics series.

The intro to this episode was provided by Derek of The Hellenistic Age podcast, a show exploring the vast arena of cultures impacted by the conquests of Alexander the Great. Check out The Hellenistic Age on your podcast app or click here.