Early epics were part of a mythological system of great scope and depth. Though the poems commonly had the purpose of providing mythical foundations for specific locations, they could encompass large chunks of the divine and heroic past. Local myth was embedded within a Panhellenic sense of the Greek heroic age and often reached back to the origins of the gods as well. Our modern sense of mythological ‘‘cycles’’ is often an artificial construct (Foley 1999a), but in antiquity a coherent yet flexible account of the mythological past was assumed as the background for epic verse. In this sense the Epic Cycle represents a literary manifestation of a longstanding notional arrangement of early Greek myth. But the Epic Cycle is far from comprehensive, and by no means should the Cycle poems be considered the sole or most authoritative narratives of their myth.
It is not clear exactly how many poems were part of the Epic Cycle (see Davies 1986: 96-7). It certainly began with early history of the divinities. The Titanomachy, besides telling of divine strife (cf. Hesiod’s Theogony), reached back to divine origins (or possibly was preceded by a Cyclic Theogony). The second major section of the Cycle featured poems about the Theban wars. The Oedipodia narrated the defeat of the Sphinx by Oedipus and his subsequent marriage to the queen of Thebes. The Thebais focused on the later quarrel between his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, over the rule of Thebes; the result was a failed attack on the city by an expedition from Argos. The Epigoni featured a second, successful attack by the sons of the original expedition. A fourth epic, the Alcmaeonis, is often thought to follow; it narrated the adventures of the son of Amphiaraus, one of the main attackers in the first Theban war. The last major section of the Epic Cycle told the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath. The Cypria narrated the early years in the war, the Aethiopis featured important events in the last year of the war, the Little Iliad and Iliou Persis focused on the fall of Troy, the Nosti narrated the return home of various Greek heroes, and the Telegony told of the final events in the life of Odysseus after his return. A greater amount of information has survived for the Trojan War section of the Cycle, apparently because it served as background material for the increasingly dominant Iliad and Odyssey. Besides fragments, we possess a concise prose summary from antiquity of this section of the Epic Cycle.