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I’ve noticed a topos in a few epic poems I’ve read where a long list of characters is given, each receiving practically a paragraph of description. In The Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, Jason’s crew members are introduced like this. In Book 7 of the Aeneid of Virgil, the soldiers going to war are introduced like this. And in Book 1 of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (which is trying to emulate classical epics), the fallen angels are introduced like this.

Is there a formal literary term for this topos?

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  • It's not an answer to your question, but I liked the whimsical story in The Lost Books of the Odyssey where Zachary Mason suggests the very long list of ships in the Iliad is a actually a description of pieces for a game whose full rules have since been distorted and lost.
    – Adam Burke
    Apr 15 at 7:45
  • 3
    The tradition persists to modern times. Think of those scenes in heist/crime stories, where they introduce the rogue's gallery of mobsters around the table. (Fake names off the top of my head here) "This here is Babyface Nelson, he organized the hit on Falco's gang and took over the lower east side last year, he'll be running the front side of this job. This is Seamus McGee, head of the Irish syndicate, he and his boys control all our operations at the docks. And I'm sure you all know Crazy-Eyes Mugsy, best safe-cracker in town..." Apr 15 at 18:25
  • @DarrelHoffman you should write a noir novel or screenplay, if you'ven't already
    – verbose
    Apr 15 at 23:39
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Such introductions and descriptions are called epic catalogues. Barbarians are sometimes known to refer to them as epic catalogs.

The term catalogue is not restricted to characters. Lists of armies, ships, places, etc. are also covered by the term. As far as I am aware, there is no specific term for any of these; they are all just called catalogues and qualified with the particular thing being described and the epic where it occurs. So we have a catalogue of the ships in the Iliad, or a catalogue of the Italian forces in the Aeneid, or a catalogue of the fallen angels in Paradise Lost.

Epic catalogues continue to have not only scholarly articles but whole entire books written about them.

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  • 1
    I fondly remember pages and pages of catalogues in books like Lord of the Rings or basically every single installment of Umberto Eco's longer works. Lists of flowers, ...
    – AnoE
    Apr 16 at 9:36
  • yep, one might argue that all of Ovid's Metamorphoses is a catalog, mightn't one?
    – verbose
    Apr 16 at 9:38
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This is not a direct answer to the question in the sense of a general term, but there is a very well-known term for a specific example: the teichoskopia in Book III of the Iliad, where Helen stands atop the wall and catalogues the Greek chieftans.

Depending on the context and your audience, you may be able to use "teichoskopia" as a general term, as it would be instantly understood by classical scholars. E.g., "Milton presents us with a "teichoskopic" catalogue of fallen angels in Paradise Lost".

If it's not obvious by my repeated use of the accepted answer's "catalogue", I agree that that is the best general term.

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  • It looks like the term "teichoscopy" exists as well.
    – AnoE
    Apr 16 at 9:37

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