All around the world, and in almost every country, countless educated people have heard of, or read, the famous works by the ancient Greek poet, Homer. His two masterpieces, The Iliad and The Odyssey, are widely considered to be the first two works of ‘Western’ literature. In addition to that, Homer (along with his possible contemporary, Hesiod) was one of the first Greeks to drag the gods of Olympus down from their obscure mountain and make the deities relatable and personified with emotions in ways that the average person could understand. The poet’s works would go on to be preserved, edited and translated into numerous languages, serving as a core component of literary education—and it is still taught in schools, today. Yet, except those general truths, much about Homer remains a mystery. Who was he? When did he live? Was Homer one man or many? To these questions, historians can only shrug their shoulders and hypothesize.
Homer’s date of birth, and the location in which he was born, have been loosely associated with broad timeframes and geographical regions. In general, he is said to have been writing in the 8th century BCE. Some scholars, however, claim that Homer’s works were written in the 7th century BCE. In the 2014 edition of the Penguin Classics translation of The Iliad, Peter Jones dated the work to around 700 BCE, keeping the poem in the 8th century BCE, but barely so. As to where Homer lived and composed his poetry, the answer is much narrower. Most historians believe that Homer lived in the Greek-settled lands of Ionia, on the western coast of modern-day Turkey, across the Aegean Sea from mainland Greece. A specific city or settlement is not known, but most scholars do agree that Homer lived somewhere in the region of Ionia.
As to the poet’s occupation, many historians believe that Homer was a bard—basically, a musician-poet who recorded the deed of heroic figures in song. It is thought that Homer’s works were intended to be sung, or at least the epic poems of Homer were recorded in an ‘oral poetry’ style. This claim is supported by the poet’s use of hexameter lines, which could easily be accompanied by the strumming of a lyre. Also, like the repeated Beatles phrases, “good day sun shine” and “let it be,” Homer constantly recycled memorable character descriptions (ex. Odysseus always described as resourceful) throughout the thousands of lines in his poems.
What truly set Homer apart, however, from the long line of forgotten bards of oral history was the age in which he lived. As a person living around the turn of the 8th century into the 7th century BCE, Homer was exposed to a reemergence in written language—the ancient Greek writing known as Linear B had fallen out of use by the 12th century BCE, but in Homer’s time, Greeks were beginning to write again with a language based on Phoenician script. Therefore, Homer (or a literate associate) could write down his life’s work, preserving his tales in durable lettering rather than the feeble mental-storehouse of traditional oral history.
Not only written language was being revived in Greece during the 8th century BCE. The Greeks were also undergoing a population boom, and settlers were setting sail to make settlements in Ionia and the coastlands around the Black Sea. The Greek settlements in Turkey that had neglected their ties to mainland Greece now began to reestablish contact with their brethren across the Aegean Sea. The movement of settlers, ideas and commerce likely bestowed extra life and energy into Homer’s work. He could see examples of exploration and adventure in the expansion of Greek settlements in his own lifetime.
The genre, or purpose, of Homer’s work is also difficult to pinpoint. Was it meant to be poetry about history? Were The Iliad and The Odyssey religious texts? Did Homer compose mainly for the entertainment of the audience? Homer’s poems were likely a mix of all the above. The Iliad and The Odyssey can be characterized as dubious historical fiction that depicts oral history from as far back as the Bronze Age Mycenaean Period (16th-12th Centuries BCE) shown through the scope of Homer’s culture in the 8th century BCE. Homer collected the slowly decaying fragments of oral history that parents were telling their children, then he laced the tales with a heavy dose of religion, and masterfully pieced it all together into two timeless narratives.
Was there a Trojan War? That is one of the most frequent, nagging questions brought up concerning Homer’s work. Many historians do believe that there was once a thriving, powerful city that in many ways resembled Homer’s depiction of Ilium, the Trojan city for which The Iliad obtained its name. In 1870, a German named Heinrich Schliemann unearthed an ancient city in Hisarlik, Turkey (located in the northwest of the country where the ancient coast would have been). The geography of the site is thought to match Homer’s descriptions, and the city was in contact with Greece during the Bronze Age. Most compelling, however, was the evidence that the ancient city found in Hisarlik fell to a siege sometime around 1200 BCE.
Despite all of these discoveries, the answer to whether the Trojan War actually happened still cannot be answered. Though an ancient, powerful city on the coast of Turkey did fall during the timeframe when the Trojan War supposedly occurred, there is no way to know if the ruins at Hisarlik actually fell to a massive war against a coalition of Greeks. The idea that Homer may have visited the ruins at Hisarlik also poses challenging questions. If Hisarlik was, indeed, the model for the city that fell in The Iliad, an unanswerable ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ scenario emerges. Were Homer’s epic poems based on the history of the ruins, or has the perceived history of the ruins been based on Homer’s epics?
Even if that cyclical question could be answered, further complications exist. ‘Homer’ may have been more than one person and, at minimum, the works of Homer were widely edited, revised and modified into various versions. In the middle of the 6th century BCE, Peisistratus, a tyrannical ruler in Athens, ordered a new, authoritative version of Homer’s works. A few centuries later, King Ptolemy of Egypt (one of Alexander the Great’s former comrades) had the scholars of Alexandria comb through the various existing copies of Homer’s epic poems to create another definitive version of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The carefully edited account of Homer’s epic poems brought about by Ptolemy’s scholars in the 3rd century BCE is a central source to most modern translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey which continue to circulate the world to this day.
Check out our Homer quote pictures, HERE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Iliad by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by Peter Jones. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.