(A Reading of Homer, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
The great works of Homer were written in an oral style, which was traditionally sung or chanted by bards. The carefully crafted hexameter lines of poetry could be accompanied by music to summon more drama and emotion from the audience. Historians are unsure whether Homer intended The Iliad and The Odyssey to be narrated out loud, or if the poems were written in an oral style merely because Homer was comfortable and familiar with that format. Either way, if a bard did choose to narrate Homer’s two lengthy epics, it would take a formidable amount of time to accomplish the task.
Generally speaking, The Iliad has around 15,000 lines of poetry. In addition, the continuation of the story in The Odyssey consists of around 12,000 more lines of poetry. According to Peter Jones, who worked on the Penguin Classic translations of Homer’s works, the average bard would need around thirty hours to completely sing The Iliad and then another approximate twenty hours to perform The Odyssey. With an average minimum time of about fifty hours, completing Homer’s epics would be a daunting challenge for any live performer.
If, by chance, ancient Greek bards did indeed chant or sing Homer’s poetry, historians hypothesize that these performances would have only been witnessed by the elite and wealthy that could afford a bard for days at a time. One of the more plausible scenarios is that a bard would perform the epic poems piecemeal, over a long span of time, perhaps, singing a chapter every evening during or after the employer’s meal, until the poems were completed.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Iliad by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by Peter Jones. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.