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Homer (Ancient Greek: Ὅμηρος [hómɛːros], Hómēros) is best known as the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. He was believed by the ancient Greeks to have been the first and greatest of the epic poets. Author of the first known literature of Europe, he is central to the Western canon.
When he lived, as well as whether he lived at all, is unknown. Herodotus estimates that Homer lived no more than 400 years before his own time.
The importance of Homer to the ancient Greeks is described in Plato’s Republic, which portrays him as the protos didaskalos, “first teacher”, of the tragedians, the hegemon paideias, “leader of Greek culture”, and the ten Hellada pepaideukon, “teacher of [all] Greece”. Homer’s works, which are about fifty percent speeches, provided models in persuasive speaking and writing that were emulated throughout the ancient and medieval Greek worlds. Fragments of Homer account for nearly half of all identifiable Greek literary papyrus finds in Egypt.
The chronological period of Homer depends on the meaning to be assigned to the word “Homer.” If the works attributed either wholly or partially to a blind poet named Homer, were really authored by such a person, then he must have had biographical dates, or a century or other historical period, which can be described as the life and times of Homer. If on the other hand Homer is to be considered a mythical character, the legendary founder of a guild of rhapsodes called the Homeridae, then “Homer” means the works attributed to the rhapsodes of the guild, who might have composed primarily in a single century or over a period of centuries. And finally, much of the geographic and material content of the Iliad and Odyssey appear to be consistent with the Aegean Late Bronze Age, the time of the floruit of Troy, but not the time of the Greek alphabet. The term “Homer” can be used to mean traditional elements of verse known to the rhapsodes from which they composed oral poetry, which transmitted information concerning the culture of Mycenaean Greece. This information is often called “the world of Homer” (or of Odysseus, or the Iliad). The Homeric period would in that case cover a number of historical periods, especially the Mycenaean Age, prior to the first delivery of a work called the Iliad.
Concurrent with the questions of whether there was a biographical person named Homer, and what role he may have played in the development of the currently known texts, is the question of whether there ever was a uniform text of the Iliad or Odyssey. Considered word-for-word, the printed texts as we know them are the product of the scholars of the last three centuries. Each edition of the Iliad or Odyssey is a little different, as the editors rely on different manuscripts and fragments, and make different choices as to the most accurate text to use. The term “accuracy” reveals a fundamental belief in an original uniform text. The manuscripts of the whole work currently available date to no earlier than the 10th century. These are at the end of a missing thousand-year chain of copies made as each generation of manuscripts disintegrated or were lost or destroyed. These numerous manuscripts are so similar that a single original can be postulated.
The time gap in the chain is bridged by the scholia, or notes, on the existing manuscripts, which indicate that the original had been published by Aristarchus of Samothrace in the 2nd century BCE. Librarian of the Library of Alexandria, he had noticed a wide divergence in the works attributed to Homer, and was trying to restore a more authentic copy. He had collected several manuscripts, which he named: the Sinopic, the Massiliotic, etc. The one he selected for correction was the koine, which Murray translates as “the Vulgate”. Aristarchus was known for his conservative selection of material. He marked lines that he thought were spurious, not of Homer. The entire last book of the Odyssey was marked.
The koine in turn had come from the first librarian at Alexandria, Zenodotus, who flourished at the beginning of the 3rd century BCE. He also was attempting to restore authenticity to manuscripts he found in a state of chaos. He set the precedent by marking passages he considered spurious, and by filling in material that seemed to be missing himself. Neither Zenodotus nor Aristarchus mentioned any authentic master copy from which to make corrections. Their method was intuitive. The current division into 24 books each for the Iliad and Odyssey came from Zenodotus.
The earliest mention of a work of Homer was by Callinus, a poet who flourished about 650 BCE. He attributed the Thebais, an epic about the attack on Boeotian Thebes by the epigonoi, to Homer. The Thebais was written about the time of the appearance of the Greek alphabet, but it could have been originally oral. The Iliad is mentioned by name in Herodotus with regard to the early 6th century, but there is no telling what Iliad that is. Almost all the ancient sources from the very earliest appear determined that a Homer, author of the Iliad and Odyssey, existed. The author of the Hymn to Apollo identifies himself in the last verse of the poem as a blind man from Chios.
Regardless of whether there was or was not a Homer, or whether the texts of the Homerica were or were not close to the ones that exist today, philology alone does not shed any light on the similarities between Mycenaean culture and the geographical and material props of the world of Homer.
Archaeology, however, continues to support the theory that much detailed information survived in the form of formulae and stock pieces to be combined creatively by the rhapsodes of later centuries. A number of combined archaeological and philological works have been written on the topic, such as Denys Page’s “History and the Homeric Iliad” and Martin P. Nilsson’s “The Mycenaean Origin of Greek Mythology.” The linguist, Calvert Watkins, went so far as to seek an inherited Proto-Indo-European language origin for some epithets and the epic verse form. If he is correct, the stock themes and verses of rhapsodes may be far older than the Trojan War, which would, in that case, be only the latest opportunity for an epic.
Homer cannot be presented as a single author of a set of works as they are today describing events of history that are more or less real, apart from the obvious mythology. Homeric studies are like the proverbial apple of philosophy. There is no beginning and no end. No matter what starting problem is selected, it leads immediately to another. The total sum of all the problems is known as the Homeric question, which is, of course, generic and not singular.
Various traditions have survived purporting to give details of Homer’s birthplace and background. The satirist Lucian, in his True History, describes him as a Babylonian called Tigranes, who assumed the name Homer when taken “hostage” (homeros) by the Greeks. When the Emperor Hadrian asked the Oracle at Delphi about Homer, the Pythia proclaimed that he was Ithacan, the son of Epikaste and Telemachus, from the Odyssey. These stories were incorporated into the various “lives of Homer”, “compiled from the Alexandrian period onwards”.
The “lives of Homer” refer to a set of longer fragments on the topic of the life and works of Homer written by authors who for the most part remain anonymous. Some were attributed to more famous authors. In the 20th century CE, all the vitae were gathered into a standard reference work by Thomas W. Allen and made a part of Homeri Opera, “the Works of Homer”, first published in 1912 by Oxford University Press. This edition has been informally known as “the Oxford Homer” and the Vitae Homeri section as “the lives of Homer” or just “the lives”. The relevant part of Volume V in scholarship on the vitae is often called just “Allen” with page numbers denoting the vita.
“Homer” is a name of unknown origin, ostensibly Greek. However, many Greek words, and especially names in the east, where the Greeks were in contact with eastern language speakers, were loans, approximations, or paraphrases of foreign words. For example, Darius to the Greeks was Dārayava(h)uš, “holding firm the good”, to himself and the other Old Persian speakers. Cadmus, overthrown king of Thebes, reported to have been Phoenician, was probably seen as an “easterner,” from Hebrew/Phoenician qdm, “the east”. Priam was perhaps from Luwian Priya-muwa-, which means “exceptionally courageous.” Many names have a derivation from a foreign language but also fit or partially fit derivations from Proto-Indo-European through Greek. There are but few rules to assist the linguist in identifying which is the most likely.
Etymologies for the name Homeros reach beyond the Greek. On the one hand, he may have a Hellenized Phoenician name. West conjectures a Phoenician prototype for Homer’s name as a patronymic, Homeridae (male progeny from the line of Homer), *benê ômerîm (“sons of speakers”); id est professional tale-tellers. Here the patronymic would designate the guild. In Greek, the Homer in Homeridae would have to be in the singular, the implied single ancestor of a clan practicing a hereditary trade. The hypothetical semitic ancestors are in the plural; where “ben” can be used for one “father”, the id- construction can never designate a plural father.
On the other hand, Proto-Indo-European etymologies are also available. The poet’s name is homophonous with Greek ὅμηρος (hómēros), “hostage” (or “surety”). This word is in the Attic dialect, and was a word in general use. In the vitae of Pseudo-Herodotus and Plutarch, it had a relatively obscure meaning: “blind”, which is interpreted as meaning “he who accompanies; he who is forced to follow” a guide. The geographic specificity of the word typically is explained by a presumption that it was known mainly in Aeolis on the coast of Asia Minor, the locale where Homer performed, and therefore is a word of the Aeolic dialect. There is no linguistic reason other than usage for thinking so. The letter eta brands the word as being East Greek, as opposed to the West Greek Cretan form, which has an alpha instead. Ionic and Attic also were East Greek. Proclus’ Chrestomathia, however, explicitly says, “the tuphloi were called homeroi by the Aeolians” Throughout Pseudo-Herodotus, ὅμηρος (hómēros) is synonymous with the standard Greek τυφλός (tuphlós), meaning ‘blind’.
William Ihne examining the sources counted as many 19 locations in classical times that claimed Homer as a citizen, including Athens, which accepted Smyrna as Homer’s native city, but insisted the city was its colony. The cause of these multiple claims was civic competition for the honor. Ihne chose Smyrna because some of the Vitae identify the word Homer as Aeolic, and Smyrna had an Aeolic background. These circumstances give precedence to the longest, most detailed vita, that of Pseudo-Herodotus, which is one of the sources that identify Smyrna as originally Aeolian.
The poems give evidence of familiarity with the natural details and place-names of this area of Asia Minor; for example, Homer refers to meadow birds at the mouth of the Caystros, a storm in the Icarian sea and mentions that women in Maeonia and Caria stain ivory with scarlet. However, Homer also had a geographical knowledge of all Mycenaean Greece that has been verified by discovery of most of the sites. Wilhelm Dörpfeld, the classical archaeologist, suggests that Homer had visited many of the places and regions which he describes in his epics, such as Mycenae, Troy and more. According to Diodorus Siculus, Homer had even visited Egypt.
Herodotus mentions both the Iliad and the Odyssey as works of Homer. He quotes a few lines from them both, which are the same in today’s editions. The passage quoted from the Iliad mentions that Paris stopped at Sidon before bringing Helen to Troy. From the fact that the Cypria has Paris going directly to Troy from Sparta, Herodotus concludes that it was not written by Homer. The doubting process had begun.
In Works and Days, Hesiod says that he crossed to Euboea to contend in the games held by the sons of Amphidamas at Chalcis. There he won with a hymnos and took away the prize of a tripod, which he dedicated to the Muses of Mount Helicon, where he first began with aoide, “song.” One of the vitae, the “Certamen”, picks up this theme. Homer and Hesiod were contemporaries, it says. They both attended the funeral games of Amphidamas, conducted by his son, Ganyctor, and both contended in the contest of sophia, “wit.” In it, one was required to ask a question of the other, who must reply in verse.
Unable to decide, the judge had them each recite from their poems. Hesiod quoted Works and Days; Homer, ‘Iliad’, both as they are now, but neither poem can have been the modern. Hesiod cannot have described beforehand the very event in which he was participating. The Iliad is supposed to have been written already. It is not called that, however. The victory was given to Hesiod because his poem was about peace, but Homer’s, about war.
The idea that Homer was responsible for just the two outstanding epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, did not win consensus until 350 BCE. While many, such as Gregory Nagy, find it unlikely that both epics were composed by the same person, others, such as W. B. Stanford, argue that the stylistic similarities are too consistent to support the theory of multiple authorship. One view which attempts to bridge the differences holds that the Iliad was composed by “Homer” in his maturity, while the Odyssey was a work of his old age. The Batrachomyomachia, Homeric Hymns and cyclic epics are generally agreed to be later than the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Other scholars still support the idea that Homer was a real person. Since nothing is known about the life of this Homer, the common joke—also recycled with regard to Shakespeare—has it that the poems “were not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name.”
It is probable, therefore, that the story of the Trojan War as reflected in the Homeric poems derives from a tradition of epic poetry founded on a war which actually took place. It is crucial, however, not to underestimate the creative and transforming power of subsequent tradition: for instance, Achilles, the most important character of the Iliad, is strongly associated with southern Thessaly, but his legendary figure is interwoven into a tale of war whose kings were from the Peloponnese. Tribal wanderings were frequent, and far-flung, ranging over much of Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. The epic weaves brilliantly the disiecta membra (scattered remains) of these distinct tribal narratives, exchanged among clan bards, into a monumental tale in which Greeks join collectively to do battle on the distant plains of Troy.
Translations and Sources:
The Iliad of Homer a Parsed Interlinear, Handheldclassics.com (2008)
Augustus Taber Murray (1866–1940)
Homer: Iliad, 2 vols., revised by William F. Wyatt, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press (1999).
Homer: Odyssey, 2 vols., revised by George E. Dimock, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press (1995).
Robert Fitzgerald (1910–1985)
The Iliad, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2004)
The Odyssey, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1998)
Robert Fagles (1933–2008)
The Iliad, Penguin Classics (1998)
The Odyssey, Penguin Classics (1999)
Fowler, Robert, ed. (2004). The Cambridge Companion to Homer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Latacz, J.; Windle, Kevin, Tr.; Ireland, Rosh, Tr. (2004). Troy and Homer: Towards a Solution of an Old Mystery. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Morris, Ian; Powell, Barry B., eds. (1997). A New Companion to Homer. Leiden: Brill.
Nikoletseas, M. M. ( 2012). The Iliad – Twenty Centuries of Translation.
Finley, Moses (2002). The World of Odysseus. New York: New York Review of Books.