The Homeric Epics
With the collapse of the advanced civilizations at the end of the Bronze Age, the knowledge of writing was lost. As a consequence, memories of the heroic age were initially passed down orally. Homer, who is considered the first poet of the Occident, picked up themes from this epic cycle and transformed them for his purposes. Because of the Iliad’s and the Odyssey’s popularity, orally transmitted accounts of historical events were gradually forgotten.
Current state of knowledge
Homer is considered to have been the first poet of the West. The prevailing scholarly consensus places him in the 8th century BCE. His epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, revolve around the Trojan War. Homer derived the subject of his poetry from the great Epic Cycle that had been preserved in the collective memories of the heroic era of the Late Bronze Age. The Epic Cycle was passed down orally from generation to generation after the knowledge of writing had been lost among Greek peoples.
When writing was reinvented in its alphabetic form, Homer used it to preserve his poems for posterity. Because of its outstanding literary quality, his work soon became a huge success. Homer had thus taken a well-known story as the basis for his poetry. Using his literary brilliance to provide sophisticated entertainment and intellectual stimulation to his audience, he decided to modify these well-known tales. His subjects and his narrative form had to be chosen so as to capture his audience’s attention. Accordingly, Homer’s epics consist of numerous heroic sagas and love stories. Thus it was not Homer’s ultimate goal to provide historical facts. Yet, the popularity of the Iliad and the Odyssey caused the memory of the orally transmitted events to fade into the background, while the stories told by Homer attracted the limelight.
Some elements of Homer’s poetry can, with much certainty, be traced all the way back to the Bronze Age. Among them are phrases and expressions that already could be found on the Linear B tablets of the Greek palaces. The so-called catalogue of ships too, that lists the Greek armed contingents heading for Troy, reflects the political geography at the end of the Bronze Age. Even the heroic battles between various battalions of chariots (which could be found in the Eastern Mediterranean only up to about 1200 BCE) had been occasionally mentioned in the Hittite texts in a similar form.
After the heroic age civil war brought out
The two works commonly attributed to Homer may not have been written by a single author. Passages such as Odysseus’s re-conquest of his palace in Ithaca seem almost like eye-witness accounts – only the bard was spared from death so that he could transmit the events for posterity. Descriptions of the landscape of Troy, however, seem to have been written in the 8th century BCE or had undergone extensive rewriting, for Homer never mentions any outskirts of Troy. Entire passages of text, such as the aforementioned catalogue of ships and, most importantly, the travels of Odysseus (Odyssey, Books 9–12), may have been taken as a whole from external sources.
The American classicist Gregory Nagy of Harvard University and his team argue in favor of this approach. They notice that there is no memory of Homer as a person. Had he actually lived in the 8th or 7th century BCE, anecdotes would have preserved an account of him, as was the case with Hesiod. Homer, however, seems more like Hercules – a personification of outstanding achievements, to make these more human, more understandable and easier to communicate.
The Troy excavator Wilhelm Dörpfeld argued that Homer had lived in the 12th century BCE, about a generation after the Trojan War. In this case, he may have been one of the original poets contributing to the Epic Cycle, but not the author of the complete Iliad and Odyssey, which were written down only 400 years later. A fragment by Diodorus (7.2) says that Homer died “before the return of the Heraclides.” Since Diodorus dates the Trojan War to 1184 BCE and, according to him, 80 years had passed until the return of the Heraclides, Homer would have lived before 1100 BCE (see Wirth 1993, 519 and 524).
The core of the Epic Cycle was undoubtedly conceived by brilliant poets. Perhaps they or their parents still knew the royal courts of the heroic age from personal experience. Those who orally preserved these epics over many generations deserve admiration, too. Finally, there were the actual authors who wrote down the work in the 8th century BCE. Perhaps they did a large amount of research or traveled extensively in order to transmit the events accurately. Another thousand years separate the first written version from the oldest surviving fragments of the Homeric epics, to which the Homer papyrus in London (from the first half of the 2nd century CE) and the Homer papyrus in Berlin (from the 3rd century CE) belong. The oldest surviving manuscript that reproduces the complete text of Homer’s Iliad dates back to the 10th century CE.
Dué, Casey (2009): “Epea Pteroenta: How We Came to Have Our Iliad.” In: Recapturing a Homeric Legacy – Images and Insights From the Venetus A Manuscript of the Iliad. Casey Dué (ed.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 19-30.
Nagy, Gregory (2010): Homer the Preclassic. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1-414.
Wirth, Gerhard (1993): Diodoros: Griechische Weltgeschichte, Buch I-X, 2. Teil. Anton Hiersemann, Stuttgart, 1-660.
It seems fairly clear that no one used the name “Homer” to refer to an individual person until c. 500 BC, Xenophanes and Herakleitos created him to find fault with him.
Emily Vermeule 1986, 86
It could be that there were a number of “creative geniuses” who contributed significantly to the development of the epics. Quite possibly this part of the process began long before the late eight century.
Trevor Bryce 2005, 370