Homer – Ancient Greece – Classical Literature

(Epic Poet, Greek, c. 750 - c. 700 BCE)

Introduction | Biography | Writings | Major Works
Introduction
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Homer is traditionally held to be the author of the ancient Greek epic poems â€œThe Iliad” and â€œThe Odyssey”, widely thought to be the first extant works of Western literature. He is considered by many to be the earliest and most important of all the Greek writers, and the progenitor of the whole Western literary tradition. He was a poetic pioneer who stood at a pivotal point in the evolution of Greek society from pre-literate to literate, from a centuries old bardic tradition of oral verse to the then new technique of alphabetic writing.

Biography
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Nothing definite is known of Homer the historical man, and indeed we do not know for sure that such a man ever existed. However, of the many conflicting traditions and legends that have grown up around him, the most common and most convincing version suggests that Homer was born at Smyrna in the Ionian region of Asia Minor (or possibly on the island of Chios), and that he died on the Cycladic island of Ios.

Establishing an accurate date for Homer’s life also presents significant difficulties as no documentary record of the man’s life is known to have existed. Indirect reports from Herodotus and others generally date him approximately between 750 and 700 BCE.

The characterization of Homer as a blind bard by some historians is partly due to translations of the Greek “homêros”, meaning “hostage” or “he who is forced to follow”, or, in some dialects, “blind”. Some ancient accounts depict Homer as a wandering minstrel, and a common portayal is of a blind, begging singer who travelled around the harbour towns of Greece, associating with shoemakers, fisherman, potters, sailors and elderly men in the town gathering places.

Writings
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Exactly what Homer was responsible for writing is likewise largely unsubstantiated. The Greeks of the 6th and early 5th Centuries BCE tended to use the label “Homer” for the whole body of early heroic hexameter verse. This included â€œThe Iliad” and â€œThe Odyssey”, but also the whole â€œEpic Cycle” of poems relating the story of the Trojan War (also known as the â€œTrojan Cycle”), as well as the Theban poems about Oedipus and other works, such as the â€œHomeric Hymns” and the comic mini-epic â€œBatrachomyomachia” (“The Frog-Mouse War”).

By around 350 BCE, the consensus had arisen that Homer was responsible for just the two outstanding epics, â€œThe Iliad” and â€œThe Odyssey”. Stylistically they are similiar, and one view holds that â€œThe Iliad” was composed by Homer in his maturity, while â€œThe Odyssey” was a work of his old age. Other parts of the â€œEpic Cycle” (e.g. â€œKypria”“Aithiopus”“Little Iliad”“The Sack of Ilion”“The Returns” and â€œTelegony”) are now considered to be almost certainly not by Homer. The â€œHomeric Hymns” and â€œEpigrams of Homer”, despite the names, were likewise almost certainly written significantly later, and therefore not by Homer himself.

Some maintain that the Homeric poems are dependent on an oral tradition, a generations-old technique that was the collective inheritance of many singer-poets. The Greek alphabet was introduced (adapted from a Phoenician syllabary) in the early 8th Century BCE, so it is possible that Homer himself (if indeed he was a single, real person) was one of the first generation of authors who were also literate. At any rate, it seems likely that Homer’s poems were recorded shortly after the invention of the Greek alphabet, and third-party references to â€œThe Iliad” appear as early as about 740 BCE.

The language used by Homer is an archaic version of Ionic Greek, with admixtures from certain other dialects such as Aeolic Greek. It later served as the basis of Epic Greek, the language of epic poetry, typically written in dactylic hexameter verse.

In the Hellenistic period, Homer appears to have been the subject of a hero cult in several cities, and there is evidence of a shrine devoted to him in Alexandria by Ptolemy IV Philopator in the late 3rd Century BCE.

Major Works
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