Was Homer a real person?

Josho Brouwers

Claim

Homer is the name of the poet who wrote the epic poems Odyssey and Iliad. He lived around 700 BC.

Rating

Misleading

Explanation

The ancient Greeks believed that the epic poems Iliad and Odyssey were the creation of a single poet, a travelling bard by the name of Homer. Aside from these two poems, a number of smaller works were also attributed to Homer in antiquity, including the mock-epic Margites and a collection of hymns – songs in praise of various divinities from the Olympic Pantheon, despite many of these poems clearly belonging to different centuries on the basis of their language (vocabulary, syntax, grammar).

Because a large number of poems were attributed to Homer, some scholars believe that “Homer” is not a personal name, but rather a title. We don’t need to concern ourselves with this too much, though; for now, let’s use “Homer” as a kind of shorthand, since we know nothing about him. For example, the idea that he was blind is a later convention found in e.g. Pseudo-Herodotus’ Life of Homer, written in the days of the Roman Empire. There is no proof in the poems themselves that Homer couldn’t see.

Place and date of birth

Later Greeks also disagreed as to Homer’s birthplace, although they all agreed that it had to be located somewhere in what is referred to as “East Greece”. The eastern part of the Aegean seems indeed a likely place of origin for Homer, because the poems were written in an artificial dialect that consists mostly of Aeolic and Ionic Greek. Some ancient authors believed Homer was born in Smyrna (modern Izmir in Turkey), others that he came from the island of Chios. There is also a third option, again suggested in the Life of Homer: that he was born in Smyrna, but later moved to Chios.

Today, this issue has an added political dimension on account of the tensions between modern Greece and Turkey, with the former favouring Chios as Homer’s birthplace and the latter naturally opting for Smyrna. The evidence for either location is slim to nonexistent: there is simply no way for us to know where Homer came from, if the poet of the Iliad and Odyssey was one and the same person, and if this person was even named Homer!

The ancient Greeks themselves had vague ideas of when Homer was supposed to have lived. Herodotus says that he “believes” Homer lived “no more than four hundred years before my time” (2.53). That would place Homer in the ninth century BC. But Herodotus is clearly guessing: saying that Homer lived four hundred years ago simply indicated that Homer predated Herotodus by a long time.

Modern scholars tended to place Homer in the eighth century BC: early enough not too interfere with more securely dated Archaic Greek texts, yet not too early as to create an unsightly gap between the supposed date of the epics and the next earliest known instances of the Greek alphabet.

As time went on, the date for Homer’s floruit was lowered: the general tendency today is to regard the epic poems as dating from around 700 BC or perhaps even a little later: many elements of material culture in the poems clearly belong to the period between ca. 700 and 650 BC (see Crielaard 1996), which we may now take as Homer’s own time.

One Homer or many?

Were the ancient Greeks correct in ascribing the Iliad and the Odyssey to a single individual? This is the so-called “Homeric Question” that rose to prominence in modern scholarship in the eighteenth century. Originally, scholars were divided into two camps: the Analysts, who believed that there had been original texts marred by later interpolations (such as book 24 of the Odyssey), and the Unitarians, who believed that each of the epic poems was a unity, warts and all.

There was also some disagreement as to the authorship of both poems. Some considered the Iliad and the Odyssey as having been produced by the same individual, but not at the same time. Others believed that the poet of the Iliad was an entirely different person from the one who had composed the Odyssey, marshalling supposed differences in syntax, grammar, and vocabulary to illustrate the point. The nineteenth-century novelist Samuel Butler even argued that the author of the Odyssey must have been a woman.

The discussions regarding “Homer” and the Homeric epics were kicked up a notch as the result of the work of Milman Parry, who had written a dissertation in 1928 that would cause a revolution in Homeric studies. He put forward the idea that the Homeric epics were the product of a long tradition of oral poetry. Formulaic expressions, including name and epithet pairs, so common in the Iliad and Odyssey (e.g. “fleet-footed Achilles”), were a way for poets to easily remember these long poems.

Because of Milman Parry’s research, many scholars became reluctant to consider the Homeric epics as literature, since, if Parry was correct, the formulaic expressions and many other elements of the poems were only convenient for memorization, not added due to artistic or literary concerns. Whereas before the focus had been on the epics as texts, the pendulum had now, at least in some circles, swung toward treating them primarily as oral poetry.

This hardline stance on the epics as either texts or oral poetry started to evaporate from the 1970s onwards. Most scholars readily admit that the epic poems, regardless of the form that they eventually took, are at least oral-derived. After all, the Iliad and the Odyssey are but two poems of the much larger “Epic Cycle” that deal with the stories surrounding the Trojan War.

Concluding remarks

Hopefully, the foregoing has shown that there is nothing known for certain with respect to the poet (or poets?) of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Asking whether “Homer” was a real person is therefore misleading: we know nothing about who composed these poems, so suggesting that “Homer” really existed (or not) presupposes knowledge that we simply do not possess.

As a result, we rate this claim as misleading.

Related claims

References

  • Jonathan Burgess, The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle (2001).
  • Samuel Butler, The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897).
  • Jan Paul Crielaard, “Homer, history and archaeology: some remarks on the date of the Homeric world”, in: Jan Paul Crielaard (ed.), Homeric Questions: Essays in Philology, Ancient History and Archaeology, Including the Papers of a Conference Organized by the Netherlands Institute at Athens, 15 May 1993 (1995), pp. 201-288.
  • Robert Fowler, “The Homeric Question”, in: Robert Fowler (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Homer (2004), pp. 220-232.
  • Irene J.F. de Jong, “Homer as literature: some current areas of research”, in: Jan Paul Crielaard (ed.), Homeric Questions: Essays in Philology, Ancient History and Archaeology, Including the Papers of a Conference Organized by the Netherlands Institute at Athens, 15 May 1993 (1995), pp. 127-146.
  • Richmond Lattimore (translation and introduction), The Iliad of Homer (1951).
  • Susan Sherratt and John Bennet, “Introduction”, in: Susan Sherratt and John Bennet (eds) Archaeology and Homeric Epic (2017), pp. viii-xvi.