Are the Homeric epics an accurate source for the Bronze Age Aegean?

Published

Claim

The epic poems Iliad and Odyssey, which were attributed in ancient times to a single poet, Homer, can be used as an accurate source of information for the Late Bronze Age Aegean.

Rating

Mostly false

Explanation

For much of the modern era, ancient Greece was the age of the Greek city-state of the first millennium BC. The stories about larger-than-life heroes and epic wars that had been fought in the distant part were treated as just that: stories. This changed in the late nineteenth century when the German entrepeneur Heinrich Schliemann started excavating at Hisarlik in Turkey and discovered the remains of what he believed to have been the ancient city of Troy, as immortalized in Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad.

Flush with his success in Turkey, Schliemann started excavating in mainland Greece and discovered the remains of a rich culture at Mycenae that dated back to the second millennium BC. With his discoveries here and at nearby Tiryns, Schliemann had shown that Greece possessed a civilization much older than that of the city-states, which he dubbed “Mycenaean” in honour of the city where he first discovered its remains.

The “Age of Heroes”, until then dismissed as mere fantasy on the part of the Greeks of the Archaic and Classical age (ca. 800-300 BC), was now thought to have really existed. Inspired by Schliemann’s discoveries at Troy and Mycenae, the British archaeologist Arthur Evans began excavating at Knossos, a site on Crete most familiar from the ancient story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Here, he discovered the existence of a complex society that predated the Mycenaean culture, and which was named “Minoan”, after Minos, the legendary king of Crete.

But as scholars explored the remains of the Mycenaean and Minoan cultures in further detail, it became more and more obvious that ancient Greek stories, including Homer’s take on the Trojan War, was ultimately very different from what the archaeologist’s trowel had revealed of the Aegean Bronze Age. In 1952, Michael Ventris succeeded in deciphering the Mycenaean system of writing, Linear B. This showed that while the Mycenaeans spoke an early form of Greek, their society was, as mounting archaeological evidence had already suggested, very different from the one described by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Some authors have come to the conclusion that the epic world, as described by Homer, is entirely imaginary (recently again Dickinson 2017). Others suggest that the epic world is a mishmash that incorporates elements from both the Late Bronze Age world of the Mycenaeans as well as the Early Iron Age, which is thought to have been Homer’s own age, usually dated to ca. 700 BC. Archaeologist Anthony Snodgrass has argued that the different elements can no longer be untangled and that the epics are thus useless as reliable sources of information for any period in particular (1974, esp. pp. 124-125).

However, other authors are less pessimistic. Moses Finley argued that we should look at the structure of Homeric society rather than try and determine which (material) elements are Mycenaean or Archaic (e.g. Finley 1978, pp. 48-50). Ian Morris agreed that the Homeric epics could be used as a source of historical enquiry, albeit with some circumspection (Morris 1986, esp. pp. 127-128). Both argue that the epics are internally consistent and can be used as a source of information for a particular period in time, even if they disagree about specifics. The question then becomes, which period?

The idea that the Homeric epics can be used as a source for the Bronze Age is no longer seriously maintained by most academics. Exceptions include Ione Mylonas Shear (2000) and Joachim Latacz (2004). Those academics who do believe that the epics are consistent usually favour a date around 700 BC, or even a little later (e.g. Crielaard 1995; see also, again, Morris 1986). Hans van Wees, in his 1992 PhD thesis, emphasized that the Homeric epics are a valuable source of information for Homer’s own time. He concludes (p. 263):

Homer’s image of the heroic age turns out to be so similar to what we know of the Archaic Age that many perceived contrasts between Homer/Dark Age and Archaic society are reduced to the point of vanishing. […] One might conclude that Homer reflects the early Archaic Age itself, or one might argue that the poems reflect Dark Age conditions and that there is thus a great deal of continuity between the two periods. In either case, the epics provide little or no evidence for historical change in any of these respects.

Many still hold the belief that the Homeric epics are the product of a long oral tradition, especially linguists, and so some elements may date back to the Bronze Age (in general, see discussion in Sherratt and Bennet 2017). The political geography is one example: Mycenae was hardly a powerful centre in Homer’s time anymore. But others have stressed that the Mycenaean fortifications remained visible and even in use long after the end of the Bronze Age, and these may have inspired tales about heroes who lived in a bygone era (e.g. Morris 1986, p. 129; Van Wees 1992, p. 262). The fact that nearby Argos is described as a powerful kingdom is suspicious, since Argos only rose to prominence in the historic era.

Likewise, some elements from the Homeric epics have been described as genuine relics of the Mycenaean past, but other explanations are equally possible. The most famous example is perhaps Meriones’ helmet, described in the tenth book of the Iliad as a boar’s tusk helmet. Such helmets were common in the Late Bronze Age, but Homer’s description may well have been inspired by an heirloom that had been passed down through the centuries, or on an object that was retrieved from a Mycenaean tomb that Greeks of the Archaic period had stumbled upon.

As a result, we rate this claim as mostly false. The idea that the Homeric epics accurately reflect the conditions of the Bronze Age is demonstrably false, but some of the details – including certain objects and the political geography – cannot be shown conclusively to be genuine memories of a bygone age or something else. In addition, because we can only recognize possible Bronze Age elements in the Homeric epics because we are already familiar with them from archaeological excavations means that the epics are pretty much useless as a source for the Mycenaean era.

Related claims

References

  • John Bennet, “Linear B and Homer”, in: Yves Duhoux and Anna Morpurgo Davies (eds), A Companion to Linear B. Mycenaean Greek Texts and Their World, vol. 3 (2014), pp. 187-233.
  • 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 (1995), pp. 201–288.
  • OIiver Dickinson, “The will to believe: why Homer cannot be ‘true’ in any meaningful sense”, in: Susan Sherratt and John Bennet (eds), Archaeology and Homeric Epic (2017), pp. 10-19.
  • Moses Finley, The World of Odysseus (1978, second edition).
  • Joachim Latacz, Troy and Homer: Towards a Solution of an Old Mystery (translation, 2004; German original, 2001).
  • Ian Morris, “The use and abuse of Homer”, Classical Antiquity 5.1 (1986), pp. 81-138.
  • Ione Mylonas Shear, Tales of Heroes: The Origins of the Homeric Texts (2000).
  • Susan Sherratt and John Bennet (eds), Archaeology and Homeric Epic (2017).
  • Anthony Snodgrass, “An historical Homeric society?”, Journal of Hellenic Studies 94 (1974), pp. 114-125.
  • Hans van Wees, Status Warriors: War, Violence and Society in Homer and History (1992).