Reader's Encyclopedia


Ionian poet. To him the Iliad and the Odyssey are traditionally attributed. As early as the Hellenistic period, a few scholars insisted that the epics were the work of different authors. Orthodox opinion, however, claimed that Homer had composed both works, and numerous biographies were written of him. Eight of these are extant, but their dates and authors are unknown and they are regarded as largely invention. There was a further firm tradition that Homer was blind. A measure of the reliable information about Homer known to the ancients is the fact that seven cities claimed to have been his birthplace: Chios, Colophon, Smyrna, Rhodes, Argos, Athens, and Salamis. The fact is that nothing whatever is known about Homer the man, including the crucial point of whether he existed.

Nevertheless, modern scholars have learned a great deal about the works that the Greeks attributed to Homer. These were not only the Iliad and the Odyssey, but also the Battle of the Frogs and Mice and the Homeric hymns, and certain epics from the Epic Cycle, known today only in brief fragments. It has long been accepted as certain that of these only the first two can be considered as genuinely " Homeric, " although the Homeric hymns were clearly written in imitation of Homer's style. Today even most " unitarians, " who believe the Iliad and the Odyssey each to be the work of a single author, do not consider them the work of the same author. The diction and language of the Odyssey show it to be a somewhat later work.

All scholars are aware that Greek epic poetry of the Homeric age was the end product of a long period of gradual accretion during which historical events, legends, and folk tales were stitched together by many generations of rhapsodes or bards. In the case of the Iliad and the Odyssey, this process probably covered four centuries, from shortly after the series of events known as the Trojan War in the early 13th century bc to the mid-9th century bc, which seems the most likely date for Homer. The " analytic school " of Homeric scholars believe that this process continued up to the 6th century bc, when Pisistratus had the epics arranged for regular recitation at the Panathenaic festivals. This would mean that the epics were compiled and edited from bits and pieces rather than composed to a significant extent by a single individual.

Although analytic theories tended to dominate Homeric studies after the pioneer work of F. A. Wolf in 1795, there has been in recent years a strong resurgence of the unitarians. The most widely held position today is that, although both the Iliad and the Odyssey are made up of traditional materials, each bears the unmistakable imprint of a single artistic intelligence. This belief is supported by the remarkable structural, dramatic, and stylistic unity achieved in both epics, in spite of numerous and obvious anachronisms and other discrepancies. The Odyssey, in spite of -- or perhaps in part because of -- its broader scope and greater variety, evidences more clearly than the Iliad the work of a single poet. It is remarkable for its extraordinarily modern structure, which employs the techniques of the " flashback " and parallel lines of action common in the novel.

The Iliad and the Odyssey as they are known today are based on the texts edited in the 6th century bc for use in Athens. A considerable amount of tampering with the Iliad was done by the Athenians in order to increase their role in its events, and the texts were further edited in the 2nd century bc by two distinguished scholars in Alexandria: Aristarchus of Samothrace and Aristophanes of Byzantium. The extant texts are substantially those of Aristarchus.