Homer Biography


Life and Background

Little can be said about Homer. Ancient Greek tradition, as well as a study of the language and style of the poems, indicates that he probably lived and wrote sometime in the eighth or ninth centuries B.C., but no more definite date can be determined. In ancient times, seven different cities claimed the honor of having been his birthplace. None of these assertions can be validated. However, Homer may have come from the island of Chios, on the western coast of Asia Minor — in earlier times, a family of the same name lived there and claimed him as an ancestor, and devoted themselves to the recitation of his works. Whether he came from Chios or not, it is highly probable that Homer was a native and resident of some part of Eastern Greece or Asia Minor, for the dialect he used in his works is that of the Asian Greeks.

Tradition has it that Homer was blind, but the evidence for this idea is unreliable. This evidence is based on the portrayal in the Odyssey of a blind minstrel who sings a poem about the fall of Troy. But there is no reason to believe that the poet was describing himself in this scene. Throughout the two epics, no consistent autobiographical information exists, and no other literature of the period survives that describes the poet.

The early Greeks insisted that there was a single individual named Homer, to whom they ascribed the Iliad, the Odyssey, and several minor works called the Homeric Hymns. However, around the third century B.C., the so-called Homeric Question was first propounded. Several of the grammarians of the time asserted that the Iliad and the Odyssey were actually composed by two different writers. At various times, later European critics supported this view. Another school of thought, especially popular in the nineteenth century, claims that Homer never lived, and that the two epics are the collective works of groups of anonymous bards to whom the name Homer was later applied. These scholars suggest that the two poems were constantly revised and added to whenever they were recited and did not reach their present form until the 6th century B.C. when, in Athens, they were written down for the first time.

Whatever one thinks of the existence of Homer, certain facts concerning the composition of the Iliad are firmly established. Originally, it was an oral composition meant to be sung or chanted for an audience. Research, particularly on living bards in the former Yugoslavia, has shown that epic length poems are composed and presented through a combination of stock phrases and scenes coupled with extemporaneous composition. The Iliad shows evidence of similar elements. Stock phrases and scenes exist in the epithets for character ("old Gerenian Nestor"), descriptions of natural settings such as dawn, battle preparation scenes, and the battle scenes themselves. Set speeches may also be used. Agamemnon's speech is echoed in a speech by Odysseus in the Odyssey. The catalogue of ships in Book II is also such a set piece, although it was probably added when the poem was written.

Generally, contemporary scholarship believes that the Iliad and the Odyssey have a consistency of style and outlook indicating that they are the work of one writer. That a man named Homer actually composed the Iliad and the Odyssey as an original and entirely individual composition as Virgil composed the Aeneid seems highly doubtful. Various time references and other irregularities in the poems suggest that parts of the poems were written in entirely different periods of Greek history. However, the obvious structural complexity and thematic unity of the poems as well as their set metrical pattern of dactylic hexameter indicate a single author of great sophistication. As with the great English epic, Beowulf, the Iliad and the Odyssey may have existed as oral tradition for some time and eventually were put into final, written form by a single poetic genius. The poet may have composed the epics himself, or he may have borrowed from the works of earlier bards. Because the people living nearest to the era of the composition of the poems believed them to be the product of one hand, the modern critic accepts this view and attributes the stylistic differences between the two epic poems to their having been composed at different stages in the poet's life and to the different themes of the works. Rather than take a defensive or apologetic position, the contemporary scholar insists that the burden of proof be on those who deny the existence of Homer. To date, this position has not been successfully challenged.

While little if anything is known of Homer's life, his works are an everlasting tribute to him. For thousands of years, the Iliad and the Odyssey have been the standards by which poets of all languages have measured themselves. Homer is unsurpassed in his understanding of human nature in all its aspects, for his keen observation of the world in which people live, for his essential sanity and good taste, and for his superb control of all the technical devices of his medium.

Background of the Iliad

The Greeks, or Achaians, that Homer writes about in the Iliad were not people of a unified nation. Instead, areas of the Balkan Peninsula, now known as Greece, were made up of many small kingdoms, populated by ethnically-related peoples, from 1400-800 B.C., and even later, to the time of Alexander the Great (c. 200 B.C.). Scholarship generally dates the composition of the Iliad at about 800 B.C. At that time, Homer would have been writing about the Mycenaeans, a people who lived in Greece four to five hundred years earlier, although the picture he paints in the epic shows aspects of society from all of the periods between 1400 and 800 B.C.

The Mycenaeans, also called Hellenes, had taken control of the Balkan Peninsula around 1500 B.C. They formed what were essentially small farming communities organized around a predominant family. In the Iliad, each of the great warrior heroes is the head, and therefore the king of each of these communities. According to legend, and evidenced by some archaeological finds, the most powerful of these communities was Mycenae, ruled by Agamemnon. These rulers were known as basileis, and they acted as kings, generals, and judges. The noble families in each kingdom were the aristoi, who advised the basileis through a council called the boule. Ordinary soldiers were known as the laos, but they too had a voice and could vote in the agora, or public forum, on decisions that involved them.

In the Iliad, the Greek characters act as a kind of state. Agamemnon is the basileis; the other individual rulers act as the aristoi. The common soldiers, or laos, are best typified by Thersites, who speaks up at the boule, or assembly, in Book II.

Originally, the Mycenaeans were sea raiders. Their power and progress came as a result of conquest, usually carried out by groups organized from several kingdoms. The goal of these raids was to acquire goods, raw materials, and slaves. The slaves were usually women, because the Mycenaean custom was to kill all the men of a conquered state and capture the women and children.

Political decisions within the Mycenaean State were made through assemblies. Typically, these assemblies were made up of the powerful men within a particular state. However, for more far-reaching and important matters involving war and raids, an assembly of the leaders of a group of states would be arranged. Such major decisions were made through discussion and debate.

At the same time the Mycenaeans came to power in Greece, a related kingdom, Troy, developed near the northern coast of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Archaeologists date the original city at the Troy site as early as 3000 B.C. By 1500 B.C., Troy was a flourishing, walled fortress, famed for horses and natural resources such as iron. The people who inhabited Troy were related to the Mycenaean Greeks and possibly traded with them.

Heinrich Schliemann, an amateur archaeologist, using information in the Iliad and other Greek texts, discovered the site that is now accepted as Troy at an area called Hisarlik. Schliemann also found Mycenae on the Greek mainland. Schliemann's work and that of others revealed that a number of cities were built on the Troy site, each new one on the ruins of a previous city. Evidence at the city labeled site VIIA revealed that it was destroyed by fire, which was typically the fate of cities conquered by Greek raiders. Further evidence revealed that site VIIA was involved in a siege — remains of bodies there showed signs of sudden, violent death.

These facts about both Mycenae and Troy point toward a reality that may underlie the romanticized story of the Iliad. Sometime around 1200 B.C., a Mycenaean raiding party attacked the walled fortress of Troy. This attack may have resulted from a break in the rules of hospitality — a Trojan steals the wife of a Greek — but more likely it was a simple raid for booty and slaves. Troy proves to be no easy conquest; but eventually the city is taken and destroyed with mixed profits and results for the Greeks involved.

This scenario is, of course, pure speculation, but it fits with both the archaeological evidence and the basic story of the Iliad. More than this basic scenario would be absolute fiction. Are the names of the heroes in the Iliad the real names of Mycenaean and Trojan warriors? Did a Greek warrior refuse to fight? Did the Greek forces breach the walls of Troy with a subterfuge involving horses? No one will ever be able to answer these questions; they exist in a poem and nowhere else. At best, the possibility exists that parts of the story of the Iliad are based on fact. Nothing in the historical or archaeological record disproves the idea that a Mycenaean raiding party could have sacked a city in Asia Minor called Troy.