In the Western classical tradition, Homer ( /ˈhoʊmər/; Greek: Ὅμηρος, Hómēros) is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.
When he lived is unknown. Herodotus estimates that Homer lived 400 years before Herodotus’ own time, which would place him at around 850 BC; while other ancient sources claim that he lived much nearer to the supposed time of the Trojan War, in the early 12th century BC. Modern researchers appear to place Homer in the 7th or 8th centuries BC.
The formative influence played by the Homeric epics in shaping Greek culture was widely recognized, and Homer was described as the teacher of Greece. Homer’s works, which are about fifty percent speeches, provided models in persuasive speaking and writing that were emulated throughout the ancient and medieval Greek worlds. Fragments of Homer account for nearly half of all identifiable Greek literary papyrus finds.
For modern scholars “the date of Homer” refers not to an individual, but to the period when the epics were created. The consensus is that “the Iliad and the Odyssey date from around the 8th century BC, the Iliad being composed before the Odyssey, perhaps by some decades,” i.e. earlier than Hesiod, the Iliad being the oldest work of Western literature. Over the past few decades, some scholars have argued for a 7th century BC date. Oliver Taplin believes that the conclusion of modern researchers is that Homer dates to between 750 to 650 BC. Some of those who argue that the Homeric poems developed gradually over a long period of time give an even later date for the composition of the poems; according to Gregory Nagy for example, they only became fixed texts in the 6th century BC. The question of the historicity of Homer the individual is known as the “Homeric question”; there is no reliable biographical information handed down from classical antiquity. The poems are generally seen as the culmination of many generations of oral story-telling, in a tradition with a well-developed formulaic system of poetic composition. Some scholars, such as Martin West, claim that “Homer” is “not the name of a historical poet, but a fictitious or constructed name.”
Life and legends
“Homer” is a Greek name, attested in Aeolic-speaking areas, and although nothing definite is known about him, traditions arose purporting to give details of his birthplace and background. The satirist Lucian, in his True History, describes him as a Babylonian called Tigranes, who assumed the name Homer when taken “hostage” (homeros) by the Greeks. When the Emperor Hadrian asked the Oracle at Delphi about Homer, the Pythia proclaimed that he was Ithacan, the son of Epikaste and Telemachus, from the Odyssey. These stories were incorporated into the various Lives of Homer compiled from the Alexandrian period onwards. Homer is most frequently said to be born in the Ionian region of Asia Minor, at Smyrna, or on the island of Chios, dying on the Cycladic island of Ios. A connection with Smyrna seems to be alluded to in a legend that his original name was Melesigenes (“born of Meles”, a river which flowed by that city), with his mother the nymph Kretheis. Internal evidence from the poems gives evidence of familiarity with the topography and place-names of this area of Asia Minor, for example, Homer refers to meadow birds at the mouth of the Caystros , a storm in the Icarian sea , and mentions that women in Maeonia and Caria stain ivory with scarlet.
The association with Chios dates back to at least Semonides of Amorgos, who cited a famous line in the Iliad (6.146) as by “the man of Chios”. An eponymous bardic guild, known as the Homeridae (sons of Homer), or Homeristae (‘Homerizers’) appears to have existed there, tracing descent from an ancestor of that name, or upholding their function as rhapsodes or “lay-stitchers” specialising in the recitation of Homeric poetry. Wilhelm Dörpfeld suggests that Homer had visited many of the places and regions which he describes in his epics, such as Mycenae, Troy, the palace of Odysseus at Ithaca and more. According to Diodorus Siculus, Homer had even visited Egypt.
The poet’s name is homophonous with ὅμηρος (hómēros), “hostage” (or “surety”), which is interpreted as meaning “he who accompanies; he who is forced to follow”, or, in some dialects, “blind”. This led to many tales that he was a hostage or a blind man. Traditions which assert that he was blind may have arisen from the meaning of the word in both Ionic, where the verbal form ὁμηρεύω (homēreúō) has the specialized meaning of “guide the blind”, and the Aeolian dialect of Cyme, where ὅμηρος (hómēros) is synonymous with the standard Greek τυφλός (tuphlós), meaning ‘blind’. The characterization of Homer as a blind bard goes back to some verses in the Delian Hymn to Apollo, the third of the Homeric Hymns, verses later cited to support this notion by Thucydides. The Cymean historian Ephorus held the same view, and the idea gained support in antiquity on the strength of a false etymology which derived his name from ho mḕ horṓn (ὁ μὴ ὁρῶν: “he who does not see”). Critics have long taken as self-referential a passage in the Odyssey describing a blind bard, Demodocus, in the court of the Phaeacian king, who recounts stories of Troy to the shipwrecked Odysseus.
Many scholars take the name of the poet to be indicative of a generic function. Gregory Nagy takes it to mean “he who fits (the Song) together”. ὁμηρέω (homēréō), another related verb, besides signifying “meet”, can mean “(sing) in accord/tune”. Some argue that “Homer” may have meant “he who puts the voice in tune” with dancing. Marcello Durante links “Homeros” to an epithet of Zeus as “god of the assemblies” and argues that behind the name lies the echo of an archaic word for “reunion”, similar to the later Panegyris, denoting a formal assembly of competing minstrels.
Some Ancient Lives depict Homer as a wandering minstrel, like Thamyris or Hesiod, who walked as far as Chalkis to sing at the funeral games of Amphidamas. We are given the image of a “blind, begging singer who hangs around with little people: shoemakers, fisherman, potters, sailors, elderly men in the gathering places of harbour towns”. The poems, on the other hand, give us evidence of singers at the courts of the nobility. There is a strong aristocratic bias in the poems demonstrated by the lack of any major protagonists of non-aristocratic stock, and by episodes such as the beating down of the commoner Thersites by the king Odysseus for daring to criticize his superiors. In spite of this scholars are divided as to which category, if any, the court singer or the wandering minstrel, the historic “Homer” belonged.