The Sword of Damocles

The Sword of Damocles

The Sword of Damocles is an object in a Greek legend which is designed to illustrate the perils of being in a position of power. The term is often used in popular culture to talk about an imminent threat or peril, with the idiom “the Sword of Damocles” in reference to such a threat dating back to around 1747, along with the related concept of “hanging by a thread.” The story of Damocles is relatively brief, and as a result many people are familiar with it.

According to legend, Damocles was a courtier in the palace of Dionysius II, a king who ruled Syracuse in the 4th century BCE. Like many courtiers, Damocles constantly flattered the king, in the hopes that he would be given a position of greater power in the court. Apparently, Dionysius tired of the constant flattery, and he asked Damocles if the courtier would like to switch places for a day, to see what it would be like to be a ruler.

Damocles eagerly assented, and spent a day being waited on by the king and other attendants. Towards the end of the day, while seated at dinner, Damocles looked up to see a heavy sword suspended directly over his head, hanging by a hair. In a panic, he asked Dionysius about the meaning of the sword, and the ruler explained that he wanted to show Damocles what it was like to be in a position of power, which might seem privileged from a distance to the casual eye but was actually quite dangerous.

The sword terrified Damocles into fleeing the court, with no more thoughts of power in his head, and the parable about the Sword of Damocles became a symbol for the hidden dangers of power. Timaeus, an Ancient Greek historian, recounted the parable about the Sword of Damocles, and it was picked up by Cicero several centuries later, entering popular culture in Europe. In the 17th century, the concept of the Sword of Damocles appeared in many works by popular authors and artists, making many people in the West familiar with the idea even if they hadn’t read Cicero.

The concept of hanging by a thread as a leader is very poignant. It illustrates the incredible danger which many leaders find themselves in, as they are often beset on all sides both literally and figuratively, making their positions far from enjoyable. The Sword of Damocles is a somber reminder that power comes with many dangers attached.

The Republic (Plato)

Why do men behave justly? Is it because they fear societal punishment? Are they trembling before notions of divine retribution? Do the stronger elements of society scare the weak into submission in the name of law? Or do men behave justly because it is good for them to do so? Is justice, regardless of its rewards and punishments, a good thing in and of itself? How do we define justice? Plato sets out to answer these questions in The Republic. He wants to define justice, and to define it in such a way as to show that justice is worthwhile in and of itself. He meets these two challenges with a single solution: a definition of justice that appeals to human psychology, rather than to perceived behavior.

Plato’s strategy in The Republicis to first explicate the primary notion of societal, or political, justice, and then to derive an analogous concept of individual justice. In Books II, III, and IV, Plato identifies political justice as harmony in a structured political body. An ideal society consists of three main classes of people—producers (craftsmen, farmers, artisans, etc.), auxiliaries (warriors), and guardians (rulers); a society is just when relations between these three classes are right. Each group must perform its appropriate function, and only that function, and each must be in the right position of power in relation to the others. Rulers must rule, auxiliaries must uphold rulers’ convictions, and producers must limit themselves to exercising whatever skills nature granted them (farming, blacksmithing, painting, etc.) Justice is a principle of specialization: a principle that requires that each person fulfill the societal role to which nature fitted him and not interfere in any other business.

At the end of Book IV, Plato tries to show that individual justice mirrors political justice. He claims that the soul of every individual has a three part structure analagous to the three classes of a society. There is a rational part of the soul, which seeks after truth and is responsible for our philosophical inclinations; a spirited part of the soul, which desires honor and is responsible for our feelings of anger and indignation; and an appetitive part of the soul, which lusts after all sorts of things, but money most of all (since money must be used to fulfill any other base desire). The just individual can be defined in analogy with the just society; the three parts of his soul achieve the requisite relationships of power and influence in regard to one another. In a just individual, the rational part of the soul rules, the spirited part of the soul supports this rule, and the appetitive part of the soul submits and follows wherever reason leads. Put more plainly: in a just individual, the entire soul aims at fulfilling the desires of the rational part, much as in the just society the entire community aims at fulfilling whatever the rulers will.

The parallels between the just society and the just individual run deep. Each of the three classes of society, in fact, is dominated by one of the three parts of the soul. Producers are dominated by their appetites—their urges for money, luxury, and pleasure. Warriors are dominated by their spirits, which make them courageous. Rulers are dominated by their rational faculties and strive for wisdom. Books V through VII focus on the rulers as the philosopher kings.

In a series of three analogies—the allegories of the sun, the line, and the cave—Plato explains who these individuals are while hammering out his theory of the Forms. Plato explains that the world is divided into two realms, the visible (which we grasp with our senses) and the intelligible (which we only grasp with our mind). The visible world is the universe we see around us. The intelligible world is comprised of the Forms—abstract, changeless absolutes such as Goodness, Beauty, Redness, and Sweetness that exist in permanent relation to the visible realm and make it possible. (An apple is red and sweet, the theory goes, because it participates in the Forms of Redness and Sweetness.) Only the Forms are objects of knowledge, because only they possess the eternal unchanging truth that the mind—not the senses—must apprehend.

Only those whose minds are trained to grasp the Forms—the philosophers—can know anything at all. In particular, what the philosophers must know in order to become able rulers is the Form of the Good—the source of all other Forms, and of knowledge, truth, and beauty. Plato cannot describe this Form directly, but he claims that it is to the intelligible realm what the sun is to the visible realm. Using the allegory of the cave, Plato paints an evocative portrait of the philosopher’s soul moving through various stages of cognition (represented by the line) through the visible realm into the intelligible, and finally grasping the Form of the Good. The aim of education is not to put knowledge into the soul, but to put the right desires into the soul—to fill the soul with a lust for truth, so that it desires to move past the visible world, into the intelligible, ultimately to the Form of the Good.

Philosophers form the only class of men to possess knowledge and are also the most just men. Their souls, more than others, aim to fulfil the desires of the rational part. After comparing the philosopher king to the most unjust type of man—represented by the tyrant, who is ruled entirely by his non-rational appetites—Plato claims that justice is worthwhile for its own sake. In Book IX he presents three arguments for the conclusion that it is desirable to be just. By sketching a psychological portrait of the tyrant, he attempts to prove that injustice tortures a man’s psyche, whereas a just soul is a healthy, happy one, untroubled and calm. Next he argues that, though each of the three main character types—money-loving, honor-loving, and truth-loving—have their own conceptions of pleasure and of the corresponding good life—each choosing his own life as the most pleasant—only the philosopher can judge because only he has experienced all three types of pleasure. The others should accept the philosopher’s judgement and conclude that the pleasures associated with the philosophical are most pleasant and thus that the just life is also most pleasant. He tries to demonstrate that only philosophical pleasure is really pleasure at all; all other pleasure is nothing more than cessation of pain.

One might notice that none of these arguments actually prove that justice is desirable apart from its consequences—instead, they establish that justice is always accompanied by true pleasure. In all probability, none of these is actually supposed to serve as the main reason why justice is desirable. Instead, the desirability of justice is likely connected to the intimate relationship between the just life and the Forms. The just life is good in and of itself because it involves grasping these ultimate goods, and imitating their order and harmony, thus incorporating them into one’s own life. Justice is good, in other words, because it is connected to the greatest good, the Form of the Good.

Plato ends The Republic on a surprising note. Having defined justice and established it as the greatest good, he banishes poets from his city. Poets, he claims, appeal to the basest part of the soul by imitating unjust inclinations. By encouraging us to indulge ignoble emotions in sympathy with the characters we hear about, poetry encourages us to indulge these emotions in life. Poetry, in sum, makes us unjust. In closing, Plato relates the myth of Er, which describes the trajectory of a soul after death. Just souls are rewarded for one thousand years, while unjust ones are punished for the same amount of time. Each soul then must choose its next life.

Plato – The Art and Psychology of Love Explained

In the Phaedrus we find a more detailed account of the psychology and art of love than in the Symposium. This account will be our exclusive focus. The soul, whether divine or human, Socrates claims, is like “the natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer” (246a6–7). But whereas in a divine soul all three elements are “good and come from good stock,” in a human soul the white horse (familiar from Republic IV as the honor-loving spirited element) is “beautiful and good, and of similar stock,” while the black one (the Republic‘s appetitive element) is “the opposite and of the opposite stock,” so that “the driving in our case is necessarily difficult and troublesome” (a7-b4). When spirit together with the charioteer (the Republic‘s rational element, there too identified with what is truly human rather than bestial in us (588b10–589a4)) “leads us towards what is best and is in control,” we possess moderation (sôphrosunê) (237e2–3). But when “appetite drags us irrationally towards pleasures and rules in us, its rule is called excess (hubris)” (238a1–2). Of this excess, gluttony is one species, but erotic love another (238b7-c4). This is the bad kind of love—Pandemotic in the Symposium—that Lysias rightly disparages in the speech Phaedrus admires and reads to Socrates (230e6–234c5).

In Socrates’ view, however, there is also another kind of love, namely, “the madness of a man who, on seeing beauty here on earth, and being reminded of true beauty, becomes winged, and fluttering with eagerness to fly upwards, but unable to leave the ground, looks upwards like a bird, and takes no heed of things below—and that is what causes him to be regarded as mad” (249d5-e1). This madman is the philosopher of the Symposium, who when he falls in love with a boy is led by his love to ascend by stages to the form of the beautiful. What makes his madness a divine gift, however, is that the ascent is now revealed as involving recollection of a prior pre-natal ascent taken in the company of a god.

From the rich literary account of this ascent, we need to take away just one idea: souls have different psychological structures depending on which god they followed, since this sets an upper limit on how much of the forms they see, and so how much they can subsequently recollect. Since gaining access to forms nourishes and strengthens the rational element in the soul (248b5-c2), this also helps determine their motivational structure: the stronger their reason is, the more likely it will be to succeed in controlling the other elements in the soul.

Followers of Zeus, for example, choose someone to love whose soul resembles their patron god. So they seek someone who is “naturally disposed to philosophy and leadership, and when they have found him and fall in love they do everything to make him philosophical” (252e1–5). Nonetheless, the falling itself involves a huge psychological upheaval. The black horse of appetite immediately urges towards sexual intercourse. The white horse—“constrained then as always by shame” (254a2)—holds itself back. Eventually, however, the black horse forces both the charioteer and the white horse “to move towards the beloved and mention to him the delights of sex” (a5–7). Again they balk, “indignant at being forced to do terrible and improper things” (b1). But finally, “when there is no limit to their plight, they follow its lead, giving in and agreeing to do what it tells them” (b2–3). As they come close to the beloved, however, to initiate intercourse, the flashing face of the beloved reminds the charioteer of the beautiful itself, so that his memory “again sees it standing together with temperance on a holy pedestal” (b5–7). He becomes frightened and “in sudden reverence falls on his back, and is forced at the same time to pull back the reins so violently as to bring the horses down on their haunches, the one willingly, because of it lack of resistance to him, but the unruly horse much against its will” (b7-c3). Eventually, “when the same thing happens to the evil horse many times, it allows the charioteer with his foresight to lead” (e5–7). If this control of appetite by reason and spirit continues—even when the boy has accepted his lover and embraces, kisses, and lies down with him—and draws them to “a well-ordered life and to philosophy,” they are blessedly happy here on earth, and, if they live such a life for three successive incarnations, they re-grow their wings and re-join the entourage of their god (255e2-b7).

When followers of Ares fall in love, on the other hand, they “adopt a lower way of living, not philosophical, but honor-loving” (256b7-c1). When they are drinking together, for example, or are careless in some other way, “the licentious horses in the two of them catch their souls off guard,” and since the man’s recollection of beauty is dimmer and is not rekindled by philosophical conversation, they end up having sex together—something “the masses regard as the happiest choice of all” (c1–5). Nonetheless, they don’t have sex very often, because “what they are doing has not been approved by their whole mind” (c6–7). So while the degree of their love and happiness is less than the philosophical pair and, on their death, “they leave the body without wings,” still they have an impulse, coming from love, to try to gain them. Hence they aren’t punished in the next life, but helped on the way to future happiness together (c7-e2).

The love that is divine madness is a good thing, therefore, especially when, “accompanied by philosophical discussions (erôta meta philosophôn logôn)” (257b6), it leads to the beautiful itself and the other forms, which are what we—as most of all the rational element in our souls—truly love and crave. The question is what makes a discussion philosophical? What makes it of the sort to be included in the true art of love that the philosopher who loves the beautiful itself practices? The answer now proposed is that it must be a technê or craft, and so must have the defining characteristics of one. As applied to love itself, for example, it must begin with a definition of love, and reach its conclusions by ordering its discussion in relation to it (263d5-e3). And this definition, in turn, must be established by what Socrates refers to as collection and division (266b3–4).

Collection is a process of “perceiving together and bringing into one form items that are scattered in many places” (265d3–4). It is a process that we, unlike other animals, are able to engage in it, because our souls include a rational element that has prior acquaintance with forms: “a soul that never [prenatally] saw what is true cannot take a human shape, since a human being must understand what is said by relation to a form that is reached from many sense-perceptions being collected into one by reasoning” (249b5-c1). (It is useful to compare this description with the one given in Aristotle, Posterior Analytics II. 19.)

Once a form has been reached in this way, division begins. This is a matter of “cutting the form up again, by relation to [sub-]forms, by relation to its natural joints” (265e1-2). As an example, Socrates cites the case of love itself:

just as a single body naturally has its parts in pairs, with both members of each pair having the same name, and labeled respectively left and right, so the two speeches regarded madness as naturally a single form in us. The one [Socrates’ reorganized version of Lysias’ attack on love] cut off the part on the left side, then cutting it again, and not giving up until it had found among the parts a love which is, as we say, “left-handed,” and abused it with full justice, while the other speech [Socrates’ own defense of love] led us to the parts of madness on the right-hand side, and discovering and exhibiting a love which shares the same name as the other, but is divine, it praised it as a cause of our greatest goods. (265e4–266b1)

Thus, while each speech tells only half the story, the two together show how correct division should proceed. The goal, however, isn’t just truth or correctness, but explanatory adequacy. Thus if the form in question “is simple, we should consider…what natural capacity it has for acting and on what, or for being acted upon and by what,” and if it is complex, we should count its sub-forms, and consider the same things about them as about the simple ones (270d3–7). That Socrates—the archetypal searcher for explanatory definitions (Euthyphro 6d9-e6)—should pronounce himself “a lover of these divisions and collections” is no surprise, therefore (266b3–4).

Philosophy aims at true definitions and true stories based on them. But it also aims at persuasion, since the philosophical lover wants to persuade his boy to follow him on the path to the forms. Philosophy and rhetoric must thus go together, which means that rhetoric, too, must be developed as a technê. It must, first, distinguish and give definitions of the various kinds of souls and kinds of speeches, revealing their respective capacities and susceptibilities, and, second, “coordinate each kind of soul with the kind of speech appropriate to it, explaining why one kind of soul is necessarily convinced by one kind of speech, while another is not” (271b1–5). Mastery of such a science, however, requires one further thing: “the student must observe these things as they are in real life, and actually being put into practice, and be able to follow them with keen perception” (d8-e1). It isn’t enough, in other words, to know what kinds of speeches affect what kinds of soul, the philosophical rhetorician must also know that this man in front of him is of such and such a kind, and be able to talk in the kind of way that will prove convincing to him (e2–272b2).


Dante Alighieri

Dante was born in 1265 in Florence. At the age of 9 he met for the first time the eight-year-old Beatrice Portinari, who became in effect his Muse, and remained, after her death in 1290, the central inspiration for his major poems. Between 1285, when he married and began a family, and 1302, when he was exiled from Florence, he was active in the cultural and civic life of Florence, served as a soldier and held several political offices.

Since the early thirteenth century two great factions, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, had competed for control of Florence. The Guelfs, with whom Dante was allied, were identified with Florentine political autonomy, and with the interests of the Papacy in its long struggle against the centralizing ambitions of the Hohenstaufen emperors, who were supported by the Ghibellines. After Charles of Anjou, with the blessing of the Papacy and strong Guelf support, defeated Hohenstaufen armies at Benevento (1265/6) and Tagliacozzo (1268), the Guelfs became the dominant force in Florence. By the end of the century, the Guelfs were themselves riven by faction, grounded largely in family and economic interests, but determined also by differing degrees of loyalty to the papacy and to Guelf allegiances.

In 1301, when conflict arose between the “Blacks,” the faction most strongly committed to Guelf and papal interests, and the more moderate Whites, Pope Boniface VIII instigated a partisan settlement which allowed the Blacks to exile the White leadership, of whom Dante was one. He never returned to Florence, and played no further role in public life, though he remained passionately interested in Italian politics, and became virtually the prophet of world empire in the years leading up to the coronation of Henry VII of Luxemburg as head of the Holy Roman Empire (1312). The development of Dante’s almost messianic sense of the imperial role is hard to trace, but it was doubtless affected by his bitterness over what he saw as the autocratic and treacherous conduct of Pope Boniface, and a growing conviction that only a strong central authority could bring order to Italy.

During the next twenty years Dante lived in several Italian cities, spending at least two long periods at the court of Can Grande della Scala, lord of Verona. In 1319 he moved from Verona to Ravenna, where he completed the Paradiso, and where he died in 1321.

Dante’s engagement with philosophy cannot be studied apart from his vocation as a writer—as a poet whose theme, from first to last is the significance of his love for Beatrice, but also as an intellectual strongly committed to raising the level of public discourse. After his banishment he addressed himself to Italians generally, and devoted much of his long exile to transmitting the riches of ancient thought and learning, as these informed contemporary scholastic culture, to an increasingly sophisticated lay readership in their own vernacular.

This project was Dante’s contribution to a long-standing Italian cultural tradition. His reading in philosophy began, he tells us, with Cicero and Boethius, whose writings are in large part the record of their dedication to the task of establishing a Latinate intellectual culture in Italy. The Convivio and the De vulgari eloquentia preserve also the somewhat idealized memory of the Neapolitan court of Frederick II of Sicily (1195–1250) and his son Manfred (1232–66), intellectuals in their own right as well as patrons of poets and philosophers, whom Dante viewed as having revived the ancient tradition of the statesman-philosopher [Van Cleve, 299-332; Morpurgo]. Dante himself probably studied under Brunetto Latini (1220–94), whose encyclopedic Livres dou Tresor (1262–66), written while Brunetto was a political exile in France, provided vernacular readers with a compendium of the Liberal Arts and a digest of Aristotelian ethical and political thought [Meier; Imbach (1993), 37–47; Davis (1984), 166–97].

But the fullest medieval embodiment of Dante’s ideal is his own writings. In them we see for the first time a powerful thinker, solidly grounded in Aristotle, patristic theology, and thirteenth-century scholastic debate, bringing these resources directly to bear on educating his countrymen and inspiring them to pursue the happiness that rewards the philosopher.


The Iliad by Homer

The Achaians, under King Agamemnon, have been fighting the Trojans off and on for nine years, trying to retrieve Helen, the wife of Menelaos, and thus Agamemnon’s sister-in-law. Paris, a son of the king of Troy, kidnaps Helen, who becomes the legendary “Helen of Troy” and “the woman with the face that launched a thousand ships.”

Yet, after years of Achaian attacks, Troy remains intact, and the Trojan army remains undefeated. The same cannot be said for the Achaian army. At present, the Achaian troops are dying from a mysterious plague. Hundreds of funeral pyres burn nightly. Finally, Achilles, the Achaians’ most honored soldier, calls for an assembly to determine the cause of the plague.

A soothsayer reveals to the army that King Agamemnon’s arrogance caused the deadly plague; he refused to return a woman who was captured and awarded to him as a “war prize.” Reluctantly, Agamemnon agrees to return the woman, but, as compensation, he says that he will take the woman who was awarded to Achilles, his best warrior.

Achilles is furious, and he refuses to fight any longer for the Achaians. He and his forces retreat to the beach beside their ships, and Achilles asks his mother, the goddess Thetis, if she will ask Zeus, king of the gods, to help the Trojans defeat his former comrades, the Achaians. Zeus agrees to do so.

The two armies prepare for battle, and Paris (the warrior who kidnapped Menelaos’ wife, Helen) leaps out and challenges any of the Achaians to a duel. Menelaos challenges him and beats him, but before Paris is killed, the goddess Aphrodite whisks him away to the safety of his bedroom in Troy.

A short truce is called, but it is broken when an over-zealous soldier wounds Menelaos. During the battle that follows, Diomedes, an Achaian, dominates the action, killing innumerable Trojans and wounding Aphrodite, a goddess.

The Trojans seem to be losing, so Hektor returns to Troy to ask his mother to offer sacrifices to Athena. She performs the rituals, but Athena refuses to accept them. Meanwhile, Hektor discovers Paris safe in his bedroom with Helen, and shames him into returning to battle. Then Hektor visits with his wife and their baby son. It is clear that Hektor is deeply devoted to his family, yet feels the terrible weight of his responsibility as commander-in-chief of the Trojan army.

During the fighting that continues, the Achaians begin to falter, and at one point Athena, Zeus’ daughter, fears that the entire Achaian army may be slaughtered. Thus, she and Apollo decide to have Hektor challenge one of the Achaian’ warriors to a duel in order to settle the war. Telamonian Aias (Ajax) battles Hektor so valiantly that the contest ends in a draw, and a truce is called.

During this break in the fighting, the dead of both armies are buried and given appropriate funeral rites, and the Achaians fortify their defenses with a strong wall and a moat-like ditch.

The fighting resumes, and so many Achaians are slaughtered that Agamemnon suggests that his troops sail for home, but finally he is convinced that he must return to the fighting. Messengers are sent to Achilles, asking him to return to battle, but Achilles is still sulking beside his ships and refuses to fight.

Soon Agamemnon, Diomedes, Odysseus, and old Nestor are all seriously wounded, and Achilles realizes that the Achaians are in danger of imminent defeat. Therefore, he sends his warrior-companion, Patroklos, to find out who the seriously wounded are.

Patroklos talks with old Nestor, one of the wisest of the Achaian soldiers. Nestor asks Patroklos to dress in Achilles’ armor and return to battle. The Achaians, he says, will rejoice and have new faith in their death struggle against the Trojans when they think that they see Achilles returning to the battle. In addition, the Trojans will so fear the wrath of the mighty Achilles that they will be easily defeated. Patroklos promises to ask Achilles for permission to use his armor and ride into battle disguised as the mighty warrior.

Meanwhile, Hektor leads a massive Trojan surge against the Achaian wall that stands between the Trojans and the Achaian fleet of ships, and the wall is successfully smashed. The tumult is so deafening that hell itself seems unloosed.

Achilles is watching and realizes that his wish may be granted: The Achaians are about to be annihilated. He sends Patroklos into the fighting, disguised as Achilles himself. The Achaian army rejoices at what they think is the return of Achilles to the fighting, and the Trojans are so terrified that they are quickly swept back to the walls of Troy.

Patroklos’ valor seems superhuman. He has killed nine Trojans in a single charge when Apollo strikes him with such fury that Hektor is able to catch him off-guard and thrust a spear through his body. Then some of the most intense fighting of the war follows in a battle to claim Patroklos’ body. Finally, the Achaians rescue Patroklos’ corpse, and Hektor captures Achilles’ armor. Then the Achaians return to the beach, guarding their ships as best they can.

Achilles is filled with overwhelming grief and rage when he learns that his warrior-companion, Patroklos, has been slaughtered. His mother, Thetis, comes to him and advises him that it is fated that he will die if he tries to revenge Patroklos’ death. But she says that if Achilles decides to revenge Patroklos’ death, she will outfit him in a suit of new armor, made by one of the gods.

Achilles chooses: He will defy certain death and the Trojans in an attempt to punish them for what they (and he) did to Patroklos. Thus, he returns to battle in his new armor and is so successful that he and the Achaians rout the Trojans. He savagely kills Hektor, the Trojans’ mightiest warrior. Achilles’ anger is not sated, however. He ties Hektor’s corpse to his chariot and circles Patroklos’ burial mound every day for nine days.

Hektor’s parents are so grieved at the barbaric treatment given to their son’s corpse that Priam, Hektor’s father, goes to Achilles and begs for his son’s body. Achilles is moved by Priam’s pleas and by the memory of his own father. Consequently, he agrees to cleanse and return Hektor’s body.

Hektor’s body is given the appropriate cremation rites, and then with mourning and weeping for the noble warrior, the Trojans place his remains in a golden casket and place it in a burial barrow.



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;[1] while other ancient sources claim that he lived much nearer to the supposed time of the Trojan War, in the early 12th century BC.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]


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,”[5] i.e. earlier than Hesiod,[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.”[10]

Life and legends

“Homer” is a Greek name, attested in Aeolic-speaking areas,[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] These stories were incorporated into the various[14] Lives of Homer compiled from the Alexandrian period onwards.[15] 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.[15][16] 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 [17], a storm in the Icarian sea [18], and mentions that women in Maeonia and Caria stain ivory with scarlet.[19][20]

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”.[21] An eponymous bardic guild, known as the Homeridae (sons of Homer), or Homeristae (‘Homerizers’)[22] appears to have existed there, tracing descent from an ancestor of that name,[23] or upholding their function as rhapsodes or “lay-stitchers” specialising in the recitation of Homeric poetry. Wilhelm Dörpfeld[24] 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.[25]

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”.[26] 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”,[27] and the Aeolian dialect of Cyme, where ὅμηρος (hómēros) is synonymous with the standard Greek τυφλός (tuphlós), meaning ‘blind’.[28] 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,[29] verses later cited to support this notion by Thucydides.[30] 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[31] 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.[32]

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”.[33] ὁμηρέω (homēréō), another related verb, besides signifying “meet”, can mean “(sing) in accord/tune”.[34] Some argue that “Homer” may have meant “he who puts the voice in tune” with dancing.[35][36] 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.[37][38]

Some Ancient Lives depict Homer as a wandering minstrel, like Thamyris[39] or Hesiod, who walked as far as Chalkis to sing at the funeral games of Amphidamas.[40] 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”.[41] 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.[42]