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Bust of Homer in the British Museum

Homer (Greek Όμηρος, Homeros) was a legendary early Greek poet traditionally credited with the composition of the epic poems the Iliad (Ἰλιάς) and the Odyssey (Ὀδύσσεια). Throughout antiquity and subsequent history, Homer's influence on literature has been unequalled, and the Homeric epics are among the oldest surviving writings in any language.

Scholars debate whether the epics are works of a single author or multiple authors, and the dating of both the compositions and the events they describe remain in doubt. Homer is tentatively located in the Greek archaic period, c. 750 B.C.E. The poems portray events surrounding the shadowy Trojan War, likely a fusion of various military exploits by Mycenaean Greeks of the Bronze Age, predating Homer by some four centuries.

The Greeks believed that Homer was a blind rhapsode, or professional singer, and the poems were passed on for decades by oral tradition before being committed to writing. From the first recorded appearance of the Iliad and the Odyssey, they assume a status apart from other literature, classics upon which Greeks developed their canon of literary texts, values, and exceptionalism. All epic poetry in Western literature ultimately derives from Homer.

Homer's great poems remained foundational works of art, not religious scripture, for later classical Greeks. Virtue and honor are central preoccupations of the epics. Honor is "perhaps the most reiterated cultural and moral value in Ancient Greece," says classical scholar Richard Hooker, and means "achieving, morally and otherwise, your greatest potential as a human being."[1] The Greek turn toward drama, science, architecture, and humanistic philosophy rather than religious speculations may be traceable to Homer's emphasis on human values, as well as his unflattering portrayal of the gods, buffeted by all-too-human weaknesses.


We know almost nothing of Homer's life; and, surprisingly, the writers of antiquity knew little more. No record of Homer's life, real or pretended, ever existed. Herodotus (2.53) maintains that Hesiod and Homer lived not more than 400 years before his own time, consequently not much before 850 B.C.E. From the controversial tone in which he expresses himself it is evident that others had made Homer more ancient; and accordingly the dates given by later authorities, though widely varied, generally fall within the tenth and eleventh centuries B.C.E., but none of these claims is grounded in historical fact. Other than a putative date of birth, the only thing that authors of antiquity agree upon is that Homer was blind, and that he probably lived in the Greek isles of the Mediterranean. Beyond this, nothing of Homer's life is known or even hinted at in his own writings.

Due to this dearth of information, for nearly a hundred years scholars have begun to question whether Homer ever really existed. Through textual research it has become clear that the Iliad and Odyssey underwent a process of standardization and refinement from older material beginning in the eighth century B.C.E. An important role in this standardization appears to have been played by the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus, who reformed the recitation of Homeric poetry at the Panathenaic festival. Many classicists hold that this reform must have involved the production of a canonical written text, and that the name "Homer" was later somehow attached to this amalgamation.

Other scholars, however, maintain their belief in the reality of an actual Homer. So little is known or even guessed of his actual life, that a common joke has it that the poems "were not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name." The classical scholar Richmond Lattimore, author of well regarded poetic translations to English of both epics, once wrote a paper entitled "Homer: Who Was She?" Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was more specific, theorizing a young Sicilian woman as author of the Odyssey (but not the Iliad), an idea further speculated on by Robert Graves in his novel Homer's Daughter.

In Greek his name is Homēros, which is Greek for "hostage." This has led to the development of a theory that his name was extracted from the name of a society of poets called the Homeridae, which literally means "sons of hostages," as in descendants of prisoners of war. As these men were not sent to war because their loyalty on the battlefield was suspect, they were entrusted with remembering Greece's stock of epic poetry in the times before literacy came to the ancient world.

Most Classicists would agree that, whether there was ever such a composer as "Homer" or not, the Homeric poems are the product of an oral tradition, a generations-old technique that was the collective inheritance of many singer-poets (aoidoi). An analysis of the structure and vocabulary of the Iliad and Odyssey shows that the poems consist of regular, repeating phrases; even entire verses repeat. It has hence been speculated that the Iliad and Odyssey could have been oral-formulaic poems, composed on the spot by the poet using a collection of memorized traditional verses and phases. Milman Parry and Albert Lord pointed out that an oral tradition to compose a poem of the length and complexity of the Iliad is not as far-fetched as it might seem; in a paper on the subject, Parry and Lord make reference to the recent discovery of an oral culture living in remote parts of contemporary Yugoslavia, where poet-rhapsodes compose on-the-spot epics using formulas remarkably similar to those found in Homer.


Many poems that were ascribed to Homer in antiquity are now known to be spurious. Other poems of Homer, which probably once existed, have been lost. Of what survives, only the epic Iliad and Odyssey are considered to be authoritatively Homeric works. The two poems are closely related in style and language as well as content. Both poems are concerned with the Trojan War and its aftermath, and both involve the actions of epic heroes, such as Achilles and Odysseus, who are more like the gods of mythological stories than the three-dimensional characters of contemporary fiction.

The most prominent characteristics of Homer's poetic style were probably best captured by the nineteenth century poet Matthew Arnold. "The translator of Homer," he writes, "should above all be penetrated by a sense of four qualities of his author: that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct, both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and, finally, that he is eminently noble."[2]

In contrast to the other canonical epic poets Virgil, Dante, and Milton, Homer's poetry is characterized by plainspoken language and straightforward, rapidly moving narrative. The rapidity of Homer is probably a result of his use of dactylic hexameter, a meter which tends to sound hurried to most listeners (it has often been called the "hoofbeat" meter, in contrast to the iamb's "heartbeat.") Homer's plainness is probably an attribute of his time; as an oral poet, Homer could not afford to confuse himself or his audience with convoluted metaphors and digressions. As a result his epics sound much like the work of a master story-teller. Homer's "nobility,” as Arnold calls it, is probably the most difficult aspect of his poetry for contemporary readers to digest. Simply put, there are no moral dilemmas in Homer. The heroes of the epics often do things that today we would find horrifying; but there is never any doubt in their minds (or, for all we can discern, the author's mind) that what they are doing is eminently right.

The Iliad

The Iliad narrates several weeks of action during the tenth and final year of the Trojan War, concentrating on the wrath of Achilles. It begins with the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon, and ends with the funeral rites of Hector. Neither the background and early years of the war (Paris' abduction of Helen from King Menelaus), nor its end (the death of Achilles), are directly narrated in the Iliad. The Iliad and the Odyssey are part of a larger cycle of epic poems of varying lengths and authors; only fragments survive of the other poems, however.

Of the many themes in the Iliad, perhaps the most important is the idea of what constitutes the hero in ancient Greek culture. Achilles is forced to make a choice between living a long life or dying young on the battlefield. In his culture, the latter would have been a better choice because death in battle leads to honor and glory, the most important values of the day—even more important than right and wrong. Part of what makes the Iliad interesting as a literary work is the way that Achilles, especially in Book 9, both embraces concepts of honor and glory and also simultaneously rejects them.

Plot and themes

In the midst of the war, Apollo sends a plague against the Greeks, who had captured the daughter of the priest, Chryses, and given her as a prize to Agamemnon. He is compelled to restore her to her father. To assuage his pride, Agamemnon takes Briseis, whom the Athenians had given to Achilles, the greatest warrior of the age, as a reward for his efforts. Following the advice of his mother, Thetis, Achilles withdraws from battle in revenge. As a result the allied Achaean (Greek) armies nearly lose the war.

In counterpoint to Achilles' pride and arrogance stands the Trojan prince, Hector, son of King Priam. As a husband and father, Hector fights to defend his city and his family. When Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles' dearest friend (and possibly his lover), Achilles rejoins the fight to seek revenge, slaying Hector. Later, King Priam comes to Achilles disguised as a beggar to ransom back his son's body. Priam's love for his son moves Achilles to pity. The poem concludes with Hector's funeral.

The poem is a poignant depiction of the tragedy and agony of family and friendship destroyed by battle. The first word of the Greek poem is "Μηνιν" ("mēnin," meaning "wrath"); the main subject of the poem is the wrath of Achilles; the second word is "aeide," meaning "sing"; ancient Greek poetry is sung; the third word is "thea," meaning "goddess"; the goddess here being the "Mousa" or "muse"; a literal translation of the first line would read "Wrath, sing goddess, of Peleus' son Achilles" or more intelligibly "Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus' son Achilles."

Book summaries

  • Book 1: Ten years into the war, Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel over a slave girl, Achilles withdraws from the war in anger
  • Book 2: Odysseus motivates the Greeks to keep fighting; Catalogue of Ships, Catalogue of Trojans and Allies
  • Book 3: Paris (mythology) challenges Menelaus to single combat
  • Book 4: The truce is broken and battle begins
  • Book 5: Diomedes has an aristea and wounds Aphrodite and Ares
  • Book 6: Glaucus and Diomedes greet during a truce
  • Book 7: Hector battles Ajax
  • Book 8: The gods withdraw from the battle
  • Book 9: Agamemnon retreats: his overtures to Achilles are spurned
  • Book 10: Diomedes and Odysseus go on a spy mission
  • Book 11: Paris wounds Diomedes, and Achilles sends Patroclus on a mission
  • Book 12: The Greeks retreat to their camp and are besieged by the Trojans
  • Book 13: Poseidon motivates the Greeks
  • Book 14: Hera helps Poseidon assist the Greeks
  • Book 15: Zeus stops Poseidon from interfering
  • Book 16: Patroclus borrows Achilles' armor, enters battle, kills Sarpedon and then is killed by Hector
  • Book 17: The armies fight over the body and armor of Patroclus
  • Book 18: Achilles learns of the death of Patroclus and receives a new suit of armor
  • Book 19: Achilles reconciles with Agamemnon and enters battle
  • Book 20: The gods join the battle; Achilles tries to kill Aeneas
  • Book 21: Achilles fights with the river Scamander and encounters Hector in front of the Trojan gates
  • Book 22: Achilles kills Hector and drags his body back to the Greek camp
  • Book 23: Funeral games for Patroclus
  • Book 24: Achilles lets Priam have Hector's body back, and he is burned on a pyre

The Odyssey

The Odyssey (Greek: Οδύσσεια, Odússeia) is the second of the two great epic poems ascribed to Homer. The 11,300 line poem follows Odysseus, king of Ithaca, on his voyage home after a heroic turn in the Trojan War. It also tells the story of Odysseus' wife, Penelope, who struggles to remain faithful, and his son Telemachus, who sets out to find his father. In contrast to the Iliad, with its extended sequences of battle and violence, all three are ultimately successful by means of their cleverness, and the support of the goddess, Athena. This cleverness is most often manifested by Odysseus' use of disguise and, later, recognition. His disguises take forms both physical alteration and verbal deception.

The Odyssey consists of 24 books, beginning, as do many ancient epics, in medias res, or in the middle of the action, with prior events described through flashbacks or storytelling. The first four books, known as the Telemachiad, trace Telemachus' efforts to maintain control of the palace in the face of suitors to his mother's hand in marriage. Failing that, Athena encourages him to find his father. In book 5, Odysseus nears the end of his journey, a not entirely unwilling captive of the beautiful nymph, Calypso, with whom he's spent seven of his ten lost years. Released from her wiles by the intercession of his patroness, Athena, and her father Zeus, he departs. His raft is destroyed by his nemesis, Poseidon, who is angry because Odysseus blinded his son, the Cyclops, Polyphemus. When Odysseus washes up on Scheria, home to the Phaeacians, the naked stranger is treated with traditional Greek hospitality even before he reveals his name. Odysseus satisfies the Phaeacians' curiosity, recounting for them—and for us—all his adventures on his trip home since from Troy. This renowned, extended "flashback" leads him back to where he stands, his tale told. The shipbuilding Phaeacians finally loan him a ship to return to Ithaca, where, home at last, he regains his throne, reunites with his son, metes out justice to the suitors, and reunites with his faithful wife, Penelope.

Book summaries

  • Book 1: The gods agree that Odysseus has been marooned too long and deserves to be returned home. Athena sets out to help him, and on the way visits Telemachus.
  • Book 2: Penelope's suitors mock Telemachus. With Athena's help, he sets out for Pylos for news of his father.
  • Book 3: Telemachus converses with the sage Nestor, who suggests that he seek out Menalaus, who was also stranded after the war.
  • Book 4: Menelaus tells while he was stranded in Egypt he learned that Odysseus was marooned on the isle of Calypso.
  • Book 5: At the command of Zeus, Calypso lets Odysseus go free; Poseidon creates a terrible storm to thwart him.
  • Book 6: Odysseus washes ashore and is found by Nausicaa, princess of the Phaeacians.
  • Book 7: The king invites Odysseus to a banquet at the palace, and promises to help him so long as his guests are suitably entertained.
  • Book 8: During the banquet, Odysseus cannot hold back his sadness and begins to weep. The king implores him to tell the guests his name and where he comes from.
  • Book 9: Odysseus introduces himself as a hero, and begins a long flashback beginning with he and his men's capture by the Cyclops.
  • Book 10: Odysseus' men are attacked by giants after misguiding the ship. The survivors are captured by the sorceress Circe and turned into swine.
  • Book 11: Odysseus frees his men and escapes; they visit the underworld, to seek the advice of the dead prophet Tiresias.
  • Book 12: Odysseus' ship passes by the Sirens and the sea-monsters Scylla and Charybdis; the ship lands on the Island of Apollo, and Odysseus' men sacrifice the god's sacred cattle; Zeus kills all of them except Odysseus, who washes ashore on the isle of Calypso.
  • Book 13: The king, in awe, orders a ship for Odysseus to be taken home at once; Athena, in disguise, guides him there.
  • Book 14: Eumaeus, a kindly swineherd, is the first to meet Odysseus, although he does not recognize him.
  • Book 15: Athena warns Telemachus of the suitors' ambush; meanwhile, Odysseus listens to Eumaeus tell the story of his life.
  • Book 16: Evading the suitors' ambush, Telemachus is led by Athena to the farmstead of Eumaeus to reunite with his father.
  • Book 17: Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus returns to his home and begs food from the suitors, who berate and abuse him.
  • Book 18: Irus, a real beggar and lackey for the suitors, arrives and eggs Odysseus into a fistfight; Odysseus wins easily.
  • Book 19: Odysseus has a long talk with Penelope but does not reveal his identity; Penelope has a maid of the house wash Odysseus feet, and she recognizes him by a scar on his leg; Odysseus implores her to be silent until he has finished his plot for revenge.
  • Book 20: Odysseus asks Zeus for a sign and receives it; a wandering prophet visits the suitors and warns them of their imminent doom.
  • Book 21: Penelope appears before the suitors and challenges them to string the bow of Odysseus; all of them fail, until the bow is passed to Odysseus.
  • Book 22: Telemachus, Eumaeus, and another faithful herdsman join Odysseus fully armed, and together they slay the suitors with bow and arrow.
  • Book 23: Odysseus purges the blood-drenched mansion with fire; the suitors' kinfolk learn what has happened.
  • Book 24: Odysseus visits his father, King Laertes, working like a peasant at a vineyard; the suitors' kin gather around them and call for Odysseus to fight to the death; Laertes, Odysseus, and Telemachus meet the challenge, but before fighting can begin Athena stops everything and commands them all to live in peace.

Historicity of the Iliad and Odyssey

Another significant question regards the possible historical basis of the events that take place in Homer's poems. The commentaries on the Iliad and the Odyssey written in the Hellenistic period began exploring the textual inconsistencies of the poems. Modern classicists have continued the tradition.

The excavations of Heinrich Schliemann in the late nineteenth century began to convince scholars that there was a historical basis for the Trojan War. Research (pioneered by the aforementioned Parry and Lord) into oral epics in Serbo-Croatian and Turkic languages began to convince scholars that long poems could be preserved with consistency by oral cultures until someone bothered to write them down. The decipherment of Linear B in the 1950s by Michael Ventris and others, convinced scholars of a linguistic continuity between thirteenth century B.C.E. Mycenaean writings and the poems attributed to Homer.

It is probable, therefore, that the story of the Trojan War as reflected in the Homeric poems derives from a tradition of epic poetry founded on a war that actually took place. However, it is important not to underestimate the creative and transforming power of demands of poetry and the subsequent tradition: for instance, Achilles, the most important character of the Iliad, is associated with Thessaly. He has likely a poetic invention, added to a story in which the attackers of Troy were from the Peloponnese.


  1. Richard Hooker, Bureaucrats and Barbarians: Minoans, Myceneans, and the Greek Dark Ages (Washington State University, 1006, OCLC 439574332).
  2. Matthew Arnold, On translating Homer: Three Lectures Given at Oxford (Wentworth Press, 2019, ISBN 978-0530655628).

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(texts in Homeric Greek)

  • Demetrius Chalcondylas editio princeps, Florence, 1488
  • the Aldine editions (1504 and 1517)
  • Wolf (Halle, 1794-1795; Leipzig, 1804 1807)
  • Spitzner (Gotha, 1832-1836)
  • Bekker (Berlin, 1843; Bonn, 1858)
  • La Roche (Odyssey, 1867-1868; Iliad, 1873-1876, both at Leipzig)
  • Ludwich (Odyssey, Leipzig, 1889-1891; Iliad, 2 vols., 1901 and 1907)
  • W. Leaf (Iliad, London, 1886-1888; 2nd ed. 1900-1902)
  • Merry and Ridciell (Odyssey i.-xii., 2nd ed., Oxford, 1886)
  • Monro (Odyssey xiii.-xxiv. with appendices, Oxford, 1901)
  • Monro and Allen (Iliad), and Allen (Odyssey, 1908, Oxford).
  • D.B. Monro and T.W. Allen 1917-1920, Homeri Opera (5 volumes: Iliad = 3rd edition, Odyssey = 2nd edition), Oxford. ISBN 0198145284, ISBN 0198145292, ISBN 0198145314, ISBN 0198145322, ISBN 0198145349
  • H. van Thiel 1991, Homeri Odyssea, Hildesheim. ISBN 3487094584 1996, Homeri Ilias, Hildesheim. ISBN 3487094592
  • M. L. West 1998-2000, Homeri Ilias (2 volumes), Munich/Leipzig. ISBN 3598714319, ISBN 3598714351
  • P. von der Mühll 1993, Homeri Odyssea, Munich/Leipzig. ISBN 3598714327

English translations

  • Alexander Pope (1688–1744)
    • The Iliad (1720).
    • The Odyssey (1725), Wildside Press (2002) ISBN 1587156741
  • Samuel Butler (1835–1902)
  • Andrew Lang (1844–1912)
  • Richmond Lattimore (1906–1984)
    • The Iliad of Homer, University Of Chicago Press (1961) ISBN 0226469409
    • The Odyssey of Homer, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, reprint ed. (1999) ISBN 0060931957
  • Martin Hammond
  • Robert Fitzgerald (1910–1985)
  • W.H.D. Rouse, The Odyssey. Signet Classics (1999) ISBN 0451527364
  • Robert Fagles (1933–2008)
  • Stanley Lombardo (b. 1943)

General works on Homer

  • Arnold, Matthew. On translating Homer: Three Lectures Given at Oxford. Wentworth Press, 2019. ISBN 978-0530655628
  • Fowler, Robert (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Homer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0521012465
  • Morris, I. and B. Powell.. A New Companion to Homer. Leiden, 1997. ISBN 9004099891
  • Wace, A. J. B. and F. H. Stubbings. A Companion to Homer. London, 1962. ISBN 0333071131

Influential readings and interpretations

  • Auerbach, E. Mimesis. Princeton, 1953 (orig. publ. in German, 1946, Bern), chapter 1. ISBN 069111336X
  • Edwards, M. W. Homer, Poet of the Iliad. Baltimore, 1987. ISBN 0801833299
  • Fenik, B. Studies in the Odyssey, Wiesbaden ('Hermes' Einzelschriften 30), 1974.
  • de Jong, I. J. F. Narrators and Focalizers, Amsterdam/Bristol, 1987. ISBN 1853996580
  • Nagy, G. The Best of the Achaeans. Baltimore, 1979. ISBN 0801860156


Trends in Homeric scholarship

"Classical" analysis

  • A. Heubeck. Die homerische Frage, Darmstadt, 1974. ISBN 3534038649
  • R. Merkelbach. Untersuchungen zur Odyssee (2nd edition), Munich, 1969.
  • U. von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff. Die Ilias und Homer. Berlin, 1916.
  • F.A. Wolf. Prolegomena ad Homerum, Halle, 1795. Published in English translation 1988. ISBN 0691102473


  • M.E. Clark. "Neoanalysis: a bibliographical review," Classical World 79(6) (1986): 379-394.
  • J. Griffin. "The epic cycle and the uniqueness of Homer," Journal of Hellenic Studies 97 (1977): 39-53.
  • J.T. Kakridis Homeric Researches. London, 1949. ISBN 0824077571
  • W. Kullmann. Die Quellen der Ilias (Troischer Sagenkreis), Wiesbaden, 1960.

Homer and oral tradition

  • E. Bakker Poetry in Speech: Orality and Homeric Discourse, Ithaca NY, 1997. ISBN 0801432952
  • J.M. Foley. Homer's Traditional Art, University Park, PA, 1999. ISBN 0271018704
  • G.S. Kirk. Homer and the Oral Tradition. Cambridge, 1976. ISBN 0521213096
  • A.B. Lord. The Singer of Tales, Cambridge MA, 1960. ISBN 0674002830
  • M. Parry The Making of Homeric Verse. Oxford, 1971. ISBN 019520560X

Dating the Homeric poems

External links

All links retrieved June 25, 2021.

  • The Odyssey translated by Alexander Pope, at Project Gutenberg
  • The Iliad translated by Alexander Pope, at Project Gutenberg
  • The Iliad translated by Samuel Butler, at Project Gutenberg
  • The Odyssey translated by Samuel Butler, at Project Gutenberg
  • The Iliad translated by Andrew Lang, at Project Gutenberg


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