The “Homeric Question”

When one thinks of the ancient Greece many will think of the Iliad and Odyssey, epics seen as the greatest of Western civilization. Everyone knows of the stories about war, the Trojan horse, Agamemnon, the gods etcetera. But how did these stories survive generations long? And how did these epics came into being in the first place? The fact that the Iliad and the Odyssey are very much part of an oral tradition has been a determining factor in the history of their composition. If one wants to interpret their contents it is something that should be taken into account. In this essay I would like to focus on the Iliad.

My main question is what can, and what cannot, be learned of the Greek world c. 700 BC from this monumental poem’ (Greece in the making, 1200-479 BC, Ch. 5, Robin Osborne). So how where poets able to preserve themes mentioned in treated poems and only vary in details, on different occasions decades apart? By using linguistic constructions, also mentioned as ‘formulae’ (Greece in the making, 1200-479 BC, Ch. 5, Robin Osborne), poets where able to “hang up” their story on this constructions which formed the basis of the poems. These construction, or blocks if you like, where constructed over multiple generations.

The story around the block was product of the skills of the storyteller. This is why even one storyteller would not tell the same story twice, let alone different storytellers from different generations. To learn about the history of Greece from a story this story must be dated (time) and traced (place) to put things in perspectives (put the story in the bigger picture). Dating stories has always been a problem. Two important ways of dating stories are used: a linguistic method and a material method. Greek language changed over time, but particular formulae who where typical for a certain period in Greek history stayed.

This gives historians a tool with which language usage in the stories can be used to date the story. The material method is used to date (parts of) stories as well. Mentioning, for example, ‘the silver-riveted sword’ and the ‘boars tusk helmet’ helps historians to date this part of the story back to the Mycenaean world, or before (Greece in the making, 1200-479 BC, Ch. 5, Robin Osborne). More difficulties arise with tracing back (place) the story; even though tempting, descriptions of cities or city-names mentioned, for example, should not be taken for granted as the environment of the stories that are told. These descriptions owe their existence in the poems not to the pleasure of a shock of recognition, but to the ability to conjure up a lost world which stimulated critical thought about the present situation’ (Greece in the making, 1200-479 BC, Ch. 5, Robin Osborne).

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The Iliad has its origin in the mythology of ancient Greece and is set in a war-torn past. Goal is to divide history from myth in this story. For example: there may have been a massive campaign by Greek-speaking peoples against a great city on the coast of Asia Minor. We suppose Homer himself was a Greek living in one of the colonies of Asia Minor, but his epics deal with a time when no Greek lived in Asia. Looking at the evidence, it seems safe to say that his work attempts to reconstruct stories from a past. ‘ (Achebe C. and others, Classicnote on the Illiad). The passing of a few centuries made accurate recall of historical events difficult. Homer’s Iliad would therefore be more myth than history, although many ancient Greeks understood his epics as being in some way factual. The heroes of the Iliad were very real to the Greeks, holding a place in their history as well as their literature and religion.

Important to bare in mind is that myths have underwent changes throughout the centuries before and after Homer. ‘This is why readers must take care to pay attention to the specifics of Homer’s story, without superimposing myths gathered from elsewhere. For example, the widely known story of Achilles’ invulnerability with the exception of his heel, has no place in the Iliad. Achilles is as mortal as everyone else, and Homer explicitly tells us that this is the case.

The poem does not deal with the sack of Troy, or with the famous episode of the Trojan horse, although the horse is alluded to in the Odyssey. (Achebe C. and others, Classicnote on the Illiad). As before mentioned the Iliad is set in a war-torn past. Analyzing descriptions of warfare in the Iliad could tell us something about the level of ‘historical-credibility’ of it’s stories. ‘Warfare in the Iliad concentrates on the clash between individual heroes on each side. This has often been thought to stand in strong contrast to the massed ranks of heavily armed infantry who fought in wars between Greek states in the historical record. Chariots frequently appear in the story but not as war tool, as one could expect, but merely as a mean of transportation.

If you ad up to this that equipment has not been inserted into a tactical framework that is consistent through the poem and so yields little military sense. This lack of military sense guarantees that the Iliad’s picture of warfare is not a picture of warfare at any given point in time, but a picture which enables certain features of what it is to fight, and of who must fight, to be stressed: both the role of the individual and the vital necessity of everyone’s fighting in an organised mass are brought out, and both these features are essential to the overall plot of the poem. . (Greece in the making, 1200-479 BC, Ch. 5, Robin Osborne)

This al does not mean that the descriptions are not at all interesting for a historian. Individual items of equipment can be proved to be genuine memories of the past, so also we may speculate, even if we cannot so easily prove, that various tactics which are stressed, such as the insistence on the close-packing of Myrmidon ranks, refer to actual battle tactics at a particular point in time. (Greece in the making, 1200-479 BC, Ch. 5, Robin Osborne)

Although, in this essay not all facets which play an important role in the Iliad are introduced (politics, marriage read: Greece in the making, 1200-479 BC, Ch. 5, Robin Osborne) above mentioned leads to a conclusion in which we can doubt the historical value of the overall picture the Iliad draws of the Greek society. That is, the drawn image can not be dated or placed. This is logical if you think of the following (which was mentioned before): ‘it seems safe to say that his (Homer) work attempts to reconstruct stories from a past’.

The combined stories contain aspects of different places and times. If you combine this information with the fact that many successful poets used their poems to compare history with the present and so provoke critical thinking of the present situation, it is understandable that this image drawn is not to be dated back to a specific time or place. Answering the main question, what can and what cannot be learnt of the Greek world c. 700 BC from this monumental poem, is difficult. It depends on what one wants to know.

Individual descriptions from weapons are interesting for a weapon-expert, but as long as they can not be dated/placed they are not interesting for a historian who wants to create a big picture of the ancient Greek society. Besides that, when it is not possible to date and place the weapon (to continue on the example) it is hard to say if this description is representative for ancient Greek society. So some individual information can be gathered from this poems but due to the mythical and non-datable descriptions information is less historical-valuable then datable information.