Ask people to name a classical Greek poet and most will probably mention Homer, author of such epic prose as The Iliad and Odyssey. For many, Homer is the beginning of poetry and one of the literary gods who set the standard for the future of literature.
Not much is known about when he was born or whether he in fact existed at all, but the general thought is that around 850 BC, Homer was writing his epic poems. As with anyone buried so far back in history, there are legends and myths surrounding his life. He was a Babylonian according to Lucian; others said he was an Ithacan. More often he is reputed to have been born in Ionia, in Asia Minor.
There has been much discussion about his name too. Homer could mean ‘hostage’ or it may mean ‘he who has put a song to a tune’. He may have been a wandering minstrel and he may have been blind. While there has been great effort by learned academics to uncover the real Homer, it is the works that are more important, as well as their influence on all that was to come.
Many epic poems have been attributed to Homer, including the most well-known Iliad and Odyssey. These usually refer to a body of work that was produced between 6th and 5th centuries BC and number among them The Little Iliad, the Theban poems and the Margites that come under the literary umbrella of The Epic Cycle.
What is far more widely believed is that the Homeric works were produced primarily from an oral tradition and then, sometime later, went through a process of standardization. No one is entirely sure if the work was first written down when Homer was still alive or later, after being passed from generation to generation. The only really certain thing is that the poems gave birth to centuries of Homeric study and intense scholarship that continues to this day.
Epic poem The Iliad is set during the Trojan War when Troy was under siege by the surrounding Greek states. The story covers a few weeks towards the end of the siege and alludes to many of the legends of the time most notably the story of Achilles. It’s a grand tale of kings and gods, betrayals and triumphs and the eventual fall of Troy itself.
Seen as a sequel to The Iliad, The Odyssey follows the adventures of the hero Odysseus and his many tribulations as he returns home after the Trojan War, a journey that has taken ten years. The influence of the work can be seen in later poems and works such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and Dante’s Inferno that includes Odysseus as a character in one of the cantos.
Plato himself professed that Homer was the father of all education and poetry was seen in Ancient Greece as an art that was only made visible to a select few. His work is not just about stories but includes a large number of speeches on the state of mankind and the nature of existence. Whether he was real or not, the influence of Homer and his epic poems has stretched down through the centuries and remains a potent force even today.