The Trojan War > Homer Basics > Details on Homer
The Life and Work of Homer:
Homer was the most important and earliest of the Greek and Roman writers. Greeks and Romans didn't count themselves educated unless they knew his poems. His influence was felt not only on literature, but on ethics and morality via lessons from his masterpieces. He is the first source to look for information on Greek myth and religion. Yet, despite his prominence, we have no firm evidence that he ever lived.
Quote About Homer:
"Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals, stealing and adulteries and deceiving on one another."
Xenophanes (a Pre-Socratic philosopher)
The Life of the Blind Bard:
Because Homer performed and sang he is called a bard. He is thought to have been blind, and so is known as the blind bard, just as Shakespeare, calling on the same tradition, is known as the bard of Avon.
The name "Homer," which is an unusual one for the time, is thought to mean either "blind" or "captive". If "blind," it may have to do more with the portrayal of the Odyssean blind bard called Phemios than the poem's composer.
That's not a typo. There are multiple cities in the ancient Greek world that lay claim to the prestige of being the birthplace of Homer. Smyrna is one of the most popular, but Chios, Cyme, Ios, Argos, and Athens are all in the running. The Aiolian cities of Asia Minor are most popular; outliers include Ithaca and Salamis.
Plutarch provides a choice of Salamis, Cyme, Ios, Colophon, Thessaly, Smyrna, Thebes, Chios, Argos, and Athens, according to a table showing ancient authors who provided biographical information on Homer, in "Lives of Homer (Continued)," by T. W. Allen; The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 33, (1913), pp. 19-26. Homer's death is less controversial, Ios being the overwhelming favorite.
Since it's not even clear that Homer lived, and since we don't have a fix on the location, it should come as no surprise that we don't know when he was born. He is generally considered to have come before Hesiod. Some thought him a contemporary of Midas (Certamen).
Homer is said to have had two daughters (generally, the symbolic ones of the Iliad and the Odyssey), and no sons, according to West [citation below], so the Homeridai, who are referred to as Homer's followers and rhapsodes themselves, can't really claim to be descendants, although the idea has been entertained.
Learn more about Homeric problems by reading these articles on the great 3000-year old mystery:
- "'Reading' Homer through Oral Tradition," by John Miles Foley; College Literature, Vol. 34, No. 2, Reading Homer in the 21st Century (Spring, 2007).
- The Invention of Homer, by M. L. West; The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 49, No. 2 (1999), pp. 364-382.
Major Theme - The Trojan War:
Homer's name will always be linked with the Trojan War because Homer wrote about the conflict between Greeks and Trojans, known as the Trojan War, and the return voyages of the Greek leaders. He is credited with telling the whole story of the Trojan War, but that is false. There were plenty of other writers of what is called the "epic cycle" who contributed details not found in Homer.
Homer and Epic:
Homer is the first and greatest writer of the Greek literary form known as epic and so it's in his work that people look for information about the poetic form. Epic was more than a monumental story, although it was that. Since bards sang stories from memory, they needed and used many helpfully mnemonic, rhythmic, poetic techniques that we find in Homer. Epic poetry was composed using a rigorous format. It accomplished goals that Aristotle sets out in his Poetics.
Major Works Credited to Homer -- Some in Error:
Even if the name isn't his, a figure we think of as Homer is considered by many to be the writer of the Iliad, and possibly the Odyssey, although there are stylistic reasons, like inconsistencies, to debate whether one person wrote both. An inconsistency that resonates for me is that Odysseus uses a spear in The Iliad, but is an extraordinary archer in the Odyssey. He even describes his bow prowess demonstrated at Troy [source: "Notes on the Trojan War," by Thomas D. Seymour, TAPhA 1900, p. 88.].
Homer is sometimes credited, although less credibly, with the Homeric Hymns. Currently, scholars think these must have been written more recently than the Early Archaic period (aka the Greek Renaissance), which is the era in which the greatest Greek epic poet is thought to have lived.
Homer's Major Characters:
In Homer's Iliad, the lead character is the quintessential Greek hero, Achilles. The epic states that it is the story of the wrath of Achilles. Other important characters of the Iliad are the leaders of the Greek and Trojan sides in the Trojan War, and the highly partisan, human-seeming gods and goddesses -- the deathless ones.
In The Odyssey, the lead character is the title-character, the wily Odysseus. Other major characters include the family of the hero and the goddess Athena.
Although Homer is thought to have lived in the early Archaic Age, the subject matter of his epics is the earlier, Bronze Age, Mycenaean era. Between then and when Homer may have lived there was a "dark age." Therefore Homer is writing about a period about which there is not a substantial written record. His epics give us a glimpse of this earlier life and social hierarchy, although it is important to realize that Homer is a product of his own times, when the polis (city-state) was beginning, as well as the mouthpiece for stories handed down across the generations, and so details may not be true to the era of the Trojan War.
The Voice of the World:
In his poem, "The Voice of the World," the 2nd century Greek poet Antipater of Sidon, best known for writing about the Seven Wonders (of the ancient world), praises Homer to the skies, as can be seen in this public domain translation from the Greek Anthology:
"The herald of the prowess of heroes and the interpreter of the immortals, a second sun on the life of Greece, Homer, the light of the Muses, the ageless mouth of all the world, lies hid, O stranger, under the sea-washed sand."