Biography of Homer

Beyond a few fragments of information, historians and classicists can only speculate about the life of the man who composed The Iliad and The Odyssey. The details are few. We do not even know the century in which he lived, and it is difficult to say with absolute certainty that the same poet composed both works. The Greeks attributed both of the epics to the same man, and we have little hard evidence that would make us doubt the ancient authorities, but uncertainty is a constant feature of scholarly work dealing with Homer's era of Greek history.

The Greeks hailed him as their greatest poet, as well as their first. Although the Greeks recognized other poets who composed in Greek before Homer, no texts from these earlier poets survived. Perhaps they were lost, or perhaps they were never written down; Homer himself was probably on the cusp between the tradition of oral poetry and the new invention of written language. Texts of The Iliad and The Odyssey existed from at least the sixth century BC, and probably for a considerable span of time before that. These two great epic poems also had a life in performance: through the centuries, professional artists made their living by reciting Homer, performing the great epics for audiences that often know great parts of the poem by heart.

It is impossible to pin down with any certainty when Homer lived. Eratosthenes gives the traditional date of 1184 BC for the end of the Trojan War, the semi-mythical event that forms the basis for the Iliad. The great Greek historian Herodotus put the date at 1250 BC. These dates were arrived at in a very approximate manner; Greek historians usually used genealogy and estimation when trying to find the dates for events in the distant past. But Greek historians were far less certain about the dates for Homer's life. Some said he was a contemporary of the events of The Iliad, while others placed him sixty or a hundred or several hundred years afterward. Herodotus estimated that Homer lived and wrote in the ninth century BC. He almost certainly lived in one of the Greek city-states in Asia Minor. All of the traditional sources say that he was blind.

Over the course of millennia of scholarly speculation, prevailing theories about Homer and his relationship to his work have had time to change and change again. At various times over the centuries, scholars have suggested that he was only a transmitter, or that he never existed, and the epics attributed to him were the patchwork effort of generations of bards. Modern scholars, however, tend to accept that The Iliad and The Odyssey are more than amalgams handed down from antiquity, and that there was in fact a great poet who had a hand in creating these epics in the forms we know today. Current scholarship holds that Homer was a great bard who lived between the eighth and seventh centuries BC. Although there is little doubt that Homer inherited a massive amount of material from generations of bards before him, most scholars believe now that Homer was an innovator and an original artist as well as a transmitter. Writing probably played a role in the composition of his great poems. Current theories depict Homer as a master of oral poetry who used the new invention of writing to aid him in composing epics on a grander scale than had ever been done before. There are signs in The Iliad that might suggest unfinished revision; these massive projects may have been reworked again and again over the course of the poet's whole life. A performer as well as a poet, Homer may have composed the poems through a mixture of utilizing old material, writing and revising, and oral improvisation.

Little can be known with certainty. But even though the details of Homer's life remain -- and probably will always remain -- an enigma, his great epics come down to us intact. His works have formed a foundation for all the Western literature that has followed, and his characters and stories have had an impact on three thousand years' worth of readers. Facts about the poet's life can do little to add to that legacy. Legend says that as a child, Alexander the Great slept with a copy of The Iliad under his pillow; the fact that Alexander was neither the first nor the last boy to do so says more about Homer's genius than any biography could, no matter how detailed or complete.


Study Guides on Works by Homer

Consisting of 15,693 lines of verse, the Iliad has been hailed as the greatest epic of Western civilization. Although we know little about the time period when it was composed and still less about the epic's composer, the Iliad's influence on...

Most likely written between 750 and 650 B.C., The Odyssey is an epic poem about the wanderings of the Greek hero Odysseus following his victory in the Trojan War (which, if it did indeed take place, occurred in the 12th-century B.C. in Mycenaean...