Homer and history

Can the Homeric epics be considered historical documents to some extent? If so, for which time period can they be used?

Josho Brouwers

In the late nineteenth century, German entrepeneur and adventurer Heinrich Schliemann supposedly set out on his explorations and excavations of Troy and Mycenae with the express purpose of proving that the world of Homer’s heroes really existed. When he made his amazing discoveries, it was shown that there had been an entire civilization that had existed before the epoch of the Greek city-states.

The British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, inspired by Schliemann’s discoveries, led excavations on the island of Crete. He discovered the remains of a palace civilization there – which he dubbed “Minoan” – that proved to be even older than the Mycenean civilization discovered by his German counterpart. He focused on the palace of Knossos, known in Greek mythology as the seat of King Minos and associated with the adventures of Theseus’ defeat of the Minotaur.

These discoveries pushed down the history of ancient Greece by at least another millennium. Many enthusiasts believed that the stories recorded by the Greeks had at least a kernel of truth to them. Indeed, there were many attempts to actively link the Homeric epics to discoveries on the Greek mainland and at Troy. After all, was the impressive palace at Mycenae not fit for a High King like Agamemnon? Did the massive walls discovered at Hissarlik (identified as Troy) not correspond with the descriptions of the city’s fortifications in the Iliad?

Untangling fact from fiction

But as the Mycenaean and Minoan cultures were studied in more and more detail, it became clear that while superficially similar, there were also many differences. For a long time, scholars remained hopefully that the decipherment of the Mycenaeans’ system of writing – Linear B – would yield evidence of a kind of proto-Iliad. When Michael Ventris finally deciphered this syllabic script, it revealed only bureaucratic information, such as inventories. There was no proto-Iliad anywhere to be found, even though they did prove that the Mycenaeans spoke an early form of Greek and already worshipped most of the gods of the Olympic pantheon in the thirteenth century BC.

Most scholars now realized that the Homeric epics were not accurate reflections of the Bronze Age, creating even more debate for an already hotly-disputed topic. Moses Finley, in the 1950s, published his World of Odysseus, in which he emphasized that one had to look at Homeric institutions in order to date the epics themselves.

Back then, knowledge of the Dark Ages (the Early Iron Age) was imperfect, and Finley argued that Homer’s world probably reflected the conditions of the ninth century BC. Archaeological research has since then revealed much more about the Dark Ages and it is now obvious that Homer probably lived around 700 BC – perhaps slightly earlier or, more probably, slightly later. Many other scholars – historians, classicists, and archaeologists alike – weighed in on the debate to try to answer one of the most pivotal of Homeric Questions: which period, if any, is reflected in the Homeric epics?

In 1986, Ian Morris published a seminal article on the topic in Classical Antiquity 5, with the title “The use and abuse of Homer”. He summarizes the main problem well in the opening paragraph (pp. 81–82):

In the last thirty years, historians have generally concentrated attention on the institutions found in the poems and on the question of to what stage of early Greek history (if any) they belong. The problems arise from the general agreement on three points – first, that the poems were oral composition; second, that they reached substantially the form in which we have them in the course of the eighth century BC; and third, that they purport to describe events taking place in the thirteenth century BC. These assumptions, all of which are accepted here, have given rise to a very wide range of opinions.

If you don’t want to delve too deeply into the topic of Homer and history, you may find Morris’s article more than sufficient. He provides a detailed overview of the discussions on the topic since the 1950s and his conclusions have generally found wide acceptance among academics. His conclusions on pp. 127–128 are worth summarizing:

[The point of this article is] to establish what value the Homeric poems have for the study of early Greek society. To answer this question, three fundamental aspects of the poems must be understood: what they are, and why, and for whom they were written.

The poems themselves are considered “examples of oral poetry frozen in writing. As such, Homer is a source for the social history of the eighth century BC.” With regards to the second and third questions, Morris states that “it has been suggested that these were aristocratic and polemical texts […]. As source material, the poems can be used only with the greatest care. They describe a particular elite viewpoint.” A key remark is the following: “The eighth-century aristoi may or may not have believed that their own society actually functioned along lines similar to Homers; but they wanted it to.”

Morris makes an important observation on p. 127:

Using the poems as a direct source for social history will be a matter of sieving and sifting for elements we feel are the implicit assumptions of the poet and audience. As with any source, when in doubt we can ask the questions cui bono; if a feature has no obvious ideological value by its mere appearance in the text and no obvious value as an archaizing or distancing effect, we might assume that it is something that was simply taken for granted in the eighth century. […] For the poems to succeed as ideological tools at all, much in them must have been acceptable to everyone.

Thus, Ian Morris offers a critical view on the use of Homer as a source of historical enquiry. Further research has shed more light on the topic. In particular, Hans van Wees has done much to reveal the ideological importance of Homer in his Status Warriors: Violence and Society in Homer and History(1992). His later work has seen further refinements; he enthusiastically embraces the Homeric epics as sources for Homer’s own time.

At this point, more than twenty years after the publication of Status Warriors, I think it is fair to say that Hans van Wees’s reconstruction has become the most widely accepted as far as Homeric ideology and warfare is concerned, even if many scholars still retain some healthy scepticism or retain some of Morris’s reserve.

Ian Morris suggests that Homer offers a good source of information for the archaeologist, especially about the formation of the archaeological record and the importance of ideology. The Homeric epics are part of the social and political changes of the second half of the eighth century BC. In his words (p. 128):

it was only in the later eighth century that the embattled aristocracy felt the need to put these links with ‘their’ heroic past to such polemical use. Homer fits into this pattern as an example of ideology playing an active role and reflecting back and influencing changes in the structure of society. […] Homer is a priceless source for our understanding of the eighth century BC, but the relationship of what he describes to the living societies of the eighth century is a subtle and complex one, and one that requires a sympathetic and careful approach from the historian.

Homer offers a valuable source of information not for the Bronze Age, but for his own time. The reception and use – and abuse! – of Homer by later Greeks and Romans provide us with valuable insight into the thoughts of those ancient peoples.

Homer as history

Homer provides an unending source of discussion and debate. Our main focus is on whether or not the Homeric epics can be used as a source of historical enquiry. Some scholars, as we have seen, claim that the epics are too much of a mixture to be valuable in any other way than as a product of literature. Others are less pessimistic and believe that, yes, the Homeric epics can be used as a source of historical enquiry.

If one answers in the affirmative the question becomes: for which historical period can we use the Homeric epics as a source? We have already seen that the idea that the epics wholly reflect the situation in the Bronze Age has been heavily criticized since at least the 1950s and is no longer seriously maintained by most academics.

The few scholars that still maintain that the Homeric epics can be used as sources for the Bronze Age are exceptions. They include the late Ione Mylonas Shear, who wrote Tales of Heroes: The Origins of the Homeric Texts (2000), in which the author emphasized the “Mycenaean” elements of the Homeric epics (read the review by Jonathan Burgess). Another author is Joachim Latacz, who wrote Troy and Homer: Towards a Solution of an Old Mystery (a 2004-translation of the German book published in 2001). Latacz is well-known for having his subject run away with him and reviews of the book have generally not been kind, such as this one by Joshua T. Katz.

If you have read my book Henchmen of Ares (2013), you know that I go into quite some detail on the historicity of the Homeric epics in the prologue. Put briefly, it is clear that some elements of the epic poems may date back to the Mycenaean Bronze Age. The political geography, with a powerful king at Mycenae, and a conflict in north-western Asia Minor, seem to fit with what we know about the Late Bronze Age – even though some of this might be coincidental. Furthermore, many of the names in the Iliad and Odyssey, such as Achilles, can be traced back to the Late Bronze Age. We don’t encounter people named “Achilles” in the historical period until after the Homeric epics have been in circulation for quite some time. (A caveat here would be that we have no idea what names were used for most of Early Iron Age Greece.)

But as far as institutions are concerned, the Iliad and Odyssey owe nothing to the Bronze Age. This was already pointed out, as we have seen, by Moses Finley in his The World of Odysseus (1954; second edition, 1978). During the Mycenaean era, Greece consisted of a number of small kingdoms that had a large bureaucracy. We find no trace of this bureaucracy in the Homeric epic. Writing is only mentioned once in a way that makes it appear extraordinary, in the story of Bellerophon told in book 6 of the Iliad. There is no evidence for the economic specialization that we now know was an important aspect of the Mycenaean palaces. There are no large numbers of slaves working away at producing oil or fabrics in Odysseus’ palace.

The mode of fighting in the Homeric epics is also wholly different from what one might expect from a state-society like the Mycenaean kingdoms. The Homeric heroes are leaders of smallish warbands; raiding and piracy were common activities for them, as demonstrated by the lying stories of Odysseus. Hans van Wees has examined the nature of warfare in the Homeric epics and found them to be very similar to the style of fighting employed by tribesmen on Papua New Guinea; see, for example, his Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities (2004), pp. 153–156 and 160–162, as well as plates XIV–XVII. This was the type of warfare that Homer was familiar with; for the Iliad, he simply made everything larger and the armies more numerous, while leaving the rest more or less the same.

Most of the architectural features – such as distinct temples for the gods and the structure of the kingly palaces – only have their equals in the archaeological records of the eighth and seventh centuries BC. Jan Paul Crielaard wrote an important paper, “Homer, history and archaeology: some remarks on the date of the Homeric world” (published in his edited volume, Homeric Questions: Essays in Philology, Ancient History and Archaeology, including the Papers of a Conference Organized by the Netherlands Institute at Athens, 1993 (1995), pp. 201–288). He shows definitely how many of the elements described by Homer can only belong to Homer’s own age, i.e. the late eighth or early seventh century BC, based mostly on a survey of the relevant archaeological evidence.

Closing thoughts

When Homer composed his poems, he was working in an oral tradition, basing himself on a story that may very well have been passed down through the centuries, with roots extending back to the Mycenaean era. But he had no real idea what Mycenaean society was like.

Homer may have seen ruins that dated back to the lost Age of Heroes, but there was no way for him to reconstruct what life was like back then. Like all writers and artists of Antiquity, he would have placed his story within the context of his own world, a world familiar – and therefore relevant – to himself and his audience.

The latter point cannot be overstated. The ethos espoused in the Homeric epics was the same ethos that (high-ranking) Greeks and – later – Romans adhered to. This Homeric legacy is an important aspect of J.E. Lendon’s book Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity (2005), and is something that I also used to tie Henchmen of Ares together.

For the Homeric epics to have survived through the ages and to have been held in such high regard, they must have been considered relevant to contemporary audiences. For this reason, if for nothing else, they must have largely been the products of Homer’s own time. And that makes the epics useful sources of information for when we seek to understand ancient Greece from Homer’s own time onwards.