The world of Homer

History or historical fiction?

How do the worlds created by Homer in his epic poems relate to historical and archaeological realities? Do they relate to any particular periods of history at all?

Josho Brouwers

The ancient Greeks believed that a poet named Homer composed the epic poems that we refer to as the Iliad and the Odyssey. Homer’s floruit is nowadays usually dated around 700 BC. Many questions surround the poet and his work. One of these is whether or not the epic world described by Homer corresponds to history.

Both the Iliad and Odyssey deal with stories connected to the Trojan War. The Iliad has the Greek hero Achilles and the Trojan champion Hector as its main protagonists and is set during the tenth and final year of the Greek siege of Troy. The Odyssey takes place after the Greeks had sacked Troy and follows Odysseus on his ill-fated journey back home.

To the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Trojan War was historical fact. The poet Hesiod, who was probably a (near-)contemporary of Homer, posited the existence of a “Heroic Age” in the distant past, preceding his own age. Both Herodotus and Thucydides refer to the war in their respective histories, both written down in the fifth century BC. The Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BC) composed the Aeneid as a story on the origin of the Roman people, taking the sack of Troy as its starting point. The date of the Trojan War was usually calculated based on genealogies; the more or less widely accepted date is somewhere in the twelfth century BC, according to our reckoning.

Discoveries by Heinrich Schliemann

Modern scholars initially scoffed at the idea of a historical Trojan War. To them, Greek history began with the city-states of the Archaic and Classical periods. While there were indications that the history of Greece stretched back further than this, it was only conclusively demonstrated when the German businessman and pioneer archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822–1890) made his exciting discoveries at the Turkish site of Hissarlik (ancient Troy) and the Greek site of Mycenae. There, he unearthed remains of far older civilizations that stretched back into the Bronze Age. According to his own story, he supposedly dug at these sites with a pick in one hand and the Iliad in the other.

After these discoveries, the world described by Homer was thought to actually reflect the conditions of the Late Bronze Age. The civilization on the Greek mainland was dubbed “Mycenaean” (after its principal city, the capital of King Agamemnon in the Iliad). Put very simply, the idea arose that archaeologists could now simply dig up the “heroic” past in Greece, with the blanks filled in by simply reading the Homeric poems.

Recent scholarship

However, scholars no longer believe that the situation is a simple as was once thought. Archaeology has unearthed a great deal more of the Greek past, both the Bronze Age (ca. 3000–1000 BC) and the subsequent Iron Age (after 1000 BC). The Mycenaeans recorded texts on clay tablets in a script referred to as Linear B. Initially, hopes were high to uncover an original Iliad or Odyssey. When the tablets were finally deciphered in the 1950s, the were proven to yield more mundane, if not less informative, texts, containing inventories, reports, and so forth.

Inspired by recent discoveries, the American historian Moses Finley wrote The World of Odysseus (1954), in which he defended the idea that many details and especially the overall structure of Homeric society is far closer to that of Homer’s own age, the Early Iron Age, than the Mycenaean Bronze Age. Other authors were sceptical that the world of Homer could be dated at all: archaeologist Anthony Snodgrass, for example, went so far as the dismiss the notion of a historical Homeric society entirely.

Debates continue to rage on whether or not the Homeric epics can be used as a source of historical inquiry. Very few currently maintain that the world described by Homer accurately reflects the conditions of the Bronze Age. Archaeologically speaking, the palaces, weapons and furniture of the Homeric heroes seem closer to Homer’s own age, ca. 700 BC. There is also little evidence for writing in the Homeric epics and the society seems much simpler than in the Bronze Age, lacking the palatial bureaucracy responsible for the creation of clay tablets, for example.

Some scholars, such as Hans van Wees – author of Status Warriors: Violence and Society in Homer and History (1992) – have therefore taken to use the Homeric epics as sources of information for the Early Iron Age and Early Archaic period. I also believe that the Homeric epics can be used in this way, although clearly one should always apply care when interpreting a literary work for the purpose of illuminating historical processes or structures.

The worlds of Homer

Nevertheless, some elements of the epic poems do almost certainly date back to the Late Bronze Age. The basic political framework of the Greek mainland seems to conform largely to what we know of the Mycenaean world, with well-fortified citadels at places like Mycenae and Pylos, which in later Greek history were only of secondary or even tertiary importance.

As such, there are at least two “worlds of Homer”. The first is that which served as a source of inspiration for the poet, derived from orally-transmitted stories that probably dated back to Mycenaean times. The second is the world that he himself lived in and used to flesh out the basic framework of his story.

The notion of a Trojan War also seems to fit with what we currently know of the political situation in Western Asia Minor, thanks to Hittite letters that make reference to disputes near Wilusa (probably Troy) between the Hittites and a kingdom of the “Ahhiyawa”. The latter name is very similar to one of the words applied to denote the Greeks by Homer (“Achaeans”), and might refer to Mycenaean Greeks, though the exact location and size of this Achaean kingdom is unknown.