Last reviewed: June 2018
c. early eighth century b.c.e.
Possibly Ionia, Asia Minor (now in Turkey)
c. late eighth century b.c.e.
To assemble any biography of Homer (HOH-mur) in the contemporary sense of the genre is an impossibility. All that can be done is to theorize tentatively on the basis of conflicting traditions, evidence within his works the Iliad and the Odyssey, and some slight relevant archaeological evidence. The Homeric Question centers on whether one person could have written both the Iliad and the Odyssey and whether Homer wrote the major part of either epic. Some classical scholars have argued for single authorship of the great poems, whereas other scholars have argued for a community of authorship. Some twentieth century scholarship favored the theory of “oral-formulaic composition,” an elaborate process by which traditional poetic phrases such as “swift-footed Achilles” are brought together to compile an epic. This theory holds that the combined efforts of generations of heroic bards created the Iliad and the Odyssey. By the end of the century, however, new evidence emerged that the two epics were the work of one genius. Homer
The difficulty facing the student of Homer is the fact that the Homeric poems were written long before the time of extant literary records. The poetry of Homer was famous, even revered, as far back as ancient Greece. In classical times, both the Iliad and the Odyssey were recited in public at the Panathenaea in Athens every four years. It would appear that there were attempts to establish a biography as early as the times of Plato and Aristotle.
Eight different “Lives” of Homer from classical times are known, the fullest being credited to Heroditus, in Ionic Greek. Heroditus’s account and those of others seem to be made up of conjecture and tradition, fortified by deductions from passages within the Iliad, the Odyssey, and other poems sometimes attributed to Homer. Most of the early accounts agree that Homer was blind, elderly, and poor, a poet who wandered from city to city in ancient Greece. Although tradition has it that seven cities claimed to be his birthplace, tradition cannot even agree on which seven made the claim. Exactly when the poet flourished is not known. Heroditus believed that Homer lived four hundred years before his own time, which places Homer in the ninth century
In many cases, the text of a piece of literature furnishes evidence of the author’s origin and dates, but the Iliad and the Odyssey do not give much help. The language of the two poems is unique, being a combination of Ionic and Attic Greek. The very nature of the epic, as well as some ancient Greek terms, which can be only tentatively defined, puzzled people of classical times as well as later scholars. Epic conventions allow the author to hide behind them and to use stylized language. The texts of the Homeric poems were set some generations after Homer, perhaps as late as the sixth century
Almost nothing is known even of Greek political life before the time of the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus. The very existence of Troy and the Trojan War was in doubt prior to the archaeological work of Heinrich Schliemann in the nineteenth century, whose discovery of a series of cities on what is believed to have been the site of Troy indicates some historical basis for the events recited in the Homeric poems. Indeed, evidence shows which layer of the ruins may be that of the city about which Homer wrote.
The most logical conjecture is that soon after the end of the Trojan War, which occurred about 1200
The importance of the biographical problems presented by Homer should not be overestimated, for the poems as they stand retain the beauty and grace the poet originally gave them. As works of art and as inspiration for later art, they have been through the ages, and continue to be, magnificent.