Homer Composes the

Homer’s composition of the Iliad established the epic poem as a genre in Western literature and influenced the culture and literature of Europe for centuries.

Summary of Event

The Iliad (English translation, 1616) is a Greek epic poem of 15,693 lines that tells the story of the fall of the city of Troy to the Greeks. Written in dactylic hexameter, the poem was divided sometime in the third century b.c.e. into twenty-four books, each having from 424 to 909 lines. Homer

The composition of the Iliad can be seen as both the beginning of Western literature and the culmination of a long tradition of oral epic poetry that probably dates from the height of Mycenaean civilization in the thirteenth and twelfth centuries b.c.e. Controversy has raged for years over the authorship of the Iliad. Some scholars see the epic as the work of one person, whereas others see it as the work of several individuals. Although the epic does contain inconsistencies—some probably caused by the inclusion of pieces of earlier epics, others doubtless the result of additions made by post-Homeric scribes and editors—the modern consensus seems to be that one controlling artistic imagination must have shaped the whole, regardless of the origin of its components. The consistent characterizations, the epic similes with their sympathetic glimpses into the life of the common people of Homer’s day, and above all, the unifying theme of the tragedy of Achilles can hardly have resulted from the work of a number of poets working separately.

Although few facts can be verified about the identity of Homer and the time and place of the composition of his epic poem, the Iliad itself provides evidence that can support some educated guesses as to its authorship and provenance. References to Homer’s material in later Greek writings suggest that the epic must have been widely circulated by 700 b.c.e., and descriptions of sculpture and certain types of shields that can be closely dated by archaeologists indicate that the final version of the Iliad is unlikely to have been composed much before 750 b.c.e.

Elements of the Aeolic and Ionic dialects used in the poem have encouraged scholars to believe that its author lived in one of the Greek colonies on the coast of Asia Minor, where Hellenes, who had been powerful in Mycenaean days, had taken refuge from Dorian invaders during the eleventh century b.c.e. Somehow, in the nearly five hundred years between the legendary fall of Troy and the writing of the Iliad, the Ionian courts preserved the names of the Mycenaean heroes and cities powerful in the Aegean culture of the Bronze Age, as well as stories of events related to some conflict between Greeks and Trojans.

In this depiction of the events of the Trojan War, the priest Laocoon stands behind the Trojan horse.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The preservation of these elements of a dead civilization has been attributed to the existence of a strong oral tradition. In books 7 and 22, the Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616) describes court poets who entertained visitors with recitations of the deeds of heroes, and the characters of Demodocus and Phemius probably reflect Homer’s own role in Ionian society. Scholars have postulated the existence of poetic guilds that preserved and passed on, with their own embellishments, bodies of historical and legendary materials.

These Ionian bards, like later ones who preserved and transmitted the Germanic sagas, developed sophisticated techniques to assist them in their composition. At some point in the growth of the oral epic, dactylic hexameter became the accepted metrical form. It is a complex meter, hardly more natural to the Greek language than it is to the English language. The bards therefore developed formulas, or stock phrases that fit the meter. Frequent use of the same epithets, such as “fleet-footed Achilles” or “Agamemnon, king of men,” illustrates the technique; Hera is called “white-armed” or “Hera of the golden throne” according to whether she is mentioned at the beginning or end of a line, not because of the context in which she is mentioned.

Learning hundreds of these formulas must have been part of the training of Ionian court poets, for the same phrases seem to have been handed down for generations. Once a satisfactory pattern had been established, it appears to have been preserved, even though its words might have vanished from ordinary speech. The use of formulas probably explains why, for example, there are contradictory descriptions of weapons in the Iliad.

In addition, entire passages, such as the catalog of ships in book 2 of the Iliad, seem to have been handed down almost intact. Many of the cities mentioned were centers of commerce during Mycenaean times but were obliterated long before Homer lived. It is interesting to note that Homer considered the list of heroes important enough to preserve in his poem, even though many of the leaders mentioned play little or no part in the epic itself.

Little is actually known about Homer’s audience. Nevertheless, the nature of the Iliad makes it clear that the events surrounding the Trojan War were familiar to the poet’s audience, for he begins in the middle of the action. There is no need to discuss the causes of the war or its conclusion, and the characters evidently need no introduction. The greatness of the poet was not his originality as a creator of plot but rather his ability to bring a unified whole out of the masses of material at his disposal.

Perhaps even less is known about Homer as an individual. When the Greeks became interested in biography, nothing had been recorded about the man to whom they ascribed their greatest literary treasures. It is simply a romantic story that claims that Homer was a blind minstrel.

Homer used traditional materials and forms to create a work that embodied a radical and consistent interpretation of the world and of the position of humankind. As far as possible, he cleared away everything that could distract attention from his main theme: the terrible contrast of life and death. The hero of Homer’s epics represents the summit of human greatness, and his struggle to face death is fascinating enough to attract the gaze of the immortal gods, thus exalting human life to a level at which it achieves significance and becomes a fit subject for the song that celebrates its fragility and its greatness.

The Iliad says that the natural human state in this world can be comprehended in human terms and that human life can be more than an insignificant or ignoble struggle in the dark. The human soul can rise to the height of the challenges and the suffering that are the lot of all humankind. That spirit, chastened but not despairing, which sees the world without illusion and confronts it without self-pity or evasion, was the gift of Greece to the world, and it is the deepest element in the thought of Homer.


It is nearly impossible to assess the enormous impact of the composition of the Iliad on Western civilization. The story of the fall of Troy has been part of the education of many Westerners for nearly three thousand years, testifying to the significance of the Homeric understanding of the nature of human beings and their place in the world. The values expressed in the work persisted not only into Roman times but also into the Renaissance. In addition, Homer’s use of the epic poem established it as a genre in Western literature. Many epic poems have been created based on Homer’s model, and the story of the Iliad has inspired many great works of European literature in other genres.

Further Reading

  • Frazer, Richard M. A Reading of the “Iliad.” Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1993. Frazer discusses the history and literary criticism surrounding epic poetry, using the Iliad as an example. Bibliography and index.
  • Hammer, Dean. The “Iliad” as Politics: The Performance of Political Thought. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. An analysis of the political and social views of Homer as well as the relationship between literature and politics in ancient Greece. Bibliography and indexes.
  • Kim, Jinyo. The Pity of Achilles: Oral Style and the Unity of the “Iliad.” Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000. Kim examines the oral tradition and its effect on the Iliad. Bibliography and indexes.
  • Luce, John Victor. Celebrating Homer’s Landscapes: Troy and Ithaca Revisited. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. Luce examines what is known of Troy and Ithaca, where Homer’s epics took place. Includes archaeological information on Troy. Bibliography and indexes.
  • Morrison, James V. Homeric Misdirection: False Predictions of the “Iliad.” Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. Morrison provides a detailed discussion of Homeric technique and explores truths and falsehoods in literature. Bibliography and indexes.
  • Van Duzer, Chet A. Duality and Structure in the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.” New York: Peter Lang, 1996. Homer’s technique is discussed at length, as well as the use of logic and polarity in literature. Bibliography and indexes.
  • Wilson, John. Sense and Nonsense in Homer: A Consideration of the Inconsistencies and Incoherencies in the Texts of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.” Oxford, England: Archaeopress, 2000. An examination of the discrepancies in the text of the Iliad as well as of the Odyssey. Bibliography.

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