Skip navigation


The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for Homer

Detail of The Parnassus by Raphael, 1509. (Wikimedia Commons)  The fresco shows Homer wearing a crown of laurels atop Mount Parnassus, with Dante Alighieri on his right and Virgil on his left. Detail of The Parnassus by Raphael, 1509. (Wikimedia Commons) The fresco shows Homer wearing a crown of laurels atop Mount Parnassus, with Dante Alighieri on his right and Virgil on his left. Greek History and Homer's Epic Poetry

The ancients took it for granted that the Homeric heroes had once existed; some families claimed descent from them. It was assumed that the Trojan War was a historical event, and that although the epics might well contain some poetic exaggeration and fictional embellishment, in general they gave a fair picture of conditions in the era they described. This belief continued through the Middle Ages into early modern times, with only a minority of people dismissing the Homeric narratives as pure fiction. The belief received a powerful boost in the 1870s and 1880s when Heinrich Schliemann's excavations at Troy, Mycenae, and Tiryns revealed that these had indeed been the seats of wealthy Bronze Age kingdoms. Over the following decades the Mycenaean and Minoan worlds emerged in ever clearer outline. It appeared that all the places on which the Greek myths were centered were places that had been important in the Mycenaean period (c. 1600 – 1200 BCE), and some of them became much less significant later. The inference, drawn by Martin Nilsson in 1932, was that the main core of Greek mythology represented a tradition with its origins in the Mycenaean age.

Michael Ventris's decipherment of the Linear B script in 1952 made intelligible Greek documents from the Mycenaean Period. The Linear B documents are inscribed clay tablets from archives in Mycenae, Pylos, Knossos, Thebes, and a few other sites. Though containing archaic words and names similar to those found in Homer, they do not tell us who was king in any of those places, and they make no reference to any of the Homeric heroes themselves or to the Trojan War or other events of legend. They show us a structured society administered from the palaces, which matches the Homeric picture up to a point, though there is no trace in the poems of the extensive bureaucracy and bookkeeping that created the tablets.

From the archaeological record it appears that Troy was destroyed by an enemy force not long after 1200 BCE. There is some likelihood that this is the event remembered in Greek tradition as the sack by the “Achaeans.” However, comparative study of medieval and other epic traditions where there is control from historical records shows that a tradition is capable of all kinds of distortion, exaggeration, and conflation of unrelated stories: men who lived in different centuries may be treated as contemporaries, traitors turned into heroes, defeats into victories. So even if there is a historical kernel to the saga of the Trojan War, we cannot rely on any of the details.

Granted all this, we can accept that the poems do preserve some genuine memories from the second millennium: the absence of ironworking (which in Greek lands began in the 11th cent. BCE), the use of chariots in warfare (though not the manner in which they were used), and certain types of armor and weapons. Many of the heroes’ names are of plausibly ancient form, and some of those on the Trojan side, including Paris and Priam, are genuinely Asiatic.

A Dark Age Ceremonial Complex. 10th-9th c. BCE Lefkandi, Greece (ArtStor/UCSD Slide Gallery)A Dark Age Ceremonial Complex. 10th-9th c. BCE Lefkandi, Greece (ArtStor/UCSD Slide Gallery) Although the poets aim to portray a world of centuries earlier, they inevitably admit many elements of more recent cultural epochs. The world they construct is an amalgam that does not correspond to any one historical period.

In fact, very many of the contextualizing details of both poems more clearly represent the historical context of the 9th-8th cent. BCE, the Early Iron Age. The Early Iron Age was a period of growth and stability in Mainland Greece. Political stability emerged from the development of a feudal system of land tenure. Kings, known as "basileos" (singular) or "basileis" (plural) in Greek, maintained dominance over small pockets of arable land nestled within mountain valleys. A group of retainers, called in Greek "hetairoi" (plural), supported the feudal lord in defense of his territory, for which they received dispensations of land.

Peasants, who served both the king and his retainers as tenant farmers, had no military role in defense of the land on which they lived. Rather, the aristocratic class took responsibility for all military affairs. In this geographic and political situation, any form of population growth strained resources. Absent warfare to stem population growth, the peasant class of Mainland Greece began to experience increased deprivation with each generation.

In response to these changes, Greek polities undertook colonial foundations, first in the Aegean and subsequently in Italy. Many of these colonies were sited to take advantage of agricultural resources, and grew to be significant and independent city-states. Colonies fulfilled two distinct needs of Early Iron Age Greek polities: they offered the opportunity to unload surplus population, and they created new markets for the exchange of agricultural goods. Mainland Greek polities needed surplus grain to support their ever growing populations. The Black Sea, Southern Italy, Sicily, and Egypt offered access to areas that possessed surplus grain but lacked access to olive oil and wine, two products that were abundantly produced in Mainland Greece. Greek colonization thus gave birth to the regular international exchange of the Mediterranean Triad: grain, wine, and olive oil. In the early Iron Age, the method of exchange was simple barter, as coinage had yet to be developed. Wealth was measured and stored in land and livestock. Because of a preference for livestock, land was not optimally used during the 9th century BCE. This situation changed in coastal areas by the 8th century BCE. Olive oil and wine could be produced on marginal land that was neither suited for grazing nor grain production. An increasing general realization of the returns brought about by specialized agriculture and exchange meant that Greek polities began to favor the production of export goods cognizant that shipments of grain could be acquired in a variety of markets.

Ultimately, the totality of the political and economic transitions from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age favored the aristocratic classes of the Mainland Greece, particularly those aristocrats who owned land in coastal areas. Thus, Homer might capture a world either on the brink of, or just having undergone, another major transition, depending on how one dates the poems. In the course of the 8th century, the feudal system of land tenure began to break down in Mainland Greece. Colonization, trade, and warfare had created an aristocratic class that was too powerful for one king to dominate. Some would see the Odyssean account of Odysseus' struggle with the wealthy youth of Ithaca - king versus aristocrats - as a reflection of these historical processes. In point of fact, by the 7th century BCE, the majority of Mainland Greece had come to be dominated by aristocracies who banded together to form oligarchic political institutions that favored the sharing of power within a restricted group. Combined with the economic focus created by increasingly important portfacilities, Greek populations began to coalesce into true city-states - called 'polis' (singular) or 'poleis' (plural) in Greek - in which economic, political, and military activity centered around a developed urban core.

A map showing key locations from Homer's epics. (Humanities Psydeshow) A map showing key locations from Homer's epics. (Humanities Psydeshow) Homer and the History of Writing

Before the introduction of alphabetic writing circa 800 BCE, Greece was illiterate, and the poetic traditions that preserved memories of the Mycenaean age must have been exclusively oral. The poet-singers described in the Homeric poems themselves are oral performers, and the author(s) of the epics were no doubt accustomed to composing and performing orally. They summon the Muse to “tell” or “sing” the story. The language and style have features typical of oral poetry, most noticeably the use of formulaic phrases which can be repeated or adapted as convenient to suit the verse. Especially common are noun and epithet combinations such as “the dark earth,” “the broad sky,” “the bronze-corsleted Achaeans,” “swift-footed Achilles,” or “white-armed Hera.” Besides epithets, other formulaic expressions include “answered and addressed him” or “pondered in his heart and mind.” There is formulaic action, too: repeated scenes and motifs. When a commonplace type of undertaking is to be described, such as the sending of someone with a message, a journey by ship or chariot, or the arming of a warrior, the poet has a large set of traditional expressions which he can draw upon, selecting and modifying to vary the effect.

The poems are composed in a conventional epic language that is strongly Ionic in appearance, implying that it acquired its final form among the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor or the Aegean islands. But there are signs that other dialects had contributed to its earlier development. The language contains many old words and grammatical forms that were no longer known to contemporary speech; some of them can now be documented from Linear B tablets. That does not prove that they entered the poetic language in the Mycenaean age, because they might have remained in common usage for a considerable time afterward. However, there are a few forms and formulas that seem to belong to an even earlier stage of Greek than the tablets, suggesting that the poetic tradition goes back continuously to the 15th or 14th cent. BCE—well before the Trojan War. That the tradition goes back even further is suggested by the presence of many narrative motifs, stylistic devices, and verbal formulas for which an Indo-European heritage can be claimed.


Works Consulted:

Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome