Homer – Biography Of An Epic Poet

Homer - biography of an epic poet

Homer is known as one of the first poets of ancient Greece, or at least one of the first whose works have survived to this day. When we speak of works of classical antiquity, we must keep in mind that most of them were lost over time or came to us only in fragments. In ancient times there was no printing and the way in which written texts were handed down and preserved was costly. After the fall of the Roman Empire, most of the literary texts were lost, while in the Middle Ages the monasteries were responsible for the translation and copying of Greek and Latin texts, helping us to read them today.

It is estimated that there were up to 800 authors in Rome, but only about 140 are known. Another problem is clearly identifying the authorship of many of the better-known works. In the case of Homer, the two most important Greek epics are ascribed to him: the Iliad  and the Odyssey  from the 8th century BC.

For many historians and writers, Homer opened the door of literary creation to the West with these works. Not only did he introduce us to Greek mythology, but thanks to him we can also get an idea of ​​how Greek society functioned at that time. So when we speak of Homer we are referring to the birth of Western literature, to a historical and ethnographic source, an example that we want to follow as the great sage of his time.

Who was Homer?

Although his two great works have been extensively researched, little is known about Homer’s biography. As with many authors of his day, there is theories and speculation, but there is little we can say for sure. In historical texts after his time there are references to his origin, but they often contradict each other. Hence, it is believed that Homer’s biographies, as circulated in antiquity, contained little reliable data about the poet. However, today’s historians agree that Homer must have come from the Ionian colonial territory of Asia Minor, based on the linguistic characteristics of his works.

Reality and fiction are closely interwoven in his person, but also in his work. In ancient times, the Iliad  and the Odyssey were  considered historical texts that told real facts. It is therefore not surprising that there is a blending of fantasy and truth in relation to his biography.


So the figure of Homer converges somewhere between reality and legend. For this reason he is mostly portrayed as a blind poet who lived in the 8th century BC. BC traveled the Greek world. On his travels, he probably practiced his profession of rhapsodist, quoting his epic poems for those who wanted to listen to him. His audience ranged from the common people in a marketplace to the nobility who gathered at large banquets in a palace.

The epic itself is a literary genre that tells the deeds of a hero, and the purpose of this genre is to extol high values. It reached its heyday in antiquity and lasted, albeit with some changes, into the Middle Ages. Both the oral transmission, the emergence of new ideals and the often exaggerated content meant that a single epic could change significantly over time.

Some of these poems were never written down or were later lost. The Iliad  and the Odyssey  not only survived, but were also imitated and were considered the greatest works of antiquity for centuries. However, whether they have come down to us in the way Homer recited them remains questionable.

Doubts about its existence

After careful analysis of the Odyssey  and the Iliad  , it was concluded that Homer may not have existed as a single individual. Some experts believe that Homer was a kind of pseudonym under which various unknown authors were grouped together. These doubts about its existence are known as “the Homeric question”.

Two big questions arise in this debate:

  • Who was the author or who were the authors of the Iliad  and the Odyssey ? Two approaches are taken to answer this question. On the one hand, we find the analysts who believe that they were written by multiple authors, due to the additions, anachronisms and use of different literary techniques and variations of the Greek language that are present in the two works. On the other hand, we have the Unitarians who believe that the author was a person who was responsible for creating the work by assembling and fusing different orally transmitted stories.
  • How were they written? There is greater consensus among researchers in answering this question. They assume that the work, whether composed individually or together, was the result of the compilation of popular oral compositions of the time, compositions that were transmitted over several generations and summarized in writing in the Iliad  and the Odyssey  under the name Homer .

Homer’s Legacy to Western Culture

Despite these debates, it is undeniable that Homer and his works laid the foundation of Western literature. Anyone studying literature or art history knows that Homer is the first name to appear in the literary canon. Homer was already imitated in antiquity, so that the Aeneid , the national epic of the Roman Empire, can be understood as a kind of paraphrase of Homer’s works.

Few disciplines within the humanities can ignore Homer’s work. From literature to philosophy, from archeology to history, Homer is constantly quoted, either for inspiration or as a historical source for the study of ancient Greece.

Lecture of a Greek epic

To reduce Homer’s work only to the Iliad  and the Odyssey  would, however, mean oversimplifying his work. Other works are also ascribed to him, for example the little comical epic Batrachomyomachia or, in German, Frog Mouse War . It is also believed that he wrote the Homeric Hymns and other fragmentary works such as the Margites .

It can be said that Homer reflected in all of his works the Greek society of the late archaic period, a society based on an arbitrary rule where slavery and sacrifice to the gods were the order of the day. It also describes lawsuits and certain ethical values ​​that include respect for women, the elderly, beggars, and the corpses of enemies.

In short, we are dealing with an author who has managed to survive the passage of time. An author whose reading is essential even today to understand the origins of society. Homer, regardless of his identity, remains the epic poet of antiquity who is still with us today and has thus made himself immortal.

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