Introduction to Homer

Deacon Harrison Garlick and Adam Minihan answer the question, “Who is Homer?”

We announce a year with Homer! Who is Homer? Was he a real person? Did he write the Iliad and the Odyssey?

1.        Who was Homer?

The city of Troy is said to have fallen in 1184 B.C.[1] Such a date would place it just prior to ancient Israel’s foray into a monarchy under King Saul and the subsequent zenith of the reign of King David at 1000 B.C. Troy was a well-fortified Greek city-state[2] or polis situated on the west coast of ancient Asia Minor—now predominantly modern-day Turkey—across the Aegean Sea from Greece. It was a city of tremendous wealth and culture. The fall of Troy was already part of the ancient history of Greece during the classical era (400-300s BC). Classical Greek historians generally set the fall of Troy from 1334 to 1150 B.C.[3] The classical historian Herodotus (c. 484-425 BC), who set the date for the fall of Troy at 1250 B.C., opined that Homer lived “four hundred years before my own time, at the most;”[4] thus, he placed Homer at around 850 BC—several hundred years after the Trojan war. Modern scholarship tends to date Homer in the late 700s B.C.[5]

Very little is known about Homer the person, except that he was Greek, most likely born in Asia Minor, and was a bard of great mastery, i.e., an oral poet who would compose and perform verses, especially on the histories and great deeds of his people.[6] Various traditions also present him as a slave and as blind.[7] One thinks of the wonderful painting entitled Homer and his Guide by the French painter William Bouguereau (AD 1825—1905).

2.        Did Homer write the Iliad?

The Iliad, Homer’s poem about the fall of Troy, did not originate as a written epic. It originally consisted of oral poems or rhapsodies memorized and performed by Greek bards in the centuries between the fall of Troy and Homer. Consequently, we should see Homer as an inheritor of a centuries old tradition of oral stories about the Trojan War.[8] The brilliance of Homer was his capacity to compose a written epic out of a myriad of oral traditions spanning several centuries. He most likely wrote the Iliad (or dictated it to a scribe) around 750 B.C.[9] with his sequel, the Odyssey, at 725 B.C.

The Iliad, as we know it today, “consists in the Original Greek of 15,693 lines of hexameter verse.”[10] Copies of it existed on papyrus scrolls, and it is arguable that the demarcation of the now twenty-four “books” of the Iliad correspond with the original number of scrolls utilized to record the entire epic.[11] One notable remnant of the oral tradition in the written verse is the use of “ornamental epithets.”[12] Epithets are short descriptive phrases of characters that are found throughout the Iliad, e.g., “lord of war,” “man-killing Hector,” “white armed Hera,” “lord of the war cry,” etc. These phrases provided the bard a certain lattice work upon which to improvise and mention key characters while preserving the poetic meter.[13] 

3.        Why should we read the Iliad by Homer?

The Iliad is arguably the first “great book” in the Western canon—save Holy Scripture. As one would start with Genesis to understand the Hebrews, one starts with Homer to understand the Greeks. Homer represents an insight into the ancient Greek culture whose maturation will eventually assist in the formation of Christianity and Christendom. Almost four hundred years after Homer, his poetry and its cultural influence on the Greeks will serve as an interlocutor to the philosopher Socrates (c. 470-399 BC). In turn, through Socrates, one may find the beginning of a Greek or Hellenized culture that plays a profound role in the formation of the New Testament. Greek reason coupled with Hebrew faith under Roman order helped till the soil for Incarnation of God.[14] Saint Paul observes that Jesus Christ came in the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4); thus, the cultures selected by Providence to provide the proper receptivity to the Eternal Word made flesh bare a distinctly unrepeatable vocation in the history of mankind.[15] While truth can be found amongst the writings of Confucius (c. 551-479 BC) or the Babylonian epic the Enuma Elish (c. 1900 BC), they lack a certain historical prominence demonstrated by those cultures more proximate to the earthly life of Jesus Christ.

Consequently, we will approach Homer as a teacher—a teacher not only of his own ancient Greek culture but of humanity. The observations and teachings Homer provides in the Iliad provide in turn an insight into our own human nature. We discover truths about ourselves and truths that started to till the earth for the coming of Christ. The “great books” of the West often deal with perennial truths or topics that are relevant to the reality of man regardless of the age. In Homer, several of these truths are expressed in a nascent form that must mature through the cultivation of subsequent thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. In Homer, we may ask: What is the relation between fate and the divine? What is the relationship between the free will of man and the providence of the gods? What does it mean to be an excellent human? These questions are perennial, and we turn to Homer the teacher to guide us through them.

[1] Homer, The Iliad, trans. Richmond Lattimore (The University of Chicago Press: London, 1961), citing Eratosthenes, 18.

[2] Ancient Greece was not a modern-nation state or even a unified kingdom; rather, each city or polis had its own independent government and the stronger cities exerted a certain dominance over the weaker ones.

[3] Lattimore, 18.

[4] Lattimore, 18.

[5] Ed. M. C. Howatson, Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2013), 302.

[6] Lattimore, 19.

[7] Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles (The Penguin Group: New York, 1990), 7.

[8] Fagles, 15; Lattimore, 23.

[9] Fagles, 19; Companion, 302.

[10] Fagles, 5.

[11] Fagles, 6.

[12] Fagles, 5.

[13] See Fagles, 14-15.

[14] The most approachable writing on the harmony of Greek reason and Hebrew faith is Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 masterpiece, the Regensburg Address.

[15] See, Dcn. Harrison Garlick, “Avoiding the Unreal: How to Read the Great Books Well” at

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