Homer is the name of the person
traditionally credited with the authorship of two major epic
Iliad and the
Odyssey, each consisting of twenty-four book of
hexameter verse in an ancient Greek dialect. The first deals
with some very famous incidents in the tenth year of the
Trojan War, with special attention to the greatest warrior
in the Greek forces, Achilles, and the second deals with the
ten-year return from that war of a prominent leader of the
Greek force, Odysseus, King of Ithaca. In addition to these
two works, to Homer are attributed a number of short poems
addressed to the gods, the so-called Homeric hymns.
There has been a very long debate about the identity of Homer. From the material in the poems, it is estimated that the works which bear his name were composed in the middle of the eighth century BC, around 750 BC. The stories that he tells are about a time well before that, probably around 1100 BC (about the time of the historical events narrated in Exodus). Particular details of Homer's life, his identity, and his times are all totally obscure, except what we can glean from the poems themselves or from archaeological clues. There are virtually no other reliable sources of information.
The Greeks themselves believed that Homer was a single person, by tradition a blind poet, who composed and sang his songs to entertain the nobles. Many believed and still believe that the bard Demodocus in the Odyssey is a self-portrait. A number of cities, particularly ones on the coast of Asia Minor, claimed him as a native of their communities.
It seems clear that these poems were composed before the introduction of writing into Greece. Hence, Homer, whoever he was, composed the works orally, committed them to memory, and recited them on demand, perhaps with a certain amount of improvisation to take into account the particular preferences of his audience. The poems were not written down in anything like the form we know about them until the sixth century BC, when the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus, as part of his attempt to boost Athenian culture, committed the poems to writing.
For the past two hundred years at least, since the rise of modern Homer scholarship, there has been considerable argument whether this traditional account of Homer is correct. Some have held that no single poet could have written two such different poems as the Iliad and the Odyssey, that the latter poem has such a feminine sensibility, especially by contrast to the very tough warrior ethic of the Iliad, that it might well have been written by a woman. At any rate, it seems a much later composition by a very different sensibility. Others have claimed that the term Homer refers to a family of bards entrusted with memorizing, embellishing, performing, and passing on these ancient poems over a period of many centuries. Still others have maintained that the name Homer refers to the person or persons who put together a number of different traditional poems to create these two epics (hence, the author was more an editor or compiler than the original source of both poems). Since there is no strong independent evidence (i.e., material outside the texts themselves) to support or refute any of these conflicting ideas, no consensus has emerged about the author's identity.
The ancient Greeks certainly had no doubts about the historical events of the Trojan War, which they dated at roughly 1200 BC. Early modern scholarship tended to write off any historical basis for the two poems, claiming that the Trojan War was simply a marvelous fiction invented by Homer. That view was challenged very abruptly by the excavations by a rich German merchant Heinrich Schliemann of Hissarlik in Turkey (1870-1890). Schliemann based his search for the site on the geographical details provided in the Iliad. There he uncovered the remains of a settlement which had clearly suffered violent destruction at approximately the traditional dates of the Trojan expedition (i.e., c. 1200 BC). One should note, however, that the site also raised a number of questions about the validity of identifying the unearthed city with Troy, so the old controversy has not entirely disappeared, but the number of those prepared to concede a historical basis for the Trojan War has substantially increased. The most recent contribution to the scholarly debate offers a specific date for Odysseusí triumph over the suitors: April 16, 1178 BC (for details click here)
What is indisputable is that these two poems acquired in ancient Greece, and especially in Athens, an extraordinary authority, forming the closest thing to a sacred text which the Greeks shared. Homer's poetry became not simply a treasury of ancient history but also a vital source of moral instruction, and Achilles and Odysseus, the two heroes, become the great role models in traditional Greek thinking about how one should live one's life. It is the closest thing the Ancient Greeks had to a bible (although one should not push this comparison too hard, for among the Greeks there were many stringent critics of Homer).
Grateful acknowledgement is made to Classics Professor Ian C. Johnston for permission to use this biography from his extensive works.