The dates of Homer
Datings for Homer that you’ll find in current scholarship range from 800 BCE to the 500s BCE. There’s a popular tendency to quote ‘late 700s’ or ‘around 730’ as a consensus date, but ... it isn’t as simple as that.
As with the dates of Jesus, we have no ancient eyewitnesses that give reliable dates. Unlike Jesus, we have a lot of material attributed to Homer: the Iliad and Odyssey. That means that we’re really talking about the dates of poetic artefacts, rather than the date of a person.
|A rhapsode beginning a performance of an epic poem (Attic neck amphora, ca. 490–480 BCE; British Museum 1843,1103.34, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)|
Modern scholars have assigned many different dates to Homer. The upshot of what follows is that that’s mostly because each of them are dating different things. In particular, there’s no consensus putting Homer in the late 700s BCE: you’ll see that date repeated a lot, but as Barbara Graziosi has put it (2002: 91), ‘the eighth-century date is more often stated than argued for.’
No matter what date you think of, there are questions to be asked over what it is, exactly, that’s being assigned to that date. The problem isn’t so much about deciding who’s right, or which evidence is the most important: it’s more that it can be hard to understand what different datings even mean.
There are three main methodologies.
- Stylometric models look at the development of epic language over time, and date the Homeric epics by where they fit in linguistically in comparison to Hesiod and the Hymns. Janko’s analysis (1982) is the best known to Homer scholars, though his methods are now very outdated.
- Terminus models identify a key historical development, at a known date, and then declare that an epic must be earlier or later than that date. For example, Burkert (1976) and others think one passage in the Iliad alludes to Ashurbanipal’s sack of Thebes in Egypt, in 663 BCE, so therefore the entire Iliad is later than that. Conversely Powell (1991) thinks a famous vase dating to the second half of the 700s BCE is inspired by the Iliad; therefore the whole Iliad must be earlier than that. Conversely again, Crespo (2014) thinks the Iliad takes inspiration from the vase ... and so on.
- Phase models assume an ongoing tradition, with epics performed orally and subject to great variation, and periodically becoming more fixed. Kirk (1962: 301–334) describes a gradual crystallisation of the story and text of the poems over a period of multiple centuries; Nagy (1996: 41–43, and elsewhere) makes the idea more systematic and re-dates the phases.
|Note. I’m not including evidence from ancient mythical-biographical traditions. That’s because they’re ... mythical. Early Greek poetry frequently uses authorial personas that are embedded in the poetry: personas like Homer, Hesiod, Sappho, Orpheus, and others. These are worth studying in their own right (see Graziosi 2002; Gainsford 2015: vi–x). But the ‘Homer’ persona is a stage act, a backstory, a brand-name. To take a parallel: if you like late 90s hip hop, you need to know who Slim Shady is; but you don’t use Slim Shady as evidence for the composition of Eminem’s songs. The same goes for 70s glam rock and Ziggy Stardust. And the same goes for Homer.|
Each model has strengths and weaknesses. But if a given methodology produces contradictory results (as terminus models do), something isn’t quite working.
Rather than pitting these models against each other directly, I’ll identify a few points de capiton, ‘quilting points’, in the history of the story, language, and dissemination of the Homeric epics. Dating methods are differentiated not just by what evidence they choose to focus on, but also by how they fix these points de capiton to the ‘quilt’ of Homer’s history.
- Null Date: the origin of the underlying story, either as poetic or non-poetic legend. The story of the Iliad may have originated in non-poetic storytelling; alternatively, it may have only come into existence when the Iliad was composed. Depending on which you prefer, you’ll organise this date differently relative to the others below.
- Composition Date: when the story got into epic form, either oral or written. Let’s say the Iliad’s composition date began when the story of Achilles’ wrath at Agamemnon (or Hector?) first appeared in dactylic hexameter. If you think the story evolved over generations of performers, you’ll imagine this as a protracted period. If you think a single romantic genius created it at his writing-desk, then this date will be a single moment in time.
- Fixation Date: when an epic settled into more-or-less its surviving form, perhaps with wording close to the modern text. You could optionally also have a separate Transcription Date, when the epic was first written down. If you think there was a process of oral recomposition in performance, which continued after the poem’s overall shape had emerged, then you’ll treat the transition from Composition to Fixation as a phase, perhaps with multiple intervening steps. If you think the Iliad was written down straightaway, you’ll treat the Composition, Fixation, and Transcription Dates as the same thing.
- Dissemination Date. It may have taken time for Homer to hit it big. There’s good evidence that 522 BCE is when the Athenians became seriously obsessed with Homer; we have some evidence of different Dissemination Dates for different parts of the Mediterranean world (see below).
- Book-division Date. The division of each epic into 24 books may not seem essential to their origins, but it matters. The division can’t have taken place before Fixation and Transcription. Even more: the division can’t have happened before Transcription in the 24-letter Ionic alphabet, each book of each epic labelled with one Ionic letter. Some scholars accept ancient testimony that the division was made in the Hellenistic period; others want to put it in the 700s BCE. For the record, the Athenian alphabet had 20 letters until 404 BCE; also for the record, there are scholars who think that the 24 books and 24 Ionic letters are just a splendid coincidence.
|Note. On the division into 24 books, see Jensen et al. 1999: 35–83 for a spread of diverse views; Taplin 1992: 285–293, Richardson 1993: 20–21 for quicker overviews. Diverse as their viewpoints are, hardly any scholars ever question the Ionic doctrine, that the first transcription of the epics used the 24-letter Ionic alphabet. Cf. Cauer 1921: 99–105; Reece 2011; Gainsford 2015: 69–71. Students of ancient Greek are heavily pushed to ignore the existence of non-Ionic alphabets (all textbooks claim to be teaching Attic Greek, but none use Attic letters).|
Datings of Homer are differentiated not just by the evidence they choose to focus on, but by how they arrange these points de capiton.
- Stylometric models focus on the Composition and Fixation Dates. The Composition Date represents early linguistic strata in an oral tradition (e.g. formulas in the Aeolic dialect, if you believe in the ‘Aeolic phase’), while the Fixation Date represents later forms (e.g. formulas that only work in the Ionic dialect).
- Terminus models often assume that an epic was composed directly into a fixed, and often a written, text: that is, the Composition and Fixation Dates are the same thing. If you studied classics at an English-speaking university, you were probably taught that this is an obsolete view, disproved by studies of oral traditions. Like it or not, it isn’t fringe. Many modern datings of Homer assume explicitly that the epics were first composed in writing. (I’m not saying that’s right: but it isn’t fringe.)
- Phase models treat Composition and Fixation as strictly separate. Nagy’s phase model also involves the Dissemination Date (Nagy 1996: 44–63).
|Rembrandt, Homer dictating his verses (1663; The Hague, Mauritshuis; source: Wikipedia)|
Different scholars, different quilting
Let’s look at some examples, and see how they shuffle around the points de capiton in relation to one another.
Wolf’s (1795) oral transmission model was innovative specifically because he treated Composition and Transcription as separate events. That is: for Wolf, the Composition Date and Fixation/Transcription Date were separated by a considerable interval of time: in between, the epics were transmitted orally.
This basic principle led to a common motif in 19th–20th century scholarship: the good bits of Homer are the bits that Homer himself composed; the bad bits were by his later redactors (if you were an Analyst), or actually they’re secretly the best bits (if you were a Unitarian). This nonsense was a plague on 20th century Homeric scholarship. It thoroughly permeated the Analyst and Unitarian schools of thought, and it’s largely responsible for their existence in the first place. If you find the dating of Homer frustrating, because the scholarship is so subjective, this motif is to blame.
That said, advocates of phase models also separate the Composition and Fixation Dates: such as Kirk (1962: 282–287, 1976: 32–39), Jensen (1980, 2011), Seaford (1994: 144–154), Fowler (2004), and Rutherford (2013: 23–35). This doesn’t mean they all come up with the same dates, of course, and there’s lots of wiggle room. Jensen argues that the Fixation Date is necessarily also the Transciption Date (Jensen 2011: 227–230), and she puts Transcription very late: she doesn’t assign a constraint earlier than the Persian Wars. That moves her Fixation Date very late too.
Many modern scholars explicitly argue that the epics were written down at the same time they were composed. This includes for example Parry (1966), West (1995, etc.), Berg and Haug (2000), and Teodorsson (2006). Their datings are quite different in other respects, but what they have in common is that they treat the Composition and Text-fixation Dates as the same thing, in spite of Wolf’s legacy.
Nagy’s phase model treats text fixation as causally related to diffusion: the more widespread an epic’s circulation, the more popular it is, the more the text becomes fixed. Nagy uses the development of Indian legends and poetry as a paradigm (1996: 44–53). As a result, for Nagy, Text-fixation and Dissemination occurred simultaneously, in conjunction with one another.
For terminus models, the best example is that of Van Wees (1994). West (2011: 16–19) is also worth mentioning, partly for his prestige, but also because his results agree with Van Wees: they both put the Iliad between 670 and 650 BCE. West explicitly believes that Composition, Fixation, and Transcription took place simultaneously, though he envisages the same poet writing and re-writing an epic over a period of years. Van Wees doesn’t comment on Composition versus Fixation, but since his argument relates to incidental details — military equipment, not plot design — it makes sense to see his argument as pointing to a Fixation Date.
West cites many constraints, but each of them relates to a single passage, or an isolated detail. As a result they can be cast in doubt by a counter-argument: the story and text underwent ongoing evolution, beforehand and/or afterwards, so isolated passages aren’t representative; or they could be interpolations. By contrast, Van Wees’ constraints permeate the entire epic. They relate to every battle-scene. So there’s no question of ongoing evolution or interpolation. Of all attempts that have ever been made to produce a Fixation Date for the Iliad, Van Wees’ case is by far the strongest.
On to stylometry. Janko’s analysis (1982) is the best known: he comes up with a Composition Date in the early 700s BCE, and a Fixation Date of 750–725. Janko has been criticised in several ways, but the thing to highlight here is that stylometric analysis creates a relative timeline. Janko arranges poems along a chronological spectrum: fine. But then to pin that spectrum to a fixed date-range, he has to use a terminus model. And, as so often with terminus models, the choice of constraints makes all the difference. His three constraints (1982: 230–232) have no overlap with West’s; select different constraints, and you come up with different dates.
Out-of-date though his stylometric techniques are, Janko’s is still the best effort. Other attempts at stylometric dating of Homer have been half-baked, often with no awareness of statistical methods. Blößner (2006) argues against stylometry as a valid approach to dating Homer at all. Other than Blößner’s negative findings, there’s been only one new stylometric analysis in the 21st century so far, by Altschuler et al. (2013), and ... it’s really bad. (Their 95% confidence interval for the date of the Iliad ranges from 1157 BCE to 376 BCE. Thanks for nothing!)
|Priam begging Achilles for the body of his son Hector, as depicted in Iliad 24 ... oops, except this isn’t as in Iliad 24. Who’s that at the left? Probably Andromache. In which case, this may actually be an Aethiopis scene. (Amphora, 560–540 BCE; Kassel T 674; cf. Gainsford 2015: 99–102, 121 n. 64)|
Settling on actual dates
You’ll notice that we haven’t seen much reason to favour specific datings so far, other than my opinion that Van Wees has settled the Fixation Date very firmly.
On the Composition Date, there’s very little to agree on. It’s probably fair to say that most scholars still want to put it before 700 BCE. But the main thing keeping it that early is ‘dogmatic drag’, as West has called it: tradition keeps present-day scholars glued to the early datings that their predecessors preferred. If I’m to express a view of my own, then I’d say that I find it hard to imagine a Composition Date earlier than the Greek resettlement of Ilion in the 700s, the ethnic tensions between Greek settlers and mixed indigenous peoples, the Greek cult of Ilian Athena, and so on. Maybe composition in the 700s is still sustainable, but I don’t see any reason to prefer an early date. The 600s are much easier in every way.
But nearly everyone agrees on the Dissemination Date. And it’s late — later than you were taught in college. You’d have to explore some pretty fringe views to find someone who puts Homer’s rise to popularity before the late 500s BCE in Athens. This is partly thanks to the work of Burkert (1976) and West (1995), who argue for Panathenaic performances of Homer starting in 522 BCE, and partly thanks to increasing awareness that the Iliad and Odyssey had no influence at all on the visual arts until the late 500s (Snodgrass 1998: 67–100; Burgess 2001; Lowenstam 2008: 4–5; Jensen 2011: 237–244). It’s helped by the fact that the only earlier direct mention of Homer that we have, reported in Herodotus 5.67, is referring to the Thebaid, not the Iliad or Odyssey.
When scholars with such diverse views as West, Nagy, Jensen, Burgess, and Burkert all agree on a thing, it’s probably fair to say: that’s a pretty strong consensus.
In turn, this means that we have to take it seriously when we’re told that Homer wasn’t performed in Syracuse until 504/1 BCE (Hippostratus, FGrHist 568 F 5). Similarly that Homeric battle scenes were first sung at Delphi by Stesandrus (Timomachus, FGrHist 754 F 1) — we don’t know Stesandrus’ date, but 500s BCE is likely. There are grounds for seeing earlier Dissemination Dates for parts of Homer in parts of the Mediterranean world. West (2001: 10) thinks there is evidence that Iliad book 10, the ‘Doloneia’, was known in the Peloponnesos ca. 600 BCE. Snodgrass (1998: 95–98) interprets an Etruscan vase from ca. 625 BCE, showing the blinding of the Cyclops, as relying on specifics that are peculiar to the surviving text of Odyssey book 9, and which do not appear in Greek depictions of the same theme until over a century later. And, yes: the implication is that the Odyssey as we know it, post-Fixation, may well have been known to Etruscans a whole century before it became popularised in the Greek mainland.
- Altschuler, E. L. et al. 2013. ‘Linguistic evidence supports dates for Homeric epics.’ Bioessays 35: 417–420. [DOI link]
- Berg, N.; Haug, D. 2000. ‘SO debate. Dividing Homer (continued). Innovation vs. tradition in Homer — an overlooked piece of evidence.’ Symbolae Osloenses 75: 5–23. [DOI link]
- Blößner, N. 2006. ‘Relative Chronologie im frühgriechischen Epos: eine empirische Methode.’ Zetemata 125: 19–46.
- Burkert, W. 1976. ‘Die hunderttorige Theben und die Datierung der Ilias.’ Wiener Studien 89: 5–21.
- Cauer, P. 1923. Grundfragen der Homerkritik, 3rd ed. Leipzig. [Internet Archive link]
- Crespo, E. 2014. ‘La copa de Néstor y la datación de la Ilíada.’ In: Bádenas de la Peña, P., et al. (eds.) Homenaje a Ricardo Olmos. Per speculum in aenigmate. Miradas sobre la Antigüedad. Madrid. 73–78. [Academia.edu link]
- Fowler, R. 2004. ‘The Homeric Question.’ In: Fowler, R. (eds.) The Cambridge companion to Homer. Cambridge. 220–232.
- Gainsford, P. 2015. Early Greek hexameter poetry. Cambridge. [Cambridge Core link]
- Graziosi, B. 2002. Inventing Homer. The early reception of epic. Cambridge.
- Janko, R. 1982. Homer, Hesiod, and the Hymns. Diachronic development in epic diction. Cambridge.
- Jensen, M. S. 1980. The Homeric Question and the oral-formulaic theory. Copenhagen.
- —— 2011. Writing Homer. A study based on results from modern fieldwork. Copenhagen.
- Jensen, M. S. et al. 1999. ‘SO debate. Dividing Homer. When and how were the Iliad and the Odyssey divided into songs?’ Symbolae Osloenses 74: 5–91. [Taylor & Francis link]
- Kirk, G. S. 1962. The songs of Homer. Cambridge.
- —— 1976. Homer and the oral tradition. Cambridge.
- Nagy, G. 1996. Homeric questions. Austin (TX).
- Parry, A. 1966. ‘Have we Homer’s Iliad?’ Yale Classical Studies 20: 175–216. Reprinted in: Wright, John (ed., 1978) Essays on the Iliad: selected modern criticism. Bloomington, London. 1-27 and 128-34.
- Powell, B. 1991. Homer and the origin of the Greek alphabet. Cambridge.
- Reece, S. 2011. ‘Metacharacterism.’ In: Finkelberg, M. (ed.) The Homer encyclopedia. Chichester. 514–515.
- Richardson, N. 1993. The Iliad: a commentary. Volume VI: books 21–24. Cambridge.
- Rutherford, R. 2013. Homer, 2nd ed. (1st ed. 1996). Cambridge.
- Taplin, O. 1992. Homeric soundings. The shaping of the Iliad. Oxford.
- Teodorsson, S.-T. 2006. ‘Eastern literacy, Greek alphabet, and Homer.’ Mnemosyne 59.2: 161–187. [JSTOR link]
- Van Wees, H. J. 1994. ‘The Homeric way of war: the Iliad and the hoplite phalanx.’ Greece & Rome 41.1: 1–18, 41.2: 131–155. [JSTOR: link 1, link 2]
- —— 1999. ‘Homer and early Greece.’ In: De Jong, I. J. F. (ed.) Homer. Critical assessments, vol. 2. London. 1–32.
- West, M. L. 1995. ‘The date of the Iliad.’ Museum Helveticum 52: 203–219. [ETHzürich link]
- —— 2001. Studies in the text and transmission of the Iliad. Munich, Leipzig.
- —— 2011. The making of the Iliad. Oxford.
- —— 2014. The making of the Odyssey. Oxford.
- Wolf, F. A. 1795. Prolegomena ad Homerum, sive De operum homericorum prisca et genuina forma variisque mutationibus. Halle. English translation, 1985: Prolegomena to Homer. 1795. Trans. A. Grafton, G. W. Most, J. E. G. Zetzel. Princeton (NJ).