The critical reputation of the Iliad is perhaps best demonstrated by noting that it is generally regarded as the first work of true “literature” in Western culture. This is significant not only because the poem stands at the head of the list, as it were, but also because it had to beat out a fair amount of competition to achieve that status.
By the middle of the sixth century BC, around the same time as the Peisistratids in Athens ordered the first “standard edition” of Homer’s works to be made, there were at least six other epic poems treating various parts of the Trojan War story. Most of these were fairly short, but the Cypria, which covered everything from the decision of the gods to cause the war through Agamemnon’s quarrel with Achilles that begins Homer’s work, was at least half as long as the Iliad. Unlike the Iliad and the Odyssey, however, none of the other poems in this “epic cycle” has survived except in fragmentary quotations in later authors. They simply could not measure up to Homer’s standard.
Certainly by the beginning of the sixth century, and possibly late in the seventh, there was already a group of poet/performers calling themselves the Homeridae (“Sons of Homer”). This group may have been the forerunner of the rhapsodes, trained singers who, while they did apparently compose and improvise works of their own, were best known for performing...
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