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Critical Overview

(Epics for Students)

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 Homer’s poetry. At least on Plato’s authority, the rhapsodes seem to have begun taking liberties with the poems (see Ion 530d), which may have led the Peisistratids to have the “official” text written down for the judges at the Great Panathenaia (a religious festival in honor of Athena held every four years), which included a contest for the rhapsodes which required them, presumably in shifts and over several days, to recite the whole of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

For most people, those public performances were probably their major form of exposure to Homer’s work. For the educated class, however, knowing one’s Homer quickly became the sign of culture and refinement. Homer is mentioned by name at least 600 times in surviving Greek literature, in texts that range from history to philosophy, religion, and even legal speeches. Aristotle holds him up not only as the “supreme poet in the serious style” (Poetics 1448b20), but also as the forerunner of both tragedy and comedy. Herodotus (Histories 11.53) even credits Homer, along with his near contemporary Hesiod, with being the one who gave Greek religion its standard forms: the names, spheres and functions, descriptions and descent of the gods.

The one dissenting voice in the ancient world seems to have been that of Plato. Although he quotes Homer on more than one occasion, and even...

(The entire section is 922 words.)