Critical Overview

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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 BCE, 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 lampoons the rhapsodes and their “beautification” or embellishment of the standard text in his dialogue “Ion,” in the Republic, his lengthy discussion of the ideal state and the education of its leaders, Plato dismisses Homer as a mere “imitator” and excludes him (and poets generally) from his educational program (which was never implemented).

Homer was frequently imitated in the classical world, whether by the authors of the other poems in the epic cycle or lampooned as he was by Aristophanes in several of his plays (especially the Birds and the Clouds), yet his work was never equalled. Several Roman poets (chiefly Virgil, Ovid, and Lucretius) wrote epic works, and even used Homer’s own epic hexameter line, but their works are not quite on the same level with Homer’s originals.

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Homer continued well into the Christian era, as evidenced by Macrobius’s Saturnalia (dated to the early part of the fifth century CE), where educated Romans still know their Greek, and spend an evening discussing the relative merits of Homer’s treatment of the Troy story in comparison with Virgil’s. With the fall of Rome in 455 CE, however, Homer and his works fell into disrepute for roughly one thousand years, until the scholars of the Renaissance “rediscovered” classical antiquity and learned to read Greek again. The story of Troy, however, remained popular throughout the period and was widely known: there are accounts of the war in several languages, including Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, and English. It was from Caxton’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (circa 1475), not Homer’s original work, that Shakespeare got his “facts” and details as he was writing Troilus and Cressida in 1602.

With the Renaissance came a revival of interest in Homer and his texts, which were first published in the modern era in Florence in 1488. This interest was further sparked in the eighteenth century when F. A. Wolf first proposed the “Homeric Question” (simply stated: “Who wrote what, and when?”) and again in the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth with the excavations of Schliemann, Dorpfeld, and Blegen at Troy and Evans at Knossos, the work of Milman Parry and Adam Parry on the transmission of oral poetry like Homer’s original sources, and the decipherment of Linear B in 1952 by Michael Ventris.

It is thought that Milton was significantly influenced by Homer in composing Paradise Lost, and he certainly provided inspiration for later poets such as Tennyson and Byron, though their works are narrower in scope and execution than Homer’s. The Iliad continues to enjoy the critical acclaim and popular interest that have been associated with it throughout most of the two and a half millennia since it was first composed.




Essays and Criticism