Extra-Literary Concerns of the Iliad
In one sense, it is unjust to give Homer all the credit for the Iliad, since it is all but certain that he had at least some "help" in composing it. Whether he merely cobbled together shorter poems into one epic work, or whether he improvised the majority of the Iliad from a pre-existing repertoire of themes, epithets, and episodes, Homer had the benefit of several centuries' worth of material to draw upon in composing his own poem.
Looked at from another perspective, however, it is no less unjust to refuse Homer the credit for his work. Surely there were other artists, now lost in the distant past, on whom Homer drew for inspiration, technique, or source material. Yet it is his artistry that made the poem "sing," if you will. If we compare Homer to Ella Fitzgerald, for example (a metaphor which I owe to Michael Silk's commentary on the Iliad), no one would deny that some credit is due to the original author of the piece being "interpreted" or improvised upon, and some as well to the inventors and refiners of the art itself: yet it is indisputably Fitzgerald's artistry (or Homer's) that makes the piece something more than an exercise in musical theory or poetic technique.
While the Greeks would certainly have considered the poem an artistic creation, they saw more in it than merely great literature. For them, it contained elements of both history and religion as well. Herodotus and Thucydides both accept Homer as a historical source, to some degree, and archaeologists have found evidence of votive offerings and literal "hero-worship" at sites connected with the poem (Mycenae, for example, and at the tomb of Achilles even down to the days of Julius Caesar) that date back at least to the eighth century BC.
For centuries, Greek culture was saturated with the Iliad. The wealthy aristocracy were accustomed to hearing parts of the poem, or at least the Troy cycle, in private performances at dinner parties and other functions. By the time of the Golden Age in the fifth century BC, Homer was a standard part of the school curriculum and was widely quoted in later literature. At least in Athens the Iliad was recited, in full, every four years at the Great Panathenaia, giving everyone regular opportunities to experience the poem in performance.
In order to understand the original importance of the poem, it is vital to remember that the modern conception of "history" was first put forward by Herodotus in the middle of the fifth century BC, some three hundred years after Homer. Lacking a written historical record, the only route to immortality for the Greeks of Homer's day was either through the memory of the gods or of an artist: one could never be certain about the survival of one's family line in a world where disease, famine, and war were much more common than they are in ours. As Sarpedon says to Glaucus (XII.322-328, my translation):
O ray friend, if we could get through this war, live forever and be both ageless and immortal, I would neither myself fight in the front rank, nor command you to fight where men win glory: But now, seeing as the dooms of death stand all around in their thousands, which no mortal can either flee or escape, let us go on and grasp glory for ourselves, or yield it to others.
This is also the impetus behind the repeated invocations to the Muses scattered throughout the poem. (Especially revealing in this context is II.484-85, the beginning of the Catalogue of Ships: "Tell me now, O Muses who have homes on Olympus: for you are goddesses, you are everywhere, and you know all things.")
It is harder for us to get in touch with this mindset, living as we do in an age where all sorts of records and identifications follow us around for most of our lives, and, in many cases, well afterward. Yet we do still yearn to be remembered for something more than just having "lived and moved and had our being" here for a period of time, to borrow a phrase from Scripture.
That is enough to explain why the Iliad was important to the Greeks, in Homer's time and afterward. Why is it important to us, nearly three millennia later? Why do people still read this poem? Of course, because it is good literature: but what makes it not only good, but even popular?
The continued popularity of the poem is due to several factors. Chief among them are, first, the richness of its imagery, coupled with a certain sparseness of detail that allows the imagination of the reader (or, originally, the listener) to fill in the outlines left by the poet, thus...
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