History of the Text

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Last Updated on July 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 687

A Cornerstone of Western Literature: The composition of The Iliad has been traditionally attributed to a poet named Homer, who lived in the 8th century BCE. However, scholarship is uncertain how much influence a single author had on the work, and it is widely accepted that a group of poets working within their oral tradition is largely responsible for The Iliad. Homer and his contemporaries lived during the early classical Greek period, when literacy was on the rise and the theology, art, and philosophy that would go on to influence Western culture for generations was just beginning to blossom. 

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  • While the verisimilitude of the geopolitical events in The Iliad remains unknown, there is evidence to suggest there was a thriving city on the western coast of modern-day Turkey during the Late Bronze Age, when the Trojan War was said to have taken place. Further evidence from Greek civilizations during the same era indicates they were a sea-faring people who traded and expanded throughout the Mediterranean. The mythologized events described in Homer’s corpus reflect a shared history that united Mediterranean culture during the era of classical Greece. 
  • The Iliad and the slightly later Homeric epic The Odyssey are rivaled only by the Bible in their influence on Western culture and art. The European Renaissance during the 15th- and 16th-centuries CE in particular saw a revival of mythological subject matter in art, architecture, and philosophy. While the texts were originally used to teach Latin and Greek, as the Bible was translated into common languages during the Renaissance, so were the epics. The act of translation has continued as a pursuit for classical scholars and poets through time. 
  • The Iliad endures in popular culture as well as in academia. Thanks to its universal themes—war, grief, glory, power, chaos—The Iliad provides a lens through which to analyze the human experience. From playwrights like Euripides in 400 BCE to directors like Wolfgang Petersen in 2004, generations across the ages have used the epic as a tool to understand society, culture, and human behavior. 

The Product of Multiple Traditions: Unlike Beowulf, the poem that arguably defines the English-language epic tradition, the text of The Iliad has not been preserved in a single definitive copy. Hundreds of manuscripts and fragments exist, with the oldest surviving complete text dating to around 1600 years after Homer’s death. While earlier scholarship treated The Iliad and The Odyssey as the products of a single author whose original idealized work had been subjected to years of false interpolations and additions, more recent theories hold that the poems were composed collaboratively by a number of poets working from a common narrative framework. 

  • Development of this oral tradition relied on a shared cultural understanding. For example, the myths that form the backbone of The Iliad’s narrative would have been known by its original audiences. The poem doesn’t need to retell those stories; they can simply be referenced in passing as motivating or explanatory forces. 
  • Because of the textual differences between Iliad manuscripts, translators sometimes choose to significantly alter the structure or content of the poem, depending on their interpretive approach. For instance, book 10 is commonly accepted as a later addition, given stylistic and archaeological inconsistencies with the rest of the work, and Stephen Mitchell’s 2011 Iliad omits it entirely. 
  • The necessary act of translation places The Iliad in a position of offering commentaries not only on the culture in which it was composed but on the cultures and concerns of the translators. (For example, the cover of Stanley Lombardo’s 1997 Iliad bears a photograph of Allied forces approaching the beach at Normandy). Notable tensions include the choice between either a verse or prose approach, and the focused literary composition of a modern translator as opposed to the oral and improvisational composition that generated the text. Samuel Butler’s prose translation of The Iliad was praised upon publication in 1898 for its clarity and readability; other translators aim to mimic the specific poetic forms of the original or to convey the general tone of the ancient Greek in a suitable English form. 

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Significant Myths and Structure of the Text

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