Did a man named Homer really live? And are the poems attributed to him, the Iliad and the Odyssey, rooted in actual history? Generations of scholars have wrestled with these problems and provided widely different solutions. But does it really matter? Perhaps the scholarly disputes over the historicity of Homer and his tales are just a game, a fruitless academic debate with no bearing on our appreciation of the epics or our understanding of ancient Greece.
It does matter, and it involves more than mere gamesmanship or scholarly contest.1 The poet and his poems can reveal a great deal about early Greece, once we determine the rough age of their composition and the period they describe. I believe that Homer’s tales assumed something like their final form, and shortly afterwards were written down, toward the end of the eighth century B.C.—when Greek culture was beginning to emerge from a centuries-long Dark Age (c. 1150–750 B.C.). The Iliad and the Odyssey may cast much-needed light on this shadowy period in history.
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