Statistics Used to Date Classic Works of Homer

By Avril, Tom | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), March 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Statistics Used to Date Classic Works of Homer


Avril, Tom, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


PHILADELPHIA -- Swashbuckling warriors and deceitful deities. A six-headed monster and a witch who turns men into pigs. It is gripping stuff, these tales attributed to the poet Homer, yet no one is entirely sure when the works were written.

Now comes an answer from a New Jersey physician who found his muse in an unconventional place: the realm of statistics.

Eric L. Altschuler joined with biologists to study the words of ancient Greek as if they were genes, evolving and changing over time. By analyzing a set of 173 common words in modern Greek, Homeric Greek and an older language called Hittite, the scholars concluded that "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" were written down in the mid-eighth century B.C.

"It's like a time machine," said Mr. Altschuler, an associate professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Some traditional classics scholars are dubious of this statistical approach, described in the journal BioEssays by Mr. Altschuler and Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading in England.

Yet the date Mr. Pagel and Mr. Altschuler came up with is pretty close to what many historical linguists already believe. Traditional efforts to date the Homeric epics have relied on such clues as textual references to customs and objects known to be from the eighth century B.C., said Sheila Murnaghan, a professor of Greek at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Altschuler, 44, practices rehab medicine at University Hospital in Newark, N.J., helping patients with back pain, knee arthritis -- and, yes, even pain in the Achilles tendon. He reminds his students to spell it with a capital A, telling them it is the proper name of the Greek hero.

When not at work, Mr. Altschuler maintains a passion for ancient languages, a throwback in an era when many Americans associate the name Homer with the dopey dad on "The Simpsons."

Mr. Altschuler studied Latin at New York's Stuyvesant High School, followed by Greek and Hittite at Harvard.

He got the idea for dating Homer after reading a 2007 paper by Mr. Pagel about the rates at which words were replaced. For example, the word dog has largely replaced the Old English word hund, though we still have the similar, or cognate, word hound.

Mr. Altschuler contacted Mr. Pagel, and the two agreed to collaborate. The physician gathered the data, assembling and verifying the lists of 173 common words from modern Greek, Hittite and Homer. Mr. Pagel and his Reading colleagues did the statistical analysis. …

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