Ancient Greece: From the Mycenaean Palaces to the Age of Homer

By Sigrid Deger-Jalkotzy; Irene S. Lemos | Go to book overview

22

HOMER AND ORAL POETRY

Edzard Visser

The following remarks will not present new evidence on the subjects mentioned in the title; rather, they will give some definitions and summarise the development of Homeric research with regard to the questions of how Homer became classified as an oral poet and whether he really was one.


HOMER

In antiquity, Homer was the name of an individual person who composed two epics: the Iliad, a poem dealing with the struggle between Greeks (in Homer's language usually called Achaioi or Danaoi) and Trojans with their allies, containing almost 15,600 verses, and the Odyssey, dealing with the return of one of the most prominent Greek leaders Odysseus and 12,100 lines long.1 Both epics were considered throughout antiquity as poems of superb quality. This assessment is quite remarkable, since these poems form the very beginning of European literature; however, their quality was so highly approved that they had a fundamental influence not only on ancient Greek literature,2 but on European literature as a whole, either directly or indirectly, when we think of the enormous influence the Iliad and the Odyssey had on Roman epic poetry, especially on Virgil,3 and through Virgil on the poetic conceptions of the Renaissance era and from then onwards.

The use of the term quality is to be understood here in an Aristotelian way: poetic quality is mainly defined by the unity and coherence of structure and by the degree of insight into the human character. For the structural aspect it may be sufficient to cite a well-known sentence from Aristotle's Poetics: 'Many

1 It is a useless effort to try to find out whether a poet with this name ever was a real existing person
not to speak of the circumstances of his life. What can be discussed in a scholarly manner are
the circumstances under which the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed, no more and no less.
For a sensitive approach see Latacz 2003a: 32–88.

2 The later Greek poets were quite aware of this. So Aeschylus is said to have called his tragedies
'pieces from Homer's great dishes' (Athenaeus, Deipnosophistai 8.39).

3 The dimensions are impressively demonstrated by Knauer 1979.

-427-

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