Homer: Suggestions for further study

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Epic and heroic literature

Pre-Homeric times: The best example of Near Eastern epic before Homer is the Sumerian poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, which may date from 2000 BC or earlier, though its final written form appeared in the 7th century BC. (Gilgamesh was the name of a historical ruler of Uruk in Babylonia about 2700 BC.) Similarities with Homer include a quest structure and a featured trip to the underworld to learn the secret to eternal life.

Other poetry of Homer's day: Homer's chief rival was Hesiod. From the surviving fragments of Homer's competitors it is clear that Hellenic poetry of the time was richly varied and highly creative. 

Classical Greece:
the Homeric tradition was carried on brilliantly in classical Greek tragedy of the 5th century BC, where the one-man show of the bard gave way to performances embellished by multiple actors and elaborate staging. Classical Greek tragedy is represented by only a handful of surviving plays from three authors:

  • Aeschylus (525-455 BC?) composed seventy or more plays but only seven have survived. The earliest of these works (Persians, Seven Against Thebes, and Suppliants) make use of only two actors. The best known works of Aeschylus are the Orestia, a trilogy of plays in the style of the Odyssey but on the subject of Agamemnon's homecoming from Troy (Agamemnon, The Chorphori, and Eumenides).

  •  Sophocles (496-406 BC?) wrote more than 120 plays over a long career, but again only seven have survived including the famous Theban plays of Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. Sophocles is credited with adding the third actor and painted scenery to the stage. After his death, the Athenians honored him with his own hero cult. 

  • Euripides (485-406 BC?) wrote some ninety plays, and nineteen survive, along with fragments of others. The Trojan Women, Medea, and Hippolytus are among the best known. Euripides also is the author of The Cyclops, the only surviving example of the Greek satyr play, a comic celebration with which the performance of tragedies sometimes concluded.

During the classical period, outside of drama, Homeric tradition also found its way into narrative writing about past events. The great example is the story of the Persian Wars by "the Father of History" Herodotus, The Histories (c. 440 BC). This tradition lasted into Roman times, as we have seen in the discussion of Plutarch's "Life of Alexander" in Lesson 9, so that Homer or Homeric method colors much of the history of classical Western civilization.

Homer also fostered the growth of classical philosophy in the heroic writing of Plato, otherwise known as the Socratic dialogues. See Lesson 11 through Lesson 14 in this web.

Hellenistic: although the Hellenistic world embraced new literary forms, the strong interest in Homeric studies at the library in Alexandria fostered imitations of Homer. The best surviving example is The Argonautica, or voyage of the Argo, composed about 250 BC by Apollonius of Rhodes, the story of Jason, Medea and the quest for the Golden Fleece. It is based on much older sources that have not survived. (Five centuries or more earlier, Homer knew of the quest for the Golden Fleece; Achilles' father Peleus had been one of the Argonauts, per Homer.)

Hebraic:  The Bible has been called a sprawling epic, "the story of all things." The Biblical heroes' lives are intertwined with the destiny of the Lord's chosen people. Two famous examples are the Exodus from Egypt and the story of David:

  • Exodus: Exodus 1-20, Numbers 10-17 and 20-24, Deuteronomy 32-34

  • David: 1 Samuel 16-17, 2 Samuel 5-19

Many other examples can be found throughout the Hebrew Bible, particularly in Genesis and in the books of "former prophets" who appear within chronicles of the Jewish settlement of Palestine (Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings).

Roman: the great imitation of Homer in the Roman world is the Aeneid by Virgil (Publius Virgilius Maro, 70-19 BC). Virgil ties the origins of Roman culture to Troy through the figure of Aeneas. After Aeneas escapes from the flames of Troy on the night of its destruction, he wanders across the Mediterranean waters in episodes splendidly modeled after the Odyssey. Then he comes ashore in Italy and establishes himself at Latium (near eventual Rome) after wars modeled on the Iliad. Spiritual values are emphasized through the characterization of Aeneas as the pious man, serving the gods, ancestors and destiny.

Medieval: Bardic oral tradition of heroic song revived in the European Middle Ages. The Old English poem Beowulf is one of the best examples. Although the Troy story was extremely popular during the later Middle Ages, Homer had been lost. The medieval "matter of Troy" came down from classical prose summaries and simplified renditions of Homer such as Dares of Phrygia's History of Troy (5th or 6th century AD) and Dictys of Crete's Story of the Trojan War (4th century AD). In English the written record starts with Layamon's Brut (c. 1205 AD, based on earlier Latin sources) which traces the ancestry of the early Briton kings to the Trojan Aeneas who escaped when Troy fell. Elements of medieval romance and chivalry were added to the Troy story in Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and many other works.

Renaissance: We will discuss epic tradition in the Renaissance when we study Shakespeare and Milton. The best known examples of English epic in the Renaissance include Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and John Milton's Paradise Lost. Epic tradition was particularly strong in Renaissance Italy where followers of Virgil included Dante, The Divine Comedy, Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, and Tasso, Jerusalem Liberated.  

Other web sites of note

Homer impersonators (sample sounds of Homeric song)

Iliad comedy routine (from A Prairie Home Companion)

Art and images

Greek mythology and pre-history



Epic poetry

Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homeric fragments (texts)

Diotima: women and gender in the ancient world

Ancient Greek history from Homer to Alexander

Ancient history sourcebook: Greece

Homer scholarship summary

Library at Alexandria

Olympic games

Chat about Homer

Bibliography of  Homer criticism

  • Austin, Norman, At the Dark of the Moon (Berkeley/LA: U. Cal 1975).
  • Bloom, Harold (ed.), Homer's The Iliad (NY Chelsea House 1987) [Modern Critical Interpretations].
  • Bloom, Harold (ed.), Homer's The Odyssey (NY Chelsea House 1987) [Modern Critical Interpretations].
  • Clarke, Howard W., The Art of the Odyssey (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall 1967).
  • Clay, Jenny, The Wrath of Athena: Gods and Men in the Odyssey (Princeton PUP 1983).
  • Edwards, Mark, Homer, Poet of the Iliad (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins 1987) paper
  • Finley, M. I., The World of Odysseus 2nd ed. (Chatto 1977) Penguin pb.
  • Griffin, Jasper, Homer (NY Oxford 1980) paper.
  • Hainsworth, J. B., Homer (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1969).
  • Hogan, James, A Guide to the Iliad (Doubleday Anchor 1979).
  • King, Katherine Callen, Achilles: Paradigms of the War Hero from Homer to the Middle Ages (LA: U. Calif. 1987) paper
  • Kirk, Geoffrey, Homer and the Epic (1965).
  • Lamberton, Robert, Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition (LA: U. Calif. 1986)
  • Nagy, Gregory, The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins 1979).
  • Nardo, Don (ed.), Greek Drama (San Diego: Greenhaven, 2000).
  • Page, Denys, The Homeric Odyssey (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1955).
  • Peradotto, John, Man in the Middle Voice: Name and Narration in the Odyssey (Princeton: Princeton U P 1990).
  • Tracy, Stephen V., The Story of the Odyssey (Princeton: Princeton U P 1990). paper
  • Wace, Alan J. B. and Frank H. Stubbings, A Companion to Homer (NY: Macmillan 1962).
  • Whitman, Cedric H., Homer and the Heroic Tradition (NY Norton 1965; Cambridge Mass: Harvard UP 1958).
  • Wood, Michael, In Search of the Trojan War (NY: New American Library 1985) paper [Library: DF 221 .T8W66]
  • lots more at http://www.stoa.org/diotima/biblio.shtml

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Instructor: gutchess@englishare.net 
Copyright  2001