By Terrence McCoy, Washington Post
Nearly 200 years ago, a French painter created what would become a famous depiction of the Greek author Homer. In it, Homer looks like a pretty big deal. In the shadows of the Pantheon, he’s ensconced among a throng of muscle-bound specimens draped in robes, one of whom is playing the harp. “Homer, in this view, was the product of a new, dynamic, politically inventive and culturally burgeoning moment in Greek history,” writes historian Adam Nicolson in a new book on Homer. “Homer was the poet of a boom.”
But this image of Homer, Nicolson said, is inaccurate. The painting glorifies all the antiquated theories that held that Homer was a blind, illiterate genius poet who singlehandedly created two of the greatest stories in human history, the Odyssey and the Iliad. As appealing as that portrayal may be, it’s most likely not true. Homer perhaps never even existed — or, at least, he was nothing like he is often portrayed.
Homer, rather, was an idea. A cultural manifestation. A figment. “Homer is a foundation myth, not a man nor of the natural world, but of the way of thinking by which the Greeks defined themselves, the frame of mind which made them who they were,” Nicolson wrote in his recently published book, “Why Homer Matters.”
In an interview with the Washington Post, Nicolson compared Homer to a Viking ship. It was a gorgeous thing, he said. “Just this exquisitely-made thing. And yet no one ever says there needed to be some great maker behind it. It was emergent from a tradition.”
Homer’s existence has been in doubt for years. In fact, there’s an academic field of inquiry that examines everything involving Homer called the “Homeric Question.” Homer has puzzled just about every scholar who has studied him for the simple reason that there isn’t much to study. There’s no reliable historical information about him. “Who was Homer, if there was a Homer?” asked Martin West of Oxford University in 2010. “When and where did he live? Did one poet produce both epics, or was there a different poet for each? Or was there in each case a succession of poets, or a syndicate of poets and redactors?”
But the reasoning that supports Nicolson’s theory is different from most. There’s a general consensus among scholars that Homer — if there was a Homer — lived sometime during the 8th century B.C. This was already a problematic conclusion for many academics, given the fact the earliest “ascription of both poems to Homer can’t be traced further back than about 520 B.C.,” West wrote. “… A century or more after the poems came into existence.”
Nicolson, however, says the time gap between when the poems first materialized and when that parchment emerged was actually significantly wider. He contends that the poems actually came into being around the year 2000 B.C. — nearly 1,200 years before others thought.
Two elements support his theory, Nicolson told the Washington Post Tuesday morning in an interview. Numerous aspects of the Homeric works are shared across the European continent and into parts of India, Nicolson said, and have nothing to do with either Greece or the Aegean region. That suggests the works were actually a confluence of numerous tales floating around at that time. “So the implication is that you have to have a common root for all of that,” Nicolson said. “Elements of these stores are shared across many lands.”
And the second issue deals with The Iliad’s description of ancient Greece, which Nicolson says does not conform with conditions that existed in the 8th century B.C. The savagery depicted in The Iliad reflects a much earlier period. “Outside Troy is this camp of wild barbarians — the Greeks,” he told National Geographic. “The Greeks’ are Homer’s barbarians. … All ideas of rule and law and love count for nothing. The only thing that makes sense is revenge and self-assertion. And that picture of the Greeks doesn’t make sense any later than about 1800 to 1700 B.C.”
So if the epic poems derived from a much earlier period than others have thought, where does that leave us? Does that mean “the Homeric Question is dead?” Nicolson asked. Not by a long shot. It appears the question, even centuries after its birth, yet lives. Even if Homer himself never did.
Terrence McCoy writes on foreign affairs for The Washington Post's Morning Mix. Follow him on Twitter