According to ancient Greek historians, Homer lived in about 800 BC and composed two of the most influential texts in Western literature, The Iliad and The Odyssey. The two long poems both tell stories related to the victory of Sparta and its allies in the Trojan War, a major turning point in Greek history.
However, many modern scholars doubt that a poet named Homer ever existed. The Iliad and The Odyssey may instead have evolved from centuries of oral tradition; alternatively, Homer may have been a real person who compiled and refined the traditional epics into their present form. In either case, the existence of the blind poet of legend may never be proved or disproved definitively.
The stories told in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey have been so long embedded in Western culture that they are inescapable even to this day. From the Trojan Horse to the Cyclops, from Achilles’ heel to the Sirens’ song, elements of both epics remain mainstays of our literature and everyday language nearly 3,000 years after they were written.
The Iliad and Odyssey are epic poems—lengthy verse works in Greek that were likely recited or sung aloud and passed down orally for generations before they were committed to writing. Homer’s exact role in this process remains a mystery, and there is debate over whether he actually existed at all. In any case, scholars believe that both works were composed in or around the eighth century BC in Ionia, an area of ancient Greece that is now part of the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.
The influence of the two poems, however, is indisputable. Considered the first works of Western literature, The Iliad and The Odyssey have inspired writers, poets, and artists for three millennia, from Virgil (70–19 BC) to James Joyce (1882–1941) to Ralph Ellison (1914–1994). According to Greek mythology, the Trojan War began after Paris, the prince of Troy, kidnapped Helen, the wife of Sparta’s king. The enraged king, Menelaus, assembled agiant force to attack Troy and retrieve his wife. The army included the warrior Achilles and Odysseus, the king of Ithaca. Menelaus besieged Troy for ten years before finally conquering the city.
The Iliad, which scholars believe was written first, tells the story of Achilles and the final year of the siege. The Iliad tells of the exploits of Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, and other heroes during the Trojan War between Achaea (Greece) and Troy. According to myth, the war began when the Trojan prince Paris kidnapped Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world, and took her back to Troy to be his wife. The Iliad begins nine years into the conflict, focusing on the rage of the Achaean warrior Achilles and exploring the combination of greatness and fatal flaws that the hero displays. Along the way, Homer incorporates the evocative imagery—“rosy-fingered Dawn,” the “wine-dark sea”—for which the poem is justly renowned.
The Odyssey, picking up where The Iliad ends, relates the long, dangerous journey of Odysseus back to Ithaca and his faithful wife, Penelope.
The Iliad’s sequel, the Odyssey, recounts the trials of the Greek hero Odysseus as he attempts to sail home from the Trojan War to rejoin his wife, Penelope. The journey takes ten years to complete, largely because Odysseus angers the sea god, Poseidon, who does everything in his power to hinder Odysseus’s voyage. Using his own cleverness and help from the goddess Athena, Odysseus eventually returns home to Ithaca and dispatches the numerous suitors who have advanced on his still-faithful wife.
In addition to the two epics, several shorter hymns are traditionally attributed to Homer. As with The Odyssey and The Iliad, however, the true authorship of the poems remains a mystery.
Regardless of the specifics of their authorship, the Iliad and Odyssey had an enormous cultural and practical impact on everyday life in ancient Greece. It was common to memorize the epics from start to finish. Though Greece’s golden age waned in the 100s BC, Homer’s works endured, inspiring the epics of ancient Rome, such as Virgil’s Aeneid.
- Though the Trojan War was long believed to be merely legend, archaeological discoveries in Turkey in the late 1800s suggested that it may have had some historical basis.
- The famous phrase describing Helen of Troy as the “face that launch’ d a thousand ships” appears not in the Iliad but in Christopher Marlowe’s play Dr. Faustus (1604).
- The plot of The Odyssey has been used as the basis for numerous books, plays, and movies, ranging from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) to the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). The Iliad has also been a popular source of inspiration for works ranging from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (1602) to the 2004 movie Troy, which starred Brad Pitt (1963–) as Achilles.
- The word odyssey is often used to describe a particularly long and involved journey, while Homeric refers to heroic or consequential actions.
- The first English translations of The Odyssey and The Iliad were completed by George Chapman (c. 1559–1634) and remained the most influential versions of Homer for centuries. Many other well-known poets and scholars have tackled the task of translating the epics, including British poet Alexander Pope (1688–1744), American journalist William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878), and Princeton professor Robert Fagles (1933–2008).