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date: 31 March 2023



  • Suzanne Saïd


  • Greek Literature

The existence of a poet called Homer was accepted throughout Antiquity, but the restriction of the Homeric corpus to the Iliad and the Odyssey became acknowledged only in the 520s. Before this date, it included the Epic Cycle , all the Homeric Hymns , and two mock-epics, the Margites and perhaps the Battle of Frogs and Mice (though this last may well be later). Nothing was known of the author who makes only fleeting appearances in his own work in the form of first-person pronouns. The first mention of Homer's name is perhaps to be found in the mid-7th cent. ( Callinus fr. 6 West), but the first securely datable references to him belong to the last third of the 6th cent. and coincide with the emergence of a new interest in the personality of the author (see theagenes of rhegium ). The ancient biographies of Homer were then composed several centuries later: the most detailed Life of Homer, wrongly attributed to Herodotus (1) in Antiquity, belongs to the end of the Hellenistic era at the very earliest. Our version of the Contest between Homer and Hesiod that goes back to the Museum of Alcidamas dates from the time of Hadrian. The two books reunited in On the Life and Poetry of Homer and attributed to Plutarch were probably written by a grammarian at the end of the 2nd cent. ce. The other biographies are dated to the Byzantine period. We can no doubt trace their origin back to the Rhapsodes , more precisely to the Homeridae from Chios, who claimed ‘Homer’ as their putative ancestor.

All the ancient sources except Josephus (Ap. 1.2) present Homer as a writer. But according to Cicero, Aelian and the Suda, Homer left others to make a unified whole out of his scattered poems. In the phase of modern Homeric study that began in the late 18th cent., scholars placed a great deal of weight on these traditions and took the Homeric poems to pieces. In 1795 the German Friedrich Wolf in his Prolegomena to Homer opened a new chapter in the history of philology. (See scholarship, classical, history of .) According to Wolf, the poems, originally transmitted by oral tradition, were first written down in Athens during the 6th cent. (under Pisistratus or his son) in connection with the creation of the Panathenaea and were not given their definitive form until the 3rd cent. bce, by Alexandrian scholars such as Zenodotus and Aristarchus (2) . For 150 years after Wolf scholarship was dominated by the ‘Homeric question’ and the fight between Analysts, who attempted to extract the original poems from the morass of later interpolations , and Unitarians, who tried to demonstrate the existence of a single author. Later on so-called Neo-analysts such as J. T. Kakridis and W. Kullmann maintained the unity of the poems, but explained their inconsistencies by going back to Homer's own sources preserved for us by later texts such as the poems of the Epic Cycle . A more recent strand of criticism (e.g. Foley 1999 and Graziosi–Haubold 2005) explores ‘traditional referentiality’ or ‘epic resonance’, finding extra suggestions in particular passages or phrases by reference to the broader oral tradition from which they come (rather in the manner of intertextuality in written texts).

The Homeric question and the polemic between Analysts and Unitarians were fundamentally altered by Milman Parry's 1928 essay on the traditional epithet in Homer (see Parry 1971, ch. 1). He identified the Iliad and the Odyssey as products of an oral tradition of hexameter poetry which had its origins long before the 7th cent., as demonstrated by the existence of some lines which do not scan properly unless pronounced as they would have been at an earlier stage of the Greek language. He demonstrated the existence of a widely extended system of formulae—that is ‘expressions regularly used, under the same metrical conditions, to express an essential idea’—elaborated by a long tradition of illiterate bards and characterized by its ‘economy’ and ‘extension’. At almost the same time as Parry, Walter Arend drew attention to the existence of ‘type-scenes’ in which certain actions or events (such as sacrifices, banquets, arming scenes etc.) are narrated with the same expressions used in the same order. Others have pointed out the existence of similar phenomena at different levels (e.g. repeated motifs, duplicated characters and similes constructed from identical elements). This repertoire allowed the bard to compose while he sang, as is demonstrated by a comparison first with South Slavic epic, then with a wider range of oral traditions.

It remained to explain how and when the text came to be written down. Some scholars still posit a late crystallization of the Homeric poems under the Pisistratids. But after A. Lord, most scholars, relying on various indications, have come to speak of ‘oral-derived’ texts and to situate the composition of the poems as well as their fixation in writing at the transition between orality and literacy around 750–700 bce. They imagine either an outstanding illiterate bard dictating his poems to an expert scribe (a phenomenon explained perhaps by the exceptional quality of the poems, perhaps also by their ideological content, which is assumed to have been particularly appealing to the aristocratic elite) or to an oral poet who learned to write and created a poem of unrivalled scale and complexity. Even after it was fixed, the text was still subject to alterations, as demonstrated by early quotations and papyri. A stable vulgate eventually emerged under the influence of the Alexandrian grammarians.

This lengthy history has left its mark in the artificial language of the poems. It is nowadays agreed that Homeric Greek is basically the Ionic Greek which was spoken in the poet's own day, but it includes some older Achaean and Aeolic elements and some Euboean veneer as well as Atticisms introduced in the 6th cent. This poetic dialect—distant from everyday speech but still comprehensible—helped to transport the audience to the distant heroic world.

The new understanding of Homeric poems as oral-derived texts had far-reaching consequences. The Homer prisoner of tradition portrayed by the pioneers of orality has given place to the ‘Homer against his tradition’ of J. Russo (1968). It has been convincingly shown that epithets do not simply fill out the line but are used with an eye to the context. Type-scenes show a wide range in scale and elaboration: in the Iliad the arming of Patroclus takes up fifteen lines, that of Achilles twenty-seven lines; in the Odyssey, despite their length, the four banquet scenes involving the impious suitors omit the sacrifice proper and the libations. Recent studies have also underlined the importance of choice in the treatment of similes, the use of crucial moral terms and emotionally tinted expressions in the speeches as opposed to narrative, and the exceptionality of the language of Achilles who redeploys the traditional formulas for new effect.

A better knowledge of oral traditions and the progress of archeology has also contributed to an improved understanding of the Homeric world. Comparative evidence shows that oral traditions in general tend to update the past in accordance with a contemporary agenda. Thus Homer's portrait of the heroic age is unlikely to be a reflection of the distant bronze age: the more we know about the organization of the Mycenean society from the Linear B documents, the more problematic its relation appears to Homer's world, and the few fossilized memories of the Mycenean age may be explained either by an unbroken tradition dating back to this period or by a new awareness of ancient artefacts discovered in graves. The poems are no longer viewed, as by M. I. Finley in his World of Odysseus, as an accurate portrait of the social institutions of the so-called Dark Ages. Most scholars today agree that Homeric epics, like the spread of heroes’ cult, reflect the great surge of interest in the past. This past purports to be real and its truth is guaranteed by its divine origin: the Muse invoked at the beginning of both poems has privileged eye-witness knowledge of all things and gives the poet the ability to make them visible to his audience. But it is in effect an imaginary construct, walled off from subsequent times (the poet prevents us from looking for its remains by stressing in the Iliad that the great wall built by the Achaeans was totally destroyed by Poseidon and Apollo after the sack of Troy). It is an idealized image more attractive and more noble than present day reality that transports the listener into another time (hence the almost total absence of any features that were felt to be ‘modern’, like iron weapons). The exploits of its heroes surpass anything in the modern world. But in order to be credible, this heroic past is modelled on what the poet and his audience took for granted about the world. In fact a more careful reading of the poems, combined with a more flexible conception of the archaic Greek city-state, has revealed a whole series of elements (maritime trade, colonization, dominance of aristocracy, familiarity with Pan-Hellenic sanctuaries) characterizing the 8th cent. bce.


Divided in 24 books by the Alexandrian grammarians, the Iliad is the more ancient of the two poems, as demonstrated by the greater frequency of older forms. There is now broad agreement that we have the poem virtually as it was composed, with the exception of book 10. The Iliad does not deal with the whole of the Trojan War, but selects one major episode, ‘the wrath of Achilles , son of Peleus and its devastating consequences, which inflicted pains a thousand-fold upon the Achaeans’ (1.1–2). It is framed by careful ring composition: it begins in book 1 with a negative intervention of Apollo, the refusal of Agamemnon to release Chryseis to his father and two visits of Thetis first on earth when called by her son and then to Zeus , and ends in book 24 with a positive intervention of Apollo, the return of Hector 's corpse to his father and two visits of Thetis, first to Olympus when called by Zeus and then to her son on earth. It falls into three parts:

Books 1 to 9 cover the quarrel with Agamemnon and its consequences: the withdrawal of Achilles from the battle and the plan of Zeus to avenge him by supporting the Trojans (1), the sending of a deceptive dream to Agamemnon (2), a truce and a duel between Paris and Menelaus (3) , the breaking of the truce by Pandarus (4) , the beginning of general fighting in the plain with the aristeia (an individual warrior's glorious rampage) of Diomedes (5) , the visit of Hector to Troy (6), the duel between Hector and Ajax (7) , the success of the Trojans (8), the sending of an embassy to appease Achilles and its failure (9).

Books 9 to 18 include, together with the Doloneia (10), the aristeia of Agamemnon, the casualties of the Achaean leaders and the appeal of Nestor to Patroclus (11) , the success of the Trojans (12), the advance of Hector checked by Ajax (13), the distraction of Zeus by Hera and the defeat of the Trojans (14), the awakening of Zeus and the Trojan victory (15), the setting on fire of the first Achaean ship, the aristeia of Patroclus and his killing by Hector (16), the fight around the corpse of Patroclus (17), Achilles’ decision to avenge him and the new armour that he gets from Hephaestus (18)

Books 19 to 24 begin with the reconciliation between Achilles and Agamemnon (19), the beginning of the aristeia of Achilles (20), his fight against the Scamander and the battle of the gods (21), and concludes with the killing of Hector (22), the funerals of Patroclus and the games in his honour (23), the ransoming of Hector and his funeral (24).

As opposed to the poems of the Epic Cycle , the Iliad is characterized by an extraordinary concentration both in space (its action is located in four places: the city of Troy , the Achaean camp, the plain in between, and Olympus ) and time (it covers altogether a period of 53 days, but the bulk of the poem [2 to 22] covers only five days and the narrative of the central day alone occupies 8 books [11 to18]).

But Homer manages to work the story of the entire war into the Iliad. Books 2 to 4 recall the beginning of the war. The catalogue of ships in book 2 takes up the traditional catalogue of the army assembling at Aulis . In book 3, the view from the wall and the single combat between the two husbands of Helen displace events which belong naturally to the first year of the war, and the actions of Paris and Helen retell the origin of the war without actually narrating it. Pandarus’ breaking of the truce in book 4 is a symbolic re-enactment of the original Trojan guilt. There are also many foreshadowings of the two major events that occur after the end of the poem. Achilles’ coming death is constantly lamented by Thetis, and reaffirmed in books 19 to 22 by his immortal horse, by the hero himself, and by Hector. His funeral attended by the Nereids in the Aithiopis is prefigured in the Iliad by their participation in the mourning of Patroclus in book 18. The sack of Troy is successively evoked from books 4 to 24 by characters, omens, and comparisons. The Iliad looks even beyond the end of the war: for an audience well acquainted with the tradition, the wrestling match between Odysseus and Ajax points to their fatal conflict over the arms of Achilles.

The Iliad is a tragic epic dominated by the heroic choice of death. It is also a poem full of contrasts between gods and mortals, divine and human heroes, war and peace.

The Olympians play an important role in the plot. The action is initiated by Apollo who drives Agamemnon and Achilles into conflict. Then the plan of Zeus to damage the Achaeans, though momentarily disrupted by Hera in book 14, commands the action from book 2 to book 18 until Achilles’ decision to avenge Patroclus, and his final intervention in book 24 convinces Achilles to return Hector's body to Priam .

The gods’ interventions in the human world are usually based on partisan attachments. They help their children, their favourites, their priests and those who offer them lavish sacrifices, harm their enemies or those who dare to compete with them, and often punish the group for the crimes committed by one of its members: all the Trojans pay the price for Paris’ crime. It is usually vain to attempt to propitiate them, as in the negative answer of Athena to the Trojans’ prayers and offerings in book 6. Gods also prevent the happening of events that would be ‘beyond fate’, which may mean ‘before due time’, such as the return of the Achaeans (2), the sack of Troy by Patroclus (16) or by Achilles (20 and 21), the killing of Sarpedon by Odysseus (5) or the death of Aeneas (20) . Their interest in justice is also stated by the characters who invoke them as witnesses for oaths (3) and say that Zeus punishes oath-breaking (4), and is also suggested in an exceptional simile (16. 384–8) that portrays Zeus sending a storm to express his displeasure at those who pronounce crooked judgements.

As in the normal world, gods may reveal their will indirectly through omens, dreams and prophets. In the heroic world, they may also intervene physically, in the assembly (as Athena in book 1 takes Achilles by the hair to prevent him from killing Agamemnon) and on the battlefield, but miracles are few. The gods also influence mental processes, either directly or indirectly and for the better or for the worse, and thus one often sees an inseparable connection between divine and human causation.

On the one hand the supreme power of the gods throws into relief the weakness and insignificance of mankind. The encounter between Apollo and Diomedes on the battlefield (5) is emblematic of this disparity. Successively Hephaistos (1), Hera (8), Poseidon (20), and Apollo (21) point out that the gods should not quarrel or fight for the sake of mere mortals. On the other hand their ‘sublime triviality’, to quote K. Reinhardt, acts as a foil for the tragedy of men. Their immortality, their carefree life (their real ordeals all belong to a bygone era) and their happiness set them apart from the ‘wretched mortals’. Because they ignore death, their quarrels are frivolous and end quickly: the quarrel between Zeus and Hera (1) spoils only for a while the enjoyment of the gods’ feast, whereas the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles will provoke endless killings. Their wounds are quickly healed (5). Their battle (20), despite a grand introduction reminiscent of a Titanomachy, is ludicrous. The marvellous description of Poseidon's chariot ride over the sea (13), much admired by ‘Longinus’ (9.8) , contrasts with the descriptions of Hector's (11) and Achilles’ (20) chariots trampling down dead men. But such an existence makes it even more striking that they may not merely watch the mortals’ fighting with delight but also come to care deeply about them, feeling pity like a tragic audience: thus their presence serves as a device to heighten for us the emotional significance of terrible events.

Gods are only a background. The true protagonists of the Iliad are the heroes, those who, like Sarpedon , know that all men are born to die, but also that they can choose to die well and win renown (12.310–28). The crucial decisions in the poem are made by men alone: it is the wrath of Achilles that causes the plague sent by Apollo (1) and the plan of Zeus is the consequence of his appeal to his mother. Achilles’ rejection of the proposals of the embassy is explained only by his own wrath (9). The hero also acts entirely on his own when he dispatches Patroclus (16) and when he decides to avenge him (18) or to reject Hector's entreaties (18). This is especially true for the two major characters of the poem, Achilles and Hector.

As a warrior, Achilles is the best of the Achaeans: after his withdrawal from the battle, the Achaeans are pinned back against their ships and when he re-enters the fight, his aristeia surpasses all the others. He is a very special hero through his removal from a society that deprived him of his due honour and gave the same lot to the brave and the coward (1 to 18) and through his closeness to the gods (his mother is a goddess, his horses are immortal, his arms are a gift from the gods who consistently grant him special favours). His wrath directed first against Agamemnon, then against Hector, is quasi-divine in its magnitude, as indicated by the word menis usually applied to the gods: he refuses the compromise offered to him by Agamemnon (9) and behaves with unparalleled savagery towards Hector (22); but he obeys without protest the orders of Athena (1) and Zeus (24). He is the most heroic in his willingness to look death in the face: given a choice between two fates, a return to his fatherland and a long life without glory or an immortal glory if he dies at Troy, he left for war (9), and he decides without hesitation that he will return to the fight and kill Hector, after having heard from his mother that his death will soon follow (18). This awareness allows him in front of Priam (24) to reach a heightened form of humanity and compassion based on an objective vision of the ruthlessness of life itself.

As opposed to Achilles, Hector is totally human and has only a limited perception of his circumstances. Firmly located in a family and a city, as the son of Priam, the husband of Andromache , the father of Astyanax and the leading warrior among the Trojans, this hero of aidos who embodies the ideal norm of Homeric society is tragically trapped in contradictory obligations to his family and to his city. But when he realizes that his time has come, his heroic decision to die ‘not without glory, but after having done something great, for future generations to learn of ’ (22.304–5) gives precedence to the community.

The Iliad is neither an unqualified expression of heroic ideology nor a straightforward criticism of it. Its celebration of ‘the beautiful death’ does not obliterate the destructive aspect of war that pervades the whole poem. It is expressed first in regular epithets for war such as poludakrus (‘of many tears’) and in the portrait of the war-god Ares . The scenes in Troy and the emphasis on the former wealth of this sacred city contribute to the pathos of slaughter; so do the necrologies of lesser heroes killed far from their families and their homeland, and the evocation of their bereaved parents; so does the setting of the death of Hector in a landscape reminiscent of peace and beauty. The similes that recall fertility, creative human activity, peace and innocent delight also emphasize by contrast the grimness of war. On a far larger scale the description of the shield of Achilles (18) brings into the poem aspects of life that are otherwise left out and place the battle scenes against the perspective of the world at large; its beauty contrasts with the increasingly savage fighting of the surrounding books.


Composed shortly after the Iliad and divided in 24 books, the Odyssey was defined as ‘an epilogue’ (‘Longinus’ 9.12) to the former poem. ‘Longinus’ (9.13) also considered it to be a work of Homer's old age, and some scholars still agree, given its many structural similarities with the Iliad and its choice of a beginning in mediis rebus. But many prefer to favour separate authorship, in view of the differences in subject and sensibility.

The opening invocation to the Muses presents the Odyssey as the portrait of a man through the history of his wanderings, beginning ‘at some point’. In fact the poem takes up Odysseus’ journey at its very end, when he is stranded on Calypso 's remote island, at the year that the gods, in their first assembly (1), had set for his journey home. The narrative of this return begins only in book 5, with the second assembly of the gods. It is preceded by an introduction of four books: the first two focus on the situation on Ithaca and demonstrate how much Odysseus is needed at home, whereas books 3 and 4 follow Telemachus , in his travels to Pylos and Sparta to get news of his father. So despite his absence Odysseus is still at the centre of the narrative. Moreover, the short and painless journey of Telemachus under Athena's protection functions as a contrast to Odysseus’ adventures.

At the beginning of book 5, the action starts afresh with the second assembly of the gods and the departure of Hermes to Ogygia. The story then narrates Odysseus’ travel to Phaeacia at the end of book 5 and his stay among the Pheacians up to the moment when he is put ashore on Ithaca (13.123). The unity of this first part of the Odyssey is strongly indicated by a ring composition and the recurrence nearly word for word at 13.90 of the formula that described Odysseus at 1.4.

Book 13, which focuses on Odysseus and takes place entirely on Ithaca, also marks the start of a complex interweaving of Odysseus’ adventures with those of Telemachus in books 14 to 16 until the moment when the two narrative threads merge into one with the reunion of father and son in Eumaeus ’ hut at the opening of Book 16.

From Book 16 onwards, the action coincides with the new trials announced in the first lines of the epic, for Odysseus still has to wreak vengeance on the suitors. This is carried out in book 22 through the plan made together by Odysseus and Athena (13) and revealed to Telemachus (16).

The poem ends with Odysseus’ recognition by Penelope (23) and Laertes (24), and his re-establishment as a king, after a reconciliation with the suitors’ families. This ending parallels the Iliad where the death of Hector (22) is followed by the reconciliation between Achilles and Priam (24).

Like the Iliad, the poem covers only a short time-span (42 days) as it moves between Olympus, Ithaca, Pylos and Sparta with Telemachus, then from Ogygia to Scheria with Odysseus, and is finally set in various places of Ithaca. Moreover, some days such as the second (8.1 to 13. 17), the fourth (17. 1–20. 90), and the fifth (20. 91–23. 343) are especially developed. Again, its scope is considerably broadened by foreshadowings and, especially, flashbacks. Several allusions to events preceding Odysseus’ departure for Troy are introduced as digressions by the principal narrator (the famous story of Odysseus’ scar in book 19) or told by his characters. The poem also evokes the Trojan War, but besides general references to the sufferings of the Greeks, it usually refers to episodes absent from the Iliad. Such a systematic avoidance, far from demonstrating that the author of the Odyssey did not know the Iliad, is likely to be deliberate: the quarrel opposing Odysseus and Achilles (8) and signalling for the Achaeans the imminence of their success, looks like a refashioning of the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon that marked the beginning of the woes for the Achaeans in the Iliad. There are also many allusions in the speeches to the ‘returns’ of various Achaean leaders, and Odysseus himself tells lengthily to the Phaeacians the first part of his adventures (9 to 11), in the so-called Apologoi. But anticipations of events that fall outside the temporal framework of the poem are exceptional. The most significant of these is the prophecy of Teiresias (11) about the last trial of Odysseus and his gentle death at home. Moreover, the poet uses extended similes, but their decrease in number is striking. Given that one of the main purposes of similes is to introduce ‘variety’ (poikilia), this change is usually traced back to the diversity of the Odyssey. But one does not find in the Iliad the equivalent to the performances given by two bards at the feasts of the elite in the palaces of Odysseus and Alcinous in scenes that indirectly illuminate Homer's conception of poetry. Both Phemius and Demodocus depend, like Homer, on the Muse when they sing the fame of the heroes in such good order that Odysseus vouches for their accuracy. And the song of Ares and Aphrodite, which is the only one to be quoted, combines narration and direct speech in the manner of the Odyssey itself. This poetics of truth is also a poetics of pleasure that delights a fascinated audience, despite its painful content. The same enchantment is provided by Odysseus when he gives a truthful account of his adventures to the Phaeacians or invents a series of lies that are closely modelled on his actual travels but are usually more realistic.

The Odyssey is far more varied than the Iliad. One has first to distinguish between the wonderful world of the Apologoi, the world of the Phaeacians on the threshold of myth and reality, and the more ‘real’ world of Pylos, Sparta and Ithaca.

As opposed to the main narrative told by the Muse, Odysseus’ journey is narrated by the hero himself (9 to 12). However there is no doubt about the reality of an account that is echoed at several points in the main story. It begins with the Ciconians who are a real people. But after Cape Malea , the hero enters a mythical world populated by lotus-eaters , cannibals ( Cyclopes and Laestrygones ), deities ( Aeolus, Circe and Calypso), immortal cattle, enchanted beasts, monsters ( Charybdis and Scylla ), and ghosts. These encounters help to define by contrast the meaning of human life, the importance of memory and the value of civilization. By eating the lotus fruit or listening to the song of the Sirens , men forget to return. The victory of Odysseus over the Cyclops who ignores agriculture and navigation and lacks political institutions demonstrates the superiority of civilization over barbarity. Aeolus’ island is also far removed from normal Greek society by its perpetual feasting and its practice of endogamy. Scylla and Charybdis are monsters close to the creatures of folktales. Circe, who facilitates Odysseus’ return and Calypso who delays it both live in remote and strange places: Aeaea is inhabited by wild beasts who behave like domesticated animals and Ogygia looks like a paradise. Odysseus’ visit to Hades (11) and more precisely his dialogue with Achilles, demonstrate the priceless value of life.

Scheria is an utopian place, settled on the boundary between myth and reality. Its inhabitants are ‘close to the gods’ (5.35) and share their feasts. Removed from war and human pain, they have magic ships that understand men's purpose. Alcinous ’ miraculous orchard ignores the seasons, his palace has a divine splendour and his relations with the other ‘kings’ are entirely harmonious. As opposed to the Cyclops, they provide a lavish hospitality to Odysseus. But they are fated to disappear, victims of Poseidon's wrath.

The real world includes gods and heroes, but also pays attention to women, men of the people and slaves.

The gods still play a major role: the action is initiated in book 1 by the proposal of Athena to go to Ithaca and dispatch Hermes to Calypso and concluded in book 24 by a conversation between Zeus and Athena that puts an end to the civil war at Ithaca. It has long been a commonplace of Homeric scholarship that the Odyssey and the Iliad widely differ in their presentation of the gods, but recent studies tend to tone down this opposition. Admittedly, the divine cast is less rich: besides Zeus, only Athena, Poseidon and Hermes play an active role in the main plot, together with Calypso and Ino Leucothea in book 5. The other Olympians as well as many lesser deities only appear in secondary narratives. Moreover the gods never openly dissent: the two divine assemblies of books 1 and 5 both take place in the absence of Odysseus’ principal enemy Poseidon. Even when there are direct conflicts, the gods of the Odyssey are careful not to encroach on others’ domain: before reaching Phaeacia, Odysseus is under the power of Poseidon and Athena does not help. Conversely, Poseidon acknowledges that once Odysseus has landed in Phaeacia, he cannot harm him. Zeus has no difficulty imposing his authority: both Hermes and Calypso obey his orders without question (5) and Poseidon, in contrast with his behavior in the Iliad, complies with his will and even asks for his permission to punish the Phaeacians (13).

Their interventions in the human world remain usually within the same limits as in the Iliad since ‘Gods themselves cannot ward off death’ (3.236–7). The only exceptions are Menelaus who, as Zeus’ son-in-law, will be sent to the Elysian fields and Heracles who is among the immortals. The gods also broadly retain the same characteristics as in the earlier poem. However miracles are more numerous: not only in the Apologoi but also in the main narrative, the gods are able to transform the appearance of a human being for the better or for the worse or make a landscape look otherwise than it is. But other miraculous events are few and far between.

Gods have also the same selfish motivations: they want to help their human favourites or their family and to punish those who do them no honour, slaughter their cattle, dare to challenge them or fail to sacrifice. As in the Iliad, the gods punish the group for the crimes committed by one of its members, as demonstrated by the returns of the Achaeans and the death of all the suitors, including the ‘good’ ones, and attempts to soften their wrath are still bound to fail. Still, it is widely believed that the Odyssey differs from the Iliad with regard to divine justice: the bulk of evidence for the gods’ interest in morality in the Odyssey comes from the plot itself that shows justice in action and from opinions expressed by men. Yet even in book 1 the speech in which Zeus makes the mortals responsible for the sorrows ‘beyond their fate’ does not represent a radical shift. One can also draw a parallel between the disobedience of Aegisthus who was warned by Hermes not to kill Agamemnon and the Iliadic Patroclus who would have escaped death if only he had listened to the warning of Achilles (16). The change between the two epics is really limited to a more frequent and sharper distinction of the two spheres human and divine (significantly in the battle of book 22 Athena turns the battle in the favour of Odysseus and his son only after she made a trial of their courage), and to a clearer opposition between two sorts of ills, those that mortals bring upon themselves by their crimes and those that they were always destined to suffer.

Scenes among the Olympians are rarer. The only illustration of their inconsequential lightness is to be found in the song of Ares and Aphrodite that has justly been defined as a ‘sophisticated pastiche of Iliadic motifs’. With the exception of this episode, the gods are no longer portrayed as detached spectators. When they look at mortals, it is to gaze upon their sin and their righteousness (17. 485–7).

Even more than in the Iliad, men are the true protagonists of the Odyssey. Its hero, Odysseus, is the man par excellence: he refuses the immortality offered to him by Calypso and heroically chooses to endure human trials and gain the fame attached to them. He is a complex character, a complexity doubtless explained by the interaction of several different traditions. Like Achilles, he is a warrior: he destroyed the holy city of Ilion (1.2) and fights victoriously against the suitors (22) and their relatives (24). But in contrast to Achilles, he is also a mere human who cannot forget the needs of his belly, a son, a father and husband who longs for home, a leader who cares for his companions and a king ‘who was kind like a father’ (four times). He is also cautious, and on several occasions—for instance in front of Scylla (12)—it is possible to see a conflict between heroism and caution. Moreover Odysseus is an embodiment of curiosity, cunning and skill, a man who knows how to tell stories that suit his listeners, as emphasized by a series of epithets. Last but not least he stands out for his ability to endure the hardships on sea and for his self-control in front of the insults of the suitors. These qualities are made conspicuous in the narrative of his travels through the contrast with his companions who perish when they fail to listen to him, and even more through his behaviour when he reaches Ithaca. The ‘shrewd’ Telemachus is his worthy son, and his father Laertes first embodies the disastrous consequences of his absence and becomes at the end, with the help of Athena, the warrior he was before. Their foils, the suitors, are like them members of the elite. But their actions are in stark contrast to their appearance and their glowing reputation. They are consistently criticized for their breaking of all the rules of decent behaviour. Their villainy is thrown into sharp relief by the presence among them of two just men, Amphinomus and Leiodes.

The world of the humble subordinates is also prominent in the Odyssey. They are shaped according to the poem's ideological biases. The ‘good’ ones, like Eumaeus and Philoetius or Eurycleia and Eurynome, retain their affection for Odysseus and his family and care for his possessions. The bad ones, Melanthios and his sister Melantho, side with the suitors and show no consideration to Telemachus, his mother and his guests.

The importance of female figures is also characteristic of the Odyssey. Much critical attention has been recently given to the female elements, especially to Penelope. But her sphere of activity is quite limited. Significantly she is defined through her male relatives: she is the worthy wife of Odysseus, the daughter of Icarius and the mother of Telemachus. Her excellence mostly consists in a conjugal fidelity. From books 1 to 16 her heroism is mostly passive (her only trick belongs to the past). In Books 17 to 21, by contrast, Penelope is at the origin of two actions that have a considerable impact on the way events unfold, as she appears to the suitors and instigates the contest of the bow. But the origin of her decisions is left opaque by the poet. It is only in book 23 that she becomes a match for her husband by testing him.

As it is, the Odyssey is certainly not a tragedy. It has often been defined as a romance. But it may also be read as ‘a kind of comedy of manners’ (‘Longinus’ 9.15) and a collection of examples illustrating how to act and not to act in relation to others.


Many books and papers have been recently devoted to Homer's ancient readers and Homeric reception. A complete overview would require writing a history of Greek and Latin literature, as well as of philosophy and art history from the perspective of Homeric influence, an influence linked to the place of the ‘poet par excellence’ in the school curriculum, its status as a foundation of the Greek cultural identity and its major impact on the Romans. It explains why the Trojan War soon became the war against which all the others were measured and why its heroes served as authoritative paradigms over centuries. Homer was first explicitly quoted by Simonides of Ceos and indirectly by StesichorusPalinode, which is an implicit criticism of Homer. His artificial language became the basis of all subsequent hexameter and elegiac poetry. All the epic poems, from the Hellenistic Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius and the miniature epics of Callimachus and Theocritus to the Aeneid of Virgil , and the late productions of Triphiodorus, Quintus Smyrnaeus , and Nonnus are to be understood as a creative refashioning of Homer, greatly influenced by the interpretation given by the Homeric scholia. Homer was also the ‘father’ of many subsequent literary genres. According to Aeschylus quoted by Athenaeus , his own plays were only ‘slices from the banquet of Homer’ and Sophocles was labelled ‘the most Homeric’ of the tragedians. Conversely the scholia, following the lead of Plato and Aristotle, regarded Homer as the first of the tragedians and modern scholars justly defined tragedy as ‘an exploration of the significance of the Homeric heritage’. Historiography inherited from Homer not only its purpose but also its form, notably the insertion of speeches into the narrative; and its interest in causation (see explanation, historical ). Sophists and orators like Aeschines or Isocrates or much later Libanius relied heavily on Homeric quotations and used his characters as models. The Odyssey became also a founding text for the new genre of the novel and its influence is most visible in the first ( Chariton 's Callirhoe) and the last ( HeliodorusEthiopian Story) illustrations of the genre. Beginning with the Presocratics and Plato, philosophers attempted to debunk Homer's authority or used etymology or moral and physical allegory to defend him. Under the Empire, Dio Chrysostom devoted three speeches (35. 35, 53) to Homer, portrayed Homeric heroes such as Nestor (57), Achilles (58) and Chryseis (61), and attempted to refute Homer by Homer in his Trojan discourse (11) as did Philostratus in his Heroicus. Last but not least Jewish writers such as Philo and many Christian writers, notably Clemens of Alexandria , Origen and Basil , quoted the Homeric poems lavishly and made them into a ‘propaedeutic’ teaching.


  • Iliad ed. T. W. Allen (Oxford Classical Texts, 1931).
  • H. van Thiel, Homeri Ilias (1990).
  • M. L. West, Homeri Ilias, books 1–12 (1998), 13–24 (2000).
  • Homeri opera; Odyssea I-XII, ed. T. W. Allen, 2nd edn. (Oxford Classical Texts, 1917–1919).
  • P. von der Mühll, Homeri Odyssea, 3rd edn. (1961).
  • H. van Thiel, Homeri Odyssea (1991).
  • Scholia graeca in Homeri Iliadem, ed. H. Erbse (1969–1988).
  • Homer Odyssea ed. W. Dindorf (1855).


  • G. S. Kirk and others, The Iliad: A Commentary (1985–1993).
  • Book 1: S. Pulleyn (2000).
  • Book 6: B. Graziosi and J. Haubold (2010).
  • Book 8: A. Kelly (2007).
  • Book 9: J. Griffin (1995).
  • Book 22: de Jong (2012).
  • Book 24: C. Macleod (1982).


  • A. Heubeck and others, A Commentary on Homer's Odyssey, Eng. edn. (1988–1992).
  • I. de Jong, Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey (2001).
  • books 6–8: A. F. Garvie (1994).
  • books 13 and 14: A. M. Bowie (2013).
  • books 17–18: D. Steiner (2010).
  • books 19–20: R. B. Rutherford (1992).
  • P. Chantraine, Grammaire Homérique, 2 vols. (1948–1953).
  • G. P. Shipp, Studies in the Language of Homer, 2nd edn. (1972).


  • R. Lattimore (1951).
  • R. Fagles (1990).
  • M. Hammond (1987).


  • R. Lattimore (1965).
  • W. Shewring (1980).
  • R. Fagles (1996).
Companions, Collections of papers, Surveys and General Works


  • A. J. B. Wace and F. H. Stubbings (eds.), Companion to Homer (1962).
  • C. Emlyn-Jones, L. Hardwick and J. Purkis (eds.), Homer, Readings and Images (1992).
  • J. P. Crielaard, Homeric Questions (1993).
  • I. Morris and B. Powell (eds.), New Companion to Homer (1997).
  • R. B. Rutherford, Homer: Greece and Rome New Surveys no. 26 (1996).
  • G. M. Wright and P. V. Jones, Homer: German Scholarship in Translation (1997).
  • R. Fowler (ed.), Cambridge Companion to Homer (2004).


  • M. Silk, Homer, The Iliad, 2nd edn. (2004).
  • D. Cairns (ed.), Oxford Readings in Homer's Iliad (2001).


  • J. Griffin, Homer, the Odyssey (1987).
  • S. Schein, Reading the Odyssey (1996).
  • L. E. Doherty (ed.), Oxford Readings in Homer's Odyssey (2009).
Oral poetry, Homeric Question, Neo-Analysis, Chronology
  • M. Parry, The Making of Homeric Verse ed. A. Parry (1971).
  • W. Arend, Die typische Scenen bei Homer (1933).
  • A. B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (1960).
  • A. Heubeck, Die Homerische Frage (1974).
  • J. T. Kakridis, Homeric Researches (1949).
  • W. Kullmann, Die Quellen der Ilias (1960).
  • R. Janko, Homer, Hesiod and the Hymns (1982).
  • J. Griffin, Journal of Hellenic Studies 1986.


  • W. Schadewaldt, Von Homers Welt und Werk, 4th edn. (1965).
  • F. Matz and H.-G. Buchholz, Archaeologia Homerica (1967–).
  • J. Russo, Arion 1968.
  • H. van Wees, Status Warriors (1992, new edn. in preparation).
  • A. Snodgrass, Homer and the Artists (1998).
  • J. M. Foley, Homer's Traditional Art (1999).
  • J. Haubold, Homer's People (2000).
  • J. Latacz, Troy and Homer (2004, Ger. orig. 2001).
  • B. Graziosi and J. Haubold, Homer: the Resonance of Epic(2005).


  • U. von Wilamowitz Moellendorf, Die Ilias und Homer (1916).
  • W. Schadewaldt, Iliasstudien (3rd edn. 1966).
  • G. Strasburger, Die kleine Kämpfer der Ilias (1954).
  • D. Lohmann, Die Komposition der Reden in der Ilias (1970).
  • C.P. Segal, The Theme of the Mutilation of the Corpse in the Iliad (1971).
  • J. Redfield, Nature and Culture in the Iliad (1975).
  • G. Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans (1979).
  • J. Griffin, Homer on Life and Death (1980).
  • M. Edwards, Homer Poet of the Iliad (1987).
  • R. Martin, The Language of the Heroes (1989).
  • S. Scully, Homer and the Sacred City (1990).
  • O. Taplin, Homeric Soundings (1992).
  • V. di Benedetto, Nel Laboratorio di Omero (1994).


  • M. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (1954, 2nd edn. 1977).
  • A. Heubeck, Der Odyssee Dichter und die Ilias (1954).
  • B. Fenik, Studies in the Odyssey (1974).
  • N. Austin, Archery in the Dark of the Moon (1975).
  • J. Strauss-Clay, The Wrath of Athena. Gods and Men in the Odyssey (1983).
  • S. Murnaghan, Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey (1987).
  • C. P. Segal, Singers, Heroes and Gods in the Odyssey (1994).
  • W. G. Thalmann, The Swineherd and the Bow: Representation of Class in the Odyssey (1998).
  • M. Finkelberg, The Birth of Literary Fiction in Ancient Greece (1998).
  • G. Danek, Epos und Zitat: Studien zu den Quellen der Odyssee (1998).
  • S. Said, Homer and the Odyssey (2011).

See also allegory , virgil .

  • R. Hunter and J. Farrell, in The Cambridge Companion to Homer (above).
  • B. Graziosi, Inventing Homer. The Early Reception of Epic (2002).
  • V. Knight, The Renewal of Epic: Responses to Homer in the Argonautica of Apollonius (1995).
  • A. Rengakos, Der Homertext und die hellenistischen Dichter (1993).
  • A. Rengakos, Apollonios Rhodios und die antike Homererklärung (1994).
  • M. Fantuzzi and R. Hunter, Tradition and Innovation in Hellenistic Poetry (2004), esp. chs. V and VI.
  • H. Strasburger, Homer und die Geschichtsschreibung (1972),
  • H. Strasburger in Studien zur alten Geschichte, 1982, repr. of Homer und die Geschichtsschreibung.
  • J. F. Kindstrand, Homer in der zweiten Sophistik (1973).
  • G. Glockmann, Homer in der frühchristlichen Literatur bis Justinus (1968).