Homer: The Very Idea

Some time in the 8th century BC, with the Greek alphabet just decades old, two monumental poems, the Iliad and Odyssey, were committed to writing and so became the first great works of Western literature. We call their author Homer, but – even in antiquity – there was disagreement over his identity. Who was he? Did he ever exist? Did the same person compose both poems? Did he compose others, too? And how did verses originating in oral recitations come to be written down? With the poems’ popularity spreading across the Mediterranean, and their heroic values underpinning Greeks’ desire ‘always to be best’, biographies of Homer proliferated, and many cities claimed to be his birthplace. Yet some questioned this popularity – Plato’s ideal city contained no place for Homer and his immoral gods and heroes – and debates about the poems’ authorship and ethics continue to this day.

These debates underpin James Porter’s investigation, conceived ‘as a cultural history, in abbreviated form, of an idea, a point of concern, a fascination, and an obsession that was born and reborn every time Homer was imagined as the presumed poet of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and around which entire canons of literature, disciplines, and whole bodies of knowledge came to be built and organised over the millennia, including the study of antiquity itself.’ It is a broad canvas, but Porter is undeterred, and in his quest ‘to expose some of the marvellous strangeness that the problem of Homer has produced over the millennia and continues to produce today’ he summons a diverse range of witnesses, from Aristotle and Nietzsche to Ingres and Walcott.

Whether he succeeds is for readers to decide. Some will delight in the book’s broad scope, from discussions of Butler’s The Authoress of the ‘Odyssey’ to connections made between the fall of Troy and the end of the Mycenaean civilisation. Others may cavil at its inaccuracies – during the Peloponnesian War, for example, Pericles, who encouraged performance of Homeric epics at the Panathenaic Festival, did not declare Athens ‘a Homer-free zone’ (‘We have no need of a Homer to sing our praises’ meant simply that Athens was famous on her own merit). Others may wish that Porter had shown greater awareness of other fictionalising biographies of shadowy classical figures, such as Sappho and Empedocles, or that the Trojan War had a life in art quite independent of the Iliad. Others still may find the book’s labyrinthine structure and intellectual style off-putting. But it brings us back to the wonder of Homer. Such is his lasting appeal that most readers will surely yearn to revisit the clear-eyed, passionate poetry of the Iliad and Odyssey themselves.

Review by David Stuttard.
HOMER: THE VERY IDEA, James I Porter, University of Chicago Press, £22, Hardback, ISBN 978-0226675893.