The Homeric Question

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The Homeric Question

Post by Thucydides » Tue Jul 13, 2004 4:41 pm

Has this been discussed before on Textkit? I don't want to go over old ground, but I'd really like to have a discussion on this.

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Post by whiteoctave » Tue Jul 13, 2004 6:29 pm

i think the question of who 'Homer' were and when they finally penned the Il and Od has been touched upon in the past here, but a fresh discussion would, ut opinor, be of much interest.

~D

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Post by Emma_85 » Tue Jul 13, 2004 8:46 pm

Heheh, I see you think that we have two authors... I'd like to know why, so far I tend towards just one author (namely Homer). The fact that the Gods are portrayed totally differently for example doesn't make me sceptical at all, because it seems to me in that in Greece you could pretty much do what you wanted with them to make it fit the story if you wanted.
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Post by whiteoctave » Tue Jul 13, 2004 8:56 pm

two authors, i regret tosay, would still be too few for me. In brief, 'Homer' for me represents a series of oral bards, in terms of the creation of the poem's nature, and, in terms of the determination of the texts we know, a self-selected guild of perhaps six or so who took the decision at some point in the early seventh century to collect authoritatively 'the' version of the two works and order the events, many of which could be moved about (such as the various digressionary tales of the gods). I do not think there is any distinct difference in terms of the final collators of the Il and the Od, though perhaps a dominance of one of the members of the group on each, since each retains some (albeit minor) continual linguistic distinction.

~D

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Homeric questions

Post by xanthos64 » Tue Jul 13, 2004 9:09 pm

Hello Thucydides and eveyone,

I find that no one even agrees on what the Homeric question is/are. Should we frame it generally in terms of how the Iliad and the Odyssey originated, and came down to us? If so, my random thoughts:

-It originated as oral poetry in the "dark ages" at a time when writing was lost (circa 1100 to 900 bc?).

-Oral transmission of stories at this time, given the lack of writing, was a natural and preferred means of communicating history to the next generation.

-"War stories" were, are and always will be the essence of a good story, and important to a people as history. It makes sense therefore that such stories originated in the dark ages, as recollection of a "finer" age, where men were men etc.

-As with the oral telling of Little Red Riding Hood by my grandmother when I was younger, each telling of the story would be different, but always contain the same nucleus of facts.

-As the stories became part of the history and myhtology of the "Greeks", efforts were made by various tellers to connect the stories to other stories already known to the audience, and in this manner, layers of connective story were added.

-In deference to the historical recollection of the classical Greeks, Homer existed as a person, and perhaps the finest (and therefore the paragon) of the singers.

-The Il and Od had to be put down in (Greek) writing only after the ability to write had been re-gained (circa 800 bc?)

My other random thoughts, in response to some of the literature I've read about the "question":

- I think the ability to write can co-exist in an "oral transmission" society.

- To assume that great poetry cannot arise at a point in time unless there was a long and creative past is wrong.

- Internal inconsistencies inside a lengthy poem do not shed light on the Homeric questions, but language from various time periods can tell us which of the books/passages were transmitted earlier than others.







istory.

orally as in the

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Post by Emma_85 » Tue Jul 13, 2004 9:24 pm

whiteoctave wrote:two authors, i regret tosay, would still be too few for me. In brief, 'Homer' for me represents a series of oral bards, in terms of the creation of the poem's nature, and, in terms of the determination of the texts we know, a self-selected guild of perhaps six or so who took the decision at some point in the early seventh century to collect authoritatively 'the' version of the two works and order the events, many of which could be moved about (such as the various digressionary tales of the gods). I do not think there is any distinct difference in terms of the final collators of the Il and the Od, though perhaps a dominance of one of the members of the group on each, since each retains some (albeit minor) continual linguistic distinction.
Ah... I see :) . I suppose that could be true too, a group of bards writing them. The only thing I don't believe to be true is that the Od and the Il were written by totally different people.
May I ask though, how you come to the conclusion that it wasn't one person who wrote them (I believe written language was essential for the creation of these works)?
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Post by tdominus » Wed Jul 14, 2004 7:22 am

The Greeks themselves considered homer to be one person, often referring to him simply as "the poet."

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Post by lindylars » Wed Jul 14, 2004 8:37 am

This was sort of covered recently in a poll started by Kopio here (along with expected OT diversions, of course). For expedience, skip over the "slippery slope" discussion between annis and myself and have a look at the eBay link I posted (which should point to a copy of Butler's "The Authoress of the Odyssey") -- not that I agree with Butler's theory, just as a example of what has already been floating out there.

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Post by Thucydides » Wed Jul 14, 2004 10:17 am

I can't believe that the same man composed the Iliad and the Odyssey.

- The two are utterly different in feeling and world view - really, they are. The more you read them the more you realise this. The Odyssey seems to be concerned (among other things...) with the colonising period, something totally absent from the Iliad.
- The Iliad is pretty long. Our evidence of other epic poems suggests that it was much longer than them. We can exclude any serious use of writing (which I believe we can do - even the existence of writing does not imply "literacy" in the way we understand it). It displays consistency of character and theme and it seems to me that considerable work has gone into refining the story - in particular the set pieces like book 9 or the proem. Therefore it must have taken an extremely long time to, er, 'create' and I can't imagine someone doing the Odyssey as well in their lifetime.
- The Odyssey also seems to be consciously imitating the Iliad in all sorts of ways. One wonders why the poet of the Iliad would not want to strike out in a new direction.
- There also not inconsiderable differences of vocabulary and idiom.
- Finally the ancients did have a bit of a random tendency to attribute works to authours they knew. All sorts of things were attributed to Homer (including a poem about mice); the disagreement over his home (Chios, Lesbos..) and the lack of facts about his life mean show that the ancients knew little about his life.
Last edited by Thucydides on Wed Jul 14, 2004 10:30 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by Thucydides » Wed Jul 14, 2004 10:21 am

Uh oh... Whiteoctave is now going to tell us how there are in fact 36 different stories combined together in the Iliad... :roll: :)

I know personal feeling is a horribly sloppy and unreliable thing, but my feeling is that there is only one intelligence behind the Iliad. Have you ever seen a story written by a few people? It's a mess.

Since I do not believe that the poet(s) had writing in any meaningful sense I find it hard to imagine how they could have done the kind of editing that Whiteoctave implies.

I think that if you look carefully all the digressions are actually put thoughtfully in their places by one man who was using them to further the message of his poem. Book 14 relieves the battle; the shield adds to the tragedy of the final books.

[With the exception of book 10, which is just odd]

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Post by whiteoctave » Wed Jul 14, 2004 11:06 am

Thucy, your conception of their being a single writer to each epic seems rather primitive. It is almost universally agreed that before the works were finally penned, some considerable time of recounting the events and developing them by means of the oral bardic tradition preceeded.
As regards your reasoning for why there must be two 'Homer's, one who wrote each epic, seems somewhat flawed. The Il and Od are not inconceivably long (c.15 and c.12 thousand hexameters respectively). Nonnus wrote his Dionysiaca to a length of over 21,000 hexameters (and in the same style and dialect) and there is much suggestion that he wrote other works (all lost) including a versification of the gospel of John. To write the Il and the Od, some 28,000 hexx. would not be too difficult a task for one man. Old Ovid was able, with much interruption, to write 22,020 lines of elegiac verse and another 12,000 or so hexameters on top.
The difference in terms of a supposed 'world view' in each is also questionable. The general themes of the definining characteristics of an aner and the grim necessity of warfare recur in each, in spite of the very different settings. Authors of antiquity were of course immensely skilled in diversity: without the ancient information of authorial canons, it would not be an easy task to argue that Helen, say, and the Bacchae of stemmed from the same man, Euripides.

As regards the theory to which I subscribe, the tales developed via the bardic tradition (still evident in certain parts of Eastern Europe) in which the general theme and events of the Il and Od were narrated, constantly accruing formulae and further structure. Towards the turn of the eighth and seventh century, I suppose, various bards became somewhat disillusioned that their own version and ordering of evernts differed from that of another bard, since there was of course no 'correct' text since it was never static but always in flux. Perhaps there were some greater arguments about the 'best' or 'correct' way in which to narrate the various scrapes of Odysseus in the Od. Why, for instance, put the episode of the Lotus eaters after the meeting(s) with Aeolus in Bk X? The episode could even be moved into the early parts of Bk IX.

Clearly, in spite of such possible discrepancies, a careful guiding has taken place with the received texts of the Il and Od, especially with the intricate temporal weaving of the latter. I, along with others, imagine this process to have been one arranged by a meeting of various leading bards at the time, so as to further their craft and finally make a gospel version of what should be narrated. The odd 'detail' that 'Homer', whom the Greeks fairly interepreted as one person, was blind seems a curious addition to the authorship and one that would have surely necessitated the inclusion of at least one other person to write manually the poems, but this is not an argument I seek to use.

Finally, I think that this written text was subject to light revision by Peisistratus of Athens, who we are informed first initiated the competition of rhapsodes performing the epics, including his possible inclusion of himself as a friend of Telemachus and a son of Nestor. Peisistratus' contemporary, Solon, is also said to have forged a line/couplet in the Il's catalogue of ships.

As to the the comic mini-epic Batrachomyomachia, I don't know where to begin!

~D

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Post by annis » Wed Jul 14, 2004 12:35 pm

Thucydides wrote:- There also not inconsiderable differences of vocabulary and idiom.
And grammar! The statistics of genitives finally convinced me of at least two authors.

A few years ago M.L. West produced a text of the Iliad for Teubner. It's an amazing work of textual scholarship. Of course BMCR had a review, the first volume by Nagy, the second, Nardelli. Then West got to reply to the reviews. It's a fascinating conversation, and touches on some of the matters we're discussing now:

9/2000 - Nagy
6/2001 - Nardelli
9/2001 - West

I personally incline to West's views on the matter.
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Post by annis » Wed Jul 14, 2004 12:37 pm

whiteoctave wrote:As to the the comic mini-epic Batrachomyomachia, I don't know where to begin!
Athens, I think. 4th century. :)

(I am quietly preparing a text of that for Aoidoi. The text will come first - the first on the Web I think - and then it will undergo commentary and some alterations as I decide between readings. I'm using this as smaller test case for my grandiose plans for Hesiod.)
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Post by whiteoctave » Wed Jul 14, 2004 1:33 pm

cheers for the BM links W; as ever West is unstoppable.
I generally do not purchase Teubner's (except perh. for Plutarch and Posidonius, if I ever want the latter), but I have long been meaning to buy West's work.
Your ed.n of the Batr. sounds intriguing!

~D

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Post by annis » Wed Jul 14, 2004 2:41 pm

whiteoctave wrote:Nonnus wrote his Dionysiaca to a length of over 21,000 hexameters (and in the same style and dialect) and there is much suggestion that he wrote other works (all lost) including a versification of the gospel of John.
We actually have the gospel paraphrase.

There used to be a version online, but that has gone the way of all flesh, er, geocities web pages.
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Post by Thucydides » Wed Jul 14, 2004 3:34 pm

whiteoctave wrote:Thucy, your conception of their being a single writer to each epic seems rather primitive. It is almost universally agreed that before the works were finally penned, some considerable time of recounting the events and developing them by means of the oral bardic tradition preceeded.
I wasn't very clear. I fully accept that there was probably an oral tradition behind Homer, as suggested by the formulaic composition and the evidence of other epics

(However, in Iceland there was such a thing as oral poetry without formulae...)
As regards your reasoning for why there must be two 'Homer's, one who wrote each epic, seems somewhat flawed. The Il and Od are not inconceivably long (c.15 and c.12 thousand hexameters respectively). Nonnus wrote his Dionysiaca to a length of over 21,000 hexameters (and in the same style and dialect) and there is much suggestion that he wrote other works (all lost) including a versification of the gospel of John. To write the Il and the Od, some 28,000 hexx. would not be too difficult a task for one man. Old Ovid was able, with much interruption, to write 22,020 lines of elegiac verse and another 12,000 or so hexameters on top.


I'm afraid I don't know Nonnus. But Ovid came from an entirely different tradition. He lived in a world of learning where writing and books were commonplace. However I do accept that it is very hard to make any meaningful assumptions about what Homer would have been able to manage.
The difference in terms of a supposed 'world view' in each is also questionable. The general themes of the definining characteristics of an aner and the grim necessity of warfare recur in each, in spite of the very different settings. Authors of antiquity were of course immensely skilled in diversity: without the ancient information of authorial canons, it would not be an easy task to argue that Helen, say, and the Bacchae of stemmed from the same man, Euripides.
Or two of Shakespeare's plays. But I maintain that the two are utterly different in terms of tone, morality, religion, depth...
To take one example: why is trading and sea-faring so prominent in one and not mentioned in the other... even on Achilles' shield - surely the natural place for it?

[I think there's brief mention of the Phoenicians trading something somewhere...]
As regards the theory to which I subscribe, the tales developed via the bardic tradition (still evident in certain parts of Eastern Europe) in which the general theme and events of the Il and Od were narrated, constantly accruing formulae and further structure. Towards the turn of the eighth and seventh century, I suppose, various bards became somewhat disillusioned that their own version and ordering of evernts differed from that of another bard, since there was of course no 'correct' text since it was never static but always in flux. Perhaps there were some greater arguments about the 'best' or 'correct' way in which to narrate the various scrapes of Odysseus in the Od. Why, for instance, put the episode of the Lotus eaters after the meeting(s) with Aeolus in Bk X? The episode could even be moved into the early parts of Bk IX.
Clearly, in spite of such possible discrepancies, a careful guiding has taken place with the received texts of the Il and Od, especially with the intricate temporal weaving of the latter. I, along with others, imagine this process to have been one arranged by a meeting of various leading bards at the time, so as to further their craft and finally make a gospel version of what should be narrated. The odd 'detail' that 'Homer', whom the Greeks fairly interepreted as one person, was blind seems a curious addition to the authorship and one that would have surely necessitated the inclusion of at least one other person to write manually the poems, but this is not an argument I seek to use.
But why would they want to create a definitive text/version? Greek mythology is inherently variable.

This is my guess at how we came to the Iliad. There were oral poets singing for hundreds of years building a bank of stories and formulae. The poet of the Iliad was an oral poet and a particularly brilliant one. Over the course of his lifetime he worked on his own version of the Trojan War, particularly on some set pieces, such as the shield or Book 9. At some point I imagine someone saying to him "hey homer, why don't you get that poem of yours written down?". And Homer went off to a scribe and sang his poem. I find it quite likely that the process of dictation stimulated Homer to more carefully structure what he had previously sung as fairly fluid oral poetry.

It's hard to say what prompted Homer to get his poem written down.
a) it was really rather good compared to the rest and it was felt that it had to be saved
b) Given the history of the archaic age, perhaps an aristocrat wanted it recorded as he liked the favourable portrayal of aristocrats and kings in the poem
c) the poetry or the society in general was felt to be under threat in some way

Remember that writing it down would have been a serious undertaking. Homer would have had to dictate very very slowly; the transcription would have taken a lot of time, effort and money (cost of papyrus etc)

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Post by Keesa » Thu Jul 15, 2004 12:57 pm

Well, I do have an opinion on this, but don't expect it to be very scientific. :wink:

I think one person wrote the Illiad and the Odyssey for the same reason that I think William Shakespeare wrote all the works attributed to William Shakespeare. Not because I can prove it historically, but simply because I think that we as a culture need the romance, if you will, of great authors writing great works. Somehow a guild or a group of editors just doesn't do much for me as far as inspiring me. I think probably they were oral tales that had persisted perhaps for centuries before they were written down, but I do think that one person pulled them together, brushed them up, and wrote them down.

Several collaborators will never give the same inspiration to greatness that a single author will, and I think we need Homer to be Homer.
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Post by Lucan » Thu Jul 15, 2004 1:44 pm

My own view is that there was once a Homer who composed both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Why? Because all great stories need some element of individuality. I cannot accept that a group of bards could, or would ever get together to create two 'perfect' epics. This scenario would in itself present two problems-

1) What other great poems/works of literature have been collectively penned/composed (the bible recognises different authors writing different sections, if I'm not mistaken)

and

2) Why would these bards even want to create a definitive text? And can you imagine the practicality of getting a group of the greatest poets of the dark age together, and having them all work together for many years on end?

That said, although I do believe that a 'Homer' figure composed both epics, I also believe that the oral tradition in which the poems survived have handed us very different epics to the originals. I personally believe that as the poems were handed down from generation to generation, individual poets shaped the structure of the poem to either improve individual episodes or make it easier to remember. Thus the poems continued to evolve until they were finally written down, and this theory can explain the mentions of hoplite fighting methods and Phonecian traders amongst other things.

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Post by xanthos64 » Thu Jul 15, 2004 4:46 pm

More than one response here asked rhetorically why a definitive text would be created. Why? Because it could be,once writing as introduced.

Isn't it logical that in an oral transmisssion society, once writing is introduced, things get written down? And once written down, doesn't the writing become by definition the definitive text? (I believe there are even some discrepancies in the extant texts we have from the ancients).

So there need not have been an organized trade union meeting of bards. Nor did there need to be an intention to make a definitive text. The introduction of writing set in course the chain of events which led to the stories being put into written form, and those forms becoming "definitive".

Going further, I've read some scholars who believe that once writing was introduced, the ability to transmit orally was compromised, and the art of oral transmission could not co-exist with the art of writing. If true, this would mean that once put into writing, the written text of the poems would remain pretty much static and there would be no further "layering" of tales by oral poets.

Does anyone besides me think that the analogy to the Eastern European singers (Parry/Lord) I think is overblown. There is a fundamental distinction between the rhapsodes of classical Athens (who could recite tales by memory) and the original singers/creators of the Homeric poems (who could weave stories by layering myth on top of myth). The Eastern European singers are like the rhapsodes. Thus, studying their art, in my opinion, tells us little more than the fact human memory is capable of retaining 15,000 plus lines of verse.

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Post by Thucydides » Fri Jul 16, 2004 10:09 am

Of course the Yugoslavian analogy is overblown. The two societies are so different.

The more I think about it, the more bizarre the writing down of the Iliad becomes.

Think about it:
1) The poems were far more than just the written text. There was the music, the rhythm, the poet's own skill and emotion... the written text could not provide this experience
2) It seems unlikely that many people had the necessary skills (comprehension literacy) to "read" Homer fluently. Rather they had "phonetic" (i.e. sound out the words) literacy.
3) The Iliad is far too long to be read from start to finish
4) Recording the text would have taken a huge amount of time and money.

Therefore a written Iliad seems likely to have been only an aid to memory.

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Post by Kopio » Tue Jul 20, 2004 10:46 pm

Thucydides wrote:3) The Iliad is far too long to be read from start to finish
hhmmmmm. Actually I might disagree with that. At the Bible College I go to, once a year, one of the profs organizes a complete readthrough of the entire Bible...cover to cover! I have never done it, but it takes somewhere in the ballpark of 20-22 hours.....people read in shifts, and quite a few people go and are present for the entire reading! :shock:

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Post by Thucydides » Wed Jul 21, 2004 10:15 am

I mean in a sort of entertaionment context i.e. for a bard to recite. I doubt many people kept up their concentration and interest for the entire of that bible reading.

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Post by Lucan » Wed Jul 21, 2004 1:46 pm

1) The poems were far more than just the written text. There was the music, the rhythm, the poet's own skill and emotion... the written text could not provide this experience
Of course the poems were far more than just the written text, but at the same time the words themselves had by far the greatest role in the performance. What was being said mattered far more than how it was said. The written version of the Iliad has been enjoyed for what, 3000 years? Can you imagine a modern-day song surviving for that length of time through the words alone...?
2) It seems unlikely that many people had the necessary skills (comprehension literacy) to "read" Homer fluently. Rather they had "phonetic" (i.e. sound out the words) literacy.
I don't know about this point- do you have any evidence to back it up? As far as I'm aware people have an in-built ability to learn to read and understand words as more than just pictoral representations of sounds. The Greeks must have possessed a relatively proficient degree of literacy to have been able to write down a text as complex as Homer.
3) The Iliad is far too long to be read from start to finish
With all due respect, I don't see what relevance this has as to why the Iliad wouldn't be written down. A group of scholars recited the entire of the Iliad in the original Greek, and if I remember correctly it took approximately 48 hours. The key issue is that although the Iliad may have been too long to be read through in one stretch, it would have taken a similar amount of time to have been recited. Thus although an ancient Greek might have heard select passages (such as the catalogue of ships) several times, there is a good chance that they had never heard the entire story in its original order. And a written text would have enabled this.

4) Recording the text would have taken a huge amount of time and money.
Plenty of great projects throughout history have been completed despite taking a huge amount of time and money. Why should Homer be any different? For a rich king/tyrant the cost of writing down the Iliad would have been a relatively small one when compared to the vast amounts of wealth that they possessed. The prestige of the works, as well as an individual's love of Homer would have been more than enough to persade them to commission a written version of the Iliad or Odyssey.

Sorry to disagree with you, but tis the nature of the Homeric question :). I really don't think that the writing down of Homer is in the least bit bizzare. I'd also like to point out that the ancient Greeks would have wanted to demonstrate their new-found literacy by commissioning works of Homer, and that some Greeks may have been well aware that the oral tradition was a dying one. Thus the writing down of Homer would have been the only way to preserve it for future generations. Please feel free to disagree with me and point out any weaknesses in my argument so that I can either change my stance or elaborate :) I enjoy a good debate...

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Post by Thucydides » Wed Jul 21, 2004 6:25 pm

Thanks for that Lucan. I really enjoyed your points. With the greatest possible respect I think that you are little too influenced by modern literacy. Greece was an oral society, even though there was writing. Even in the classical period witnesses to a contract were more important than a written copy of the contract itself. Even for later authors, like Herodotus, the main means of publicising their work must surely have been reading aloud - not a few expensive and fragile papyrus copies.

I'm not an expert but I've just read Rosalind Thomas' "Orality and Literacy in Ancient Greece". If we look at the first writing in Greece it has no word breaks and no punctuation, almost as if the writer just heard the sounds and wrote them down in order. Also writing varied enourmously - there were different alphabets for different poles and different directions of writing (or worse, boustrophedon!). All this suggests that it was more of a transcription or memory aid than a "text" - a kind of "encoding" of the written speech.

Evidence of other oral poetry suggests that performance was exceptionally important. There are reports of some bards acting as if possessed by the spirits of those who they were singing about, and the audience all being moved to tears. Obviously those are modern examples, but I don't imagine that the Iliad would have had much less effect in what was a fairly emotional society. The whole essence of oral poetry and mythology is change.

I'm not saying that Homer didn't write down the Iliad. What I'm really driving at is that I don't think that the Iliad can have derived a huge amount of artistic benefit from writing down. There was no "literate"/"book" culture, no libraries. I don't think that the written copy would have had special status while oral poetry was still being performed.

I think you are probably right that a King comissioned it. The question is why. My guess is archaic period turmoil and possibly becaue Homer is so pro-aristocracy. It seems reasonable to suspect that Homer was felt to under threat in some way. Otherwise why write it down if performance the most important thing?[/i]

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