Homer and the Beginnings of Classical Antiquity

Virtually nothing is known about the poet we now call “Homer,” but one thing we do know is that he lived at a time of significant transformation in Greek history. Historians’ best estimate for the time when Homer composed his poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, is sometime between 725 and 675 BCE. This estimate situates Homer as having lived in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, which is significant because it means that Homer lived near the beginning of what historians call the Archaic period, often referred to as the period of Classical Antiquity. Historians date the period of Classical Antiquity as starting sometime in the eighth century BCE, and they associate this period primarily with the development of the Greek city-state system, the expansion of Greek trade routes, and the emergence of the simplified Greek alphabet. In other words, Homer lived and composed at a time when Greek civilization as we typically think of it today was just coming into being. And indeed, Homer played a noteworthy role in Classical Antiquity’s development and flourishing.

For the periods prior to Classical Antiquity, historians divide ancient Greek history into the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Historians and archaeologists use these designations to track major transformations in culture and technology as they relate to changes in the metals a civilization used. Thus, the term “Bronze Age” refers to a time when bronze was the primary type of metal in use. The people who populated Greece during the Bronze Age were known as the Mycenaeans. The Mycenaean civilization mysteriously collapsed sometime around 1200 BCE and left behind the earliest Greek writings, which were composed in a script known as Linear B. The efforts to recover from that collapse and reorganize society led the Greeks into the Iron Age, when iron replaced bronze as the major industrial metal. Despite advances in metallurgic technology, the Iron Age represents a period when Greek history “went dark.” Unlike the Bronze Age, when at least two distinct writing systems flourished, the Iron Age was predominantly illiterate. The representational art that had developed in the Bronze Age also ceased in the Iron Age. Finally, compared to the Bronze Age, which is when the events of both The Iliad and The Odyssey are set, the Iron Age had relatively few events of historical importance.

In contrast to the cultural hibernation of the Iron Age, the period of Classical Antiquity (i.e., the Archaic period) that followed represented a significant cultural renewal and flourishing, and Homer’s poems are integral to the beginning of this period. Curiously, though, Homer’s poems initiate Classical Antiquity by looking back to the Bronze Age for inspiration. For the Greeks of Homer’s time, the Trojan War was a matter of historical memory, having taken place around 1250 BCE just before the Mycenaean collapse. Homer, like other poets of his time, sourced material for his epics by casting back to the Bronze Age, a period when heroes were imagined to have been bigger, stronger, and more “god-like” than anyone then living. But in sourcing this historical material, Homer didn’t merely seek to tell tall tales of gods and god-like warriors. He also developed his material in significant ways that helped shape the moral universe of present and future Greek culture. In other words, Homer’s use of history, however fictionalized, helped create the Greek civilization and culture that we now associate primarily with the period of Classical Antiquity.