Homer: A Guide to Selected Sources

Correlate the sources mentioned in the guide to those listed in the margin using the mouse.

Paola Bassino

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The texts and translations relating to this guide have been prepared by Paola Bassino.

The name Homer does not feature in the Homeric epics. There is also a more general lack of autobiographical information in the epics attributed to Homer (the little that can be gleaned about the poet’s voice in the Iliad is discussed by Graziosi 2013). The author’s absence enables audiences and readers to invent Homer without much constraint in the form of autobiographical claims made within the epics attributed to him.

Legends about Homer answered the curiosity of early audiences, who listened to travelling performers (rhapsodes) claiming to recite the great works of an absent author ‘Homer’ (Burkert 1987, West 1999, Graziosi 2002, West 2003a, Kivilo 2010, Nagy 2010, Lefkowitz 2012). The process must have started early: Tatian Tatianus, Ad Gr. 31 informs us that the life of Homer was the subject of interest and research already in the sixth century BCE and Heraclitus Heraclitus, fr. 56 D.-K. knew the legend concerning Homer’s death. According to Pausanias, Callinus Callinus, fr. 6 West mentioned Homer as the author of the Thebaid as early as the seventh century BCE (on this difficult testimony see further Bowie 2010: 152).

Early legends and anecdotes were eventually collected in formal Lives, which prefaced Homer’s works in the manuscript tradition. The most important are a Pseudo-Herodotean Life of Homer Ps.-Hdt. Vit. Hom., two short biographical notices at the beginning of a Pseudo-Plutarchean Ps.-Plut. Vit. Hom. 1 Ps.-Plut. Vit. Hom. 2 treatise on Homer, a Life of Homer in Proclus’ Procl. Vit. Hom. Chrestomathy, the Suda Suda, s.v. Homer entry on Homer and three anonymous short biographies Anon. Vit. Hom. 1 Anon. Vit. Hom. 2 Anon. Vit. Hom. 3. The Certamen Homeri et Hesiodi Certamen, an earlier version of which must have featured in Alcidamas’ Museum, also contained extended biographical information.


Parents and Genealogy

Ancient sources list several options for the names of Homer’s alleged parents, often without expressing preference for any. The Certamen stands out for putting together names of seven fathers and seven mothers (sometimes with a source), that can be arguably paired up so as to form alleged parental couples – some of which are confirmed by external evidence too (West 1967: 445-6). The passage testifies to attempts to make Homer a direct descendant of his characters, especially Odysseus and Telemachus, or of divine figures such as the Muse Calliope. According to one of the best attested traditions, which was circulating widely in the fifth century BCE, Homer’s father was the Smyrnean river Meles Critias, fr. 50 D-K, often paired up with an otherwise unknown Cretheis. Detailed genealogies that illustrate Homer’s kinship with, among others, Orpheus and Hesiod, are attested from the fifth century BCE (see Hesiod: A Guide to Selected Sources). Legends regarding Homer’s own offspring Schol. Pind. Nem. 2.1 Pind. fr. 265 S.-M. Phot. Bibl. 319, probably created by rhapsodic groups, such as the Homeridae, to legitimise their own role of performers of Homeric poetry, are also transmitted.


Several cities claimed to be the birthplace of Homer and, as was acknowledged also in antiquity, this variety of birthplaces contributed to creating a truly Panhellenic poet, who could be claimed by every city because he belonged to none. The strongest and most ancient claims about Homer’s origins were those of Smyrne, Chios and Colophon Lucian, Ver. Hist. 2.20-22, often mentioned together.

Smyrne’s tradition might have begun before 600 BC (Jacoby 1933: 31; Graziosi 2002: 75). The Smyrnean river Meles was often said to be either the place where the poet was given birth by Cretheis, the most ancient souce for this being the fifth-century scholar Stesimbrotus, or the very father of Homer (see above). From this river the poet also took his original name, according to the biographical tradition, Melesigenes.

The Chian tradition seems to have been known already in the sixth or fifth century BCE to Anaximenes, Pindar and Simonides Simon. fr. 17 West. The Lives relate several biographical episodes that occurred to Homer in Chios but the strongest link between the city and Homer seem to have been the Homeridae Schol. Pind. Nem. 2.1 Harpocration, s.v. 'Homeridae'., a guild of rhapsodes who claimed to be the poet’s descendants (see contra Fehling 1979). They probably brought the Homeric poems to Athens (see most recently Nagy 2010) and by Thucydides’ times the image of Homer as the blind poet from Chios Pl. [Hipparch.] 228b5-c1 Thuc. 3.104.5 was dominant.

Colophon’s claims on Homer are rooted in the mention of the ‘old divine singer’ in Margites Margites fr. 1 West, and were supported by Nicander and Antimachus.

Other well attested traditions were those related to Cyme (Hippias and Ephorus) and Cyprus (Callicles, Pausanias Paus. 10.24.2-3 and, for the Cypria, see below); Athens was also known as the birthplace of Homer, also on the basis of linguistic arguments (Aristarchus and Dionysius Thrax Schol. Il. 13.197). By the Byzantine period, no less than twenty possible birthplaces of Homer were known.


Homer’s chronology was considered as uncertain as his birthplace. The ancient biographies present lists of different views on the matter and, with the exception of the Pseudo-Herodotus, do not make a choice between different possibilities. In most cases Homer’s date is calculated, rather than in absolute terms, in relation to that of specific events or people (whose date may itself be flexible), thus sheding light on ancient perceptions of the relationships between the poet and the chosen term of comparison. The Ionian migration is present in accounts by scholars such as Aristotle, Aristarchus and Eratosthenes. Homer’s chronological distance from the Trojan war, and therefore his reliability as a reporter of it, is at issue in several sources, and in Herodotus, Histories 2.53. The discussion of Homer’s and Hesiod’s relative chronology, on which the story of their contest depends, was also a means of reflecting on the content, authority, and antiquity of their respective poems. (For more detailed discussions, see Graziosi 2002: 90-124 and Beecroft 2010: 79. For Homer’s and Hesiod’s relative chronology, see also Most 2006 and Koning 2010.)

The Poet’s Name(s) and His Blindness

Accoding to most ancient souces, Homer was called Melesigenes at birth. In antiquity the name was explained as ‘born by/of the river Meles’, although its actual etymology suggests ‘he who takes care of his people’ (Marx 1925: 406-8) – a name that might have suited the rhapsodes claiming to be Homer’s descendants (Graziosi 2002: 75 n. 72). Other names circulated as well; and ‘Homer’ was often said to be a name that the poet acquired late in life.

In some biographies the poet was named Homer after becoming blind, as ὅμηρος allegedly meant ‘blind’. This is again a folk etymology which connects Homer with a quintessential feature of his poetic persona, as blindness was taken to be a sign of the poet’s closeness to the gods (Graziosi 2002: 138-163). According to another etymology proposed in antiquity, based this time on an independently attested meaning of ὅμηρος, Melesigenes was called Homer because he was taken hostage.

The Homeric Corpus

Ancient sources testify to the existence of debates about the Homeric corpus. In antiquity, Homer was considered the author of many hexameter poems, heterogeneous in subject and genre, many of which are known today only from titles or scant fragments (see West 2003a and b). Ancient reflections on their authorship developed also through the creations of biographical anecdotes that explored the interaction between Homer and other minor epic poets: according to these stories, for example, Homer gave away the Cypria as a dowry for his daughter’s when she married the poet Stasinus; the Little Iliad Syncellus, Chron. 316 was stolen from Homer by Testorides and was sometimes attributed to Lesches; Homer gave the Oechaliae Halosis Strabo 14.1.18 Callim. Epigr. 6 to the Samian poet Creophilus as a gift. Comic or parodic poem, such as the Margites Zeno fr. 274 Von Arnim Eustratius, 320.38-321.1 Heylbut and the Batrachomyomachia, were also – not undisputedly – attributed to Homer, and sometimes considered juvenile works.

Only relatively late was the Homeric corpus reduced to the Iliad and Odyssey, arguably in connection with their recognised Panhellenic appeal and their exclusive performance at the Panathenaic festivals (Graziosi 2002, Nagy 2010). Some controversy regarding the Homeric oeuvre continued, particularly in relation to the early epic Thebaid (which never acquired an alternative author) and the Odyssey (which was sometimes denied Homeric authorship).


While Homer’s origins were disputed, all ancient accounts claim that he died after failing to solve a riddle, and only one place was consistently associated with his burial: the island of Ios. The anecdote of the riddle was known to Heraclitus, who referred to it in passing, as if were already widely known in his time. It was also the subject of a fresco in a Pompeian villa (Bergmann 2007: 71-76). The extant versions of the anecdote vary in some details.

Homer approached, or was approached by, some young fisher boys on Ios’ shore. Coming back from fishing they told him, in hexameter, that they left behind all that they caught, and were carrying with themselves all that they did not catch. Homer was unable to sort out the real meaning of the utterance, which was that they had been picking lice. In some versions, the fisher boys were said to come from Arcadia, arguably a clue, given that this area of Greece is land-locked (for interpretations of the riddle see Kahane 2005, for different versions see notes on Certamen 18). Homer died either because of this failure, or, in other versions, after the encounter with the boys, because he was already ill or slipped on some mud. He was then buried on Ios, and an epigram inscribed on his tombstone, transmitted in several literary sources, reminds all readers of the divinity of Homer.


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