Homer, according to the ancient Greeks, was the greatest of their poets. He composed two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Several Greek cities in the east claimed to be his birthplace, his birth and death dates were variously quoted, and the tradition said that he was blind. In fact we know almost nothing about Homer, apart from what can be deduced from the poems themselves. These seem to have been composed between about 750-650BC, and were characteristic of oral poetry: that is, poems designed to be recited and heard rather than written and read. The subject matter of the poems was traditional, and potentially centuries old, though undoubtedly adapted over time to suit new audiences.

The existence of Homer as an historical individual has been doubted. However, it remains possible to accept that he was an oral poet or bard of genius who created two great enduring poems from the mythological tradition. Homer probably did not use writing, but the Phoenician alphabet was introduced to Greece at about the time that the poems were composed. His followers may have written down the poems shortly afterwards.

The sophistication and complexity of the Iliad and Odyssey are remarkable for works positioned at the very beginning of Greek literature. Oral transmission meant that, while they were precursors of Greek literature, they were also successors to a long tradition of storytelling. Nonetheless, Homer's standing as a great poet was perhaps the real reason for their lasting fame.

Related galleries