ElAnt v1n2 - Did Homer Sing at Lefkandi?

Volume 1, Number 2
July 1993


Barry B. Powell,
Department of Classics,
University of Wisconsin,
WI 53706, 
e-mail: powell@macc.wisc.edu

Everybody seems to know that Homer was the flower of Ionia, precursor of the Ionian enlightenment of the sixth century BC, born in Khios or Smyrna. Along the Ionian coast he entertained the descendants of mainland Greeks who had crossed the Aegean archipelago during the Dark Ages to make a better life for themselves. In his songs he reminded this bold race, soon to discover philosophy, of their preeminent ancestors with their centers of power at Mykenai and Pylos who once upon a time had sacked the fortress of Troy just up the coast. What is the evidence for this version of events? Slim, as always when we try to place Homer in historical context, but we do know this:

1. since Homer's dialect is predominantly Ionic he must be Ionian (although his dialect includes many troubling Aeolic forms and Ionic was also spoken on Euboia);
2. Homer seems to have firsthand knowledge of the Troad, ( 1 ) and knows details of life in Asia Minor ( 2 ) (although Homer knows details about life and geography all over Hellas); and
3. his descendants, the Homeridai, who can be traced back into the sixth or even seventh century, ( 3 ) lived on Chios.

'That all adds up, at any rate for the Iliad , to the conclusion that Homer was an Ionian singer, that he lived and worked primarily in Ionia'. ( 4 )

Some recent studies, however, question this Grundprinzip of literary history and suggest that Homer belongs not so much in Ionia as on the island of Euboea, where the Iliad and the Odyssey were written down. I want in this paper briefly to summarise this evidence, which is drawn from four sources:

1. from a clear vision of the relation between the world Homer describes and the world in which he lived;
2. from archaeological finds on Euboia;
3. perhaps from linguistic features; and
4. from the history of writing.

Homer and the Real World

What is the relationship between the world that Homer describes in his poems and real historical time? Four positions have emerged over the last century and a half:

1. Homer depicts the Bronze Age in descriptions inherited through oral tradition.
2. Homer depicts some time between the Bronze Age and his own day, taken to be sometime in the eighth century BC.
3. Homer depicts a world that never existed as such, being a melange drawn from different times, conflated in the oral tradition.
4. Homer depicts his own day, i.e., the eighth century BC.

The first view, that Homer portrayed the Bronze Age, emerged from the archaeological discoveries of Schliemann and his successors, which seemed to prove the historicity of the poems. This view was most successfully propounded in Martin Nilsson's classic Homer and Mycenae (London, 1933), but I doubt anybody really believes it today. The decipherment of Linear B, especially, made clear how unlike the palace system of the Bronze Age were the institutions inscribed in Homer, and M. I. Finley's The World of Odysseus (London, 1954), ( 5 ) argued forcefully against this view.( 6 )

Finley substituted for the 'Mycenaean interpretation' the notion that Homer portrayed the world of the tenth and ninth centuries. He arrived at his position by eliminating the Bronze Age at one end with its palace economies, tholos tombs and so forth, then by eliminating the eighth century at the other end because of the absence of such eighth-century features as the polis, Ionia, Dorians, alphabetic writing, iron weapons, cavalry, colonisation, Greek traders, and communities without kings. This left the tenth and ninth centuries.

Ian Morris scrutinised Finley's arguments closely in his important article of 1986, 'The Use and Abuse of Homer' ( CA 5, pp. 81-138), suggesting that Finley had reached his conclusion 'almost out of desperation'. Dorians, Ionians, iron weapons, cavalry, colonisation, and Greek overseas trade, Morris pointed out, were in fact as easily found in Greece in the tenth century as in the eighth so that the absence of these elements from the poems indicated the poet's desire to create 'epic distance', the impression that his poetic world is different from the everyday world of his listeners. To create 'epic distance' the poet archaises, interjects fantastic elements, and omits certain surface features of his contemporary world, but his assumptions about human nature and his representation of basic social institutions are unaffected. The absence of writing in Homer is a special problem, but by no means excludes an eighth-century date (see below). Kingship may well have been the prevalent form of government in Greece well into the eighth century, assuming that the Homeric basileus was a hereditary king and not simply a 'nobleman'. As for the polis, Morris concluded, its unique political forms were only nascent in the eighth century, just as in fact they appear in Homer.

The third position, that Homer's world is a melange, is probably best argued by Anthony Snodgrass in his article 'An Historical Homeric Society?' of 1974 ( JHS 94, pp. 114-125). Snodgrass's argument depends on an analysis of Homeric conventions of marriage and the devolution of property, which he sees as inconsistent and therefore representative of different stages of social evolution. This argument Morris also discusses in detail, presenting strong arguments for a consistent pattern of marriage and property customs in Homer ( 7 ) Many assume, usually without much argument, that something like Snodgrass's position must be right, ( 8 ) but it seems to me that Morris's arguments must serve as a basis for further discussion of the relation between Homer and the world he portrays: that the social and material realities of Homer's world are not of the Bronze Age, the middle Iron Age, nor are they a melange, but reflect closely the eighth century BC, once one has taken into account the poetic need to create 'epic distance'. ( 9 ) This fact will be critical in our efforts to place Homer, and the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey , on a real place in real time.

Homer's World and the Archaeology of Euboia

If we assume that Homer was describing Greece in the eighth century, we need to discover where in Greece during the eighth century we are likely to find an audience rich enough and influential enough to attract and reward the best entertainers of the day and who would enjoy the martial concerns expressed in the Iliad and the obsession with seafaring portrayed in Odyssey . Certainly archaeological finds on Euboia and in its eighth- century Western colony on Pithekussai and its Levantine outpost at Al Mina during the last twenty years or so establish the Euboians as the most affluent and progressive of all Greeks at this time, and thus more likely to act as patrons of the arts than settlements in Ionia. Direct testimony comes from Hesiod, possible contemporary of Homer, who sang in Euboian Chalkis at the funeral games of Amphidamas ( Erga 654-655).

No doubt Greeks from early times enjoyed a good fight, but the Euboeans occupy a unique position for having fought the first historical war in Greece, on the Lelantine plain. Like the Trojan War, this famous and bitter conflict between Khalkis and Eretria attracted allies throughout the Greek world (Thucydides 1.15), including (for Khalkis) Pharsalos in Thessaly and overseas Samos and Corinth, and (for Eretria) Megara and overseas Miletos. Though the Lelantine war is ordinarily placed in the late eighth century, the earlier foundation about 800 of the more defensible site of Eretria from Lefkandi - whose name may have been 'Old Eretria' or perhaps 'Lelanton' ( 10 ) - makes serious antecedent conflict probable. Thucydides' statement that the war began as a border dispute recommends the view that it was a prolonged conflict that flared up repeatedly. ( 11 ) Such men, whom an early gnomic verse describes as the best fighters in Greece ( 12 ) and whom Homer calls Abantes 'who rage with outstretched spear' ( Iliad 2.536-537, 542-544), may well have had special interest in a story that tells of heroic warfare waged on a plain.

Euboian dedication to war is attested by the find of an extraordinary apsidal temple-like structure dated about 1050-900 BC in the cemetery at Toumba near the Lefkandian settlement of Xeropolis: unparalleled for its size at this time anywhere in Greece and not equalled for more than two centuries, the structure lacks good parallel until the times of Alexander as an example of instant heroisation. ( 13 ) Buried within the structure was the skeleton of a woman adorned with gilt hair coils, a gold pendant, a necklace of gold and faience beads, and gold disks on either breasts and a gold lunate plaque between them, in addition to other treasures, as well as evidence for horse sacrifice (mentioned in Iliad 23.171). Nearby was a bronze amphora containing the ashes of a warrior together with an iron sword, spearhead, and whetstone. The excavators explain the structure as a heroon and the remains as belonging to a great warrior and his consort--she may have been killed ritually to accompany her husband (cf. Iliad 23.175).

Though the heroon at Toumba is dated well before Homer lived, finds at Eretria, which seems to have been founded from Lefkandi, imply continuity of tradition. There a large heroon about 715-690 was constructed at the West Gate cemetery to protect a cluster of warriors' graves, one of which contained four iron swords, five iron spearheads, one bronze spearhead, and a Phoenician scarab in a gold setting. For a hundred years votives and sacrifices were left at the heroon, which faced towards Chalkis, as if to protect the city from enemy attack. ( 14 )

Why does the Trojan expedition, led by Argive captains, assemble in Aulis, just opposite Chalkis? This detail, for which no good explanation has been offered, would have appealed to Euboians who actually gathered ships for overseas expeditions in the waters below the Euripus. Throughout the Iron Age they maintained trade connections with the Levant, bringing back objects of wealth and artistic importance, to judge from recent finds at Lefkandi; ( 15 ) a prominent feature in Homer's poetry is his description of objects of fine workmanship. Beginning about 800 BC Euboians traveled to the other end of the Mediterranean to found Greece's earliest western colony on Pithekoussai, modern Ischia, in the Bay of Naples. ( 16 ) Their purpose there was not to relieve excess population, but to trade in metals. ( 17 ) Perhaps we should think of Mentes' explanation to Telemakhos of his reason for putting into Ithaka with ship and crew, sailing on the winedark sea to men of strange speech, 'to Temese to find copper, and I bear with me shining armor' ( Odyssey 1.184): according to Strabo (255-256) Temese is 'Tempsa' lies to the west in Bruttium in southwest Italy. ( 18 )

Yet it is above all the Odyssey 's theme of longing for home after dangerous adventure in the far West that places its poet among the very men who traveled to the far West in the early eighth century when everything there was mysterious and strange, to whom Skylla and Kharybdis were the dangerous Straits of Messina, island Aiolis the Lipari Islands, and Kirke's island somewhere, like Pithekoussai, near the Bay of Naples. Odysseus' journey is roughly the sea route from Euboia to Pithekoussai. Going in the other direction, Homer describes Euboia as 'the furthest of lands' whither the Phaiakians once carried Rhadamanthus to visit Tityus ( Odyssey 7.322-323). Ithaka itself lies on the coasting route from Euboia to the far West. It is hardly probable that the Odyssey could have been composed independently of Euboian historical experience in the eighth century BC.

Homer's Dialect

Even if Homer were Ionian by birth, as tradition maintained, linguistic evidence suggests that his epic dialect may not be East Ionic at all - against communis opinio - but Central or West Ionic. This, at least, M. L. West has argued recently, ( 19 ) citing as evidence the treatment of original labiovelar in pou , pos , pote , poios , etc., which in East Ionic gives k instead of p , and the occasional absence of compensatory lengthening following the loss of postconsonantal wau (e.g. enate for einate ). ( 20 ) P. Wathelet concludes that the latter feature is, in fact, Euboian. ( 21 ) 'Attic' correption, i.e. the treatment of a syllable as short before plosive + liquid (e.g. the final syllable of pteroenta in epea pteroenta proseuda ), also seems characteristic of West rather than East Ionic. Taken together, these linguistic features 'point in the direction of Euboea as the area in which the epic language acquired its definitive and normative form. I know of no counter- indications that would favour Asia Minor', according to West. ( 22 )

Homer and Writing

Central to the Homeric Question, and to the present topic, is the relation between Homer and writing. We are in a better position now than ever before to understand this problem.( 23 ) Some basics:

(a) The Iliad and the Odyssey are oral compositions, sung by an accomplished bard, the inheritor of an old tradition of oral verse-making. (b) The Iliad and the Odyssey come down to us because someone wrote them down; they cannot have been passed on orally in the form in which we have them because oral poems are subject to variation and recreation at each performance. (c) It is hardly likely that the bard himself wrote down these poems, since aoidoi have no need of writing. ( 24 ) Whoever wrote down the Iliad and the Odyssey made use of an invention, the Greek alphabet, a new kind of writing capable of recording the phonetic nuances essential to reconstruct the rough form of oral verse from graphic markings. I have argued elsewhere the alphabet was invented expressly for the purpose of recording Homer's poetry. ( 25 )

Recording the Iliad and the Odyssey required a new technology. Present archaeological evidence indicates that the Euboians were the first to have this technology, which is plausible considering their presence from the early Iron Age in the Levant. ( 26 ) From Lefkandi, in addition to abundant gold, ivory, and faience objects from the eastern Mediterranean, come the very earliest Greek inscriptions, dated by stratification to as early as about 775-750. ( 27 ) Other very early Greek alphabetic inscriptions are found in the West, where Chalkis apparently joined with Eretria in friendly times to found the colony on Pithekoussai. The cemetery in the Valle San Montano on Pithekoussai, where much pottery was found, has produced eighth century inscriptions, including the three lines, with two hexameters, on the celebrated 'Cup of Nestor', about 730, together with objects imported from north Syria (Al Mina?), from Phoenicia, and from Egypt. Settlers from Pithekoussai, together with new arrivals from Euboia and Boiotia, soon settled Cumae on the Italic mainland across the bay, an outpost that must have included settlers from a Euboian Kyme or some Aiolic Kymaians who gave the name of their mother city to the Italian colony. ( 28 ) From Italian Cumae the Etruscans took their writing about 700, which, transmitted by Rome, is our own. ( 29 ) Khalkidic inscriptions from the eighth century also appear on Boiotian bronze cauldrons dedicated on the Acropolis at Athens. ( 30 )

A pattern underlies the data. The Euboians traded in Al Mina in the Levant where they could easily have seen the Phoenician writing on which a Greek inventor based the Greek alphabet; Euboian Lefkandi yields our earliest evidence of Greek alphabetic writing; Euboians founded Pithekoussai in the eighth century, where other early remnants of alphabetic writing have been discovered; from Pithekoussai the Euboic alphabet soon spread to the mainland. A report in Herodotus (5.57-58) supports the epigraphic and archaeological evidence connecting Euboians and early alphabetic literacy:

'the Gephyraian clan, whence came the slayers of Hipparkhos, came first, according to its own traditions, from Eretria; but according to my own inquiries, they belonged to the Phoenicians who came with Kadmos . . . [who] brought into Hellas letters, which had previously been unknown . . . The Euboians first of all the Greeks possessed the technical means to write down, and preserve, Homer's oral verse'.

Summary and Conclusion

It is conventional to think of Homer as an Ionian poet, but evidence of a diverse nature suggests that he must have spent some of his career on Euboia, and probably on Euboia his poems were written down. There in the eighth century, perhaps in Lefkandi or in Chalkis or Eretria, he entertained the aristoi . Building his song on ancient traditional tales about the Trojan war, he explored in the Iliad , set in Asia Minor, contemporary concerns about social obligation and right and wrong on the field of battle, vivid to fighters on the Lelantine plain. Into the Odyssey , set in Italy and in the western islands, a folktale about a man who returns home after a long absence, he wove the themes of the love of home and of family right embroidered by detail taken from firsthand accounts vivid to men who had actually journeyed to the far west.

Euboia was the center of Greek culture in the Iron Age, a magnet that attracted the best entertainers. The epic tradition must have flourished for a good while in Euboia, if his dialect is in fact Euboian. A Euboian who had visited the Levant modified West Semitic writing to fashion a new technology capable of preserving the sounds of the Greek hexameter and the earliest remnants of this new technology have been found in Euboia or in sites in or near Euboic colonies. Once written down, in Chalkis or Lefkandi or Eretria, Homer's poems were copied and recopied, as were Hesiod's and later oral poets. The written versions of oral song carried far and wide the technology of writing and the values of the aristoi embodied in these poems, so laying the foundations of classical and Western civilisation.


1. For example, that you can see the Troad from the peaks of Samothrace ( Iliad 13.12).

2. For example, that women of Maeonia or Caria stain ivory with scarlet ( Iliad 4.142). Cf. also Iliad 2.144 ff. (winds on the Icarian sea), 459 ff. (cranes on the Caystrian meadow), 9.5 (winds from Thrace).

3. Pindar Nemean 2.1 ff., with scholium; H. T. Wade-Gery, The Poet of the Iliad (Cambridge, 1952), pp. 19-21.

4. G. S. Kirk, in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature I (Cambridge, 1985), p. 49.

5. 2nd ed. London, 1978 (reprinted Harmondsworth, 1979). See also Finley's Economy and Society in Ancient Greece (London, 1981; reprinted Harmondsworth, 1983).

6. Yet this position underlies the successful BBC television series 'In Search of the Trojan War', accompanied by Michael Wood's best-selling book of the same title (Oxford, 1985).

7. Morris also discusses opposing analyses of Homeric values brought forth by A. Adkins and A. Long.

8. For example, J. Hurwit in The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 B.C. (Ithaca, 1985), p. 52.

9. Cf. also O. T. P. K. Dickinson's important 'Homer, the Poet of the Dark Age', Greece and Rome , ser. 2, (1986) 33, pp. 20- 37.

10. M. R. Popham, L. H. Sackett and P. G. Themelis, eds. (with a contribution by L. H. Jeffery), Lefkandi I: The Iron Age Text, BSA Suppl. 11, 2 (London, 1980), pp. 423-427.

11. Cf. L. H. Jeffery, Archaic Greece: The City-States c. 700- 500 B.C. (London, 1976), pp. 63-70; R. Janko, Homer, Hesiod, and the Hymns (Cambridge, 1982), pp. 94-98 (with bibliography).

12. Specifically Khalkidians: Jeffery, Archaic Greece , pp. 67 and 134.

13. M. R. Popham, E. Touloupa and L. H. Sackett, 'Further Excavation of the Toumba Cemetery at Lefkandi, 1981', BSA 77 (1982), pp. 213-248; idem , 'The Hero of Lefkandi', Antiquity 56 (1982), pp. 159-164. Cf. D. Ridgway, The First Western Greeks (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 17-19.

14. J. N. Coldstream, Geometric Greece (London, 1977), pp. 196- 201.

15. M. R. Popham, P. G. Calligas, and L. H. Sackett, 'Further Excavation of the Toumba Cemetery at Lefkandi, 1984 and 1098, A Preliminary Report', Archaeological Reports 35 (1988-89), pp. 117-129.

16. The earliest pottery is about 770 BC. Cf. J. Boardman, The Greeks Overseas , 2nd ed. (London, 1980), pp. 165-168; Coldstream, Geometric Greece , pp. 221-233.

17. Cf. S. C. Bakhuizen, Chalkis-in-Euboea, Iron and Chalkidians Abroad , Chalkidian Studies 3 (Leiden, 1976), pp. 65-67 (with bibliography).

18. Strabo opposes a tradition identifying Temese with Cyprian inland Tamassos, favored by some modern commentators; for example, A. Heubeck, S. West, J. B. Hainsworth, A Commentary on Homer's Odyssey I (Oxford, 1988), ad loc.

19. 'The Rise of the Greek Epic', JHS 107 (1988), pp. 165- 167.

20. Cf. P. Chantraine, Grammaire homerique I 3 (Paris, 1958), pp. 61-63.

21. Les traits eoliens dans la langue de l'epope grecque (Rome, 1970), pp. 154-157.

22. Commentary on Homer's Odyssey I, p. 166. Others find such arguments unconvincing, e.g. R. Janko (personal communication).

23. See my Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (Cambridge, 1991; hereafter, Origin ), for a thorough review of the issues and the evidence.

24. This conclusion is fundamental to the Parry-Lord model, to which I ascribe. There will always be those who wish to place a pen in Homer's hand but there is no good reason for thinking this and good reasons for thinking otherwise.

25. Powell, Origin ; see also B. Powell, 'Why Was the Greek Alphabet Invented? The Epigraphic Evidence', CA 8 (1989), pp. 321-350.

26. Cf. J. Coldstream, Geometric Greece , pp. 196 ff.: 'On epigraphical grounds, the Euboeans certainly have a strong claim to be regarded as the first Greeks to write alphabetically; and their merchants at Al Mina, living among a Phoenician majority, would have been especially well placed for learning enough Phoenician to master the alphabet an early stage, and then bringing back their discovery to the Greek homeland'.

27. Powell, Origin , p. 123, no. 1. The date 775-50 BC for these fragments was given in L. H. Jeffery's unpublished talk (Ithaca, New York, 1979). About this date M. Popham writes (personal communication, July 1987): 'I take it Anne Jeffery was referring to inscription no. 102 on page 90 of Lefkandi I, the context of which is given in the catalogue at page 93 and discussed at page 19 - i.e. it was found in a pit under a floor, the pottery from which is considered by Desborough at pages 48-9, where he is inclined to make all the contents Sub-Protogeometric III with just some doubts about one possible incipient Late Geometric fragmentary vase (nos. 482-4). If the context is accepted as Sub-Protogeometric III but near Late Geometric, as it seems Desborough thought, then the date of 775 B.C is reasonable, but there is no absolute certainty'.

28. Strabo 247; Livy 8.22.6, confirmed by modern excavation.

29. Cf. L. H. Jeffery, The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece (Oxford, 1961), pp. 236-237. A very early inscription of a few letters, about 770-750, has now been published from Latium (not included in Powell, Origin ), discovered in Tomb 482 in Osteria dell'Osa, 16 kms. east of Rome. See A. M. Bietti-Sestieri, The Latin Cemetery of Osteria dell' Osa (Oxford, 1992), ad loc.

30. Powell, Origin , p. 145. Even the famous Dipylon oinochoe inscription found in Athens, a hexameter and some additional signs, was evidently inscribed about 740 BC by a non- Athenian (an Eretrian?). For this puzzling inscription, see B. Powell, 'The Dipylon Oinochoe Inscription and the Spread of Literacy in 8th Century Athens', Kadmos 27 (1988), pp. 65- 86.

Barry B. Powell
e-mail: powell@macc.wisc.edu

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Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 2 - July 1993
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606