ElAnt v1n3 - OBLOQUY - Was Homer Euboean? A Reply

Volume 1, Number 3
August 1993


John R. Lenz, 
Department of Modern and Classical Languages, 
Texas A & M University, 
College Station, 
TX 77843-4238, 
e-mail: jrlenz@tamu.edu

The provocative article, 'Did Homer Sing at Lefkandi?' by Barry Powell (hereafter 'P.') in EA Volume 1 Issue 2 (July 1993) , inspires me to submit a few comments in reply to its thesis, together with a concluding remark about the new medium of electronic publishing which makes this interchange possible.

P.'s main idea may prove to be inspired, but not for all of the reasons alleged; a few of these, in fact, do not support his thesis.

P. somewhat misleadingly uses Herodotus. He writes: '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" ( sic )'.

Hdt. is misrepresented, and not only through the unfortunate typo by which the last, editorial sentence is included with the words of the source. The abbreviated quotation together with P.'s conclusion give the impression that some Phoenicians went to Euboia. Hdt., of course, has Kadmos found Thebes. He describes (V.57, 62.1) how the Gephyraioi received Boiotian Tanagra from Kadmos and later were expelled from there to Athens (60 years after the Trojan War!, according to Thuc. I.12.3). The point of the quoted passage (in full) is that Hdt. rejects an Eretrian ancestry of the Gephyraioi (which might seem more likely but, to Hdt. at least, non-Kadmeian ). Only the claims of Boiotia, not Euboia, to the first alphabet could be fostered by this problematic evidence (and by Hdt. V.59-62.1).

The same slip occurs in P.'s book (except for the migrating quotation mark), from which, in fact, the electronic paragraph containing the above quotation comes. ( 1 )

This is after all a needless error, since Euboia and its colonies certainly were among the earliest and perhaps the first places where the Greeks adapted the alphabet from Phoenicia. The archaeological evidence for this provides a successful example of the 'Gordian knot' approach to traditional myth-historical problems that 'new' archaeologists and bold theorists favor. However, the ancient biographical traditions about Homer deserve at least a mention among the reasons (given in P.'s opening paragraph) to believe that the poet was active in Ionia above all. ( 2 ) Reasons for rejecting or minimising these persistent traditions also deserve to be stated.

Powell does not exactly claim that Homer was Euboian, but he does write that Homer 'spent some of his career on Euboia' and 'belongs' there, where 'his poems were written down', '[e]ven if [he] were Ionian by birth, as tradition maintained . . . '. ( 3 )

Homer uses Ionian reference-points in five places, all in similes. ( 4 ) Similes, which compare the unknown to the known, are especially telling about not only the poet's background, but his audience. ( 5 ) They show much more than that the poet 'knows details of life' in (P., paragraph 1) or 'knew the geography of' (1991, p. 231), Asia Minor (there are more examples of that). Homer knows about many places and surely traveled as an itinerant bard; it is all the more striking that (as far as I recall) no reference-points other than Asian ones are used in similes in the Iliad . Euboia and Euboians have no importance in Homer's poems; the exotic Abantes are mentioned only once outside of the Catalogue of Ships. ( 6 ) Both the Iliad and the Odyssey show familiarity with Ionian festival-sites, which may have been places for poetic performances; Euboians were not, historically, an important part of that world. ( 7 )

Does linguistic evidence point to composition of both the Iliad and the Odyssey in Euboia? If it might, in part, it is not because M.L. West thinks so. West himself writes: 'The Odyssey might well be a Euboean poem . . . But the poet of the Iliad , to all appearance, lived in Asia Minor'. He reiterates this view in a 1992 article. ( 8 ) His date of c. 750 BC as the time when Ionian epic 'overran Greece' (1988, p. 165, cp. p. 151), although surely a rough estimate, also does not enable him to be used (without modification) in support of an Ionic Euboian Homer as early as c. 775. When West points to 'Euboea as the area in which the epic language acquired its definitive and normative form' ( 9 ), he refers, not to the composition of the Iliad (on his view), but to the source of its peculiar mixture of Aeolic and Ionic dialect-forms. West implies a path going from Thessaly to Euboia to Asia Minor for the Iliad and in Euboia again for the Odyssey . ( 10 ) One might then wish to cut out the Eastern Aegean middleman from this scenario, but that is worth doing explicitly. But it can not be denied that epic had spread to Asia Minor by the time of the Iliad .

By the way, the paragraph in which P. discusses the above subject (beginning 'Even if Homer lived in Ionia . . .') is repeated from Powell 1991, pp. 231-232. In one place it provides another scribal error arising from the transmission from books to bytes ( 11 ): doubly inauspicious for the new technology.

However long the epic tradition remained (on West's and P.'s view) in Euboia, only a predecessor of Homer's (of course; with P.) could have sung at the misnamed 'heroon' of Lefkandi (dated c. 1000-950 BC [not 900]). It is worth noting that this building is almost certainly a private house (of a basileus ?), not a heroon. James Whitley aptly writes, 'indeed I know of no scholar, apart from the excavators, who does (believe that it was built as a heroon)'. ( 12 ) Even in its final state this structure is best called simply a monumental burial, until evidence of a hero-cult is ever published. Thus it is far the best archaeological candidate we have (and perhaps even the only one) for an early Greek house (of the Dark Age or eighth century) large enough to have hosted a group enjoying feasting and poetry.

If we agree with P., Ian Morris, and an apparently increasing scholarly consensus that we should look to the eighth century (or even the seventh) for Homer, then (as P. suggests) Eretria becomes a more important Euboian candidate for his activity than Lefkandi. But so do other Greek cities. The key point in P.'s essay is not that Euboia was wealthy, active and warring in the tenth through eighth centuries BC Dark Age Athens, Argos and Knossos were all richer than had been believed not long ago. By the eighth century, and especially 750 BC, many places would have satisfied P.'s historical criteria for the emergence of epic. Trade, war and doubtless poetry were at home in (e.g.) Ionian cities such as Samos, Chios, Miletos and Smyrna (although Lefkandi has now replaced Old Smyrna as the archaeological analogy of choice for a Homeric city). (Recall, e.g., the Meliac War, the knowledge of Asia Minor in the Iliad and, for what it is worth, the later Chian singer of the Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo [l. 172].) The Lelantine War cannot be used as evidence for an Euboian Iliad of c. 775 BC; this war surely came after the period of cooperation between Chalkis and Eretria, as evidenced by their joint settlement at Pithekoussai between 750 and 700. ( 13 ) Such a date for the war accords with what we know of the growth of the other cities involved, such as Corinth. The argument (for making use of this war, mentioned at Thuc. I.15.3, as a model for Homer's descriptions of war) that earlier border conflict was likely is one that could apply anywhere in the Greek world. Likewise, the later in the eighth or even seventh century the poems were composed, the more places in Greece could have identified with, and by their activity inspired, the Odyssey 's sea-faring sagas. Off-hand identification by P. of Kirke's island with Pithekoussai unnaturally favors his Euboian hypothesis. Justification should be given for assuming that Homer's first audience identified any of the fantastic places on Odysseus' voyages with real places in Italy and the West. ( 13 )

The real point of P.'s argument is that by placing the composition of the Iliad in Euboia, c. 775, Homer's words become the spark which ignited the mind of the man who adapted the Greek alphabet from Phoenician script. This provides the underpinning for P.'s earlier radical suggestion that the Greek alphabet was invented by a single adapter for the purpose of writing down Homeric hexameters. ( 14 ) It seems an extraordinary coincidence. I (speaking personally) find it difficult to accept P.'s thesis that the panhellenic dissemination of Homeric epic was as early and as rapid as, co-extensive with, and the agent for, the spread of the epichoric scripts. This model of a text carrying the technology of writing is to me both factually and theoretically paradoxical and puzzling. Its supposed advantages for cultural history deserve more theoretical discussion. ( 16 ) But I defer on these large issues I did not intend to comment on - this is not a review - while regretting, however, not the missed opportunity for musing on a new technology, but the un-Classical propensity of 'wir Philologen' to take shelter behind our citations and mis- citations.

Returning (thus) more narrowly to Homer, it seems that P.'s new explanations do not fit the poems neatly into his mold. In restricting himself in his book (1991, pp. 187-208) to the archaeology of the alphabet, P. rejected other archaeological means of dating the Iliad and the Odyssey . Yet these provide indications for a terminus post quem of later than 775 BC. As two obvious examples, temples only began to flourish c. 750 BC (the first Eretrian hekatompedon being built only c. 725 BC) ( 17 ); and lamps (admittedly mentioned but once, in the Odyssey ) only reappear at Athens c. 700. ( 18 ) Perhaps, as Powell (1991) provocatively shows, archaeology is not the key to Homer but only gives us the shadow of pale Homeric shades. The archaeological evidence now brought to bear in P.'s article, I believe, helps little in the dating of the Iliad and the Odyssey (both of which P. dates in the early eighth century). A widespread countervailing trend to lower the date of the poems and the society in them is compatible with his points and other facts. ( 19 ) In fact, a resurrected belief that Hesiod predates Homer would almost better fit P.'s case. ( 20 )

Thus, an eighth-century Euboian crucible for Homeric epic (or Hesiod's?) is an intriguing suggestion, but not for all of the reasons P. cites.

I am grateful for this new service to the field: Electronic Antiquity , B. Powell's stimulating article, and the opportunity to add immediately my own comments to the debate (an endless one, in this case). But I must repeat a concern. This journal provides a forum for topical discussion of all sorts. It is a varied resource with fluid guidelines; inevitably, at first, we copy print mannerisms (end-notes, for one, will have to go if we wish to read articles on screen). But Electronic Antiquity is still a publication. To repeat entire paragraphs from a book unacknowledged , while adding new word-processing errors and updating only a couple of references, seems, to me, an inappropriate if not retrograde use of a new and promising technology, electronic publishing, which is striving to attain legitimacy. In a world where quantifying administrators do not convert their trade experience into Homeric poetry as keenly as do Powell's Euboians, as well as for scholarly reasons of our own, this apparent callousness ill-serves this journal's inaugural efforts and mars what is otherwise a radical and informative thesis.

I am sorry if this sounds humorless or self-serving; in my own submission, I have, no doubt, spoken hastily and perhaps unwisely allowed myself a few half-baked asides. My feeling is that discussions, digests, first looks, whole reprints, second thoughts or ninety-ninth ones would all be useful in computerised form - if acknowledged as such; for it is up to us to set the guidelines.


1. B.B. Powell, Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 16-17; hereafter 'Powell (1991)'. P. had rejected the story of Kadmos at p. 10. Cp. W.W. How and J. Wells, A Historical Commentary on Herodotus , Vol. II (Oxford, 1912, rpt. 1980), p. 25, for a guess (only) about why Herodotus may have wrongly assumed the Gephyraioi to have been Phoenicians.

2. Vitae : T.W. Allen, ed., Homeri Opera (Oxford, 1912), Vol. V, pp. 184 ff. (this edition is available on the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae [ TLG ] 'D' disk). The late Certamen Homeri et Hesiodi fancifully has Homer competing with Hesiod in Aulis (l. 55). Cp. G.L. Huxley, 'Homer's Perception of his Ionian Circumstances', Maynooth Review 3 (1977), pp. 73-84; M.R. Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Greek Poets (Baltimore, 1981), ch. 2; K. Rhomaios, 'The Pseudo-Herodotean Life of Homer and Chios', in J. Boardman and C.E. Vaphopoulou- Richardson, eds., Chios: A Conference at the Homereion in Chios 1984 (Oxford, 1986), pp. 21-26; H.T. Wade-Gery, The Poet of the Iliad (Cambridge, 1952).

3. Cp. Powell (1991), p. 17: 'Homer . . . came from Smyrna, according to an old story, and lived in Khios . . .'. The present thesis of an Euboian Homer avoids the awkwardness of needing to use this 'old story' in roundabout support of the idea that Homer inspired the adaptation of the alphabet by a travelling Euboian ( ibid. , pp. 16-17, 232).

4. Il. II.144-149; II.459-465; IV.141-147; IX.4-8 (foregoing examples in P., n. 2); XX.403-405 (mention of the Helikonion anakta shows knowledge of the Panionia festival at Mykale: Huxley, 'Homer's Perception of his Ionian Circumstances', p. 79; Wade-Gery, Poet of the Iliad , pp. 3-5).

5. This point does not depend upon the argument of G.P. Shipp, Studies in the Language of Homer , 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1972), that the similes display 'late' language. Definition of such has met with difficulties (cp. Powell [1991], p. 207). Similes may of course make use of traditional language (as noted by W.C. Scott, The Oral Nature of the Homeric Simile [Leiden, 1974], p. 162). Shipp's well-known view seems to carry assumptions which go against the now widely accepted axiom that oral poetry is in a constant state of recreation (cp., recently, G. Nagy, 'Homeric Questions', TAPhA 122 [1992], pp. 17-60).

6. But M.L. West, 'The Rise of the Greek Epic', JHS 108 (1988), pp. 151-172, at p. 168, holds that the Euboian contingent ( Il. II.536-545) is the most 'fully and distinctively characterized' one. Arguments along such lines do not necessarily go very far; they imply a direct relationship between patronage and the contents (rather than the ideology) of the text. Strabo X.1.3 (445) reports a tradition that the Abantes came from Thrace; this would be relevant (to consider, at least) for P.'s view of them as patrons and/or models for the Iliad .

7. Il. XX.403-405 (see n. 4, above) and Od. vi.162-169 (Odysseus compares Nausikaa to the sacred palm tree at Delos). Eretria once ruled the northern Cyclades Andros, Tenos and Keos according to Strabo X.1.10 (448). Archaeologically these islands and Delos were within the same cultural milieu as Euboia, Thessaly and Skyros only in the early ninth century (V.R.d'A. Desborough, The Greek Dark Ages [London, 1972], pp. 195, 348; J.N. Coldstream, Geometric Greece [London, 1977], pp. 40-45). (Eretria as such probably did not yet exist then.) Thereafter a small Euboian presence is found at Delos only by c. 700 BC (Coldstream, ibid. , p. 215). A study of the development of Delos, such as that of C. Morgan for Olympia and Delphi ( Athletes and Oracles [Cambridge, 1990]) would be useful.

8. West, 'Rise of the Greek Epic', p. 172, cp. p. 165; idem , 'The Descent of the Greek Epic: A Reply', JHS 112 (1992), pp. 173-175, at p. 173, n. 3. P. does not cite the latter article or the lively responses to West, 'Rise of the Greek Epic' by J. Chadwick and W.F. Wyatt, Jr., JHS , 1990 and 1992, respectively.

9. West, 'Rise of the Greek Epic', p. 166; quoted by P. (1991), p. 232 = the text of his article accompanying n. 22.

10. West thus explains possible Euboian elements in the Iliad , such as the role of Aulis and the Catalogue's description of the Abantes ('Rise of the Greek Epic', p. 168; see above, n. 6). R.M. Cook argued that Hesiod's father, who migrated back (so to speak) from Aeolian Kyme to the mainland ( WD 635-636), taught his son poetry ('Hesiod's Father', JHS 109 [1989], pp. 170-171).

11. P.'s note 22 should cite p. 166 of M.L. West, 'Rise of the Greek Epic', not S. West (1988). The misread source is Powell (1991), p. 232, n. 30.

12. J. Whitley, BSA 86 (1991), pp. 341-365, at p. 350, n. 65; idem , Style and Society in Dark Age Greece: The Changing Face of a Pre-literate Society 1100-700 BC (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 185-186; A. Mazarakis Ainian, Ant.Cl. 54 (1985), pp. 5- 48, at p. 9; idem in R. Hagg, et al. , eds., Early Greek Cult Practice (Stockholm, 1988), pp. 105-119, at p. 116; P. Calligas, ibid. , p. 232; West, 'Rise of the Greek Epic', pp. 166-167. K. Fagerstrom, Greek Iron Age Architecture (Goteborg, 1988), is unduly non-committal (pp. 59, 123, n. 77, and 129). The excavators recently referred to 'the monumental MPG building' (M.R. Popham, et al. , AR 35 [1989], p. 123). See now R. W.V. Catling and I.S. Lemos, Lefkandi II: The Protogeometric Building at Toumba. Part I: The Pottery (Athens and London, 1990).

I do not know if this passage has been (or should be) used in guessing the name of Lefkandi (cp. next note): Strabo (X.1.9 [447]) once says that a city (perhaps located by him near the Euripus) named Euboia or Eubois was destroyed by an earthquake, and that Aiskhylos referred to a famous tomb there. This is an electronic throw-away. Elsewhere Strabo may preserve facts about the ninth century (see above, n. 7).

13. The Catalogue of Ships, for what it is worth, also groups the Euboians together under one leader ( Il. II.536-545), naming Chalkis and Eretria among other places. West, 'Rise of the Greek Epic', p. 168, shows that the language (at least) of the Catalogue is Ionian. The common guess that Lefkandi is the same as Strabo's 'Old Eretria' might influence a reading of the Catalogue's entry 'Eretria'. But 'Old Eretria' was not Lefkandi; it was the pre-Persian city (Str. X.1.10 [448]) and in a different direction (Str. IX.2.6 [403]); see A. Mazarakis Ainian, 'Geometric Eretria', Ant.K. 30 (1987), pp. 3-24, at pp. 21-22.

14. E. Cook, 'Ferrymen of the Dead and the Homeric Phaeacians', JIES 20 (1992), pp. 239 ff., shows that the land of the Phaiakians is a mythical one derived from both Indo- European and Near Eastern myths of islands of the blessed.

15. Cp. the review of Powell (1991) by I. Morris, CPh 88 (1993), pp. 71-77. Concerning Homer, the split is between relative purists who believe our text is derived from one written down in the eighth century and those who prefer a period of post- Homeric oral transmission culminating in a recension such as the possible Peisistratid one. G. Nagy, 'Homeric Questions' offers a useful compromise, his 'evolutionary model' (p. 52) by which the text became increasingly static through panhellenic oral transmission until its writing down in c. 550 BC. Views such as P.'s rely more on the Alexandrian editors for standardisation of the text.

16. E.g., Nagy, 'Homeric Questions' insists that writing was only used as a transcript of a performance (rather than forming part of a performance itself, as is the case with, e.g., the inscription on 'Nestor's cup') beginning in c. 550 BC (e.g., pp. 35, 41). Cp. idem , Pindar's Homer (Baltimore, 1990), chs. 1-3, and J. Svenbro, Phrasikleia: Anthropologie de la lecture en grece ancienne (Paris, 1988; now in English translation). Nagy, 'Homeric Questions', p. 33, cites a date of c. 700-675 BC as the earliest date claimed for widespread diffusion of the Iliad and Odyssey . Some assume an earlier date, for example in explaining the dedications in the Polis cave on Ithaka or eighth- century hero-cults generally (J.N. Coldstream, 'Hero-Cults in the Age of Homer', JHS 96 [1976], pp. 8-17; answered, however, by, e.g., I. Morris, Antiquity 62 [1988], pp. 750-761, and J. Whitley, JHS 108 [1988], pp. 173-182). Cp. the discussion of Powell (1991), pp. 208 ff.; he believes the epics inspired an artistic revolution c. 725 BC (p. 216). My own present point is that because of a wealth of recent study of orality and the technology of writing, the issue is not purely one of positivistic archaeology.

17. The Middle Protogeometric structure at Lefkandi is not a temple (cp. above, n. 12, pace Powell [1991], p. 195). The misnamed 'bay hut' (c. 750) at Eretria is more likely to have been a house than a temple; a sacral function is possible, but based solely on the structure's proximity to the later temple of Apollo. Cp. Mazarakis, 'Geometric Eretria' (cited at n. 13, above) and J.R. Lenz, Eretria , The Dictionary of Art (London, forthcoming). For early Iron Age architecture, the works by Mazarakis (especially) and Fagerstrom (cited in nn. 12 and 13, above) are fundamental. A book by Mazarakis has for some time been announced as forthcoming from Astroms.

18. Lamps: only at Od. xix.33-34; Powell (1991), pp. 201- 202. In his forthcoming book, E. Cook (University of Texas, Austin) argues at length that Athene's lamp and other features of the Od. make best sense in terms of seventh-century Athenian cult.

As an archaeological aside, translating sideron in Od. i.184 as 'shining armor' rather than 'iron' seems a forced way of removing the historical difficulty (that 'Mentes' trades copper for iron).

19. In an important forthcoming article, 'The Government of Troy', W. Sale (Washington University, St. Louis, MO.) demonstrates that in its political structure the Troy of the Iliad is modeled on an eighth-century oligarchy (of a type found both in Ionia and on the mainland). K. Stanley, The Shield of Homer (Princeton, 1993; not seen by me) argues that the Iliad was substantially written in sixth-century Athens.

20. Cp. M.L. West, Hesiod Theogony (Oxford, 1966), pp. 46-47; this was an ancient belief. As West says, Hesiod's poems may in any case have been written down earlier than Homer's were. Hesiod ( WD 654-657) of course provides the only 'direct testimony' (P.) of Euboian patronage of poetry.

P.S. I am grateful to a colleague, Steve Oberhelman, for some careful editing; he is too wise to be associated either with my opinions or tone.

John R. Lenz
e-mail: jrlenz@tamu.edu

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 3 - August 1993
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606