Edith Hall on the Homeric tradition

The British Library holds some of the most important manuscripts of Homer in existence. Watch Edith Hall talk about the importance of the Iliad and the Odyssey from antiquity to the early modern era.

View a selection of the most important Homeric manuscripts.

© British Library

Edith Hall on the Homeric tradition

The two Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which came into being by about the 8th century BC, were the absolute bedrock of Greek culture. Everybody who was a Greek speaker and quite a lot of people for whom Greek was actually a second language, knew these things off by heart, took them all over the Greek world, all the way from the period of colonisation in the 7th century BC to the Fall of Constantinople in the 15th century.

When the great library at Alexandria in Egypt was founded at the beginning of the 3rd century BC, a huge project was conceived of editing all the manuscripts of Homer, both the Iliad and the Odyssey, to produce the perfect text. The first librarian at Alexandria, Zenodotus, was really the first great Homeric scholar. Now the word scholar comes from the same root as the word scholion, which means a comment that you actually write on the text, on the papyrus, some sort of interpretative remark or something to say to look at the grammar. The three great Homeric scholars – Zenodotus, Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristarchus – between them they actually created what they thought was going to be the canonical text. They wanted to have a single perfect text of Homer. The editors of the Homeric text did several different things. They would delete lines they did not like. They sometimes added them or moved them around, or they put in a mark in the margin to show there was some type of question mark over it. They also added comments sometimes, interpretative comments, or comments questioning why Homer had put a particular line in. Now we can actually get access to some of those, all these centuries on, through some manuscripts like the Townley, which is in the British Library, and that dates from the 11th century, but it’s actually full of interpretative comments, some of which may go all the way back to the Alexandrian scholars.

In the Latin West, through the whole period of the flourishing of Byzantium, actually Greek really got forgotten and there were no people who could really read the Greek text of Homer at all. People knew vaguely what was in these poems, because Roman authors talk about them quite a lot. People knew that the Aeneid of Virgil had an awful lot of Homer in it. But it wasn’t until the 14th century when the great humanist scholars, Petrarch and Boccaccio, realised that they were never ever going to understand exactly what Homer was like, until they found a real manuscript and they actually managed to get some out of Constantinople, bring them to the West, and have a scholar called Pilatus actually translate them into Latin. Now that did not happen until quite late in the 14th century, but all of a sudden, people could read the Iliad and the Odyssey in Latin, which they did understand.

The Latin translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey were circulating from 1369 when Pilatus actually finished them. However, it was not until the next century really that people started reading the Greek fluently, and quite a lot of them. In fact, the Harley manuscript in the British Library dates from the middle of the 15th century, which is when the humanist Greeks were actually copying it out a lot, so that an awful lot of manuscripts of Homer were going around all of Western Europe from that point onwards. The real breakthrough, of course, is the printing press and in 1453, you have the fall of Byzantium, so all those Greek texts are getting lost, but fortunately, just enough has been sprung into the West to be printed in Italy at the humanist presses. The first printed edition of Homer comes out in 1488 and Homer is saved for the world.

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A detail from the Townley Homer, featuring the text of the Iliad and accompanying marginal notes and interlinear glosses.

Edith Hall on the Homeric tradition

The British Library holds some of the most important manuscripts of Homer in existence. Watch Edith Hall talk about the importance of the Iliad and the Odyssey from antiquity to the early modern era. - video

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