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World Chronology, Lesson 12. Homer Writes the Iliad & Odyssey (750 BC)

To complete this lesson, complete the following tasks:

  1.  Study the Lesson, carefully and completely.
  2. Complete the lesson Memory Work.
  3. Complete the lesson Exam.

Lesson

In lesson 01, we studied the four ages of world history, which must always be remembered:

1. The Ancient World (3500-750 BC)
2. The Classical World (750 BC – 500 AD)
3. The Medieval World (500 AD – 1500 AD), and
4. The Modern World (1500 AD to the present day).

In this lesson, we will study the event that ended the Ancient World. In recent lessons, we have studied the life of Abraham, the Hebrew Exodus, the Trojan War, the Life of David, the building of the Temple of Solomon and the founding of Rome. You should be able to explain the history of the world from the beginning of the life of Abraham to the founding of Rome. If you cannot, spend some time reviewing your recent lessons until you can.

When we look back into the ancient world, there is a great deal of mystery. The history of Israel is known quite well, since God moved holy men to record his works from the most ancient times. Once we move outside of Israel, less and less is known. In fact, the further we go, the darker and more mysterious history gets.

We know almost nothing about what happened in early Greece or Rome from the ancient people themselves. As we learned in our lesson on the founding of Rome, most of what we know was written later by poets and historians who were assisted by poetic spirits called “muses”. The story of Rome was not written in 753 BC, when the city was founded. It was written by Virgil over 700 years later. The same is true of ancient Greece and the Trojan War. The Trojan War occurred close to 1200 years before Christ (BC). What we know about the Trojan War and what much of the ancient Greeks and Romans knew about it came from the writings of the Greek poet Homer.

Homer (c. 750 BC)

Homer lived and wrote some time near 750 BC. We know very little about the life of Homer. While history cannot help us, reason can. After all, it is reason that allows us to use what we know to understand what we do not. First, the name Homer is the English form of the Greek word Homeros (ho-MAY-ros), which means “a hostage”. However, since a hostage is led about by another, the word was also used to refer to blind men who were led about by guides. From this, it is believed that Homer was blind and is called the “blind bard”. Bard is another name for a poet.

It is important to note that throughout ancient history, we often find wise men to be blind. One reason for this could be that “wise men” are often old men and old men often lose their vision. However, there may be a philosophical lesson in this as well. The fact that a wise man sees into all sorts of mysteries, yet does so without the help of bodily eyes, helps us to appreciate the value of the “eye of the soul”, which is Reason. While many boast of their excellent sight, we would do better to have no sight at all, so long as our thoughts are guided by the reason God has set within us to lead us into truth.

Second, Homer was an inspired poet. At the beginning of his poems, he prays to the Muses to guide his singing and to help him “see” into the past. As we discussed in the last lesson, ancient poets were more than simple verse writers. They were “creators” who invented stories that explained how things began, how they came to be what they were, and what their importance is to those hearing the stories. They were philosophers and artists who employed their skills not only to tell their stories but to tell them in ways that would be easily remembered and that would have a powerful effect on those who listened.

Third, Homer was a good man, who wrote of virtuous themes, which no evil man would do. Homer writes of love, loyalty, piety, honor, self-sacrifice, courage, justice and promotes respect for marriage, family life and good government.

Putting these pieces together, we can reason that Homer’s stories are worthy of our trust. Many people today enjoy disagreeing with ancient writers, but this is foolish. Why would a man create a lying story that encourages us to obey our parents, give honor to those who deserve it, respect our elders, and so forth? Liars don’t want people to be good, but to be bad like themselves. No ancient man would lie himself to promote honesty among his audience! Refusing to trust in Homer’s honesty does not flow from reason but from prejudice. Those who do not accept the ancient writings of good men have a problem with good men, not their writings.

It is important for us to understand how famous Homer was throughout history. He is called the greatest of all poets by history’s best writers and teachers. The Romans believed that education should begin with Homer, who was the master of every style of writing. That might be confusing since we said he was a poet, but what we find in his poems are speeches, letters, prayers, arguments and more–all of which he writes! Thus, we find in Homer a complete textbook on writing. There is no educated man in history who did not study Homer, and by studying him yourself you can (and should!) share that experience.

We must also understand that these “books” were not books at all when they were first enjoyed in ancient Greece. The poems were sung by Homer to the music of the lyre, usually at a banquet or religious festival.

The two famous poems written by Homer were the Iliad and the Odyssey. Both of these poems teach us about the Trojan War, but each focuses on a different hero.

The Iliad

The Iliad is named after the city of Troy, whose Greek name was Ilion. Homer tells the story of Achilles, who was the greatest of all Greek warriors and famous for his wrath in battle. “Wrath” is the first word of the poem and is also its theme. The greatest Greeks studied the Iliad diligently and Alexander the Great, when he conquered the world 300 years before Christ was said to have slept with the Iliad under his pillow.

Homer sings of the events in the final year of the Trojan War, when the Greeks’ greatest soldier, Achilles was insulted by King Agamemnon. While Achilles was responsible for much of the army’s success in battle, Agamemnon decided to rob Achilles of rewards he deserved, which included a beautiful woman who Achilles had “won”. After Agamemnon insulted Achilles, the warrior’s wrath was kindled and he decided to take his own men and leave the Greek army. The significance of this story is that a warrior’s greatest glory was in his successful return home. After Agamemnon’s insult, Achilles was forced to safeguard his personal honor and give up the chance to earn glory through victory, or to sacrifice his own honor for the sake of victory and glory. His concern for his personal honor led him to sacrifice the glory of victory. Whether he made a good or bad decision is something you should think about.

Agamemnon’s army then suffered terrible losses and he at last was forced to confess his error and plead with Achilles to forgive him and return. The wrath of Achilles did not allow him to overlook Agamemnon’s insult and he refused. He agreed, however, to allow his friend Patroclus to wear his armor and lead his men back into battle. Troy’s greatest warrior, Hector, killed Patroclus in battle, which proved to be a greater source of anger than Agamemnon’s insult, and Achilles returns to the battle in honor of his fallen friend. In single combat, Achilles kills Hector and defiles his body–dragging his dead body around the city and leaving him unburied for days, which in Greek religion was believed to keep a man’s soul from resting in the underworld. Finally, the king of Troy strikes a deal with Achilles to honor Hector, who was an excellent man, and the story ends with Hector’s funeral.

With the story ended, we find that another important theme has to do with Fate. Homer tells us that from Achilles’ birth it was known that he would have to choose between living a long life in peace and quiet or a short life with great glory. We see that Achilles ultimately chooses glory and with it a short life. Before we discuss Achilles’ death, we must learn about his birth. Achilles was believed to be the son of Thetis, a goddess, and Peleus, a human king. Trying to make her son immortal, Thetis held Achilles by the foot and dipped him into the River Styx, the river that flows through the underworld. His entire body was thereby protected, except for the foot she held above the water. Throughout his life he was invincible until Paris, the Trojan prince who stole Helen and caused the Trojan War, launched an arrow that was guided by the god Apollo into the heel of Achilles. It is for this reason that the tendon at the back of our foot is called our “Achilles’ tendon”. It is also the reason why we call a person’s weakness his or her “Achilles’ heel”.

The Odyssey

Homer’s second poem was the Odyssey, named after its main character, the Greek warrior Odysseus. Odysseus was a good king, ruling a small island west of Greece. Odysseus was loved by his family and servants and referred to as the “shepherd of his people”. He was husband to a virtuous and beautiful woman named Penelope and father to an excellent son, Telemachos. Unfortunately, the Trojan War called Odysseus away from his kingdom and family for ten years. After victory in Troy, Odysseus eagerly set sail with his fellow soldiers, looking forward to the happiness he knew was waiting for him at home. Unfortunately, Odysseus meets up with great enemies. First, he visits a land where he is offered lotus plants to eat, which make a man forget about his homeland and allow him to be happy where he is. Odysseus refrains from eating and moves on.

On another stop, Odysseus stops on the island of the Cyclopes. The Cyclopes are a race of one-eyed giants that are uncivilized and savage. Odysseus and his men are caught in the cave belonging to Polyphemus, who kills and eats two of Odysseus’ men and traps the others to eat later! Odysseus tricks Polyphemus into drinking strong wine, causing him to pass out. While he’s sleeping, Odysseus drives a stake into his eye and blinds him. This eventually allows the Greeks to escape and set sail once again.

Scylla and Charybdis await Odysseus with yet another trial. A narrow stretch of water moves between Scylla, a man-eating bird-like monster, on one side and Charybdis, a violent whirlpool that sucks ships to the bottom of the sea on the other. The event is one we all face when it seems we have only bad options to choose from. Odysseus makes the courageous choice to charge right between them and survives–barely.

There is more to come. Odysseus later lands on an island under the control of a nymph named Calypso. Calypso captures Odysseus and imprisons him for seven years. In the meantime, the questions about Odysseus’ condition increase in Ithaca. Penelope, now almost 20 years without a husband, continues to wait.

While Odysseus was away, a number of disrespectful men plan to draw his wife away from Odysseus and seize his throne. They are called “suitors” as they are all competing for Penelope–over 100 men! Despite the constant pressure from the men in Ithaca, and the uncertainty whether Odysseus was even alive, Penelope remained faithful to Odysseus, still hoping that he would one day return to her.

At last, the gods intervene and command the release of Odysseus. Calypso obeys and sends Odysseus away with a ship and supplies. Unfortunately, Odysseus meets up with another terrible enemy, the sea god Poseidon, who demolishes the hero’s new ship and leaves him stranded once again.

Odysseus, near death, makes it to shore among the Phaiakians, who prove to be a hospitable and friendly people. The princess meets Odysseus and brings him to her royal parents who have heard of his fame from Troy and welcome him warmly. At their request, Odysseus tells the story of his painful journey. In the Phaiakians, Odysseus finds the friends he needed, and they provide him with a safe journey home at last.

However, upon returning home, Odysseus finds his home filled with men seeking to win his wife. He disguises himself as a homeless man and slowly reveals himself to his faithful servants and finally his son, Telemachos. In the final scene, Odysseus and Telemachos break into the palace, kill all the suitors and restore order in Ithaca. The reunion of Odysseus and Penelope is one of the most beautiful stories in all of world history.

Thus the famous songs of the poet Homer. These stories, composed around 750 BC end a long, quiet period of history that began after the Trojan War in 1200 BC. This period of silence in Greek history (1200-750 BC) is called the “Dark Age” of Greece. Later in your studies, you will have the opportunity to read these great works with all their detail. For now, we must be content to know the basics. We have thus moved from the beginning to the end of the Ancient World. Can you tell the story thus far?

Memory Work

  • The Ancient World (4000 BC – 750 BC)
  • Life of Abraham (2000 BC – 1780 BC)
  • Hebrew Exodus (1450 BC – 1410 BC)
  • Trojan War (1200 BC)
  • Life of King David (1000 BC – 960 BC)
  • The Temple of Solomon (circa 960 BC)
  • City of Rome Founded (753 BC)
  • Homer Writes the Iliad & Odyssey (750 BC)
  • Classical World (750 BC – 500 AD)
  • Medieval World (500 AD – 1500 AD)
  • Modern World (1500 AD – Present)

Exam

  • World Chronology, Lesson 12 Exam

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