This subject covers the epic poems of Homer and the didactic poetry of Hesiod which are our main literary evidence from early Greece before the city-states or the art of writing became widespread. Although neither poet is a straightforward source of historical evidence, their poems do convey a range of institutions and social and religious attitudes which are too specific or coherent to be dismissed as uncontrolled literary fiction. To study them is not only to enter into the delicate relationship between social history and the imagination: it is also to appreciate values which these great poems made central to the upbringing, religion and self-consciousness of the educated Greek-speaking public for more than a thousand years. Knowledge of Homer helps us to go on to understand aspects of the work of the first historian, Herodotus, and the great Athenian dramatists. It also helps us share the culture of many of the great men of ancient history, whether Alexander the Great or the pagan Emperor Julian.
The poems have been keenly discussed by recent historians and sociologists, who have thrown new light on the poems’ marriage-customs, ideas of justice and gift-giving, the notions of honour and a shame-culture, kinship and social relations and the distinction between fledgling ‘proto-states’ and ‘semi-states’. This world is central to the subject, giving scope for criticism of particular social theories (the world of Odysseus), insights from social anthropology, comparative studies of ‘heroic ages’ in other literatures and cultures and of the poems as oral poetry, illumined by its place in other societies.
Both poets also describe a material culture which has been widely compared with the known archaeology of particular periods. Nobles and palaces, death and burial, trading and travelling, warfare and weaponry are among the topics with which a growing body of archaeological evidence connects. No one date for the Homeric epics will be presupposed between c.1000-700 B.C., but candidates will become aware of the merits of the various theories, perhaps even reaching a reasoned preference of their own.