The two Homeric poems – the Iliad and the Odyssey – are unusual in that, in the west at least, they never needed to be discovered, or rediscovered. They have enjoyed pre-eminence from the time they were first written down. Compare this with the fate of comparable oral and oral-derived epics from other times and cultures, and we can see how the west has tended to favour anything Greek over anything else. Gilgamesh (see elsewhere on this blog) was buried, quite forgotten, in lost cities under sand-dunes, for two thousand years. The Finnish Kalevala probably has prehistoric roots, but it first made it to print in the 1840s. The very existence of the west African Sundiata epic was more or less flatly denied outright by scholarly experts like Ruth Finnegan as late as the 1960s. The central Asian Manas epos is still virtually unknown in the west, despite clocking in as the biggest oral epic tradition ever, at a round million lines per poem, and enjoying a post-Soviet revival. And so forth.

The Iliad and Odyssey are both oral epics, or, more strictly, oral-derived epics: in their original form they were composed and transmitted orally. Since, as texts, both are around 12,000 lines long, oral composition is quite an achievement, and it took scholars centuries to even begin to work out how it was done.

Maybe I’ll tell that story one day, but it’s been told many times. For the moment, I’m more interested in answering the less frequently asked question of how the texts of the poems, once created, were themselves transmitted over two thousand years to the present day, in a world which (for the most part) had no printing presses, no damp-proofing, no fire-extinguishers, and little else that would increase the average manuscript’s chances of long-term survival. How have we managed to keep hold of readable texts of the poems over two millennia? How close are today’s texts to what ‘Homer’ – whoever that was – sang?

The poems deal with the Greek view of the Trojan war, which was itself a later episode in a very long, substantial, essentially legendary history, which ultimately ran straight back, through the stories of well-known Greek heroes such as Jason, Theseus, Perseus and Oedipus, and stories of the Great Flood, to mythic accounts of the creation of humanity and the world. Although these Greek traditions have oral roots, Greeks had begun to adopt the older civilisations’ pictographic writing systems, and by the mid-8th century BCE they were already using alphabetic scripts which they had borrowed from the neighbouring Phoenicians (whose Semitic language and culture connects them with the Israelites’ alphabetic Bible, emerging in the same centuries). This adapted Phoenician script is still the Greek alphabet of today.

The Greeks at this early point in their history, were a relatively marginal people, living in small, competing city-states, under conditions of political fragmentation, offset by a growing sense of unity or Panhellenism (“all-of-Greece-ism”). This developed in opposition to a great and expanding centre of civilisation to the east: the Persian empire. Nowadays, Persia is Iran. In the first millennium BC, and for several centuries afterwards until the Arab Muslims conquered it, it was the centre of a large empire and a civilisation of global standing, the major centre of settled culture between Europe and India. Greece was a backwater on the Persian margins, and Greek unity developed in resistance to the huge threat of Persian conquest.

Prominent among Panhellenic institutions was the Panathenaic festivals at Athens. Throughout this period and beyond, performing poets known as rhapsodes continued to keep Homeric tradition alive, either reciting a fixed text from memory or creating their own versions of well-known stories. Prominent among the rhapsodes were an order known as the Homeridai or “sons of Homer,” who claimed a special authority with regard to the poet’s legacy. Hard evidence is rather skimpy, but the two great poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are traditionally said to have been first written down, possibly by direct dictation from single performances, in an attempt to iron out discrepancies in local dialects and narrative traditions, and establish a text for recitation at these festivals which would be authoritative within the whole Greek culture area. But there is no hard evidence for written texts of the poems from this period.

As ancient Greek history proceeded along its course, these two early poems were – apparently – rewritten and copied, and orally recited in an ongoing tradition, and continued to enjoy unrivalled high standing in these forms. They inspired an enormous volume of comment and imitation, much of it now lost, over the next few centuries, as the Greeks beat the odds by seeing off an attempted Persian invasion, and used their new writing system to create and record all of what we think of as the great works of classical Greek literature, poetry and philosophy. They were then forced into political unity by one of their own marginal peoples, the northern Macedonians. The Macedonians then went on, under Alexander (probably Homer’s most famous fan), to occupy and establish a large empire including Greece, Egypt, Persia, parts of central Asia, and most of the Middle East as far as the Indus river-valley in modern Pakistan. This empire quickly fragmented, and the pieces were slowly picked off piecemeal by the Romans in the west and the revived Persians in the east. But this was not before Greek language and culture had made a more lasting mark across the whole area. It is from this late and fluid period, in the mid-3rd century BCE, that we find, at last, our earliest hard evidence for the two Homeric poems as written texts, in the surviving records of the great Greek library at Alexandria, a new Greek city in Greek-occupied Egypt, where a few of the many versions circulating at the time were edited and deposited.

We know that there were complete texts of the poems in the library at Alexandria, but none of them have survived. The oldest surviving complete text of the Iliad only surfaces in the early 10th century, in Byzantium, in the archives of the surviving eastern half of the Roman empire, which had half-collapsed under the three-pronged assault of Germanic, Turkic and Arab invaders. Named by scholars Venetus A, it now rests in the Public Library of St. Mark, in Venice, and is being scanned for free online public access, by Harvard University. It will be available here. It looks like this: heavily annotated, with scholarly apparatus stretching back to the lost editions of Alexandria. That’s Alexandria for you. When an Alexandrian librarian annotated a text, the text stayed annotated. Some Alexandrian footnotes have lasted longer than other people’s entire civilisations.

So the rest, as they say, is history. Homer continued to influence both Christian and Muslim scholars and writers through the medieval and modern periods, and copies and citations of the poems are relatively plentiful thereafter.

Throughout this complex history, numerous written and spoken versions of the two basic stories continued to circulate and affect each other. The upshot is that we cannot be sure if and how our present-day Iliad and Odyssey are really oral epics at all, in the sense of being things which one or more singers composed and performed without the help of writing. They are almost certainly hybrids: literate texts which are fairly close to the old oral epic tradition.

But we cannot know how close: Homer’s voice, of course, fell silent many centuries before the poem in Venetus A was copied down.