Oral Traditions, Written Texts, and Questions of Authorship

Gregory Nagy
[Originally published in The Greek Epic Cycle and its Ancient Reception: A Companion, ed. Marco Fantuzzi and Christos Tsagalis, 59-77. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. In this online version, the page-numbers of the printed version are indicated within curly brackets (“{“ and “}”). For example, {69|70} indicates where p. 69 of the printed version ends and p. 70 begins. These indications will be useful to readers who need to look up references made elsewhere to the printed version of this book.]


The three parts of the title are interconnected topics.
The first part, referring to oral traditions, is all-important, if oral poetry shaped not only the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey but also the epic Cycle. The formulation I have just offered is supported by my main line of argumentation. As we will see, I argue that the oral poetic traditions of the Cycle cannot be divorced from corresponding traditions that we find in the Iliad and Odyssey.
As for the second part of the title, referring to written texts, I must note from the start: there exists no proof for saying that the technology of alphabetic writing was needed for either the composition or the performance of the Homeric poems. [1] Further, in the case of the Cycle, the textual evidence is simply too meager in comparison with the corresponding evidence of the Iliad and Odyssey; so, again, there exists no proof for saying that the composition of epics in the Cycle was somehow dependent on the technology of writing. [2] Quite the contrary, it can be shown that these epics, like the Iliad and Odyssey, did in fact originate from oral traditions.
And now we come to the third part of the title, referring to questions of authorship. As we will see, such questions cannot be addressed in terms of written texts until we address them in terms of oral traditions. That is because, as I will argue, the attribution of authorship to obscure figures such as Arctinus of Miletos and Lesches of Mytilene or to even more obscure figures such as Thestorides of Phocaea can be understood only in terms of oral traditions. And such attributions of authorship, as I will also argue, depended on the idea that Homer was the author of only the Iliad and the Odyssey. That idea, which took final shape only at a relatively later stage in the history of ancient Greek epic traditions, brings us back full circle to what I have already announced as the main line of my argumentation: {59|60} that the oral poetic traditions of the Epic Cycle cannot be divorced from corresponding traditions that we find in the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey.

An earlier meaning for the term ‘cycle’

Essential for all three topics signaled in the title is the earliest reconstructable meaning of the word κύκλος as applied to the epic Cycle. [3] In terms of such an application, κύκλος refers to all poetry composed by Homer. [4] Such a meaning of κύκλος as the sum total of Homeric poetry goes back to a metaphorical use of the word in the sense of ‘chariot wheel’. In Homeric diction, κύκλος actually means ‘chariot wheel’ (Il. 23.340, plural κύκλα at 5.722). The metaphor of comparing a well-composed song to a well-crafted chariot wheel is explicitly articulated in the poetic traditions of Indo-European languages (as in Rig-Veda 1.130.6); more generally in the Greek poetic traditions, there is a metaphor comparing the craft of the τέκτων ‘joiner, master carpenter’ to the art of the poet (as in Pind. Pyth. 3.112-114). [5]
Connected with this idea is the meaning of Ὅμηρος as a nomen loquens. Etymologically, the form can be explained as a compound *ὅμ-ᾱρος meaning ‘he who fits/joins together’, composed of the prefix homo- ‘together’ and the root of the verb ἀρ-αρ-ίσκειν ‘fit, join’. [6] In terms of this etymological explanation, Ὅμηρος is a metaphor: Homer is ‘he who fits [the song] together’. [7]
So the etymology of Ὅμηρος, in the sense of ‘fitting together’, is an aspect of the overall metaphor of the κύκλος as a ‘chariot wheel’: a master poet ‘fits together’ pieces of poetry that are made ready to be parts of an integrated whole just as a master carpenter or joiner ‘fits together’ or ‘joins’ pieces of wood that are made ready to be parts of a chariot wheel. [8] {60|61}

A later meaning for the term ‘cycle’

Whereas Homer in earlier times was considered to be the poet of an Epic Cycle that included what we now know as the Iliad and Odyssey, these two epics gradually become differentiated from the Cycle in later times. In the course of such a differentiation, the Iliad and the Odyssey eventually became the only epics that were truly Homeric, while the Cycle became non-Homeric. [9]
Such a differentiation between the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey on the one hand and a non-Homeric Cycle on the other hand is most clearly visible in sources dating from the fourth century BC. For example, when Aristotle in his Poetics (1459a) refers to the κύκλος in the sense of ‘Epic Cycle’, he is referring to a body of epic poetry that was explicitly not composed by Homer. [10]

Traditions about the authorship of epics

In Aristotle’s time as also in still later times, the epics of the Cycle were attributed to poets other than Homer. For example, two epics of the Cycle, known as the Aethiopis and the Iliou persis, were attributed to an Ionian named Arctinus from the city of Miletos (Aeth. arg. lines 173-4 and Il. Pers. arg. lines 239-40 Severyns). Similarly, the Ilias parva was attributed to an Aeolian named Lesches from the island of Lesbos (Il. parva arg. lines 206-7 Severyns: his native city in Lesbos is specified as Mytilene); alternatively, the Ilias parva was attributed not to Lesches the Aeolian but instead to an Ionian, Thestorides of Phocaea (Σ Eur. Tro. 822). [11] To be contrasted is the mindset of earlier times, when the entire Epic Cycle had been attributed to Homer. [12]
The tendency to exclude the Epic Cycle from authorship by Homer is visible already in the second half of the fifth century, as we see from the argument offered by Herodotus (2.116.1-117.1) against the idea that the author of another epic of the Cycle, the Cypria, could have been Homer. What Herodotus leaves unsaid, as I have argued elsewhere, is that he is {61|62} following here an Athenian way of thinking. [13] For Athenians in the fifth century BC, though not necessarily for other Greeks of that time, Homer was the author of no epic other than the Iliad and the Odyssey. Such a way of thinking, as I have also argued elsewhere, indicates that the repertoire for performing epic at the premier festival of the Athenians, the Panathenaea, was restricted to the Iliad and the Odyssey during the fifth century. [14]

Panathenaic and Panionic contexts for epic performance

Already in the pre-classical period, there was a tendency to exclude the Epic Cycle from authorship by Homer. During most of the sixth century BC in Athens, when this city was ruled by a dynasty of so-called tyrants known as the Peisistratidai, the epics of the Cycle were becoming marginalized while the Iliad and the Odyssey were becoming central in the performances of epic at the festival of the Panathenaea. [15] A climactic moment in this process was the establishment of the so-called Panathenaic Regulation in Athens toward the end of the sixth century BC: the terms of this regulation make it clear that the sole repertoire of epic performance at the festival of the Panathenaea in Athens had by now became the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. [16]
So far, we have considered the emerging centrality of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey at the expense of the Epic Cycle in the pre-classical era of epic as performed at the festival of the Panathenaea in Athens during the sixth century BC. But this emerging centrality can be dated even further back in time. I have in mind here an earlier pre-classical era of epic performance as it evolved at the festival of the Panionia at the Panionion of the Ionian Dodecapolis, in the late eighth and early seventh century. Already at that time, the two central epics performed at the festival of the Panionia were prototypical versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey. [17] As Douglas Frame has shown, a lasting trace of this centrality is the fact that each of these two epics is divisible into six performance units, adding up to twelve performance units representing each one of the twelve cities of the Ionian Dodecapolis. [18] {62|63}Herodotus (1.142.3) lists these twelve Ionian cities in the following order: Miletos, Myous, Priene, Ephesus, Colophon, Lebedos, Teos, Clazomenae, Phocaea, Samos, Chios and Erythrae. [19] It is in the historical context of these twelve cities that the centrality of the Iliad and Odyssey and the marginalization of the Cycle can be explained, and it is this Panionic organization of Homeric performance in the late eighth and early seventh century that became the model for the Panathenaic Regulation in Athens in the late sixth century. [20] As I argue at length elsewhere, the Panathenaic Regulation was basically an Ionian tradition imported to Athens from the island state of Chios by way of a corporation of Chiote epic performers known as the ‘sons of Homer’, the ‘Ομηρίδαι. [21]

The relativity of Panhellenism in Homeric and Cycle traditions

To be contrasted with the Panionian prototypes of the Iliad and Odyssey are the two Ionian epics attributed to Arctinus of Miletos, the Aethiopis and the Iliou persis, which do not fit the broader social framework of the Ionian Dodecapolis but rather the narrower one of Miletos as a single city that had once dominated the confederation of the Dodecapolis but was thereafter gradually eclipsed by other Ionian cities that belonged to that confederation; one of those other cities was the island state of Chios, the home of the ‘Ομηρίδαι, which had escaped most of the misfortunes that befell Miletos in the course of that city’s struggles against the Lydian Empire and, subsequently, against the Persian Empire. [22] In terms of this contrast, I need to make two points about such epics as the Aethiopis and the Iliou persis, both attributed to Arctinus of Miletos:
(1) The contents of such epics belonging to the Cycle tend to be more localized and therefore more conservative than the contents of the Iliad and Odyssey. [23]
(2) Conversely, the contents of the Iliad and Odyssey can be described as more Panhellenic.
The description ‘more Panhellenic’ can be explained in terms of an emerging differentiation between the Cycle on one hand and the Iliad and Odyssey on the other. {63|64} The older aspects of Panhellenic poetry as represented by the epic Cycle were gradually sloughed off by Homeric poetry in a process that could be described as “streamlining.”
In terms of such an explanatory model, we can account for both the artistic superiority of the Iliad and Odyssey and the archaism of the narratives represented by the Cycle. The older aspects of epic poetry represented by the Cycle kept developing alongside the emerging newer core of the Homeric tradition that became the Iliad and Odyssey. These older Cyclic aspects, more localized than the newer Homeric core, were more fluid and could thus develop for a longer period of time, though the pace of development would have been slower than that of the Iliad and Odyssey. By the time the Cycle reached a point of fixation, its content must have seemed more old-fashioned than the corresponding content of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, even though these two epics must have reached their point of fixation at an earlier time. In other words, the Cycle must have seemed like a case of arrested development by comparison with Homeric poetry. [24]
My description of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey as relatively ‘more Panhellenic’ in content applies to Hesiodic poetry as well. [25] With reference to both these two forms of poetry, the term ‘Panhellenic’ can be used in a relativised sense, despite the fact that its meaning, ‘common to all Greeks’ is inherently absolutised. In relativising ‘Panhellenic’, I am merely recognising a social reality: that the Panhellenisation of Homer and Hesiod, just like other aspects of Panhellenism, is not really an absolute. That is to say, Panhellenism cannot be described in absolute terms of universalisation. True, there is a totalising ideology implicit in the term ‘Panhellenic’, but the Panhellenisation of Homer and Hesiod was not an absolute. Rather, it was merely a tendency toward a notional absolute. [26] The concept of Panhellenism was in fact relative, and so also the concept of a Panhellenic Homer or a Panhellenic Hesiod was relative. And this relativism resulted from regional variations {64|65} in the appropriation of Homer and Hesiod by the various Greek communities that claimed them as their own.

Marginalizations of the Cycle

While the Iliad and the Odyssey were becoming centralized and ever more Panhellenic in the pre-classical period, first in the context of the Panionic festival of the Ionian Dodecapolis during the late eighth and early seventh centuries BC and thereafter in the context of the Panathenaic festival at Athens during the sixth century BC, the epics of the Cycle were becoming ever more marginalised, even though the basic content of its narratives could still keep on being readjusted to the contents of the Iliad and Odyssey. [27] By the time of the classical period, however, the marginalisation of the Cycle had reached a point where no further readjustments could even be possible. By this time, the epics of the Cycle were phased out of the program of the Panathenaea in Athens, leaving the Iliad and Odyssey as the sole representatives of Homeric poetry at that festival. [28]
The classical version of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey as performed at the festival of the Panathenaea, derived from the pre-classical version as performed at the festival of the Panionia, tended to neutralize any potential incompatibilities with older and more localized epic versions still evident in the Epic Cycle. A case in point is the Panathenaic elision of the hero Scamandrius, who had a role in Ionian as well as Aeolian versions of stories about the capture of Troy: in some of these versions, Scamandrius was a bastard son of Hector, distinct from the son named Astyanax, whose mother was Andromache (Σ Eur. Andr. 10; see also Strabo 13.1.52 C607). [29] By contrast, the identities of Scamandrius and Astyanax are merged in the Panathenaic Iliad (6.402). [30]
When it comes to Ionian versions of epic poetry, I have already mentioned as prime examples the pair of epics known as the Aethiopis and the Iliou persis, both attributed to Arctinus of Miletos. Both of these epics promoted the Ionian traditions of the city of Miletos. Another such example is the Ilias parva attributed to Lesches of Mytilene, which promoted the Aeolian traditions of the island of Lesbos. By contrast, the Panathenaic version of the {65|66} Homeric Iliad tended to neutralize both the Ionian and the Aeolian versions of epic traditions associated respectively with Miletos and Lesbos. [31]

The oral poetics of the Epic Cycle and beyond

As I have argued so far, the oral poetics of the Epic Cycle cannot be divorced from the corresponding oral poetics of the Iliad and Odyssey. We have not yet considered, however, the characteristics of oral poetry as reflected in the surviving texts attributed to Homer and to the poets of the Cycle—as also to Hesiod. In order to proceed, I need to review the essentials of oral poetic composition, performance, reception and transmission. [32]
In any oral tradition, the process of composition is linked to the process of performance, and any given composition can be recomposed each time it is performed. The performer who recomposes the composition in performance may be the same performer who composed it earlier, or it may be a new performer, even a succession of new performers. The point is, such recomposition-in-performance is the essence of transmission in oral traditions. This kind of transmission is the key to a broader understanding of reception. Unlike what happens in literature, where reception by the public happens only after a piece of literature is transmitted, reception in oral traditions happens during as well as after transmission. That is because the process of composition in oral traditions allows for recomposition on each new occasion of performance for a public that sees and hears the performer. In oral traditions, there is an organic link between reception and performance, since no performance can succeed without a successful reception by the public that sees and hears the performer or performers.

The question of textualization

It has been claimed that the dissemination of Homeric—and Hesiodic—poetry was a result of textualization. [33] In terms of such a claim, which can be applied also to the Epic Cycle, the new technology of alphabetic writing would have been used as early as the eighth century BC for the purpose of recording and disseminating such poetry. [34] There is simply no evidence, {66|67} however, to indicate that writing had in fact been used for such a purpose in this early period—or for the purpose of actually composing the poetry. [35] The same can be said more generally about the archaic period extending from the eighth through the sixth centuries BC: even in this later period, there is no evidence for any widespread dissemination of any texts of poetry. [36]
By contrast, the early dissemination of Homeric, Cyclic and Hesiodic poetry can be explained in terms of oral poetics. [37] In oral poetry, as I have already pointed out, composition and performance are aspects of the same process. So, when a composition is performed at different times and in different places, it can be recomposed in the process of composition-in-performance. And the ongoing recomposition-in-performance needs to be viewed diachronically as well as synchronically. [38] From a synchronic point of view, the poet who performs a poem can claim to own it as his own composition in the process of recomposing it in performance. From a diachronic point of view, however, the ownership can readily be transferred from poem to poem, from poet to poet. And such transference can promote the dissemination of both the poetry and the name of the poet.
As for relatively later phases in the dissemination of Homeric, Cyclic and Hesiodic poetry, the technology of writing finally enters the picture. In terms of reconciling written transmission with earlier oral transmission, however, it is important to distinguish different stages in the writing down of such poetry. These different stages can be formulated in terms of transcript, script and scripture. [39]

The question of authorship

The authorship of each epic of the Cycle needs to be viewed in terms of oral traditions. That is because, as I already said at the beginning, the attribution of authorship to obscure figures such as Arctinus of Miletos and Lesches of Lesbos or to even more obscure figures such as Thestorides of Phocaea {67|68} can only be understood in terms of oral traditions. And such attributions of authorship, as I also said at the beginning, depended on the idea that Homer was the author of only the Iliad and the Odyssey. We have already considered the reasons for the evolution of such an idea, but we have yet to consider the actual differentiation of the authors of the Epic Cycle from the authorship of Homer.
This differentiation of the Cycle from Homeric poetry is reflected in myths about the lives of Homer, Hesiod, and poets of the Cycle. In what follows, I will consider a variety of such myths, concentrating on one myth in particular.

The ‘Life of Homer’ and other ‘Lives of Poets’ as sources

A primary source for the myths we are about to consider is a body of narratives known as the Lives of Homer. I will consider here two such Lives: one of them is Vita 1, sometimes known as the Herodotean Life, and the other is Vita 2, the Contest of Homer and Hesiod, which is sometimes called the Certamen for short. [40] Before I start my analysis, however, I offer here some general observations about the Lives. [41]
The narratives of these Lives are built from myths, not historical facts, about Homer. {68|69} But these myths can be analyzed as historical evidence for the different ways in which Homeric poetry was appropriated by different Greek communities. [42] In these myths, Homeric poetry is pictured as a medium of performance, and Homer himself is the master performer.
I analyze such myths as sources of information about the reception and the transmission of oral poetry—as also about the composition and the performance of such poetry. More generally, these myths provide information about the three main topics of my title: oral traditions, written texts and authorship. The information is varied and layered, requiring a combination of synchronic and diachronic analysis.

A story about Homer and Thestorides

This story is embedded in the overall narrative of Vita 1, which is the so-called Herodotean Life of Homer. Highlighted in the story are Homer and the poet Thestorides of Phocaea, who is elsewhere credited with the authorship of an epic in the Cycle, the Ilias parva (Σ Eur. Tro. 822). [43] This myth, as we will see, activates the idea of making transcripts as well as scripts of an oral composition in performance, to be followed by the idea of turning such an authentic composition into a kind of scripture. [44]
According to the story, Homer has been wandering from city to city in Asia Minor, and he has just arrived at the Ionian city of Phocaea:
ἀπικόμενος δὲ ἐς Φωκαίην τῷ αὐτῷ τρόπῳ ἐβιότευσεν, ἔπεα ἐνδεικνύμενος ἐν ταῖς λέσχαις κατίζων. ἐν δὲ τῇ Φωκαίῃ τοῦτον τὸν χρόνον Θεστορίδης τις ἦν γράμματα διδάσκων τοὺς παῖδας, ἀνὴρ οὐ κρήγυος· κατανοήσας δὲ τοῦ Ὁμήρου τὴν ποίησιν λόγους τοιούσδε αὐτῷ προσήνεγκε, φὰς ἕτοιμος εἶναι θεραπεύειν καὶ τρέφειν αὐτὸν ἀναλαβών, εἰ ἐθέλοι ἅ γε πεποιημένα εἴη αὐτῷ τῶν ἐπέων ἀναγράψασθαι καὶ ἄλλα ποιῶν πρὸς ἑωυτὸν ἀναφέρειν αἰεί. Τῷ δὲ Ὁμήρῳ ἀκούσαντι ἔδοξε ποιητέα εἶναι ταῦτα· ἐνδεὴς γὰρ ἦν τῶν ἀναγκαίων καὶ θεραπείης.
Arriving in Phocaea, he [= Homer] made a living the same way as he had before, performing verses [ἔπεα] while sitting around in men’s meeting places [λέσχαι]. [45] During this time there was in Phocaea a man called Thestorides, who taught young people the knowledge of letters [γράμματα]. He was not an honest man. When he found out about Homer and his songmaking [ποίησις], he got into a conversation with him and made him the following offer: he said that he [= Thestorides] would guarantee support and subsidy for him [= Homer] if he [= Homer] would be {69|70} willing to have a transcription made [ἀναγράψασθαι] [46] of the verses [epos plural] that he [= Homer] had made [ποιεῖν] and of other verses that he [= Homer] was about to make [ποιεῖν] and attribute them to him [= Thestorides] always. When Homer heard this, he decided that he should do it, since he was lacking even the bare necessities of life and was needy of support and subsidy.
(Vita 1.192-202)
In the logic of the wording in this passage, as we will see, Homer’s own act of composing—in the past, present, and future—does not depend on someone else’s act of writing down his compositions.
Having accepted the deal offered by Thestorides, Homer stays in Phocaea and ‘makes’ the Ilias parva and the Phocais, but it is Thestorides who has it all written down:
διατρίβων δὲ παρὰ τῷ Θεστορίδῃ ποιεῖ Ἰλιάδα τὴν ἐλάσσω, ἧς ἡ ἀρχή
Ἴλιον ἀείδω καὶ Δαρδανίην ἐΰπωλον,
ἧς πέρι πολλὰ πάθον Δαναοί, θεράποντες Ἄρηος·
καὶ τὴν καλουμένην Φωκαΐδα, ἥν φασιν οἱ Φωκαεῖς Ὅμηρον παρ’ αὐτοῖσι ποιῆσαι. ἐπεὶ δὲ τήν τε Φωκαΐδα καὶ τἄλλα πάντα παρὰ τοῦ Ὁμήρου ὁ Θεστορίδης ἐγράψατο, διενοήθη ἐκ τῆς Φωκαίης ἀπαλλάσσεσθαι, τὴν ποίησιν θέλων τοῦ Ὁμήρου ἐξιδιώσασθαι.
Spending his time in the house of Thestorides, he [= Homer] made [ποιεῖν] the Ilias parva [literally, the ‘Smaller Iliad’ ], which begins this way:
I sing Troy and the land of the Dardanoi, famed for horses.
Many things for the sake of this land did the Danaoi suffer, those attendants [θεράποντες] of Ares.
He [= Homer] also made the so-called Phocais, which the people of Phocaea say Homer had made [ποιῆσαι] in their city. And when Thestorides had the Phocais and all his [= Homer’s] other things written down [ἐγράψατο] [47] from Homer, he [= Thestorides] made plans to depart from Phocaea, wishing to appropriate [ἐξιδιώσασθαι] the songmaking [= ποίησις] of Homer.
(Vita 1.202-10)
So we see here that the narrative differentiates two poetic events: (1) Homer ‘makes’ poetry (ποιεῖν) and (2) Thestorides ‘has a transcription made’ of the poetry (γράφεσθαι). And there are further differentiations. As we see from the narrative, Thestorides plans to depart from Phocaea as soon as he gets his transcript of Homeric poetry. Why? Because he wants to turn the transcript into a script. And why is that? As the narrative continues, the answer becomes clear: Thestorides aspires to be a rival Homer not only as a composer but also as a performer. What Thestorides wants from Homer is a {70|71} script that will enable him to perform the poetry composed by Homer. Only by way of actually performing can Thestorides display the compositions that he claims to be his own. I will now summarize the relevant part of the continuing narrative. [48]
In Vita 1.210 and following, Thestorides sails from Phocaea to the island of Chios, where he goes about performing (ἐνδεικνύναι, 1.215 and 222) the verses or ἔπη (=ἔπος plural) of Homer as if they were his own. Meanwhile, back in Phocaea, Homer finds out about this misappropriation and angrily resolves to make every effort to travel to Chios in order to set things straight (1.224-5). He lives through many adventures while trying to make his way to Chios (1.225-75). After finally arriving on the island (1.275-6), Homer ‘makes’ (ποιεῖν) new poems there (1.335). Thestorides hears about the presence of the composer and, to avoid being exposed as a pseudo-Homer, that is, as an unauthorized performer who claims the compositions of Homer, he abruptly leaves Chios (1.336-8). Throughout this narrative, the scripted performances of Thestorides are being contrasted with the unscripted compositions of Homer.
The narrative here makes the motive of the pseudo-Homer explicit: Thestorides intends to appropriate the poetry of Homer by performing it somewhere else, in the absence of Homer. But Homer refuses to let himself become an absent author. As the narrative continues, it becomes clear that Homer’s authorizing presence is essential for any occasion when his compositions are being performed. By contrast, the scripted performances of Thestorides are all unauthorized by Homer. In terms of the narrative up to now, only the unscripted performances of the genuine composer are authorized.
I continue with my summary of the narrative of Vita 1. While Thestorides is living in the city of the island of Chios, pretending to be Homer, the real Homer is living in the countryside of the island after having arrived there, and he is composing ‘rustic’ poetry like The Battle of the Frogs and Mice (1.332-5); such poetry establishes Homer’s reputation on the island. That is why, when Thestorides hears that Homer is living in the countryside of Chios, he flees from the city of Chios and from the island altogether (1.332-8). Thestorides feared the consequences of a performative confrontation with Homer, because he would then be exposed as a pseudo-Homer.
By now we have seen that Homer cannot afford to be an absent author. He can be an author only to the extent that his real or notional {71|72} presence authorizes the occasion of performance. In the narrative logic of Vita 1, Homer embodies the ongoing fusion of the composer with the performer. In other words, we see here a poetics of presence, not a poetics of absence. [49]
I return once more to the story in Vita 1. Once Thestorides has removed himself, Homer moves to the city of Chios, establishing himself as a master performer, and audiences throughout the island become θαυμασταί ‘admirers’ of his (1.342). [50] While he stays in the city of Chios, Homer is composing the Odyssey (1.350-2) and the ‘big’ Iliad (1.379-84). Homer’s fame grows exponentially throughout Ionian Asia Minor, and his admirers urge him to tour the Helladic mainland (1.372-6). Though Homer is described as eager to make such a tour (1.376-7), he implicitly stays in Chios for a longer period as he continues to make verses that center on the glorification of Athens (1.378-99). After he finishes these embellishments, Homer can now finally leave Chios and set sail to tour the rest of Hellas (1.400), and he arrives at the island of Samos as a transitional stopover (1.401).
At this point, there is a bifurcation of the Life of Homer traditions. According to one main version (as narrated in Vita 1), Homer travels from Samos to the island of Ios, and he dies there before he can ever reach the Helladic mainland (1.484-516). [51] To be contrasted is the other main version, as narrated in Vita 2, which tracks Homer’s itinerary through the great Helladic cities of Athens (2.276-8), Corinth (2.286-7), and Argos (2.287-315); after a most successful performance at Delos (2.315-22) he travels to the island of Ios, where he dies (2.322-28). [52]
Once Homer dies, what will happen to his principle of refusing to let himself become an absent author? If Homer’s authorizing presence is essential for any occasion when his compositions are being performed, who will authorize the performances of Homer once he is dead? My answer is, the authorizers will be the ‘Ομηρίδαι, natives of Chios, who are the notional sons of Homer. [53] At the Panathenaea, for example, the performances of Homeric poetry are authorized by the ‘Ομηρίδαι of Chios (Plat. Ion 530d). [54] To be contrasted are the scripted performances of Thestorides, which are unauthorized by Homer. {72|73}
Are we to understand, then, that the ‘Ομηρίδαι have a script, as it were, of Homer’s compositions? No, they have something more, and that is the scripture of Homer as the one true author, as opposed to the script of Thestorides as the false author. Just as the unscripted performances of the genuine composer were authorized by Homer, so also the performances of his legitimate heirs are authorized by him, authored by him, and the words of this author become scripture for the ‘Ομηρίδαι.
The prototype for such a notional scripture is set up already in the narrative of Vita 1. [55] As we have seen, Thestorides is described as a teacher of grammata ‘letters’ (1.185, 223). As for Homer, once he is finally established in the city of Chios, he becomes a teacher of ἔπη ‘verses’ (= ἔπος plural; 1.341). This distinction between a teacher of ἔπη and a teacher of γράμματα ‘letters’ seems to elevate Homer from his former status as teacher of γράμματα in Smyrna—a status he inherits from a character named Phemius (1.50-2). This is not to say, however, that the word γράμματα implies, in and of itself, a distinction between written and oral. As we see in an earlier part of the narrative (1.37-8), even the undifferentiated usage of γράμματα includes the performing arts, μουσική. In Vita 2 as well, we see that Homer himself is again described as a teacher of γράμματα (2.16).
But the fact remains that γράφειν ‘write’ is not used either in Vita 1 or in Vita 2 to refer to the composition of poetry by Homer. Homer is said to ποιεῖν ‘make’ whatever he composes, not to γράφειν it. [56] This pattern is backed up by the testimony of other sources. [57] In the works of Plato and Aristotle, for example, we see Homer as an artisan who ‘makes’, ποιεῖ, and who is not pictured as one who ‘writes’, γράφει. [58] Only in later sources such as Plutarch and Pausanias is Homer finally seen as an author who γράφει whatever he composes. [59] In such later sources, composition can be metaphorised as written composition, and, at least to that extent, we may think of Homer as a writer. Nevertheless, as we have seen, earlier sources like Vita 1 and Vita 2 simply do not metaphorise performance as an act of performing written texts. [60]
As we have seen, then, in the story of Homer and Thestorides as narrated in Vita 1, the narration requires the real or notional presence of Homer for authorizing the performance of Homer. And this narrative requirement holds up even in later periods of Homeric reception as narrated in the Life of {73|74} Homer narratives. Even in such later contexts, where the poems attributed to Homer are described explicitly as his own writings, the narrative still requires the notional performance of these poems, and the model performer must still be Homer himself. [61]

Competitions in the performances of epics

By now we have seen that Thestorides of Phocaea, according to Vita 1, is a pseudo-Homer who claims credit for composing the Ilias parva by virtue of performing this epic, which had actually been composed by the real Homer. Earlier on, however, we had seen that this Thestorides of Phocaea was in other contexts actually credited with the authorship of the Ilias parva (Σ Eur. Tro. 822). How, then, can we explain such different perspectives? The answer is, it all depends on whether Homer was viewed as the author of the Iliad and Odyssey exclusively. In terms of the narrative of Vita 1, this is clearly not the case, since Homer is the author of the Ilias parva as well. Such a Homer, as we have seen, is a pre-classical Homer, and such a poetic figure has to fight off the rival claims of other poetic figures in an ongoing struggle for getting credit as the author of any given epic in the Cycle. By contrast, the classical Homer is the author of only the Iliad and Odyssey as performed at the festival of the Panathenaea in Athens. From such a classical perspective, then, Thestorides of Phocaea may legitimately be viewed as the author of the Ilias parva, since Homer makes no rival claim to its authorship. But here we run into a problem: there do exist other rival claims to the authorship of the Ilias parva. As I will now argue, such rival claims indicate the existence of competing traditions in performing epics like the Ilias parva.
As we have already seen, the authorship of the Ilias parva is attributed not only to Homer or to Thestorides of Phocaea: according to a rival tradition, it can be attributed to another poet, named Lesches, who originates from the Aeolian city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos (Il. parva arg. lines 206-7 Severyns). This Aeolian poet Lesches of Mytilene, according to a myth reported by Phaenias of Eresos, who flourished in the fourth century BC (F 33 ed. Wehrli, by way of Clem. Al. Strom. 1.131.6), engaged in a poetic contest with the Ionian poet Arctinus of Miletos, and the contest was won by Lesches the Aeolian. In this case, it is no accident that our source is an author who originated from Eresos. This city, just like the city of Mytilene, is located on the Aeolian island of Lesbos. And the myth reported by Phaenias {74|75} about a competition in performance, it can be argued, is an aetiology for the existence of rival epics: Lesches of Mytilene is credited with the authorship of one of these epics, the Ilias parva, while Arctinus of Miletos is the accredited author of two other epics about the Trojan War, the Aethiopis and the Iliou persis. [62]
Even the name of Lesches of Mytilene indicates a context of competition in performance. His name Λέσχης is a nomen loquens, derived from the word λέσχη, which as we have already seen means ‘men’s meeting place’. And we have already seen this word referring to an actual context for the competitive performances of epic by Homer. It was in fact at a λέσχη where Homer’s performances of epic had first captured the attention of his poetic rival, Thestorides of Phocaea, who as we have seen went on to steal Homer’s Ilias parva:
ἀπικόμενος δὲ ἐς Φωκαίην τῷ αὐτῷ τρόπῳ ἐβιότευσεν, ἔπεα ἐνδεικνύμενος ἐν ταῖς λέσχαις κατίζων.
Arriving in Phocaea, he [= Homer] made a living the same way as he had before, performing verses [ἔπος plural] while sitting around in men’s meeting places [λέσχαι].
(Vita 1.192-4)
The λέσχη, as a place for competitive performances of poetry, is an arena for poetic reception, determining the acceptance or the rejection of the competing poet. At an earlier stage in Homer’s life as narrated in Vita 1, back when his name was not yet Homer but Melesigenes, we see our poet performing the same way as he now performs in Phocaea. Back then, Homer’s performances of epic were also in a λέσχη. Back then, he was performing in Cyme, which is an Aeolian city just like Mytilene, the city of Lesches. Here is the telling description of Homer’s performance at Cyme:
κατίζων δὲ ἐν ταῖς λέσχαις τῶν γερόντων ἐν τῇ Κύμῃ ὁ Μελησιγένης τὰ ἔπεα τὰ πεποιημένα αὐτῷ ἐπεδείκνυτο, καὶ ἐν τοῖς λόγοις ἔτερπε τοὺς ἀκούοντας· καὶ αὐτοῦ θωυμασταὶ καθειστήκεσαν. γνοὺς δὲ ὅτι ἀποδέχονται αὐτοῦ τὴν ποίησιν οἱ Κυμαῖοι καὶ εἰς συνήθειαν ἕλκων τοὺς ἀκούοντας, …
Melēsigenēs [= Homer] used to sit in the meeting-places [λέσχαι] of the elders in Cyme and perform [ἐπεδείκνυτο] the verses [ἔπεα plural] made [ποιεῖν] by him. With his words he gave pleasure to his audiences [τοὺς ἀκούοντας]. And they became his admirers [θωυμασταί]. But he, knowing that the people of Cyme accepted [ἀποδέχονται] his songmaking [ποίησις], and attracting [ἕλκων] his audiences into a state of familiarisation [συν-ήθεια] …
(Vita 1.141-6)
During his stay here in the Aeolian city of Cyme, which is then immediately followed by his stay in the Ionian city of Phocaea, Homer is said to have ‘performed’ (= ἐπιδεικνύναι = ‘made an epideixis of’) the verses or ἔπεα (= ἔπος plural) that he had ‘made’ (ποιεῖν). His audiences, ‘hearing’ (ἀκούοντες) him perform, ‘accepted’ (ἀποδέχεσθαι) his song-making {75|76} (ποίησις). The ‘acceptance’ or reception by the audience is correlated with their familiarization (συνήθεια) to the song-making; this familiarization is in turn correlated with Homer’s drawing power, his ability to attract audiences. [63] The successful reception of Homer here is conveyed by saying that his audiences in the Aeolian city of Cyme became his ‘admirers’. [64] We have already noted earlier this particular way of referring to Homeric reception in Chios.
In sum, Homer’s competitive performances at λέσχαι are comparable to the performance of Lesches (or Λέσχεως: Pausanias) of Mytilene in the myth about his competition with the performance of Arctinus of Miletos. And such competition, juxtaposing the Ilias parva of the Aeolian Lesches with the Aethiopis and Iliou persis of the Ionian Arctinus, is in turn comparable to the ultimate poetic competition between Homer and Hesiod as narrated in Vita 2, the Contest of Homer and Hesiod. [65]


This study has collected traces of an old poetic rivalry between (1) epics now recognized as belonging to the Cycle and (2) the two epics of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, which were becoming the dominant epic repertoire of the festival of the Panionia already in the late eighth and early seventh centuries BC. The eventual dominance of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey is signaled by the obsolescence of the Cycle in the epic repertoire of the festival of the Panathenaea in Athens during the sixth century BC, in the era of the Peisistratidai. As we will now see, however, epics of the Cycle were still being performed at that festival even in such a relatively late era.
In the surviving plot outlines of the Cycle, we see occasional references to distinctly Athenian agenda, indicating that the performance traditions of the Cycle were still alive in Athens during the sixth century. [66] For example, in the case of the Iliou persis attributed to Arctinus of Miletos, there is mention of the rescue of the mother of Theseus by the Athenian hero’s two sons Acamas and Demophon after the capture of Troy (Il. Pers. arg. lines 270-1 Severyns); there is another such mention of these figures in the Ilias parva attributed to Lesches of Mytilene (PEG F 20 = F 23 D. = F 17 W. via Pausanias 10.25.8). [67] {76|77}
Still, the obsolescence of the Cycle in Athens is clearly indicated by a significant absence in a set of Athenian narratives about the text of the Iliad and Odyssey. I have in mind here the stories of the so-called Peisistratean Recension. [68] As we read in the most succinct version of these stories (retold in the Suda and reprinted in 258 lines 37-43 ed. Allen), Homer had recited the Iliad and Odyssey in bits and pieces while wandering throughout Asia Minor and beyond, and it was these bits and pieces that Peisistratus of Athens had assembled, thus constituting the integrity of the Iliad and Odyssey as a unified corpus of epic. [69] So what is the significant absence in such stories about the Peisistratean Recension? It is simply this: the epics of the Cycle are missing. The mythical framework of these stories is limited to the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. There is no room any more for any bits and pieces that may come from cities like Mytilene in Lesbos or from Miletos, once the most dominant of all the cities of the Ionian Dodecapolis. By now, any bits and pieces of the Cycle can safely be attributed to marginal poets of an unrecoverable past, such as Lesches of Mytilene or Arctinus of Miletos. Even that notorious Thestorides of Phocaea can by now be safe, since he will no longer need to be suspected of becoming a pseudo-Homer. {77|}


Debiasi, A. 2012. “Homer ἀγωνιστής in Chalcis.” In Homeric Contexts: Neoanalysis and the Interpretation of Oral Poetry, ed. F. Montanari, A. Rengakos, and C. Tsagalis, 471-500. Trends in Classics Supplementary Volume 12. Berlin and Boston.
West, M. L. 1999. “The Invention of Homer.” Classical Quarterly N.S. 49:364–382.
West, M. L. 2011. The Making of the Iliad: Disquisition and Analytical Commentary. Oxford.
West, M. L. 2013. The Epic Cycle: A Commentary on the Lost Troy Epics. Oxford.


[ back ] 1. Nagy (1990b: 31); (1990a: 18). For an alternative view, see West (2011).
[ back ] 2. For an alternative line of argumentation, see West (2013).
[ back ] 3. What I argue in this paragraph recapitulates what I say in Nagy (2010a: 255-6), which is a summary of more extensive argumentation presented in Nagy (1990a: 70-81).
[ back ] 4. For more on this earlier sense of κύκλος with reference to all poetry composed by Homer, see Pfeiffer (1968:73) and Nagy (1996b: 38). See also West (2013: 22-23), with reference to Proclus, Life of Homer 9. I agree with West (2013: 1, 8) that Proclus is to be dated to the second century CE.
[ back ] 5. Nagy (1999: 297-300), interpreting the evidence assembled by Schmitt (1967: 296-8).
[ back ] 6. Chantraine (2009) s.v. ἀραρίσκω. For an alternative explanation of the meaning of Ὅμηρος, see West (1999: 372). For a commentary on this explanation, see Nagy (2010a: 60 n. 1).
[ back ] 7. Nagy (1999: 296-300).
[ back ] 8. Nagy (1996a: 74-5). See also Nagy (2010a: 254-64) (earlier version in Nagy 2006), where I argue that this etymology of Homer’s name is compatible in meaning with the etymology of the noun ὅμηρος in the sense of ‘hostage’, which derives from the same compound *ὅμ-ᾱρος meaning ‘he who fits/joins together’. For an alternative explanation, see West (1999). But see also Debiasi (2012) 474 n.21 who points out that such an explanation can be reconciled with the etymology that I propose.
[ back ] 9. This paragraph recapitulates what I argue in Nagy (2010a: 69-70).
[ back ] 10. Nagy (2010a: 320).
[ back ] 11. Allen (1912: 126).
[ back ] 12. Nagy (1996b: 38, 89-91); relevant comments by Burgess (2001: 15 and 200 n. 44).
[ back ] 13. Nagy (2010a: 75-8).
[ back ] 14. Nagy (2002: 9-35).
[ back ] 15. Nagy (2010a: 320); (1990a: 72).
[ back ] 16. Nagy (2010a: 22-8), with reference to such primary passages as Plat. Hipparch. 228b-c, Dieuchidas of Megara, FGrHist 485 F 6 (via Diog. Laert. 1.57), Lycurg. Leoc. 102.
[ back ] 17. Nagy (2010a: 22).
[ back ] 18. Frame (2009: 550-621), who shows that each one of these twelve performance units corresponds to four ῥαψῳδίαι ‘rhapsodies’ or ‘books’ of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey as we know them (‘books’ 1-4, 5-8, 9-12, 13-16, 17-20, 21-4).
[ back ] 19. Commentary in Nagy (2010a: 216-17).
[ back ] 20. Nagy (2010a: 22).
[ back ] 21. Nagy (2010a: 59-65, 68-9, 95-6; 313).
[ back ] 22. Nagy (2010a: 322-4).
[ back ] 23. Nagy (2010a: 321).
[ back ] 24. Nagy (1990a: 73).
[ back ] 25. Nagy (2009b: 275).
[ back ] 26. Nagy (1996b: 38-40).
[ back ] 27. Nagy (1990a: 72).
[ back ] 28. Nagy (2010a: 320-1).
[ back ] 29. Nagy (2010a: 67-8, 70, 71-2, 80-2, 85, 321-2, 323).
[ back ] 30. Nagy (2010a: 204-6).
[ back ] 31. Nagy (2010a: 147-217).
[ back ] 32. What follows is an abridged version of the formulation in Nagy (2009b: 282-3).
[ back ] 33. For example, Most (2006a: xxxiv-vi).
[ back ] 34. Most (2006a: xx-xxii).
[ back ] 35. On the poetics of epigrams, which are attested already in the 8th century BC, see Nagy (1996b: 14, 35-6): it is argued there that the poetry of epigrams shows a clear separation between the processes of composing and inscribing.
[ back ] 36. Nagy (1996b: 34-7).
[ back ] 37. What follows is a summary of the argumentation in Nagy (1990b: 38-47) and (2009b: 281-7), relying on the fundamental work of Parry (collected writings first published in 1971) and Lord (1960/2000).
[ back ] 38. On the distinction between synchronic and diachronic approaches to the analysis of a given structure in the study of oral poetics: Nagy (2003: 1), with reference to Saussure (1916: 117).
[ back ] 39. Nagy (1996a: 110-13) and (2009a: 5).
[ back ] 40. I offer the following system for referring to these Lives, with page numbers as printed by Allen (1912): [ back ] Vita 1 = Vita Herodotea, 192-218 [ back ] Vita 2 = Certamen, 225-38 [ back ] There is now also another system for numbering the Lives, introduced by West (2003b). For a new edition of Vita 1 and Vita 2, see Colbeaux (2005). In the case of the Certamen, I must add, it draws extensively from a lost work, the Mouseion of Alcidamas, who flourished in the first half of the 4thcentury BC.
[ back ] 41. The next two paragraphs are based on Nagy (2010a: 30).
[ back ] 42. I make a similar point about Lives of Poets traditions in general: see Nagy (1999: ix).
[ back ] 43. The analysis that follows recapitulates my earlier analysis in Nagy (2010a: 37-42) of the story of Thestorides in Vita 1. For another study of this story, see Cassio (2003), whose interpretations differ from mine.
[ back ] 44. Earlier, I have already drawn attention to these terms transcript, script and scripture, with reference to Nagy (1996a: 110-13) and (2009a: 5).
[ back ] 45. The setting for Homeric performances here, λέσχαι ‘men’s meeting places’, is relevant to the argumentation that follows.
[ back ] 46. I interpret the middle aorist of ἀνα-γράφεσθαι here as ‘have [somebody] transcribe’, where the grammar does not specify who will initiate the transcription; at a later point in the narrative, it becomes clear that it is Thestorides who initiates the transcription (Vita 1.208 ὁ Θεστορίδης ἐγράψατο ‘Thestorides had [the poems] transcribed’); see Nagy (2010a: 38).
[ back ] 47. So here we see, as I anticipated in the previous note, that the prospect of ἀνα-γράφεσθαι ‘have [somebody] transcribe’, as formulated in the original deal, has now become a done deal as Thestorides proceeds with the act of γράφεσθαι ‘having [someone] transcribe’ the poetry of Homer.
[ back ] 48. Nagy (2010a: 38-9).
[ back ] 49. Nagy (2010a: 32-3). By contrast, Graziosi (2002) argues for a poetics of absence.
[ back ] 50. This word θαυμασταί refers to Homeric reception throughout Vita 1: see Nagy (2010a: 37, 48-51).
[ back ] 51. Commentary in Nagy (2010a: 64).
[ back ] 52. Commentary in Nagy (2010a: 46-7).
[ back ] 53. Nagy (2010a: 28).
[ back ] 54. Nagy (2010a: 61-2).
[ back ] 55. Nagy (2010a: 38-9).
[ back ] 56. Nagy (2010a: 33-47; Nagy 2004).
[ back ] 57. Nagy (2010a: 31-2).
[ back ] 58. Plat. Phd. 94d, Hp. Mi. 371a, Rep. 2.378d, Ion 531c-d. Also Arist. De an. 404a, EN 3.1116a and 7.1145a, GA 785a, Po. 1448a, Pol. 3.1278a and 8.1338a, Rh. 1.1370b, HA 513b. For an early example of ποιεῖν with Homer as subject, see Herodotus 2.53.2.
[ back ] 59. Plut. De amore 496d, Quaest. Conv. 668d; Paus. 3.24.11, 8.29.2.
[ back ] 60. Nagy (2010a: 33).
[ back ] 61. Nagy (2010a: 33).
[ back ] 62. Nagy (1990a: 19 n. 10, 28 n. 61, 74-5).
[ back ] 63. On the implications of ‘reception’ inherent in the word ἀποδέχεσθαι ‘accept’, see Nagy (1990a: 217-18, 221-2).
[ back ] 64. Nagy (2010a: 36-7).
[ back ] 65. Nagy (1990a: 76).
[ back ] 66. Nagy (2010a: 320).
[ back ] 67. Debiasi (2004: 132 n. 58, 207); for further examples of such Athenian accretions, see Burgess (2001: 152, 247 n. 75).
[ back ] 68. For a collection of stories about the Peisistratean Recension, with analysis, see Nagy (2010a: 314-25).
[ back ] 69. Commentary on this summary in Nagy (2010a: 317-318).