The Homeric Question

The idea of a wide gap separating the Mycenaean Age from the historical age of Greece has gained almost universal acceptance since it was first advanced more than a century ago. Because no literary documents and almost no signs of culture could be found for that long period, it came to be known as the Dark Age.

Hellenists and historians in general use the term Dark Age for the twelfth, eleventh, tenth, ninth, and most of the eighth centuries, or the period that lies between the Mycenaean and Archaic ages, the latter being the opening of the Ionian period that in due course developed into the Classical period. The time from about -1200 to -750 is the Dark Age in continental Greece, on the Aegean islands and shores, and in the interior of Asia Minor. The reader may think that the term is bequeathed to us from ancient times, from Greek historians or philosophers of the classical period. The fact, however, is that no Greek historian, philosopher, or poet used the term Dark Age or dark centuries or any substitute for such a concept; nor did Roman writers, much occupied with the Greek past, have a concept of a Dark Age for the period following the Trojan War and preceding the historical age in Greece. The term, and the concept as well, are a creation of modern scholarship in Hellenic studies for the period from which we have neither history, nor literary remains.

If, as most scholars now believe, Homer lived and created at the end of the eighth or the beginning of the seventh century, and if the Trojan War took place just before the beginning of the Dark Age, he could hardly have omitted to refer in some direct or only indirect way to the more than four centuries of the Dark Age that separated him from the epic events he described. Why did no poet—and Greece had many—ever mention a lengthy Dark Age, if only in passing? Neither Herodotus, nor Thucydides,1 nor Xenophon—the Greek historians—had anything to say about a four or five centuries’ span that separated the Greek history from the Mycenaean. Greece had also many outstanding philosophers; then how are we to explain that a period—not covering just a few decades, but more than four centuries—is passed over in silence by Greek poets, philosophers and historians alike? Should not Aristotle or, much later, Diodorus of Sicily or Pausanias in their voluminous writings have devoted as much as a single passage to the Dark Age—if there was one? Neither the Roman writers, nor the chronographers of the Renaissance, applied themselves to the illumination of the Dark centuries, and it is only since the last decades of the nineteenth century that the term Dark Age in Greek history has been used.

Despite being separated by five centuries from the Mycenaean civilization of which he sings, Homer displays a surprising knowledge of details no longer existent in the Greek world of his day:

We know from the archaeological evidence that Homer attempts to archaeologize, even to take us into the Mycenaean Age . . . yet in Homer’s day there was no science of archaeology, no written history to assist the historical novelist. Where then did he get these details from the past?
So writes one author in the preface to his translation of the Iliad.2

As an example of such knowledge, the author cites Homer’s description of Nestor’s cup with doves on its handles, a description that fits a vessel actually disinterred in the Mycenaean strata which according to the conventionally written history were deposited some five centuries before Homer began to compose his epics.

The technique of metal inlay of the shield of Achilles—described by Homer in the Iliad—was practiced in Greece in the Bronze Age and “disappeared before its close, and apparently never returned there.” The boar’s tusk helmet described by Homer was reconstituted by Reichel from slivers of tusk found in many Bronze Age graves. “It is difficult to imagine Homer transmitting a description of an object which we could not visualize . . . For four centuries at least no one could possibly have seen a boar’s tusk helmet . . .”

On the other hand in Homer are found descriptions of objects “which cannot have found a place there before the 7th century.” One such object is the clasp which fastened the cloak of Odysseus when on his way to Troy. “It points to the second decade of the 7th century as the time of the composition of the Odyssey (unless it is an interpolation, the dates of which could not be much earlier or later than the first half of the 7th century).”

If the Mycenaean Age closed with the twelfth century and Homer composed at the end of the eighth, four and a half centuries constitute a hiatus, and separate the poet from the objects he describes.

The blending of elements testifying to the Mycenaean Age together with elements the age of which could not precede the seventh and certainly not the eighth century is a characteristic feature of the Iliad. Some scholars have expended enormous efforts in trying to separate passages of the epics and ascribe their authorship to different generations of poets, from contemporaries of the events to the final editor of the poems in the seventh century. But all these efforts were spent unprofitably, and their authors at the end of their labors usually declared their perplexity. The following evaluation is from the pen of M. P. Nilsson:

“To sum up. There is considerable evidence in Homer which without any doubt refers to the Mycenaean Age. . . The Homeric poems contain elements from widely differing ages. The most bewildering fact is, however, that the Mycenaean elements are not distributed according to the age of the strata in the poems.” Nilsson continued: “The Mycenaean and the orientalizing elements differ in age by more than half a millennium. They are inextricably blended. How is it credible that the former elements were preserved through the centuries and incorporated in poems whose composition may be about half a millennium later?”3


  1. [A passage from the first book of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars (I.17) which tells of a period of political chaos and economic deprivation after the fall of Troy, is sometimes cited as a reference to the Dark Ages. That the end of the Mycenaean Age was followed by several decades of migrations and poverty is a fact that is discussed at some length below (section “A Gap Closed”). But Thucydides’ words cannot be construed as referring to a period of time longer than a century.]

  2. E. V. Rieu, The Iliad, (London, 1953).

  3. M. P. Nilsson, Homer and Mycenae (1933), pp. 158-59.