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Homeric epics were written in 762 BCE, give or take, new study suggests

Date:
February 27, 2013
Source:
Santa Fe Institute
Summary:
One of literature's oldest mysteries is a step closer to being solved. A new study dates Homer's The Iliad to 762 BCE and adds a quantitative means of testing ideas about history by analyzing the evolution of language.

When were Homer's works written? One of literature's oldest mysteries is a step closer to being solved after a recent study that dates the The Iliad to 762 BCE and adds a quantitative means of testing ideas about history by analyzing the evolution of language.

The epic poem The Iliad, set amid the final year of the Trojan War, is attributed to the ancient Greek poet Homer and is foundational to Western literature, but scholars have not reached a consensus about whether it was written shortly after the war or centuries later. Archaeological and historical evidence have placed the text's origins in the 7th or 8th century BCE, but such records are sparse and often have an uncertain validity.

Santa Fe Institute External Professor Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at Reading University (UK), and colleagues decided to ask what scholars refer to as "The Homeric Question" using a quantitative approach borrowed from study of evolution.

In determining when species emerged and in gauging their relatedness to others, biologists compare genetic and physical traits along with novel adaptations. Similarly, linguists compare words that share an ancestor (e.g., water in English and wasser in German both come from the proto-Germanic wator), as well as words that supplant earlier terms (the modern English dog, for example, largely replaced the Old English hund), to pinpoint when a lexicon or language was in fashion.

Pagel's team compared the Greek vocabulary in Homer's Iliad to modern Greek, relying on a 200-word lexicon found in every language and contrasting the distantly related Hittite as an indicator of divergence.

Their methods date Homer's language to 762 BCE. The statistical model, says Pagel, "is completely ignorant to history -- it doesn't know who Homer is and doesn't know Greek." Accordingly, the potential date ranges from the improbable extremes of 376 BCE to 1157 BCE. But the estimate attaches a robust likelihood to the date, and it ties nicely to Nestor's Cup, a vase dated to 723 BCE that is thought to carry an inscription from The Iliad.

The study reveals "an astonishing regularity in the way languages evolve," notes Pagel. "That we can blindly apply rates of language change to Homeric and modern Greek and come up with 762 BCE tells us language is behaving in a regular and predictive way."

Their study was published in BioEssays online on February 18.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Santa Fe Institute. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Eric Lewin Altschuler, Andreea S. Calude, Andrew Meade, Mark Pagel. Linguistic evidence supports date for Homeric epics. BioEssays, 2013; DOI: 10.1002/bies.201200165

Cite This Page:

Santa Fe Institute. "Homeric epics were written in 762 BCE, give or take, new study suggests." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 February 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130227183320.htm>.
Santa Fe Institute. (2013, February 27). Homeric epics were written in 762 BCE, give or take, new study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 16, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130227183320.htm
Santa Fe Institute. "Homeric epics were written in 762 BCE, give or take, new study suggests." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130227183320.htm (accessed April 16, 2014).

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