Homer Wasn’t Making Stuff Up

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Homer is that he wasn’t just making stuff up. He was reciting old poems that were based on real people and real events.

There’s a lot of debate about this, but they figure the sack of Troy, or rather one of the many sacks of Troy, took place around 1450 or so BC. Homer lived in the 800s or thereabouts, so there are about six centuries between him and the events he was singing about.

These centuries are known as the dark age of Greece because we don’t know much about them except that nobody built much of anything or did much trading, and right about this time the Egyptians had an invasion of “Sea People” whom they finally licked and resettled in their border colonies in Palestine. That could explain why Goliath in the Bible — you know him, right, slain by a rock in the noggin — was wearing what sounds like Greek battle gear.

There was a lot of volcanic activity around this time, and the so-called Dorian invasion and so forth, maybe more than you want to know. The period actually spans the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age. “The Iliad” mentions both bronze and iron weapons, supporting the theory that it was cobbled together over the ages.

When you think about it, if one side had bronze weapons and armor and the other side had iron weapons and armor, it wouldn’t be very sporting.

But anyway, after all those centuries, Homer still has the kernel of truth. There have also been many studies over the years by experts in navigation that show Homer had detailed knowledge of the entire Mediterranean — features like the whirlpool at the Straits of Messina and the Gates of Hercules, which we know as the Rock of Gibraltar. They even say the distances are given correctly.

But the best example is the “Cataloque of Ships.” The “Cataloque of Ships” is a list of all the cities that sent ships to Troy with Agamemnon. It’s a long and seemingly boring list that Greek teachers would often allow their students to skip.

Back in 1876 a fan of Homer named Heinrich Schliemann — I’m sure you’ve heard this story, but it’s still exciting — figured that if those cities were rich enough to man and equip a ship, there ought to be something left of them, so he took Homer’s list that had been handed down for 600 years and, a thousand years after that, went to those cities and dug up an entire civilization — enormous stone fortresses and palaces and royal tombs full of treasure.

The gold leaf death mask that Schliemann took to be the face of Agamemnon turns out to be some other guy, but still!

Think of all the students skipping over that list all those years.