Marble bust of Homer, Roman copy of a Greek original, 1st-2nd century AD
Public DomainMarble bust of Homer, Roman copy of a Greek original, 1st-2nd century AD - Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons


The question of who, exactly, composed The Iliad and The Odyssey has occupied scholars from the ancient Greeks themselves to modern day. The Greeks tended to believe that the blind bard Homer was a real, historical person, but modern scholars are more sceptical. No firm evidence of him remains, and the poems themselves contain techniques and formulae indicative of a long tradition of oral poetry. ‘Homer’, then, may not be the name of a real historical poet but a constructed identity representing many different influences.

The ancients had many stories and theories as to the identity of Homer. One of the more fanciful includes Homer as the son of Epikaste and Telemachus from The Odyssey. Usually, he is said to have been born in Ionian Asia Minor, either at Smyrna or on the island of Chios. During the Hellenistic period, Homer received hero cult in several places. A shrine called a Homereion was dedicated to him at Alexandria, as well as at Chios, Smyrna and Ephesus, the latter three all claiming to be his birth-place.

Most modern historians tend to agree that The Odyssey and The Iliad were composed during the 8th or early 7th century BC. However, the poems themselves are the result of a long oral tradition, having been passed down from one generation to the next from the Mycenaean period, through the Dark Ages, to the point when Homer used these traditions to compose his works. Through an exploration of linguistic forms, it seems possible that bards were telling stories of the hero Odysseus as early as 1500 BC, though Troy appears to have entered the tradition much later. It is possible that the story of the Trojan War, detailed in The Iliad, was influenced by a real event, but there is no proof that anything described in either poem actually happened. It is therefore very difficult to date when the story might first have begun to be told. It is also difficult to say how much of the story is original to Homer's version. When looking at ‘Homeric society’, such as the people and places represented in The Odyssey, we are actually looking at a jumble of information relating to the various different societies that have influenced the telling of the story as it was passed down through the ages.


E. V. Rieu and D. C. H. Rieu

E. V. Rieu, the translator of this edition of The Odyssey, was a classicist and a publisher, founder and editor of the Penguin Classics from 1944-1964, and vice-president of the Royal Society of Literature in 1958. His translation of The Odyssey in 1946 was the first Penguin Classic published. According to his son, “his vision was to make available to the ordinary reader, in good modern English, the great classics of every language.”

Rieu was born in London. He was a scholar of St. Paul’s School and Oxford’s Balliol College. He joined Methuen Publishing in 1923, became managing director, then Academic and Literary Adviser. He was awarded an honorary D.Litt from Leeds University in 1949. In 1951 he was appointed president of the Virgil Society.

When translating Homer’s verse, he would often embellish the text or remove the influence of the gods, so that ‘a god put this into my mind’ would become ‘it occurred to me.’ In his son D. C. H. Rieu’s edits, these are restored, so that the text more closely resembles Homer’s original intention. D. C. H. Rieu studied Classics and English at Oxford, joined the West Yorkshire Regiment, was wounded at Cheren in 1941, and was awarded the Military Cross. He also translated The Acts of the Apostles in the Penguin Classics range. He has revised his father’s translation of both The Odyssey and The Iliad.