Scene from The Ilad, Greek manuscript, 5th-6th century AD

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.

SFI 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.”

Read the paper in BioEssays (February 18, 2013, subscription required for full paper)

Read the article in Scientific American (February 27, 2013)

Read the article in Inside Science (February 27, 2013)

Read the article in the New York Daily News (March 1, 2013)