Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

A blind Homer is depicted in this early second-century B.C. marble bust, now in the Louvre. To some scholars, Homer’s epics are simply fables accumulated from an oral tradition and stitched haphazardly together; and “Homer” is just a composite of the many bards who sang the songs. Others argue that the epics show great consistency in theme and narrative development, so that they must have been put into their final form by a single, creative intelligence, whom we might as well call Homer. But all agree that the Iliad and the Odyssey were written down centuries after the events they describe: the Trojan War and its aftermath.

The Trojan War could not have been fought after 1150 B.C.—when all of the splendid Mycenaean cities lay in ruins. And for the next 400 years, Greece experienced a Dark Age, from which little or no writing survives. Homer’s epics, then, could not have been written down until Greek culture again became literate in the eighth century B.C., when the Greek alphabet was invented, according to many scholars. (In “Who Invented the Alphabet,” on p. 44 of this issue, Barry Powell suggests that the Greek alphabet was invented precisely to record Homer’s oral poetry in writing.) To author Carol Thomas, Homer’s epics reached their final form around the end of the eighth century B.C.—and include information about Homer’s own day, material from the Dark Age, and perhaps even memories of a late Bronze Age war fought at Troy.