February 20, 2013

Estimating the date of composition of the Homeric epics

This might be an interesting way of dating literary works for which there are no/conflicting traditions about their date of composition.

Bioessays DOI: 10.1002/bies.201200165

Linguistic evidence supports date for Homeric epics

Eric Lewin Altschuler et al.

The Homeric epics are among the greatest masterpieces of literature, but when they were produced is not known with certainty. Here we apply evolutionary-linguistic phylogenetic statistical methods to differences in Homeric, Modern Greek and ancient Hittite vocabulary items to estimate a date of approximately 710–760 BCE for these great works. Our analysis compared a common set of vocabulary items among the three pairs of languages, recording for each item whether the words in the two languages were cognate – derived from a shared ancestral word – or not. We then used a likelihood-based Markov chain Monte Carlo procedure to estimate the most probable times in years separating these languages given the percentage of words they shared, combined with knowledge of the rates at which different words change. Our date for the epics is in close agreement with historians' and classicists' beliefs derived from historical and archaeological sources.



  1. Certainly, most scholars now think that Homer's epics refer to Archaic period and not the Bronze Age as once assumed

  2. "combined with knowledge of the rates at which different words change."

    There really is no such "knowledge", only decently reliable guesses, that happen to fit with other lines of evidence most of the time.

    But sometimes there will be some event in the development of a langauge that can serve as a benchmark. The Great Vowel Shift in English is an example of what I mena. If you find a poem where 'divine" and "join" are rhyemd, presumably they actually did rhyme in the poet's form of the language. We know when this change happened in English, sometime after the formation of basically standard spelling in English, in the 15 and 1600s, but before the emigration of large number sof speakerss to America, so that both forms of the language participated in the shift.

    Is there some similar event in Ancient Greek that helps us date the changes with something better than a Swadesh-type guesstimate?

  3. In 2008, Magnasco and Baikouzis used astronomical references in the Odyssey to date Odysseus' return to Ithaca to 16 April 1178 BC.


    Baikouzis, Constantino; Magnasco, Marcelo O. (June 24, 2008), "Is an eclipse described in the Odyssey?", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) 105 (26): 8823,

  4. "composition of the Homeric Epics" refers to the time of creation, not the time of the Trojan wars.

  5. I would really like to see this method applied to the composition of the Mahabharata of which there are many conflicting dates.

  6. I would be interested in seeing this method applied to the Mahabharata of which there are many conflicting dates of composition.

  7. I really wonder why they did not perform a modern Greek/koiné comparison to provide a check on their estimated rate of change in the Greek language? Why bring Hittite into it? - Especially since the time since divergence of proto Greek and proto Hittite is itself arrived at by estimate??

    Different languages may well evolve at different rates. One factor which may have caused Greek to change at a rate different from the average is 3,000 years of continuous literacy.


Stay on topic. Be polite. Use facts and arguments. Be Brief. Do not post back to back comments in the same thread, unless you absolutely have to. Don't quote excessively. Google before you ask.