Archaeologists Have Just Unearthed The Earliest Copy Of History’s Most Famous Epic Poem

Ancient Greece was one of the most important civilizations in European history. One of its more significant sites was at Olympia, where archaeologists have been excavating for over a century. Today, they’re still finding priceless artifacts – and they’ve recently discovered something that may shed light on one of Greece’s greatest poems.

The culture of ancient Greece has, in may ways, shaped our modern world. Ideas from Greek philosophers and mathematicians remain influential today and the English language is full of words which derive from Greek. And much of the literature produced within the civilization is still studied today, thousands of years after its creation.

Olympia was built on Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula and was one of its most important sites. According to legend it was once home to Zeus, the king of the gods. It became a religious sanctuary and the Temple of Zeus was built there. It is perhaps the holiness of the site that contributed to it becoming the birthplace of the original Olympic Games.

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At around 400 A.D. the Roman emperor Theodosius ordered the end of the Olympics Games because they were a pagan festival – they would not be recreated until 1896. The temple built in dedication to Zeus was burned in 426 A.D. and earthquakes a few years later destroyed what was left. It was not until 1829 that the French began to expose the ancient history of Olympia’s ruins.

It was the German government who first funded major archaeological exploration at Olympia in 1875. Since then, the site has seen regular excavations to reveal it fascinating history. Archaeologists have found sculptures, ceramics, bronze artifacts and roof tiles made of terracotta. They have also been able to date many different areas of the site.

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Olympia’s importance has been shown by both the Greek Archaeological Services and the German Institute of Archaeology’s excavations over the last three years. Their explorations took them near to the Temple of Zeus. And there, as they surveyed the surface of the area around the sanctuary, they found something extraordinary.

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Epic poetry is one of the most ancient forms of literature. Traditionally, an epic is a lengthy narrative poem that tells the story of a great hero or heroes. As they journey through perilous adventures, they will have to perform superhuman feats of courage and skill to defeat often supernatural threats. It’s exciting stuff.

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The oldest known epic – perhaps even the oldest story ever written – is the Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s the story of a great Sumerian king who loses his most beloved friend and sets out on a quest for the meaning of life. It was written as long as 4,000 years ago and may even have influenced some Bible stories.

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There are also epics written in English. One of the oldest and most highly regarded of these is Beowulf. Written in Old English – the language the Anglo-Saxons spoke before the Norman Conquest – Beowulf tells the tale of the titular hero who must defend humanity from a range of monsters.

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Other ancient epics are still important to modern religions. The Mahabharata and Ramayana are foundational texts of Hinduism, with the Mahabharata being nearly 100,000 couplets long. It’s a story of gods and men – a mix of history and myth that depicts the earliest years of the Hindu religion. Both epics are written in Sanskrit, an ancient language of India.

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Perhaps the most famous epic poems, however, are from ancient Greece. Two particularly well-known Greek epics are credited to a man called Homer; the first is the Iliad and the second is the Odyssey. These have had a huge influence on many works of literature, including another epic called the Aeneid by Virgil.

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The Iliad is a partial recounting of the Trojan War that depicts the exploits of some Greek warriors and the gods who interfere in their lives. The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus, the hero whose cunning plan finally ends the war. It takes place after the Iliad and tells of his arduous quest to return to his kingdom of Ithaca after the war ends.

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Most accounts of the Trojan War occupy a place somewhere between history and myth. It was a source of fascination for ancient writers, but solid evidence of what occurred is lacking. Indeed, our main source of information on the conflict is in Homer’s epic poetry. But the presence of the Greek gods raises questions of its historicity – and moreover it was composed centuries after the war was supposed to have taken place.

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The gods play a vital role in depictions of the Trojan War. Legend states that it began when Zeus decided the human population needed to be reduced. According to one story, he arranged a beauty contest between the goddesses Aphrodite, Hera and Athena. Paris, a prince of Troy, was chosen as the judge and he picked Aphrodite as the winner. In return, Aphrodite promised him the hand of the most attractive woman in the world.

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Unfortunately, the most beautiful woman in the world was already married to the king of Sparta. There’s some debate over whether Paris kidnapped Helen or whether she willingly eloped with him to Troy. What is certain is that Helen’s husband, Menelaus, wasn’t happy to lose his wife. And so he called on the rest of Greece to help besiege Troy until he had Helen back.

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A Greek fleet of 1,000 ships was led by Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus. Many of Greece’s greatest heroes answered the call for aid, including the likes of Achilles, Ajax and Odysseus. Often, these heroes were recounted as being half-god. Troy, ruled by King Priam, also had mighty warriors such as Prince Hector. The gods picked sides, lending assistance to their chosen favorites.

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The siege of Troy lasted for ten long and bloody years. Eventually, the Greeks pretended to retreat, but they left a wooden horse outside the gates of the city. Thinking it was a gift and ignoring warnings of danger, the Trojans brought the horse inside. That night, the Greek soldiers emerged from the belly of the horse and – led by Odysseus – they slaughtered the Trojans. The war was over.

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Historians are uncertain how much truth there is in the story of Troy. For many years, it was thought completely fictional. Now though, some think they have found the site where the ancient city once stood. What is certain, however, is that the legend inspired two of the greatest poetical works in history. And it’s hardly surprising – a story of gods and heroism is perfect for an epic.

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Troy was also known as Ilium, which might explain the Illiad’s name. The 24 books of the Iliad represent the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet. There are 15,693 lines in total, all written in dactylic hexameter. Dactylic rhythms use a pattern of one long syllable, followed by two short. In hexameter, there are six dactyls a line.

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The heroic focus of much of the Iliad is the legendary and nearly invulnerable Achilles. The poem takes place during the last year of the Trojan War and follows Achilles’ quarrels with Agamemnon. It deals with his grief and rage when he loses his beloved companion Patroclus and it chronicles his battle with Hector, one of the greatest warriors among the Trojans.

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One constant in the Iliad also seen in the Odyssey is the interference of the Greek gods in the affairs of men. Every success or failure of the Trojan War is influenced by the gods, with Athena and Apollo taking on particularly prominent roles. In the Odyssey, Odysseus must battle the sea-god Poseidon’s displeasure as he tries to return across the ocean.

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Just like the Iliad, the Odyssey is split into 24 books – but it’s slightly shorter, with 12,109 hexameters. The Odyssey takes place when the war is over, with the hero at its center a veteran who just wants to return home. However, Poseidon’s wrath constantly hinders his path. After ten years fighting in Troy, Odysseus spends another ten years wandering before he reaches Ithaca.

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Many of the events of the Odyssey will be familiar, even to those who have not read the poem. Odysseus encounters a cyclops, is stranded on the island of the nymph Calypso, and must outwit the witch Circe on another island. Perhaps most famously, he has to steer his ship past the Sirens, monsters whose beautiful voices almost lure him to his doom.

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Even returning home was not the end of Odysseus’ struggles. He had been gone so long that most people did not recognize him. His wife Penelope was being harassed by numerous men who wanted her to accept her husband’s death and marry them instead. So again Odysseus had to use cunning and strength (with some help from goddess Athena) to win back his life.

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Since Homer’s poetry was first written, it has been recited and studied all around the world. For more than 2,800 years, it has had an enduring impact. But despite this, we have few records of the early editions of the text. That’s part of what makes new discoveries so exciting.

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When the Odyssey was first composed, it would not have been written down. Like many poems of the time, it was recited orally. A few scraps of parchment found in Egypt may come from its first transcription in the Christian era. The oldest fragments date to the 3rd century B.C. and are now kept in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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From studying these pieces of papyrus, it is possible to see how the narrative of the Odyssey has changed over the years. The fragments are set in Book 20 of the poem, but they contain lines not found in the standardized version created in medieval times. It suggests that different storytellers were putting their own spin on the tales with every recitation.

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When the first copies of Homer’s poems were written down, there wasn’t a single authorized edition. Bards of the time practiced a technique called composition-in-recitation, which meant that every bard who recited it would have changed it slightly. The version that was written down would depend on which one the scribe had heard.

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The earliest written versions we have were inscribed on papyrus, which does not keep well. Most papyrus which has managed to survive today has been discovered in Egypt. Dry conditions there mean it is easier to preserve fragile documents. An authentic copy of the Odyssey from the Roman era – especially from Greece itself – would be priceless.

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The most recent excavations at Olympia did not find papyrus; they instead found a clay tablet. Although it was near the sanctuary, there is currently no evidence that it was part of the religious site. It was buried in a pile of rubble, covered with bricks, stones and tiles. On it is engraved part of the Odyssey.

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There are 13 verses from the Odyssey on the tablet. They come from late in the poem in Book 14, when Odysseus finally returns to his home in Ithaca after ten years of wandering. He speaks to Eumaeus, a servant who has known him all his life – but the man cannot not recall him.

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The tablet is estimated to be from the 3rd century A.D., which would place it from Roman times. If proven, this means it would be the oldest example of Homer’s work discovered in Greece. But regardless of the date, the Greek culture ministry has described it as “a great archaeological, epigraphic, literary and historical exhibit.”

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Just as we have few records of his poetry, we know very little about Homer himself. In fact, it has been proposed that he may not even have been an individual person. Some historians believe the poems of Homer were actually developed over the centuries by numerous people building on each other.

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Homer didn’t describe himself in his work, but the dialect used in the Iliad and Odyssey may suggest his birthplace was in what is now Turkey. Any descriptions of his life, however, come from long after his death. Some people say there are too many stylistic differences between the two poems for them to come from the same author.

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Homer is sometimes known as “the Blind Bard,” but whether he was actually blind is questionable. A blind bard appears in the Odyssey and some have interpreted that character as Homer inserting himself into the narrative. And some Greek dialects even have a word for “blind” that sounds a little like Homer.

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What is certain is that Homer’s work has had an enduring impact. Other elements of Greek culture – from plays to pottery – have depicted work from Homer. He was studied by the Greeks and Romans and is still studied today. The Homeric epics have long been considered centerpieces of a classical education.

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Since the Odyssey was first put to paper, it has also seen changing interpretations when translated into other languages. Livius Andronicus was a slave who produced the poem’s first Latin edition in the 3rd century B.C. He altered the names of the characters to Roman equivalents – so Zeus was known by as Jupiter and Odysseus became Ulysses. Other edits were made so it would be more acceptable to a Roman audience.

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The first conversion of the Odyssey into English came between 1614 and 1615. The translator was George Chapman, but his was only the first of no less than 60 English versions produced since. In 2017 Emily Wilson became the first woman to translate the poem, winning praise for bringing yet another new perspective.

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As there are so many versions of the Iliad and Odyssey out there, identifying an authentic text may be impossible. The Homer Multitext Project, however, is an attempt to put together all known parts to illustrate how the ancient tale has changed over the centuries. The newly discovered tablet could soon be added to its database, adding yet another layer to the evolving narrative.

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It is Homer’s enduring legacy that ensures discoveries like the tablet will always be important. Indeed, it provides a window into the composition of this particularly influential poem. But as well as that, it adds depth to a cultural phenomenon that continues to grow and change as time goes on.

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