Homer’s islands: Part One

 

It was said that even Homer irritatingly dropped off to sleep:

indignor, quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus
Horace, Ars Poetica, line 359

However, his geography, at first queried, is then confirmed in Chapter 4 of Eothen, where A W Kinglake visits the Troad with his friend Methley, looking for the site of Troy:

‘We agreed that whatever may have been the exact site of Troy, the Grecian camp must have been nearly opposite to the space betwixt the islands of Imbros and Tenedos,  “μεσσηγὺς Τενέδοιο καὶ Ἴμβρου παιπαλοέσσης,”* but Methley reminded me of a passage in the Iliad in which Neptune is represented as looking at the scene of action before Ilion from above the island of Samothrace. Now Samothrace, according to the map, appeared to be not only out of all seeing distance from the Troad, but to be entirely shut out from it by the intervening Imbros, which is a larger island, stretching its length right athwart the line of sight from Samothrace to Troy…

‘I think that this testing of the poet’s words by map and compass may have shaken a little of my faith in the completeness of his knowledge. Well, now I had come; there to the south was Tenedos, and here at my side was Imbros, all right, and according to the map, but aloft over Imbros, aloft in a far-away heaven, was Samothrace, the watchtower of Neptune!

‘So Homer had appointed it, and so it was; the map was correct enough, but could not, like Homer, convey the whole truth… now I knew that Homer had passed along here, that this vision of Samothrace over-towering the nearer island was common to him and to me.’

 

This was in 1834—a reminder that in pre-Schliemann days, there was a general assumption that the Iliad reflected actual events. And of course Thucydides assumed that it did.

Students perhaps need to be aware of three things:

  • the ‘archaeologists turn myth into history’ topos;
  • the popular confusion between myth, legend and history;
  • the need to establish what history involves, and what are its limitations.

Homer may have got Samothrace right; but when it came to Ithaca (and coming to Ithaca was no easy matter), things were not so clear: see next post.

*Iliad XIII.32