Homer Before Print
Works from antiquity had to undergo several risky transformations in order to be read and studied today. The texts—written on papyrus or parchment, and later on paper—were copied by scribes multiple times over the course of two millennia. The long journey from manuscript to printed book resulted in numerous losses and the introduction of many variations in the texts along the way, some accidental and others deliberate.
The Iliad and the Odyssey—epic poems composed for oral performance—present these and other challenges to scholars who are interested in the history of the texts that are available to us. The two poems are generally presumed to have been composed sometime from the eighth century BCE (or earlier) to the mid-seventh century BCE and written down by the mid-sixth century BCE, likely in conjunction with performances at the Panathenaia Festival in Athens. The earliest surviving example of Homeric papyri is from the third century BCE, about the time that scholars in Alexandria produced a relatively stable text that was subsequently used by scribes to produce copies. Over 1,000 manuscripts of Homer's works exist, far more than for any other ancient author and many more of the Iliad than theOdyssey.
About 300 medieval manuscripts of the Iliad or the Odyssey survive dating from the ninth to the fifteenth century. Interest in the Homeric texts flourished in the East, where Byzantine manuscripts produced between the twelfth century and the fall of Constantinople in the mid-fifteenth century preserve important scholarship. Differences in the ancient versions copied by medieval scribes, combined with their own transcription errors and editorial decisions, make it very difficult to sort out relationships among the manuscript texts. In the West, where there was almost no knowledge of Greek, scholars and others had to rely for familiarity with the epics on the Ilias Latina, an abridgement in Latin of Homer's Iliad, and other accounts of the Trojan War with dubious authenticity.
With the invention of printing in the mid-fifteenth century, the transmission of the Homeric texts entered a new phase: editors could choose to work from manuscripts (if they had access to them) or one or more previously printed editions. Despite the apparent stability and fixity of print, Homer in Print chronicles the enduring debate about which text is closest to the "real" Homer—or, at least, the "best."