To me, the reception of the Iliad and Odyssey from antiquity onward is as interesting a topic as the epics on their own. Many have discussed the relative merit of these poems, expressing literary preference for or placing more philosophical value on one over the other. I’ve always thought that one of the best way into another classics geek’s head is having them elaborate on their preference for the Iliad or the Odyssey, as the conversation that ensues can reveal a lot about a person and how they think about the world. On a less personal, micro level and a more cultural macro one, the relative size of of the readerships of these poems and their levels of institutional support provide lots of food for thought about shifts in intellectual priorities and aesthetic tastes.
In this post, I’ll cite a few examples from the ancient world that speak to how some of the elite readership compared these texts, and I’ll also briefly discuss what the material remains suggest about the distribution of these epics in the ancient world (hint: they generally favored the Iliad). Then, I’ll use some search and analytic tools online in hopes of shedding some light on the relative positioning of these texts amongst readerships in more recent years (hint: things have changed).
In Plato’s dialogue the Hippias Minor, Socrates questions the sophist Hippias about which Homeric hero, Achilles or Odysseus, is the better man(note: I don’t care much who the author was, but I’m taking Aristotle’s word that Plato wrote this). Socrates mentions a tradition of thought which regards the Iliad as a better poem than the Odyssey, for the sole reason that Achilles is the better man. When the dialogue opens, Hippias has just given a speech, and another onlooker, Eudicus, prods Socrates to question Hippias. Socrates replies:
καὶ μήν, ὦ Εὔδικε, ἔστι γε ἃ ἡδέως ἂν πυθοίμην Ἱππίου ὧν νυνδὴ ἔλεγεν περὶ Ὁμήρου. καὶ γὰρ τοῦ σοῦ πατρὸς Ἀπημάντου ἤκουον ὅτι ἡ Ἰλιὰς κάλλιον εἴη ποίημα τῷ Ὁμήρῳ ἢ ἡ Ὀδύσσεια, τοσούτῳ δὲ κάλλιον, ὅσῳ ἀμείνων Ἀχιλλεὺς Ὀδυσσέως εἴη: ἑκάτερον γὰρ τούτων τὸ μὲν εἰς Ὀδυσσέα ἔφη πεποιῆσθαι, τὸ δ᾽ εἰς Ἀχιλλέα. περὶ ἐκείνου οὖν ἡδέως ἄν, εἰ βουλομένῳ ἐστὶν Ἱππίᾳ, ἀναπυθοίμην ὅπως αὐτῷ δοκεῖ περὶ τοῖν ἀνδροῖν τούτοιν, πότερον ἀμείνω φησὶν εἶναι, ἐπειδὴ καὶ ἄλλα πολλὰ καὶ παντοδαπὰ ἡμῖν ἐπιδέδεικται καὶ περὶ ποιητῶν τε ἄλλων καὶ περὶ Ὁμήρου.
Indeed, Eudicus, there are some points in what Hippias was just now saying of Homer, about which I should like to question him. For I used to hear your father Apemantus say that Homer’s Iliad was a finer poem than the Odyssey, and just as much finer as Achilles was finer than Odysseus for he said that one of these poems was made with Odysseus; the other with Achilles as its subject. So that is a point about which, if it is agreeable to Hippias, I should like to ask—what he thinks about these two men, which of them he says is the better; for he has told us in his exhibition many other things of sorts about Homer and other poets. (trans. Jowett)
This opinion of Apemantus, that the Iliad is finer than the Odyssey, was probably mainstream for that time and many subsequent centuries. The Iliad accounts for most of the literary papyri we’ve discovered from the ancient Greek world, and most of the early visual and textual citations of epic poetry on early Greek pottery and inscriptions are derived from events told in the Iliad. It’s notable that Apemantus’ opinion about the Iliad and the Odyssey is determined by his evaluation of their respective heroes, Achilles and Odysseus. In his view, Achilles is the better hero, so the Iliad is a better poem. The poems themselves set up an antagonistic relationship between the two heroes, as in the famous passage in the Iliad where Achilles calls Odysseus a liar.
Although the evidence is somewhat meager (a papyrus stash from Hellenistic Egypt), in the ancient Greek world the Iliad seems to have been more frequently read in an educational context by a large margin. A few scholars from classical Greece (probably teachers) and The Hellenistic scholars of the 2nd century BCE left us plenty of notes on both poems, but there are far more surviving scholia to the Iliad than to the Odyssey. The preference of the Iliad over the Odyssey in the eyes of the ancient Greeks bore some weight in the eyes of the ancient Romans, but it was not overpowering.
In ancient Rome, the Iliad remained the champion, although advocates for the Odyssey got more vocal. Again we find a few of these evaluations wrapped up with arguments about the merits of the heroes. One example of a Roman poem expressing some concern with the Iliad and praise for the Odyssey is Horace’s Epistle 2.1:
Seditione, dolis, scelere, atque libidine et ira,
Iliacos intra muros peccatur et extra.
Rursus, quid virtus et quid sapientia possit,
utile proposuit nobis exemplar Ulixen;
In-fighting, cunning, and crime, lust, and anger,
There’s error inside and outside the walls of Troy.
Conversely, in Ulysses, Homer shows us a fine
Example of what virtue and wisdom can do,
It could also be argued that Virgil modeled the hero of his epic, Aeneas, more on Homer’s Odysseus than on Achilles. The poet Ovid had no problem saying that both epics were faulty, that the Iliad is essentially fight over a slave girl and the Odyssey a fight over a married woman. On the other, more traditional hand, the unknown author (maybe Longinus?) of the ancient Roman treatise “On the Sublime” gushes about the Iliad and the Odyssey, but also writes that:
[Homer] shows, however, in the Odyssey (and this further observation deserves attention on many grounds) that, when a great genius is declining, the special token of old age is the love of marvelous tales….
It is for the same reason, I suppose, that he has made the whole structure of the Iliad, which was written at the height of his inspiration, full of action and conflict, while the Odyssey for the most part consists of narrative, as is characteristic of old age. Accordingly, in the Odyssey Homer may be likened to a sinking sun, whose grandeur remains without its intensity. He does not in the Odyssey maintain so high a pitch as in those poems of Ilium. (On the Sublime (7.13-15)
To paint with broader strokes now, as a whole, textual evidence from antiquity to the present suggests that the Iliad has been more widely read than the Odyssey, and the Iliad is translated into vernacular tongues before the Odyssey in the 15th and 16th centuries. I’m going to hone in now on the 19th century before moving to the present, as I think recent years provide the most contrast to what we’ve seen so far.
One author writing in 1879 makes the the observation point that although artists of the day draw inspiration from the Odyssey more than the Iliad, the Iliad is still more widely read in schools. The author here finds this situation lamentable, since the Odyssey “has pointed more morals than any incidents in the siege of Troy”. In remarkable contrast to the view mentioned in Plato’s Hippias Minor, the author goes on to suggest that the Odyssey is gaining in popularity because the heroes are less heroic – “they have more of the common human type about them”. The author also notes that the British like the Odyssey because it is a tale about discovery and the ocean! In any case, the prevalence of the Iliad over the Odyssey in schools at that time maybe has something to do with the popular opinion that the Iliad was more masculine than the Odyssey, as the academy was predominantly male. The bluntest formulation of this opinion is Richard Bentley’s oft-quoted “The Ilias he made for the men; the Odysseīs for the other sex.” Bentley would perhaps be surprised that it is the more nuanced attention to issues of gender in the Odyssey that is in part responsible for its recent surge in interest and, dare I say, appreciation.
The preface to an 1883 scholarly companion to Homer’s Odyssey begins:
Since the usual curriculum of the American college requires that some portion of the Iliad shall be read by candidates for admission, the Odyssey comes, in natural sequence, within the first year’s course after entrance.
So, at that time in America, it seems like the Iliad was more widely studied in high school than the Odyssey, although maybe not as widely enjoyed. An Elementary School Curriculum from Columbia Teacher’s College (1907) describes how selections from the Odyssey are found even more delightful than the Iliad”. In Germany, Johann Herbart had already boldly prioritized the Odyssey, claiming that “it surpasses in definite, educative experience…every other work of classic times”. Change was afoot.
Now I’ll skip to the present.
Advocates for classical literature’s place in the curriculum are playing more defense when compared to times past, since many of us find ourselves in the position of having to explicitly rationalize and justify the inclusion of ancient literature in the modern curriculum – it is no longer assumed. Homer has fared okay in the US, but more recently it is the Odyssey that is prioritized over the Iliad at the institutional level and that enjoys more popularity. As one modern scholar daintily puts it, “happily, recent criticism has been much more sensitive to the special qualities of the Odyssey”. Now, the Odyssey is more commonly read at the high school level, and it’s upheld as an “exemplar” by the standards of the Common Core. In one of the standard literature textbooks for 9th graders (Prentice Hall), an excerpt from the Odyssey has a position, but there is no room for the Iliad. Since World War Two, there have been almost double the amount of translations of the Odyssey than of the Iliad (source).
I think a lot of students turn first to Google to find a text, conduct research, or just have basic questions answered. I did a search on Google Trends to see the relative frequencies of searches for “Homer Iliad” and “Homer Odyssey” from the years 2004-2011. To corroborate my initial claim, the searches for both epics dies down in the summer months, as schools aren’t in session. Searches for the Odyssey are always more frequent than searches for the Iliad, besides the spike of Iliad searches in 2004. I don’t think I’m going out on too tenuous a limb to suggest that this spike is due to the Troy film that came out that year. It is somewhat saddening but not surprising to me that Brad Pitt’s film probably prompted more searches for the Iliad than would happen in the subsequent four or five years. Anyway, besides that spike, the Odyssey is consistently more searched on Google. I love Google Trend’s geography feature that lets us see which states were responsible for the most searches. Applied to this example, most searches for the Iliad come from the Northeast, while most searches for the Odyssey come from the Midwest.
A search of the New York Times database (1850 to present) reveals 2,660 mentions of the Odyssey and 1,820 mentions of the Iliad. From the years 1851 to 1950, though, the Iliad had more mentions that the Odyssey (464-362). The search of the Time Magazine database provided by BYU shows no significant difference, as most often the two texts are mentioned together.
A look at two prominent online book review communities, Goodreads and Amazon, suggest that the Odyssey has a higher readership than the Iliad. On Goodreads, the Fagles translation of the Odyssey has almost half a million reviews. The Fagles Iliad has 150,000. Amazon has a category of “Epic Poetry”. Two different translations of the Odyssey occupy the first and second best-selling slots. The Iliad is seventh.
Why again this drastic shift? I largely agree with Grafton’s take:
The explanation lies in the evolution of Western literature, which has conferred a curious modernity on Homer’s intellectual hero [Odysseus], while, at the same time, the athletic and military heroism of Achilles has lost it’s aura.
If there is one outpost where the Iliad prevails at least if just in terms of frequency of appearance, it is perhaps the world of academic presses. A search on Google’s Ngram Search tool reveals that in Google’s formidable database of books, the Iliad is still mentioned far more than the Odyssey.