There was little doubt in antiquity that Homer existed. The author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, two very different works that, in the words of the Berkeley classicist James I. Porter, “complement each other like a pair of gloves,” was considered as real as the next poet. The fact that no one knew for sure who he was or where he came from—or even whether “he” was a he at all—was less an inconvenience than an opportunity.

A great many theories about the poet’s identity emerged down the centuries. For some ancient authors it was obvious that Homer was the son of a river god and a nymph. Only someone with divine blood would be capable of producing such masterpieces. Other writers mined the epic poems for clues to his parentage, alighting...


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