Statistically Dating Homer

This one seems to be getting some traction … from a University of Reading press release:

Homer’s great masterpieces, The Iliad and The Odyssey, have been dated to around 762 BCE by new research based on the statistical modelling of language evolution.

Scientists from the University of Reading used evolutionary-linguistic statistical methods to compare the language in Homer’s Iliad with Modern Greek and Hittite (an extinct language in Anatolian branch of Indo European languages, 1200-1600 BCE) and have confirmed what many historians and classicists have long believed; that these literary classics date from the 8th century BCE. 

Professor Mark Pagel’s research team analysed the differences in a common set of vocabulary items between Homeric Greek, Modern Greek and ancient Hittite and assessed the probable times in years separating these languages, given the percentage of words they shared combined with the knowledge of the rates at which different words change.  The research dated the Homerian epics with a 95% certainty within a date range of 376 BCE and 1157 BCE, with a mean estimate of 762 BCE.

Professor Pagel said: “Our analysis of The Iliad has not been informed by historical, archaeological or cultural information but by a statistical analysis of shared vocabulary between three languages and the rates of lexical replacement in Indo European languages. Yet, our estimated dates fall in the middle of classicists’ and historians’ preferred date for Homer. The outcome of this research on The Iliad demonstrates the way in which language can be used, like genes, to unravel questions in history, archaeology and anthropology.”

Professor Pagel’s previous research on the evolution of human languages has built up a picture of how our 7,000 living human languages have evolved. Professor Pagel and his research team have documented the shared patterns in the way we use language and researched why some words succeed and others have become obsolete over time by using statistical estimates of rates of lexical replacement for a range of vocabulary items in the Indo-European languages. The variation in replacement rates makes the most common vocabulary items in these languages promising candidates for estimating the divergence between pairs of languages.

Professor Pagel’s research has been published this week in the journal BioEssays.

Of course, the original article is behind a paywall, so we can’t read it and make an informed comment. I’m generally skeptical of any study of the ancient world which is based on statistics, and in this case, I’m curious about the Hittite ‘starting point’. Whatever the case, an 800 year window isn’t that impressive when you think about it … we’ve got Homer living any time between on hazy traditional date (Homer himself) and another (the Trojan War) …

CJ Online Review: Potter, Loeb Hippocrates vol. 10

posted with permission:

Hippocrates: Volume X. Edited and translated by PAUL POTTER. Loeb Classical Library 520. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2012. Pp. xxii + 432. Hardcover, $24.00/£15.95. ISBN 978-0-674-99683-0.

Reviewed by Lesley Dean-Jones, University of Texas at Austin

In 1983, after a hiatus of fifty-two years, Potter produced the fifth volume in the Loeb translation of Hippocrates and with the appearance of the present volume he will have made accessible in modern English translations thirty-two treatises of the Hippocratic Corpus.[[1]] Many of these treatises had no previous English translation and some of them (as is the case with On Barrenness in the current volume) had not been edited since the mid-nineteenth century editions and translations of Littré and Ermerins (French and Latin, respectively). For this Potter deserves heartfelt thanks.

Apart from the ready availability of text and translation there is much that is useful in these volumes. Each volume is introduced with a very brief account of the manuscript tradition of and relationship between the treatises translated in the volume and a brief select bibliography. The present volume also has a brief note on technical terms (as did volume VIII). Each treatise has its own brief introduction explaining when it was first associated with the name of Hippocrates, the nature of the treatise, an outline of its organization (very helpful) and a list of the editions, translations and studies that have been done on it. Where previous editions exist Potter bases his edition largely on them. In the case of Barrenness he collated the manuscripts that were unavailable to Littré and Ermerins (M & V) from microfilm. This volume also includes Lexicons of the therapeutic agents used in the treatises in both English and Greek. Volume VI had similar indices of foods and drugs and I have found these very helpful. Volume VI also had indices of symptoms and diseases and I could have wished that Volume X did too, at least of symptoms since the illnesses detailed in the treatises in this volume are not given explicit names that often.

There are five treatises in the volume. Four deal with human reproduction: Generation, Nature of the Child, Nature of Women, Barrenness. The fifth treatise, Diseases IV, is almost certainly written by the author of Generation and Nature of the Child and is quite rightly included here. The relationship of this group of three treatises to Nature of Women and Barrenness—and to the two gynecological treatises yet to appear in a full English translation,[[2]] Diseases of Women I & II—is a vexed question on which there is no consensus at the moment, but the treatises at the very least share some theories (importantly the existence of hydrops as a significant bodily fluid) and the inclusion of all five in one volume is not unwarranted.

With that said, however, I do wonder if the non-specialist reader is well served by this use of space. As my repeated use of the modifier “brief” above indicates, the 400+ pages of the volume are almost entirely given over to the text and translation. There are no introductory essays such as those in the first four volumes of the series. In the Introduction to volume V Potter directed the reader to these essays for an orientation to Hippocrates, but they were already a little out of date in 1983 and a great deal of work has been done since then. Nor are there any notes to the translation to help a reader with the author’s argument and train of thought, which is particularly dense and convoluted in parts of Diseases IV.[[3]] David Balme’s 1991 Loeb of Books VI–X of Aristotle’s Historia Animalium included some very extended notes, so it is not a concept foreign to the format.

Naturally, with texts so rich and so under-studied no two scholars are going to agree on every reading or interpretation and it would be invidious to raise issues requiring extended debate here. It is to be hoped that now the texts are more readily available their intrinsic interest will also be more widely appreciated. Potter’s deep familiarity with these texts will be invaluable in the close analysis which they deserve.


[[1]] Volume VII (Epidemics 2 & 4-7) was translated and edited by Wesley D. Smith.

[[2]] A translation of selected chapters by Ann Ellis Hanson appeared in Signs 1 (1975) 567–84. These, along with a few other translated passages, are now available in M. R. Lefkowitz and M. B. Fant’s Women’s Life in Greece and Rome (3rd ed., Baltimore and London, 2005).

[[3]] Interested readers can find some help with these passages in Iain M. Lonie, The Hippocratic Treatises On Generation, On the Nature of the Child, Diseases IV: A Commentary (Berlin and New York, 1981).

Classical Words of the Day


This Day in Ancient History: ante diem iv kalendas martias

ante diem iv kalendas martias

  • Equirria — the first of two days of horse racing (the second was on March 14) dedicated to Mars; the reasons are obscure, but probably have something to do with preparing horses for the upcoming campaigning season
  • 116 A.D. — supplicatio pro salute Traiani (day 2)
  • 1874 — birth of F.M. Cornford (author of Before and After Socrates, among several other works)