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) …

2 thoughts on “Statistically Dating Homer

  1. The methodology seems plausible, but the article adds nothing to our understanding of the dates of the Homeric poems. The results of the analysis of the raw data are described thus:

    ‘We derived a posterior distribution of dates for Homer from a Bayesian Markov chain Monte Carlo method (Fig. 1B) that proposed times for t1 while simultaneously integrating over two prior distributions of dates, one for the Indo-European root and the other for Hittite. The posterior distribution returns a posterior mean estimate of the date for Homer’s works of 707 BCE, with 95% confidence intervals (sometimes denoted credible intervals) ranging from 61 BCE to 1351 BCE. The upper confidence interval does not rule out a far earlier date for the epics than is commonly believed, but suggests (Fig. 1B) that it is unlikely they were produced near to the time of the Trojan Wars. The lower (younger) limit of approximately 61 BCE might seem absurd given historical evidence and beliefs, but is not wholly implausible on linguistic grounds alone, even if – as Fig. 1B shows – it is improbable.’

    The graphs suggest that any date between 850 and 550 is almost equally probable – so Herodotus could be right, or the poems could have been composed at the time of Peisistratos.

    The higher dates mentioned in the press release come from a model that starts by positing a distribution of the date the poems centred on 800 BC, with a standard deviation of 200 years. This additional factor, which is derived from the fact that Herodotus had read the poems, inevitably pushed the mean back, and reduces the size of the confidence intervals.

    The only classical scholarship cited (as evidence that the general scholarly view is of an eight-century Homer, with some preferring a seventh-century date) are Lane Fox, Travelling Heroes (2009), Janko, Homer, Hesiod and the Hymns: Diachronic Development in Epic Diction (1982) and West, Hesiod: Theogony (1966). Since the results do not provide any real evidence to choose between an eight- or seventh-century date, the whole exercise seems pretty pointless.

  2. All this seems t assumes that Homer’s Iliad is a single homogeneous text with a vocabulary from a particular time. If Homer is a composite of stories that developed in oral tradition of a long time, I wonder how that would affect the results. Perhaps that is addressed in the original article (behind the firewall).

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