The person of Homer, although not at all to be considered as a pure and simple symbol, inexorably vanishes into the mists of legend. This does not mean, however, except that he is prior to the first limit in which historical, biographical and autobiographical interest began to arise, for the persons of artists: therefore prior, albeit slightly, to the century. VIII-VII a. C., when historically observed and observable figures appear, such as those of Hesiod, Archilochus, etc. Moreover, the ancients attributed to the name of Homer for a long time (and that is to say until the awakening of the critics), in addition to the Iliad and the Odyssey, almost all the other products of the Ionian epic, the poems – certainly post- Iliad and to Odyssey – of the so-called epic cycle. And this means that the production of the Ionian epic had begun by him, and not already ended in him: Homer was not a recent editor or collector, but the prototype, the master, the founder of the technique, the creator of the masterpiece on which an example was forging the series of subsequent compositions; which compositions, being the work of disciples, by Omeridi – as they were called – also returned to his name, were attributed to him. Thus Homer was the author of the two oldest poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey – for which in fact the tradition is more firm and supportive – or, if we want to separate the two poems and already consider the second as the most direct and happy offspring of the first, he was in any case the author of the Iliad.
Both poems refer to that group of legends, connected with the Trojan War, which were particularly dear to the colonists of Asia Minor. They are the expression of a heroic world, that is, large in proportions, distant in time, solemn. Their heroism, however, is of varying degrees. The Iliad, dealing with the very subject of war, resounding with arms and armies, gives us a more vivid impression of the times it describes; shows a more faithful knowledge (albeit after several generations, of course) of the Mycenaean civilization, of those political and social conditions, of those customs, etc. In short, it is more heroic and more archaic. The Odyssey instead with its environments of family life, of common life, with its travel adventures, it transports us to a different air, where you can breathe a morality, a religion, a more evolved conscience; and in particular, in the wanderings of Ulysses, it seems to reproduce the influence of the first voyages attempted by the Greeks in the West, the influence of the aspirations that they had not yet led, but were about to lead the Greeks, in the century. VIII, to found their colonies also in the West. In short, it is more modern. This difference in tone perhaps depends on the difference in matter, which in the poem of the great deeds linked the poet to a greater observance of historical conditions and therefore led him to a kind of archaic stylization, while in the poem of common life it left him free to mix and superimpose the impressions of the present? Or it depends (as the most severe philologists usually affirm) on diversity of author, so that between the composition of the Is the Iliad and that of the Odyssey to interpose the interval of about a century? This is a mystery; and this will probably always remain, despite the reasons that criticism has accumulated in one sense or another, from the time of the Alexandrian χωρίζοξτες to the present day.
Considering them from the aesthetic point of view, the two works appear not only marked with the seal of the highest poetry, but also very similar to each other. Both, despite the wide narrative breath and the grandeur and breadth that detaches them from the simple songs of deed, nevertheless retain interest in the isolated fact; cut from the complex of history or legend, p. ex. of the Trojan War, a brief action that can be done psychologically and dramatically (eg the wrath of Achilles, the labor of Ulysses); they do not expose the events in their historical-chronological succession, but (as Aristotle observed) in the poetic order of the probable and the necessary; they transport us into medias res without starting over the whole context of the facts ab ovo. This particularity, which implies a lively force of imagination and spiritual synthesis, is no longer encountered in the subsequent products of the Ionian epic, designated by the name of cyclics; and therefore it is to be considered a characteristic of Homeric art. It marks the passage (and in this position of passage we place the person of Homer) between the Aeolian songs and the epic cycle; between the lyrical-musical spirit and the pragmatic-discursive-rational spirit that will eventually prevail among the Ionians. But is it legitimate to speak of order, of spiritual synthesis, in short, of poetic organism in Homeric poems? The philological analysis of the last century, especially initiated by FA Wolf, as it denied or devalued for the most part the person of Homer by reducing him to a simple compiler, thus it broke the unity of the two compositions trying to demonstrate that they are nothing but an aggregation or superimposition of parts that are badly arranged between them. This kind of criticism was useful, as it taught us to distinguish the materials used by the Homeric epic, the phases preceding its constitution; but it passed its mark when, overshadowing the mendas, interpolations and variations introduced in the poems during the course of time, it let slip the signs of the creative genius. And certainly today most are returning to believe in the fundamental unity of the two poems, understood as works of art.