Fragment of Homer’s Odyssey Unearthed at Olympia

Roman-period tablet inscribed with epic lines

Archaeologists working at the Greek site of Olympia, home of the ancient Olympic Games, discovered near the sanctuary of Zeus a Roman-period clay tablet containing 13 lines of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. The discovery was made by the archaeological project The Multidimensional Site of Olympia, led by Dr. Erofili-Iris Kollia, Director of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Ilia, and first announced by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports.


Discovered at Olympia in Greece, this third-century C.E. tablet inscribed with lines from Homer’s Odyssey poses many interesting questions about its context. Photo: Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports.

Preliminarily dated to the third century C.E., the tablet contains the portion of The Odyssey in which the cunning Greek warrior Odysseus, having spent 10 years journeying home to Ithaca after the Trojan War (with several obstacles and detours along the way), has come to the hut of his slave Eumaeus, a swineherd.

This passage, from Book 14, is “an account of how Eumaeus, whose job is to take care of the pigs, constructed his own yard and a neatly arranged set of pigsties during the 20 years that Odysseus was away from home, with no help from his owners,” explains Emily Wilson, Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, in a London Review of Books article discussing the discovery at Olympia. Wilson recently published a translation of The Odyssey (Norton, 2017)—the first woman to do so in English.

Tracing the enigmatic, mystical genesis of the Greek Olympiad, The Olympic Games: How They All Began takes you on a journey to ancient Greece with some of the finest scholars of the ancient world. Ranging from the original religious significance of the games to the brutal athletic competitions, this free eBook paints a picture of the ancient sports world and its devoted fans.

The 12,000-line Odyssey and the preceding epic The Iliad, which recounts the final year of the 10-year war between the Greeks and Trojans, are regarded as the earliest-surviving and most important works of Greek literature. These epic poems are attributed to a bard named Homer who may have lived in the eighth century B.C.E., although some scholars have questioned whether Homer was one person or a name ascribed to a collection of oral poems.

Although media reports have erroneously described the discovery at Olympia as the oldest attestation of The Odyssey, several archaeological finds pre-date this third-century C.E. tablet, including the oldest known example: a broken pottery piece (ostracon) dating to the fifth century B.C.E. from the ancient Greek city of Olbia in Ukraine containing line 9.39 of The Odyssey.

In the London Review of Books, Wilson cautions readers to view news stories with a critical eye:

“The bright side to this inaccurately reported story is that it reveals a hunger among the general public for news about the ancient world. […] Maybe this fake news story will inspire more people to investigate the ancient world for themselves, and also to realize that the stories told about the Odyssey are—like the poem’s wily, scheming, deceitful protagonist himself—not always to be taken at face value.”

Despite the misleading spin, the tablet from Olympia is interesting in its own right.

“This extraordinary and unique discovery raises so many new questions,” said Diane H. Cline, Associate Professor in the history department at The George Washington University, in an email to Bible History Daily. “Is this a gift to the gods, and if so, who would choose to dedicate a plaque with 13 lines of The Odyssey to Zeus? Why would someone inscribe these particular lines, which aren’t really that pithy or significant? A large zone in the archaeological site at Olympia is an area used by athletes, the gymnasium and palaestra. There they exercised but also took lessons, and this text may be related. Was this part of a set of tablets used for study and teaching?”

On his blog, Classicist Peter Gainsford of the Victoria University of Wellington, who made a preliminary examination of the inscription based on pictures provided by the Greek Ministry, described the unusual medium on which the inscription was written: “It isn’t written on papyrus, like most literary texts. It isn’t a verse inscription on stone, of which we have many. It’s a clay tablet. This was never a common writing medium in the Greco-Roman world. Its use for this tablet, and for this text, is something quite unique.”

“[While the] artifact is extraordinary, it is important to remember that the text is at least a thousand years later than the date of Homer’s composition,” explained Cline. “What did these verses of Homer mean to people living in the time of the later Roman Empire? The meaning of this artifact in its physical and temporal contexts will be debated in the years to come. Scholars like myself are eager to learn more about its find-spot and how the text compares to other versions of The Odyssey.”

Tracing the enigmatic, mystical genesis of the Greek Olympiad, The Olympic Games: How They All Began takes you on a journey to ancient Greece with some of the finest scholars of the ancient world. Ranging from the original religious significance of the games to the brutal athletic competitions, this free eBook paints a picture of the ancient sports world and its devoted fans.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

What Were the Ancient Olympics Like?

The Oracle of Delphi—Was She Really Stoned?

Ancient Greek Human Sacrifice at Mountaintop Altar? by Dan Diffendale

Amphipolis Excavation: Discoveries in Alexander the Great-Era Tomb Dazzle the World

The Greeks Go to Washington


Related reading in the BAS Library:

Carol G. Thomas, “Searching for the Historical Homer,” Archaeology Odyssey, Winter 1998.

Jasper Griffin, “Reading Homer After 2,800 Years,” Archaeology Odyssey, Winter 1998.
Why the Iliad and the Odyssey fascinate us today

“Is Homer Historical? An Archaeology Odyssey Interview,” Archaeology Odyssey, May/June 2004.
To Harvard classicist Gregory Nagy, the man we call “Homer” is a myth

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  • Wes says

    The question was raised about what does this have to do with “Biblical” archeology?
    Well, if I hadn’t read this account, such issues would have been at the back of my mind anyway. For example, the Bible is written in both Hebrew and Greek. The Septuagint is entirely in Greek. Homer’s writing was not contemporary with the Trojan War on which it is based, but as described, near the time of the prophet Isaiah or a little before. It was disappointing to discover that this find was dated to the Roman Empire period – and that the Hellenic period of say Alexander were very rudimentary. The Homeric epics, we would think, were all composed by the time of Isaiah, but the Bible was still in a period of compilation. …
    So, in effect, this news item whets archeological curiosity. We have both the Bible and Homeric epics, but how were they preserved and passed on to us?

  • Anthony says

    I suspect that just as later Christians would quote Biblical passages for magical benefits the Ancient Greeks and Later the Romans would quote Homer or the Orphic Hymns. In this case I suspect that whoever made the clay tablet was looking for Zeus’s blessing on his pig farm.

    • Charles says

      And I assume that you’re writing this to gain points with Satan. I get it now.

  • Barry says

    An interesting article. I’m just wondering why the comment about Wilson’s recent translation- she was the first woman to translate the Oydessy into English? This is on the same level as saying John Smith was the first person with red hair to translate etc. It’s irrelevant! What I want to know is Wilson’s a good accurate readable translation. Her gender is neither here nor there.

  • John says

    This has WHAT to do with “Biblical” archaeology?

    It’s just further confirmation, that you guys are not representing the Bible accurately.

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