The Homeric epics have been hugely influential over the millennia, and one can find Homeric echoes and influences in countless movies and popular books today. But it's not just their status as influential classics that make the Iliad and Odyssey worth studying. These epics open up a whole world of fascinating questions, not just about ancient Greece, but about human history and society in general. For example, there are elements within the epics that are very similar to other stories told by other cultures in completely different parts of the globe, separated from the Greeks by entire Oceans. How can we explain that?

Here's another interesting question: As discussed in episodes 2 and 15, the Homeric epics are thought to be products of a long oral tradition of storytelling of an illiterate society (that were finally written down when that society became literate). If that is the case, and these stories serve as a kind of collective memory of a society that has no written records, then how far back in time can such a collective memory reach? How we answer that question must profoundly affect how we understand prehistory, not just of the Greeks, but of any culture whose myths and legends we might be interested in. Furthermore, if these epics grew and developed over time, with input from hundreds of storytellers, then how are we to understand the evolution of the epics in their entirety? Is it just a random process of addition and modification by random people? Or are there patterns or societal forces at work which, at a macro level, shape and combine these stories into the elaborate epics we now have?

Our guests today have spent their careers pondering these and many other questions relating to epic storytelling traditions. Gregory Nagy is professor of classics at Harvard University and director of the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC. Leonard Muellner is professor emeritus at Brandeis University and director for publications and information technology at the Center for Hellenic Studies.

If you would like to learn more about ancient epics and heroes, Gregory Nagy has an online course you can take from Harvard, called “The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 hours.” It may be the best online classics course available right now. And here's the really cool part: if you don't need to get college credit for it (or a certificate that you've completed it), i.e. if you just want the knowledge, then the course is completely free. It's really an incredible resource for all of us. Sign up here.

For those of you looking for more podcasts on ancient Greece, History in the Making is a show that is definitely worth checking out. It is produced by a fellow name Rob Sims, who just might be the next Dan Carlin in the making. His first season covers the period of Classical Athens and goes really in depth into perhaps the most fascinating military conflict from antiquity – the Peloponnesian War.