Early Greek epos is represented for us by several thousands of hexameter verses in essentially uniform dialect, idiom and style. In addition to what has come down to us more or less intact – the two Homeric poems, Hesiod's works, a number of hymns (not all of them that early), the Aspis – we have chunks of catalogue poetry and fragments and reports of a number of different works, and we are aware of the existence of a whole oral epic tradition in which essentially traditional material was transmitted in conventional forms. How are we to establish a literary history of early Greek epos, to sort out the elements of the medium and the message chronologically and even genealogically in relation to each other? In the case of most modern oeuvres, there is no need to ponder the internal sequence, as dates of composition and publication are known. Indeed, in European literature back until the time of the Greek tragedians, independent information and external evidence often yield absolute dates so that the working out of an internal chronology is not an issue. In the case of early Greek epos, however, the near total lack of absolute chronological pegs and the scarcity of relevant facts and contexts compel us to rely mainly on internal criteria. That holds true especially for the earlier part of the Archaic Age (the eighth and seventh centuries bc); with time we do get testimonies that may serve as clues to termini post (or even ante) quem and thus help us establish a relative chronology based on (approximate) absolute dates. For the charting out and pinning down of poets and poems, we are not much helped by authorial self-reference, except, perhaps, in the case of Hesiod, which does not yield much in the way of chronology, and of the Hymn to Apollo, which may already build on the fiction of a Homer from Chios.
Homer and Hesiod obviously could lay claim to pride of place even at a time when much more epic poetry by many more poets was available than is the case today. We are not, however, much helped by the ancient biographical lore about Homer and Hesiod – the vitae, the Certamen and scattered evidence – or by what the ancients generally imagined about the age and succession and relationship of those two and of other poets. The tendency of ancient literary biographers to construct neat successions between prominent literary figures and to fashion biographical accounts from what is in the poetry is well known. Graziosi (2002) has shown how the characters and circumstances and dates of Homer, and of Hesiod as well, have been constructed by posterity and in essence must be understood in the light of social and political circumstances and within the context of literary and ideological axe grinding. Interest in the age and chronological relationship of Homer and Hesiod is not driven by historical curiosity. The Homeridai, the rhapsodes in general, the Chians, the Athenians, Herodotus and Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle – all conjure up a different Homer. Therefore, although the story of the invention and individualization of Homer is fascinating and utterly instructive in its own right, the ancient biographical lore tells us preciously little about the persons it claims to be about, and is of very little assistance in the quest for absolute and relative dates. The same questions were rehearsed again and again throughout the centuries.