There survive in Photios and less fully elsewhere summaries of the Chrestomathy of a Proklos. Included in the Photian summary is a précis of the poems of the Trojan cycle which dealt with those parts of the tale of Troy not embraced by the Iliad and the Odyssey. The summary begins with the plan of Zeus to stir up the Trojan war and ends with the marriages of Penelope to Telegonos and of Kirke to Telemachos after the death of Odysseus.
It is by no means agreed who Proklos was and whether he had the texts of all the lost epics about the Trojan War before him when he summarised them. However, according to Photios, Proklos did say that the poems of the epic cycle were preserved, and were studied not so much for their merit as for the succession of events in them; and the Patriarch did maintain that Proklos had read the cycle. If, as is sometimes assumed, the author of the Chrestomathy was a grammarian of the Antonine age, some at least of the poems may well have been available to him in their entirety. If on the other hand he was the immensely learned and industrious Neoplatonist who died in A.D. 485, he was still writing earlier than the Mohammedan invasions and the decline of interest in ancient literature. This later Proklos wrote about Homer and may well have seen fit to summarise poems which, if they existed at all, must have been quite rare in his day. A little later John Philoponos stated that the poems in the Cycles could no longer be found.
A further problem is to decide how far the summaries represent the contents of the poems and how far they have been adjusted to provide a continuous sequence of events. Examination of the fragments suggests that the summaries and the fragments correspond well; from this one may infer that the original poems were, as Proklos himself implies, composed when the Iliad and the Odyssey were already in existence. Like the Iliad and the Odyssey the epics of the Trojan Cycle—Kypria, Aithiopis, Little Iliad (whose title presupposes the existence of the Iliad), Sack of Ilios, Nostoi or Returns (of the heroes from Troy), and Telegoneia—drew on traditional tales, many of them very ancient; they differ from the Iliad and the Odyssey, as Aristotle pointed out, in their failure to concentrate on a single theme; they were therefore diffuse and without dramatic unity, being a series of episodes.
The ancients, unlike some moderns, were sure that the authors of the Trojan cyclic poems were younger than Homer; thus Arktinos, to whom Proklos ascribes the Aithiopis, was declared to be a pupil of Homer (Artemon 443 F 2); Lesches, the presumed poet of a Little Iliad, is alleged to have competed with Arktinos and defeated him (Phainias of Eresos ap. Clem. Alex. Strom. I.131); Stasinos, one of the supposed authors of the Kypria, was asserted to be Homer’s son-in-law (Tzetzes, Chil. 13.636); and Eugammon, the author of the Telegoneia, is dated by Eusebios about 568/5 b.C. (53rd Olympiad). The upper limit for dating these poets depends on the dating of Homer and Hesiod; that is a problem we must now tackle.
Herodotos (2.53.1) believed that Homer and Hesiod lived four hundred years, and no more, before his own time. The poets alleged to be earlier than Homer and Hesiod were, he thought, in fact later in time (2.53.3)—in so far as works ascribed to remote personages such as Orpheus and Mousaios may have been invented in the sixth century b.C. at Athens by Onomakritos, that was a thoroughly sound opinion. Four hundred years may be the historian’s way of saying ‘ten 40-year generations;’ such generations of Homer’s descendants could be, and were, counted. In the fifth century they were given by Akousilaos (2 F 2) and by Hellanikos in his Atlantis (4 F 20) —according to some Homer was a descendant of Atlas (Wade-Gary 91). Ten generations at a more normal average of three to a century would give a date some three hundred years before Herodotos, who seems to have regarded Homer and Hesiod as contemporaries.
This belief was not unique to Herodotos; it stems from the tradition of their having competed, which is already explicit in a Hesiodic fragment (F 265 Rzach) wherein they are said by Hesiod, or someone impersonating him, to have sung together in Delos. Hesiod’s date is well attested; he carries Homer’s date with him. Hesiod remarks that he took part in the funeral games of Amphidamas at Chalkis (Opera 654-659). This Euboian nobleman or prince was killed in a sea battle during the Lelantine War (Plut. Mor. 153 F), a conflict in which horsemen took part (Aristotle, Pol. 1289b 36-39) before hoplite fighting became standard military practice. The Lelantine War is best regarded as one part of the early colonial struggles of the late eighth century b.C. in which Chalkis fought Eretria in the plain between them; they and their respective allies competed intermittently elsewhere, Corinth gaining successes in the West, notably in Corcyra from which Eretrians were expelled about 734 b.C., and Miletos (Eretria’s ally) in the East. Hesiod, then, would have been at the funeral games for Amphidamas sometime between 725 and 700 B.C. Homer his contemporary would have flourished in the same period, about ten generations before Herodotos. Nor may the tradition of a contest between them be ignored. It was attested in a papyrus as early as the third century b.C. (Flinders Petrie Papyrus ap. Allen. Hom. Op. V p. 225) and was almost certainly known to the sophist Alkidamas early in the fourth century. In character the Contest, if we may judge by the extant Certamen which is fabricated out of hexameter verses and riddles, some obviously old, was not unlike the ancient tests of wit and skill between mantic heroes such as Mopsos and Kalchas (Hesiod F 160 Rzach).
If Homer lived late in the eighth century, then his successors who took account of his work (even to the extent of excluding Odysseus almost entirely from the Nostoi, if we may trust the summary of that poem by Proklos), cannot have been active earlier than about 700 b.C. Early in the seventh century b.C. writing was becoming a widespread skill in Greece; the poets of the Trojan cycle may well therefore have written down (or dictated) their epics themselves, though we cannot prove that they did. At the same time it is clear from the verse fragments that the poems of the Trojan cycle, like other early epics, drew heavily upon the common and ancient fund of oral tradition and language.