Book Two of the Iliad notoriously contains a list of nearly 190 place names and includes the 29 contingents and that make up the Greek expedition to Troy. Before launching into this more than 250-line catalogue of the leaders of the Greek forces and the number of their ships, Homer appeals to the Muses to aid him in this tour-de-force of memory.
I could not recount their numbers nor name them,
Not if I had ten tongues and ten mouths,
And an unbreakable voice and a brazen chest within,
Unless the Olympian Muses, daughters of aegis-bearing
Zeus, would remind me how many came under Ilium.
The Catalogue of Ships that follows this invocation can be mapped as three ‘itineraries’ that traverse most of Greece, moving contiguously from contingent to contingent. This well organized plan or mental roadmap serves the oral poet as a “spatial mnemonic” (Clay, 2011), allowing Homer to traverse the nearly 190 places he mentions without getting lost in the details (Clay, 2011; Minchin, 2001). After introducing each contingent, Homer pauses there and names its constituent towns.
Mapping the Catalogue of Ships demonstrates that the arrangement of the Catalogue, far from a random list of place names, corresponds to the natural geography of Greece.
We offer you here a window into our ongoing work to evaluate Homer’s knowledge of ancient Greek geography and his use of that knowledge in the organization of the Catalogue. While the poet’s recitation of the three contiguous routes around the Greek world demonstrates a large-scale, contingent-by-contingent geographical knowledge, we suggest that the Homer also frequently demonstrates a detailed awareness of the physical distribution of sites within those contingents, which he takes into account as he composes.
Mapping the Catalogue of Ships analyzes the narrative order of the toponyms within each contingent in terms of their geographical distribution. For the majority of contingents, narrative clusters of sites reflect local geographical realities. This geospatial organizational principle comes to light through the analysis of what we term syntactical and line-by-line groups. Syntactical groups are instances in which a single verb governs a group of towns; line-by-line groups are instances in which several towns fall into a single verse. It turns out that these syntactical and line-by-line groups frequently accord with local geographic features or travel routes.
Scholars had already recognized the geospatial principle that underlies Homer’s inter-contingent narrative. Mapping the Catalogue of Ships demonstrates that the poet employs topography as an organizing principle and spatial mnemonic device even at an intra-contingent level.
Although syntactical and line-by-line groups apply in a majority of cases, the most striking exception to this rule has led to the discovery of another geospatial narrative technique in the Catalogue of Ships. Instead of mapping onto local routes or landforms, the towns of Boiotia define a rough circuit around a central point, namely, the unmentioned city of Thebes in the center of the region, as if Homer were standing in in the middle and pointing out toward the other towns like spokes on a wheel (cf. the teichoskopia in Book 3).
When complete, Mapping the Catalogue of Ships will illustrate the three modes of spatial organization present in his list of contingents and towns, as exemplified by the sample exhibits below. You will find more detailed analyses in the description of each exhibit.
Mode 1: Contingent-by-Contingent. View the Peloponnese
Mode 2: Syntactical Groups. View Mykenai
Mode 3: Circuit around a Central Point. View Boiotia
An additional link exhibit provides access to a sample of the Interactive Text, where an annotated version of the Catalogue will appear beside our custom map.