Homer’s Iliad; the ‘Catalogue of ships’ and what we can learn from it – Boeotia

In this series of articles we attempt an in-depth analysis of the Achaean ‘Catalogue of ships‘. Using the etymology of the various names, we receive valuable historical and cultural information. 


Homer’s Iliad, Rhapsody B, v. 493-510

In ancient Greek: “ἀρχοὺς αὖ νηῶν ἐρέω νῆάς τε προπάσας. Βοιωτῶν μὲν Πηνέλεως καὶ Λήϊτος ἦρχον Ἀρκεσίλαός τε Προθοήνωρ τε Κλονίος τε, οἵ θ’ Ὑρίην ἐνέμοντο καὶ Αὐλίδα πετρήεσσαν Σχοῖνόν τε Σκῶλόν τε πολύκνημόν τ’ Ἐτεωνόν, Θέσπειαν Γραῖάν τε καὶ εὐρύχορον Μυκαλησσόν, οἵ τ’ ἀμφ’ Ἅρμ’ ἐνέμοντο καὶ Εἰλέσιον καὶ Ἐρυθράς, οἵ τ’ Ἐλεῶν’ εἶχον ἠδ’ Ὕλην καὶ Πετεῶνα, Ὠκαλέην Μεδεῶνά τ’ ἐϋκτίμενον πτολίεθρον, Κώπας Εὔτρησίν τε πολυτρήρωνά τε Θίσβην, οἵ τε Κορώνειαν καὶ ποιήενθ’ Ἁλίαρτον, οἵ τε Πλάταιαν ἔχον ἠδ’ οἳ Γλισᾶντ’ ἐνέμοντο, οἵ θ᾽ Ὑποθήβας εἶχον ἐϋκτίμενον πτολίεθρον, Ὀγχηστόν θ᾽ ἱερὸν Ποσιδήϊον ἀγλαὸν ἄλσος, οἵ τε πολυστάφυλον Ἄρνην ἔχον, οἵ τε Μίδειαν Νῖσάν τε ζαθέην Ἀνθηδόνα τ᾽ ἐσχατόωσαν: τῶν μὲν πεντήκοντα νέες κίον, ἐν δὲ ἑκάστῃ κοῦροι Βοιωτῶν ἑκατὸν καὶ εἴκοσι βαῖνον.”

In English: “Of the Boeotians Peneleos and Leitus were captains, and Arcesilaus and Prothoenor and Clonius; these were they that dwelt in Hyria and rocky Aulis and Schoenus and Scolus and Eteonus with its many ridges, Thespeia, Graea, and spacious Mycalessus; and that dwelt about Harma and Eilesium and Erythrae; and that held Eleon and Hyle and Peteon, Ocalea and Medeon, the well-built citadel, Copae, Eutresis, and Thisbe, the haunt of doves; that dwelt in Coroneia and grassy Haliartus, and that held Plataea and dwelt in Glisas; that held lower Thebes, the well-built citadel, and holy Onchestus, the bright grove of Poseidon; and that held Arne, rich in vines, and Mideia and sacred Nisa and Anthedon on the seaboard. Of these there came fifty ships, and on board of each went young men of the Boeotians an hundred and twenty.”

Our analysis is aided by the Liddell & Scott Lexicon.

Βοιωτία‘ (Boeotia) means ‘the land which has pastures for cattle/oxen’ (derives from the word ‘βους’ = ox). Hence, taking into account that Homer elsewhere in the Iliad considers gold and cattle as proofs of wealth, Boeotia must have been a rather wealthy region back then.

Πηνέλοψ‘ (Penelops) is a kind of hen/fowl with scarlet lines. Therefore the name ‘Πηνέλεως’ (Peneleos) probably suggests someone who owns a good number of animals of this kind.

Λήιτον‘ (Leiton) (derives from the word λαός, λεώς = people) means ‘δημόσιον αρχείον, ως εκάλουν αυτό οι Αχαιοί’ (‘public archive, as the Achaeans called it’). Therefore the name itself suggests the existence of such an archive or that there was a kind of lord that kept such an archive.

The name ‘Αρκεσίλαος‘ (Arcesilaus) derives from the word ‘άρκεσις’ which means ‘help, assistance, service’. So the name identifies with someone responsible to provide help, assistance to the people. We believe it is highly probable that Homer attempts to provide us information on the various governance systems of each region or his own suggestions on ways to govern.

The name ‘Προθοήνωρ‘ (Prothoenor) derives from the verb ‘προθέω’ which means ‘I urge, I run forward’ and indicates ‘the one to run first before anyone else’. This seems to fit with our analysis, because every polity requires/needs people to ‘go first’, ‘to lead’.

The name ‘Κλονίος‘ derives from the verb ‘κλονέω’ which means ‘persecute, make someone flee’. It also means ‘I rush at someone ferociously, to move vehemently’. This must indicate a leader of Police or Army responsible for the security of people from internal and external enemies.

The word ‘Υρίη-Υρία‘ derives from the word ‘ύραξ’ which means ‘mouse’, and most likely it is used to indicate a land where there are many mice.

The word ‘Αυλίς‘ derives

a) either from the word ‘αυλή’, for which the Lexicon states the following: ‘for Homer αυλή was the square around which the house was built, having all around it a peristyle from which doors were leading towards the buildings for men. On the other side of the ‘αυλή’ door there was an indoor ‘αυλή’ which lead to the buildings for women’. It could be then an attempt to denote organised building (town planning, street plan, street layout). Myceneans are/were indeed famous for their great building achievements.


b) from the word ‘αυλός’ (‘pipe’ but also ‘reed’) and indicates an area with many ‘pipes’ (musical instruments) or ‘reeds’. Combining what we found above, it appears very reasonable that in an area full of oxen/cattle and mice there were many reeds as well.

The word ‘Σχοίνος‘ is directly translated as a kind of plant, the one called ‘bulrush’. Hence, it indicates a region full of bulrush. This is obviously in accordance with our other finds.

The word ‘Σκώλος‘ means ‘stumbling block, block, obstacle, barrier’ but also ‘stake/pole, a peg with a sharp end’. This apparently indicates a fenced area or the fortification of the city.

The word ‘Ετεωνός‘ is a synthesis of the words ‘ετεός’ which means ‘real, authentic, original’ and the word ‘ωνή’ (from the verb ‘ωνείσθαι’) which means ‘marketplace’. It cannot be excluded that the second synthetic might be related to the word ‘ώνος’ which means ‘price, a sum of money paid as a fee for something’. In both cases, it is rather certain that the word indicates a place were selling and buying takes place. The first synthetic ‘ετεός’ most likely wishes to indicate one of the first places like this or else, one of the best and very famous marketplaces.

The word ‘Θεσπεία‘ derives from the word ‘θέσπις’ and it means ‘full of divine words, divinely inspired’. We believe that this is an indication of the widespread piety that a polity should have. So far he told us about primary production, about policing and army, about fortification, about economy-commerce. Nothing more reasonable, for Homer, to talk about religiousness, too.

The word ‘Γραία‘ obviously derives from the word ‘γραίος’ which means ‘old, of age’

The word ‘Μυκαλησσός‘ derives

a) either from the word ‘μύκης’ which means ‘mushroom’

b) either from the word ‘μυκή’ which means ‘blatancy’ and fits well with our previous finds, as it is directly related to the sounds of oxen.

Homer names ‘Μυκαλησσός‘ as ‘ευρύχωρη’ ( = ‘spacious’). So, apparently this place must have been a spacious organized dairy farm/cattle ranch.

The name ‘Άρμα‘ derives from the word ‘άρμα’ which means ‘the light vehicle, mainly a two-wheeled war vehicle’, so a ‘chariot’ really. This must have been the place where the chariots of the polity were stored/guarded.

The name ‘Ειλέσιο‘ derives from the word ‘είλη’ = ‘ίλη’ which means ‘multitude, a group of people’ and also used as a military term indicating an army. Hence, probably this place was named after its use, too: the gathering place of the polity’s army or its headquarters.

The name ‘Ερυθρές‘ clearly relates to the red ( = ‘ερυθρόν’) colour. Interestingly, the Lexicon informs us that this word is associated with copper. Hence, it is highly probable that the word is used here to denote the existence of copper in Boeotia, in a specific area called ‘Ερυθρές’.

The name ‘Ελεών‘ seems to derive from the word ‘έλος’ ( = ‘swamp’, ‘marsh’). And it also seems to agree with our previous finds related to oxen.

The name ‘Ύλη‘ ( = forest/woodland), beyond any doubt, identifies with the forest/woodland area of the polity.

The name ‘Πετεών‘ derives from the verb ‘πέτομαι’ and most likely denotes the region where  the poultry farms of the polity are or, generally, a place where there are great numbers of ‘πτηνά’ = birds/fowls.

The name ‘Ωκαλέη-α‘ exists as ‘ωκαλέος-η-ον’ and it means ‘fast’, a synonym of the word ‘ωκύς’. There is also the possibility that the word is a product of the words ‘ωκύς’ ( = fast) and ‘αλέα’ (Ιων. ‘αλέη’) which means ‘escape’. Hence, denoting a crowd gathering area for the rapid evacuation of the polity or a fast escape road.

The name ‘Μεδεώνα‘ derives from the verb ‘μέδω’ which means ‘rule, govern, reign, protect’, and most likely denotes the existence of a ruling city, a governmental center, inside the polity. It is not coincidental that Homer refers to ‘Μεδεώνα’ as ‘εϋκτίμενον πτολίεθρον’ ( = well-built city)

The name ‘Κώπας‘ derives from the word ‘κώπη’, which means ‘oar’. Most likely it denotes the place where ‘oars’ (i.e. ships) are found.

The name ‘Εύτρησις‘ derives from the words ‘ευ’ and ‘τρήσις’, which means ‘perforation, drilling, piercing’. ‘Εύτρησις’ must have been a place in the polity where works like the above were taking place.

The name ‘Θίσβη‘ seems to derive from the word ‘θίς’ which is very often used in relation to ‘sandy piles’ and ‘sandy shores’. Its literal meaning is ‘pile’. Homer calls this region ‘πολυτρήρων’, which means the place ‘where there are many doves, pigeons’.  Doves/pigeons tend to gather where food is abundant. ‘Piles of food’ in this case. But it remains unclear if this area was a dump for the polity or a storage place of kinds of food piles. Most likely it must have been an open place so that the doves/pigeons can access it.

The name ‘Κορώνεια‘ derives from the word ‘κορώνη’ (a kind of small bird or a kind of crow). ‘Κορώνεια’ must have been a region full of such birds.

The name ‘Αλίαρτος‘ derives from the word ‘αλς’, which means ‘the sea’. The second synthetic seems to derive from the verb ‘αρτύω’ which means ‘trim, invent, devise, prepare, in all things art and skill required’. Homer calls ‘Αλίαρτος’ with the name ‘ποιήενθα’ which means ‘florid with plentiful moss/turf’. Apparently, ‘Αλίαρτος’ must have been a place near the sea dedicated to every kind of invention and work related to the sea.

The name ‘Πλάταια‘ derives from the word ‘πλάτας-α’ which means ‘flat surface or flat elevation on which tombs were built’. Therefore the region called ‘Πλάταια’ must have been the necropolis of the polity.

The name ‘Γλίσαντα‘ seems to derive from the word ‘γλία’ which means ‘glue’, which derives from the word ‘γλίσχρος’ which means ‘sticky’. Most likely it denotes a region with such a soil, full of marshes and swamps.

The name ‘Υποθήβας‘ derives from the words ‘υπό’ and ‘θήβα’. According to the Lexicon, the word ‘θήβα’ must derive from the word ‘θήβος’ which means ‘miracle’ or the word ‘θηβός-ή-όν’ which means ‘wonderful, marvelous’. ‘Υποθήβες’ are called ‘εϋκτίμενον πτολίεθρον’ ( = well-built city).

The name ‘Ογχηστός‘ derives from the verb ‘οχέω→οκχέω→ογχέω’ which means ‘hold, hold firmly, support’ but also ‘endure, tolerate’ and also ‘carry on, constantly doing one thing’. ‘Οχή ‘ or ‘όγχη’ means ‘bracket, support’. Homer calls ‘Ογχηστός’ the ‘Poseidon’s sacred ablaze grove’ (‘ιερόν του Ποσειδώνος αγλαόν άλσος’). This leads us to the thought that the ‘supporter’ and ‘protector’ of their efforts was Poseidon. And this has either a literal meaning, i.e. that they worshipped Poseidon as their ‘patron god’, or, alternatively, that their polity depended much on sea activities (because Poseidon is vastly related to the Sea), of peace and war.

The name ‘Άρνη‘ seems related to

a) the word ‘άρνα’ which means ‘oath, vow’

b) the verb ‘αρνεύω’ which means ‘jump, somerset, dive’

c) the word ‘αρνός’ which means ‘lamb’

Homer calls the region of ‘Άρνη’ with the name ‘πολυστάφυλος’ which means ‘with many grapes’. Therefore we most certainly talk about the vineyards of the polity. We do now that the homeric heroes wish, pray and take oaths using wine. We also know that it takes a lot of ‘jumping’ and ‘diving’ to create wine in the traditional way and that wine consumption makes you merry enough to ‘somerset’ sometimes. We also know that lambs love to eat vines. Hence, whichever is the actual root-word for ‘Άρνη’, this region was undoubtedly related to wine production.

The name ‘Μίδεια‘ derives from the word ‘μίδας’ which means ‘the optimal marble of the cubes, as it was the one which had all its numbers different, and because of this it was called Hercules’, but also ‘an insect very harmful for broad beans’. We have no reference of the cubes game -a famous game in Classical Antiquity- in Homer. Therefore we are lead to keep the second meaning of the word, which suggests that the region of ‘Μίδεια’ must have been a region where broad beans were cultivated.

The name ‘Νίσα‘ seems to derive from the verb ‘νίσσομαι’ which means ‘I am walking, march, I am going, I am coming, I’m leaving’. Homer calls ‘Νίσα’ with the name ‘ζάθεη’, which means ‘very sacred, very holy place; used to denote places favoured by the gods’. It appears that ‘Νίσα’ was a religious place, where people were ‘coming and going’ all the time.

The name’Ανθηδόνα‘ derives from the word ‘ανθηδών’ which literally means ‘the bee’, but also a kind of tree (the loquat tree). It can also be related to the word ‘άνθος’ ( = flower) and simply denoting a region full of flowers. Homer calls this region with the name ‘ἐσχατόωσαν’, which means ‘the outermost place’ (here, ‘of Boeotia’). It seems very likely that this region was producing honey for the polity.

The army sent by Boeotia to Troy counted 50 ships. Each ship carried 120 youths ( = ‘κούροι’ = young men) of the Boeotians. This sums up to 6,000 young warriors. This is a very big number for a single region, and one that can be used in a statistical analysis in order to estimate the overall number of people inhabiting Boeotia at the Trojan War times. For the sake of comparison, in Medieval times, the armies of the late Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) Empire never exceeded the number of a few thousands. The Catalan Grand Company looted more than half of the Greek peninsula back then with armies of no more than 5,000 men. So, Boeotia providing alone 6,000 young warriors seems like a quite big number. Reasonably, the army of Boeotia must have been larger than 6,000.

Taking into account:

a) the ancient Greek habit of (almost) always keeping behind at least one young male member of the family so that the genous continues

b) males under 30 were considered as ‘κούροι’. The elders were considered as such after the 60th year of their lives. All males between 30-60 were considered ‘the men’ of the polity.

c) Before campaigning, the Greeks had the habit to leave behind sufficient military reserves for the protection of each polity

Consequently, the total army of the Boeotian polity must have counted at least three times the number of 6,000. A rather big number and one that could be an indication of over-population in the region of Boeotia back then.

Another interesting issue are the ships. Ships that can carry 120 warriors, with their equipment and supplies, and, most likely supportive personnel, too, must have been quite big and capable.

Last but not least, we need to emphasize that this type of analysis is not a product of our imagination or creativity; the ancients themselves, through many different texts that have survived until our times, point out to this kind of analysis through the etymology of the various names.


Research-Analysis for NovoScriptorium: P.D.K.


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