How many days does Homer’s Iliad cover?

Published on: Author: Mark Erickson 2 Comments

My ‘Homer in the laboratory’ paper that was published in January 2018 was earlier rejected from another journal; this is fairly common in social science and humanities academic publishing and authors just have to get used to receiving criticism. Sometimes reviewers’ comments are helpful, other times spiteful or dismissive. Occasionally they are factually inaccurate. One reviewer for that other journal picked me up on my claim that the Iliad covers a period of 54 days, saying that it actually covered 51 days. The length of time the action of the Iliad covers is minor point, perhaps, but one that given the immense amount of scholarship surrounding Homer’s work is likely to admit of a definitive answer.

It is difficult to measure the exact length of time between the start and the end of the Iliad. However, Homer does make clear statements about the starts and ends of days, and also identifies the events in chronological order. It is therefore possible to work out a fair approximation of a chronology, and many scholars have done this. For example, E. V. Rieu, who wrote the most popular English-language translation of the Iliad which (published as the first ever Penguin Classic) says:

“The action of the Iliad covers only fifty days in a ten years’ war.” Homer and E. V. Rieu (1980) The Iliad, (Introduction p. x)

That’s neither the 51 days that my reviewer claimed, nor my 54 day period, and given Rieu’s immense reputation and scholarship the discrepancy is notable. In my research project I took the figure of 54 days as being the period the Iliad covers and that my research would also cover. This decision wasn’t arbitrary – I could have taken Rieu’s nice round number instead – but was based on a detailed reading of the Iliad. Here is my reasoning, set against Oliver Taplin’s chronology. It is worth noting that Taplin’s chronology focuses on days where Homer actually says something specific – what Taplin calls ‘actual narrated events’ – but he also notes days in the Iliad where Homer says nothing specific but which still lie within the boundaries of the poem.

My chronology compared to Taplin’s in Homeric Soundings (1992)

Events My day number Taplin’s ‘actual narrated events’ as numbered days
Chryses has already been seized on day 1: her father comes to retrieve her (1.10 ff). 1 1
Nine days of plague (1.53) 2-10 “followed by nine days of plague” (Taplin 1992: 15)
Tenth day of plague the Assembly is called (1.54) 11 2
Chryses is returned by ship accompanied by Odysseus 1.310-311

The same day Thetis tells Achilles that Zeus left Olympus ‘yesterday’ for 12 days visit to the Ethiopians. Sure enough, Zeus returns on the twelfth day (1.493). Thetis visits Zeus and he agrees to thwart the Achaeans. That night Zeus sends the false dream to Agamemnon, and we go into the next day (2.8)

12 – 23 3

 

 

 

 

“After twelve days away the gods return to Olympus” (Taplin 1992: 15)

 

4

Agamemnon summons the Achaeans for battle (2.443)

The Catalogue of the Ships

First duels

Hector proposes a truce as it is now nightfall (7.290)

24 5
Danaans gather at dawn to cremate the dead (7.380ff) 25 6
The ashes of the dead are buried. The Achaeans build a wall in the night (7.435) 26 7
Battle again (8.60) and Trojan attack on the wall. Night falls (8.488) and the Trojans bivouac outside the Achaean wall.

The night action of Book 10 follows.

27 8
Hektor’s great day of triumph (11.1 to 18. 242)

Patroklus dies.

Night falls at 18.241

28 9
Dawn opens Book 19 (19.1) Achilles receives the arms (19.12) and goes into battle (19.424). The day ends with the Myrmidons going to bed (23.58). 29 10
Dawn (23.110) is followed by the funeral of Patroklos. The pyre burns through the night (23. 219). 30 11
Dawn breaks (23.230) and Achilles invites the Achaeans to the games which last all day. Day ends at 24.3. 31 12
Achilles abuses Hektor’s body for 9 days (24.413). 32 – 41 “After the games there is a lapse of days, apparently nine.” (Taplin 1992: 17)
Priam visits Achilles (24.477) 42 13
Dawn (24.695) is followed by mourning and Priam’s instructions for 11 days of preparation for Hektor’s funeral (24.781) 43 14

“This day includes the laments for Hektor and closes with Priam’s instructions for the eleven days of funeral.” (Taplin 1992: 18)

Hektor’s funeral (on the tenth day (24.784)) 53 / 54?

 

I hope that this shows it is difficult to come up with an exact chronology. For example, did the plague start on day 1 or 2? Did the gods depart on the same day that Odysseus returned to the camp or the day after? In addition, counting the final days of mourning and Hektor’s funeral is confusing: 12 days truce is promised by Achilles; it looks like Hektor’s funeral is on the tenth day of the truce – but Priam ordered eleven days of funeral.

It is possible, if one reads Priam’s instruction as meaning that the period of mourning should start on the next day, to see the Iliad as having a roughly symmetrical structure, with two ‘halves’ of 27 days with the Book 10 night raid in the middle. This is, of course, confounded by the line at roughly 24.784 where it appears that only 10 days of mourning have taken place. Homer doesn’t help here by saying if these are inclusive or exclusive days.

 

A definitive count of the number of days that the Iliad covers is not possible, given the inconsistencies in the text. However, all commentators (including Taplin) are agreed that the length of time between the start of book 1 and the end of book 24 is at least fifty days. I think that my choice of 54 days, outlined above, is supported by Homer’s own words.

A final observation: in our time we think of ‘epic’ as being, well, epic – massive and sprawling narratives crossing large amounts of time, space and characters. ‘Epic’ is applied to contemporary texts such as Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings. However, the Iliad – the original epic – is completely different. Rather than starting with something significant (someone finds a ring) and then getting bigger and bigger it does the opposite: it starts with something big (the Trojan War) and then cuts this ten year thing down to fifty-odd days.

References

Taplin, O. (1992) Homeric soundings: the shaping of the Iliad, Oxford: Clarendon.

Homer and Rieu, E.V. (1950) The Iliad, Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics.

 

 

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2 Responses to How many days does Homer’s Iliad cover? Comments (RSS) Comments (RSS)

    • I am moving on to consider how parataxis, often considered to be an inferior mode of expression but very prevalent in Homer, can be used more widely in descriptive and analytical qualitative research.

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