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In book two of the The Iliad (which you can read online), Homer does something that I find strange: he interrupts the story to list the name of every captain involved in the Trojan war:

And now, O Muses, dwellers in the mansions of Olympus, tell me- for you are goddesses and are in all places so that you see all things, while we know nothing but by report- who were the chiefs and princes of the Danaans? As for the common soldiers, they were so that I could not name every single one of them though I had ten tongues, and though my voice failed not and my heart were of bronze within me, unless you, O Olympian Muses, daughters of aegis-bearing Jove, were to recount them to me. Nevertheless, I will tell the captains of the ships and all the fleet together.

Peneleos, Leitus, Arcesilaus, Prothoenor, and Clonius were captains of the Boeotians. These were they that dwelt in Hyria and rocky Aulis, and who held Schoenus, Scolus, and the highlands of Eteonus, with Thespeia, Graia, and the fair city of Mycalessus. They also held Harma, Eilesium, and Erythrae; and they had Eleon, Hyle, and Peteon; Ocalea and the strong fortress of Medeon; Copae, Eutresis, and Thisbe the haunt of doves; Coronea, and the pastures of Haliartus; Plataea and Glisas; the fortress of Thebes the less; holy Onchestus with its famous grove of Neptune; Arne rich in vineyards; Midea, sacred Nisa, and Anthedon upon the sea. From these there came fifty ships, and in each there were a hundred and twenty young men of the Boeotians.

This is just a tiny portion of the list: Homer continues listing these names for a long time.

What's going on here? Why does Homer interrupt the story to list these names?

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    Hopefully someone with more interest in Homer will come along but briefly: I believe this is in keeping with it coming from an oral tradition. It's not simply a story, it's supposed to be (or supposed to seem like) an actual recounting, from a time when the only way for history to be kept was for people to remember it, using repetition as a mnemonic aid. So the story teller didn't simply say, "All those Captains whose names you can look up in the library if you are interested" -- he was helping maintain the only form of record they had. The Bible (yawn) also does this with genealogies. – goldilocks Jan 28 '17 at 21:13
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    There are lists of names in the Mahabharatha as well, and one theory I've heard about those is that later kings wanted to know what their ancestors had done during that Great War, and so their names and stories were added hundreds of years after the story itself arose. Maybe something like that applies here? – Gaurav Jan 28 '17 at 21:17
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    This does seem like a more general thing in older literature, not just the Iliad. There's a passage in Morte d'Arthur where Malory spends about a page listing off "King So-and-so brought with him four hundred knights. King So-and-so brought with him two hundred knights. King So-and-so brought with him three hundred knights." and so on. – Rand al'Thor Jan 29 '17 at 0:10
  • @Randal'Thor I chose this particular example because it was the most well known. – user111 Jan 29 '17 at 0:27
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    It loses it's effect in the 20C given those names don't mean very much to us; the nearest thing I can think of is when I once watched the closing night of the US elections, and they were calling out each state name by name, it was pure political theatre of course; but the effect, I think, is roughly the same. – Mozibur Ullah Aug 15 '17 at 2:04
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Apparently, because it was true.

The Iliad as we know it was composed over some centuries, transmitted orally, before "Homer" synthesized the version that was written down. Practically every word in that last sentence is subject to debate, called the Homeric Question. But this is the version that I think is most generally agreed on, and which I think best answers the question.

The earliest versions may have been practically contemporary. A fair number of details have been later confirmed, most notably details of the walls of Troy as discovered by Heinrich Schliemann at Hisarlik in Turkey. The style is constructed for easy memorization, with a rigid meter (dactylic hexameter, which works as well for Greek as iambic pentameter does for English) and a lot of stock phrases (like Eos rhododactylos, "rosy-fingered dawn", and "wine-dark sea").

So it's entirely possible that those names are in there because those people were, in fact, there. The poem was composed to honor them, and was being told to people who remembered them. You wouldn't want the Cretans to boo you because you forgot Idomeneus, after all.

Still... that doesn't explain why people would want to listen to this rather stultifying section. Even if the Cretans cheered being mentioned, surely they didn't care about Diores, son of Amarynces, and Polyxenus, son of King Agasthenes, son of Augeas.

Well, literarily, it does serve a number of purposes. For one thing, it makes it all feel like a historical recitation rather than a fantasy. The Greek notion of the distinction between fact and fiction doesn't match the way we think of it, and they seem to have believed in things that they knew were fictional, but that mix included a lot of reality.

It also serves political purposes. It helps to cement the notion of a Greek identity. It reminds them of a time they all worked together, even as Athens and Sparta were embarking on a series of wars. And it may have given authority to people claiming descent from those great Greek warriors: "Look, my great-great-N-great grandpappy served with Agamemnon and Menelaus."

Finally... the Iliad as a whole is pretty tedious to modern ears even without the Catalog of Ships. It covers a fairly small piece of the war, and could better be known as the Wrath of Achilles. It doesn't tell any of the stories most people think of about the Trojan War: the abduction of Helen, the Trojan Horse, the Achilles Heel. I think the people who listened to it would have found the Catalog of Ships more engaging than we do.

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    I've been told that there were classical Greek words that Homer couldn't use because they didn't fit dactylic hexameter. So what would he have done if one of those captains had a name that wouldn't fit dactylic hexameter? Would he have changed the man's name, or left him out? – user14111 Jan 29 '17 at 8:53
  • So you're saying the Iliad has a political purpose too, even if not as strong as the Aeneid? Interesting. – b_jonas Jan 29 '17 at 13:02
  • @user14111 - There are lots of ways to force a name to fit a meter when you need it to. You can put it in a place in the line where the meter matches the stress pattern, and unstressed syllables are somewhat malleable (cf "Romeo" in quora.com/How-many-syllables-is-Romeo). I suspect that the names themselves had a certain malleability as well, in an era when things weren't written down. – Joshua Engel Jan 29 '17 at 18:22
  • @b_jonas - The Aeneid was specifically composed as propaganda, mimicking the style of the Iliad. So the Iliad was never as explicit about it, but it was sure to be cited. – Joshua Engel Jan 29 '17 at 18:23
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    Thanks for the reply. By "stress pattern" don't you mean pattern of long and short vowels? I'm an ignoramus about classical languages and literature, but I've heard that classical Greek verse was based on length rather than stress. – user14111 Jan 29 '17 at 22:48
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Homer wants to say his story was a real event, not only a heroic saga or myth. Because of that, he gave us this "geographical map", for reconstruction of locations in the future. Maybe he was a witness of great movement of peoples after the Trojan War. This question is very important, it was in my mind for a long time. Also is hardly.

  • "Also is hardly" ... what? Also, your answer would be very much improved if you edit to add some sources or reasoning to support your argument. (This may be the reason why a lot of your posts are being downvoted - because you haven't backed them up very well. If you add some more support to them, I'm sure the votes can turn around.) – Rand al'Thor Mar 7 '18 at 20:20
  • Thank you for your help and motivation.Homer is not appreciated in history science like an historian.First historian was Hecateus and then Herodot in a officialy use, but I always sad that Homer is the First (known) historian - and his catalog of ships is the first history evidence ( European history) of war operations.Historian and poet in one person;- it was the problem for many researchers of Homeric question. – historicus Mar 7 '18 at 22:14

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