Get to Know Homer’s Catalog of Ships

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One of the most often repeated saying about the Trojan War of 1200 B.C.E., as described in the Greek mythological works of Homer, is that Helen of Troy had “the face that launched a thousand ships.” It certainly paints an impressive portrait of her beauty, but why 1,000 ships? Why not 100 ships? After all, a hundred ships full of Greek soldiers could do an awful lot of damage. It only took 300 Spartans to bring the million-man Persian army to a halt for days.

This concept has its roots in Greek Mythology, more specifically in Homer’s writings about the Trojan War. He didn’t choose the number 1,000 at random. There’s another story behind it. Here’s more information:

One Thousand Ships

Of all the amazing stories told of ancient Greece, one of the most compelling is the story of the Trojan War as told by Homer in The Iliad. In Book Two of The Iliad, Homer recounts the story of Helen, Queen of Sparta and Prince Paris of Troy. Zeus commanded Paris to judge a jealous quarrel between Aphrodite, Hera and Athena over who was most beautiful.

Paris Chooses Aphrodite

Aphrodite offered Paris the love of the world’s most beautiful woman if he chose her as his favorite goddess over Athena and Hera. Helen was known far and wide for her beauty. A large number of the most legendary heroes of Greece had courted her hand in marriage. To avoid civil strife, her father had these men draw straws to choose her husband. The suitors were required to swear allegiance to the man who claimed her hand. He turned out to be Menelaus, King of Sparta.

When Menelaus discovered that Paris had taken Helen back to Troy after a diplomatic mission, he called on these men to honor their oaths. The result was a massive military expedition composed of essentially every fighting man in Greece, collectively known as the Achaeans. This mighty invasion was commanded by 46 senior officers, all among Greece’s greatest heroes. Some of the more famous commanders included Agamemnon, Ajax and Achilles.

Counting to a Thousand

Homer’s massive Catalogue offers an accurate portrayal of Bronze Age Greece. Since Homer was writing during the Iron Age, historians believe it’s an earlier account passed down by storytellers. The list is organized into a verbal map of Greece, tracing three separate routes. This “journey” moves steadily throughout Greece, listing the numbers of soldiers and the amount of ships required to carry them. Some scholars believe this format was a trick that allowed a fantastic feat of memory. Interestingly, Rhodes only sent nine ships, yet it was one of the largest cities in Greece. In contrast, sparsely populated Boetia sent 50 ships, nearly as many as Sparta’s 60 vessels. Agamemnon’s Mycenaeans accounted for 100 ships.

Using this verbal roadmap, Homer laid out 29 separate military contingents, raised from almost 190 cities and yielding a final tally of 1,186 ships. It could actually be said that Helen was the face that launched 1,200 ships!

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This post was written by Greek Boston

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