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Achaeans, Argives, Danaans, or Greeks?


Homer refers to the expeditionary force at Troy as Achaeans (Ἀχαιοί), Argives (Ἀργεῖοι), or Danaans (Δαναοὶ), never as Greeks.

Homer uses his three terms interchangeably as to meaning: they are altogether equivalent in what they signify, which is the army from mainland Greece--including but not limited to Achaea and Argos--and neighboring islands including Crete. But Homer does not--and could not--use the three terms interchangeably as to meter, because they are not metrically equivalent.

Consequently, Homer--and the bards who preceded him during generations of oral composition,--chose among the words for Achaeans, Argives and Danaans depending on which term was metrically appropriate for the location where it was to be used.

Homeric Verse

Each line of Homeric verse contains six metrical feet, and each foot is either a dactyl (a long syllable followed by two short ones) or a spondee (a long syllable followed by another long syllable). Unlike English verse, which is a sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables, ancient Greek epic verse is a sequence of long and short syllables, distinguished on the basis of the length of time devoted to pronunciation of the syllables.

Metrical Shapes of the Three Terms

The three terms in the original are always in the plural. The forms found are:





















[Diacritic accents are omitted above, and often below, because they vary with word position and do not affect the metrical quantity or shape of the accented syllable.]

To Homer, each of these twelve words had a specific, invariable metrical footprint, or shape, from which he never departed. The fourth syllable in the dative forms of all three words is always short, but the first three syllables differ significantly:

- in all forms of Αχαιοι the first three syllables always have the shape of short-long-long.
- in all forms of Αργειοι they always have the shape of long-long-long.
- in all forms of Δαναοι they always have the shape of short-short-long.

To Homer and his predecessors these metrical shapes were integral properties of the words, and were honored without fail. (Many words in Homer do not have invariable shapes, but the words for Achaeans, Argives and Danaans do).

Terms Not Interchangeable: Book 1, Line 79

The line contains both Argives and Achaeans:

ἦ γὰρ ὀΐομαι ἄνδρα χολωσέμεν, ὃς μέγα πάντων              78
Ἀργεῖων κρατέει καί οἱ πείθονται Ἀχαιοί·                         79

The speaker is Calchas, asking Achilles' protection if the prophet discloses why Apollo is angry at the besiegers:

"since I expect to anger a man who over all                    78
the Argives has power and whom the Achaeans obey"     79

The poet could not exchange Ἀχαιοι and Ἀργειων.

Preliminarily, the case of Ἀχαιοι is nominative, while Ἀργειων is genitive. If the cases were reversed (Ἀχαιων and Ἀργειοι), as necessary to preserve meaning, it would not change the metrical footprint of the respective words.

Since the initial Α in Ἀχαιοι (or Ἀχαιων) is short, the word cannot be placed at the begining of a line: every line must begin with either a dactyl or a spondee, and in either case the first syllable must be long. Accordingly, no form of the word Ἀχαιοι ever appears first in a line in the Iliad. The initial Α in Ἀργειων (or Ἀργειοι) is long and therefore the word fits the poet's requirements for the opening syllable in the line.

Conversely, Ἀργειοι could not substitute for Ἀχαιων at line's end because all three syllables are long. The sixth foot in line 79 is a spondee--as the sixth foot regularly is--and the fifth foot is a dactyl whose third syllable must by definition be short, unlike the first syllable in Ἀργειοι.

Moreover, the poet could not have substituted the word Δαναοι (Danaans) for either Ἀργειων or Ἀχαιοι in line 79. The metrical pattern of Δαναοι is short-short-long, which would not work at the beginning of the line for the same reasons as precluded Ἀχαιων in the discussion above. It would not work at line's end, where short-long-long is required.

Terms Not Interchangeable: Book 1, Line 42

Now let us examine a use of Δαναοι. The line reads:

τίσειαν Δαναοὶ ἐμὰ δάκρυα σοῖσι βέλεσσιν.

This is Apollo's aged priest beseeching the god: "Let the Danaans pay for my tears by your arrows."

The first two syllables in line 42 form a spondee: the first syllable in every line (and foot) is long, and the second syllable here must be long because it is the diphthong, -ει-, which is always long. The third syllable in the line (-αν) must be long because it begins the second foot. Now the poet must choose among his three synonyms for the besiegers. If he chose Ἀργειοι, the line would read:

τίσειαν Ἀργεὶοὶ ἐμὰ δάκρυα σοῖσι βέλεσσιν.

The first three feet are now spondees, which might be acceptable except that there are too many syllables remaining in the line for it to work. The fourth foot would be ἐμὰ δά- which looks all right; the fifth -κρυα σοῖ- might pass muster, except that (1) σοῖ- is long because it has the circumflex and therefore spoils the dactyl, and (2) aside from that, there are four remaining syllables, too many for the one remaining foot. The first problem might be avoided by scanning the fifth foot as a spondee: -κρυα, but that would only worsen the second problem by leaving five syllables for the sixth foot.

If the poet chose Ἀχαιοι the line would read:

τίσειαν Ἀχαιοὶ ἐμὰ δάκρυα σοῖσι βέλεσσιν.

Ἀχαιοι has only the one short syllable before its two longs, and one short is not enough to fill out the dactyl begun with the long syllable -αν. Why not, one might ask, scan the first syllable in Ἀχαιοι as long, completing a spondee for the line's second foot? Let us try it. First let us scan -χαιοι ἐ- as a dactylic third foot, and -μὰ δάκρυ- as a dactylic fourth foot. The sixth foot must be the regular spondee -λεσσιν, which leaves four syllables (-α σοῖσι βέ-), too many for the fifth foot. This fatal flaw would only be exacerbated by scanning either the third or fourth foot as a spondee, if that were otherwise possible.


In each case examined above, the word chosen by the bard is the only one of the three possibilities which would work metrically in the context of the line in question.

Jordan Translation

I refer to the besiegers as Achaeans, Argives or Greeks, never as Danaans. I choose among the three terms based on the metrical context in English blank verse, rather than attempting to use the English version of the term appearing in the original.

Some might argue that my nomenclature is unfaithful to the original but, for a disciplined verse translation, it is in fact more faithful than literal translation of the three terms employed by Homer. Choosing among available synonyms on the basis of metrics is precisely what the ancient bards did.

I use "Greek" and not "Danaan," because the monosyllable often fits the iambic meter better than any of the trisyllabic synonyms. Ample precedent exists in the celebrated translations of both George Chapman and Alexander Pope. Indeed, Pope goes farther and sometimes uses "Grecian" to suit his meter. Therefore, while it may be true that by Homer's time the concepts of "Greece" and "Greek" had not yet been born, that is no reason not to use the terms in a modern translation, as Chapman and Pope realized.

Moreover, "Danaans" is meaningless to most modern readers--more so than either Achaeans or Argives--so it seems sensible to substitute a well understood term, particularly since Homer uses his three terms interchangeably as to meaning.*

* Homer's three terms correspond to influential populations which existed in ancient Greece--see Wikipedia on Achaeans, also mentioning a tribe of Danaans, and Argos, whose inhabitants were called Argives--but Homer does not use the three terms to connote a connection to one region, tribe, or population as opposed to another.

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