Mapping Homer's Catalogue of Ships

July 18, 2013, 13:30 | Short Paper, Embassy Regents E

Our project, Mapping the Catalogue of Ships, created by Classicist Jenny Strauss Clay, illustrates the route of Homer’s poetic journey around Greece and provides a digital forum in which to test and develop theories about the poet’s knowledge and use of geography. This paper will detail the ways in which the construction of these digital exhibits has both deepened and changed our initial theories about Homer’s familiarity with ancient routes.

The Research Question

In Book 2 of Homer’s Iliad, the poet embarks upon a seemingly impossible feat: to enumerate the commanders of the 29 contingents of the Greek expedition, along with the number of ships and troops belonging to each, and the almost 190 towns from which they came. It must have seemed a superhuman performance to the audience of the poet’s day. Homer was an oral poet, composing his verses aloud and extemporaneously, without the use of writing. Nor did Homer have the benefit of looking at a map, since the first maps of the Greek world came about only after the composition of the Iliad. Yet the poet presents his 250-verse masterpiece as an organized tour of the Greek world, subdividing the commanders and their contingents according to geography. It was such a convincing performance that the late antique geographer Strabo would name Homer as the “father of geography.” Yet the degree to which Homer was familiar with the details of Ancient Greek landscape remains unclear. [1]

The places named in the Catalogue may be divided into two types: large kingdoms and the cities within those kingdoms. A well-known geographical principle clearly underlies the narrative order in which Homer relates the 29 large kingdoms that make up the Greek fleet. Beginning from Boeotia, in Central Greece, the poet narrates three circuits of these kingdoms, moving from one geographical region to the next in a continuous fashion (Clay 2011; Minchin 2001). This well organized plan or mental roadmap serves the oral poet as a “spatial mnemonic” (Clay 2011), allowing Homer to traverse the nearly 190 places he mentions without getting lost in the details (Clay 2011; Minchin 2001). One function of Mapping the Catalogue of Ships is to illustrate this large-scale navigation of Greece, making clear for students and scholars the fundamental order that underlies Homer’s tour-de-force of memory.

Although the principle according to which Homer moves from kingdom to kingdom is well understood, the poet’s use of geography remains, in its other aspects, mysterious. Several scholars have suggested that Homer may have used ancient travel itineraries to organize the Catalogue (Clay 2011; Kirk 1985). However, we lack a detailed analysis of the particular routes and landscape features that Homer would have employed. The main purpose of Mapping the Catalogue of Ships is to fill this scholarly gap. Does the geographical ordering of the 29 kingdoms represent an actual itinerary? Moreover, does the narration of the cities within those kingdoms constitute an itinerary? Does the narrative order of the place-names in the catalogue reflect ancient roads and landscape features? These are the questions Mapping the Catalogue of Ships seeks to answer.

Neatline: Mapping the Catalogue of Ships

Our project uses an exciting new tool under development by the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia. That tool is Neatline (neatline.org) a "geotemporal exhibit-builder," which combines the resources of an interactive archive and narrative timeline with a custom mapping capability, making it an ideal means to engage with the poetic, geographical and cultural challenges of Homer’s Catalogue.

A full understanding of the Catalogue of Ships requires simultaneous exposure to many different types of information. The text of the Iliad must be integrated into a map display capable of presenting detailed information and scholarship about ancient routes and landscape. Moreover, since our investigation depends upon understanding the Catalogue from a traveler's point of view, the map display must highlight the link between Homer’s narrative order and the order of the points upon the map. Our Neatline-supported exhibition of the Catalogue of Ships will do all these things. With help from Pleiades (http://pleiades.stoa.org/), an online, open source gazetteer of the ancient world, we have already compiled a database containing the locations of the sites featured in the Catalogue. Drawing on this database, we have begun to create maps to illustrate the various stages of Homer’s narration (each with selectable layers). When the project is finished, the user will be able to zoom out for a macroscopic view of Homer’s entire journey around the Greek world, or zoom in for a more detailed look at the routes and geography belonging to each one of the 29 contingents mentioned by the poet. Each map will feature a menu-bar, listing every place that Homer names. By selecting a place-name in the menu-bar or on the map itself, visitors may browse through textual analysis, photographs as well as scholarship about archeology and ancient routes. Where archaeological evidence does not reveal the track of ancient roads, we will propose probable routes using least-cost-path GIS analysis. But the Catalogue is more than a list of places; it is a poetic narrative. Every map, therefore, will also feature an interactive text of the Iliad, which acts as a narrative timeline. As the user scrolls through the text of the Iliad (Greek and English), the map will follow along, moving to that portion of the display appropriate to the narrative. Likewise, when the user selects a particular map-exhibit, the text will jump to the appropriate portion of the Catalogue.

Mapping the Catalogue of Ships takes advantage of an increasing movement towards digital modeling and mapping in the Classics. Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire (francia.ahlfeldt.se/imperium.php) and the Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations (http://darmc.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do) are both useful resources and contain a certain amount of information about ancient routes. A closer parallel to Mapping the Catalogue of Ships, however, is ORBIS (http://orbis.stanford.edu/#), which uses maps not merely as a way to get a bird’s-eye-view, but to understand the cultural context of ancient geography. ORBIS analyzes ancient travel networks, mapping least-cost-paths by land and sea while accounting for many different variables (e.g. wind patterns, travel by donkey-cart vs. by foot, civilian vs. military travel). Our project also uses least-cost-path analysis of travel networks, but seeks to understand how such networks may have shaped a literary work. In its attention to the use of space by oral poets, Mapping the Catalogue of Ships has a clear predecessor in Professor Clay’s earlier project, Homer's Trojan Theater (http://www.homerstrojantheater.org/), which demonstrated that Homer’s disposition of the Illiad's battlefield serves as a mnemonic device.

Unexpected Results

Although Mapping the Catalogue of Ships is not yet complete, the process of plotting routes and building exhibits has already yielded interesting results. For example, we have found that the theory of Homer’s catalogue as a series of itineraries appears to be correct in some respects. The poet frequently finishes enumerating the cities of one region at the geographical point closest to the area to which he is about to proceed. In some cases, moreover, Homer appears to possess detailed geographic knowledge about the disposition of cities along routes or landscape features, as in the narration of the Mycenaean contingent. Here the narrative order reflects local routes, supporting the theory, proposed by Clay and others, that the Catalogue reflects an actual itinerary. In instances where Homer seems to possess detailed geographic knowledge, his syntax mirrors that familiarity: regional subdivisions also constitute syntactic subdivisions, with a single verb governing each of the places grouped around a particular geographic area or landscape feature.

In the narration of certain regions, however, Homer seems to lack intimate knowledge, or else is unconcerned to construct his list in an order that could reflect a plausible travel-route. Such regions pose a difficulty to Clay’s theory of the Catalogue as an itinerary. The Boeotian contingent is a good example of an instance in which the poet is unconcerned with listing locations in an order that could be followed by a traveler. Instead, Homer here narrates in a rough circuit around the city of Thebes, the major power of the area. This new way of understanding the narration of the Boeotian contingent finds a striking parallel in Homer’s Catalogue of Trojans, which moves in a series of spokes around the city of Troy (Clay 2011).

The process of constructing this tool has yielded unexpected results and deepened our understanding of Homer’s use itineraries. This paper will report on these and other unexpected findings as we continue to expand the tool.


  • Jenny Strauss Clay, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Classics, University of Virginia
  • Courtney Evans, Graduate Student, Department of Classics, University of Virginia
  • Ben Jasnow, Graduate Student, Department of Classics, University of Virginia

Scholars' Lab Collaborators

  • Bethany Nowviskie, Director, Digital Research & Scholarship
  • Wayne Graham, Head, Research & Development
  • Jeremy Boggs, Design Architect
  • Chris Gist, GIS Specialist
  • Kelly Johnson, GIS Specialist


Clay, J. S. (2011). Homer’s Trojan Theater: Space, Vision, and Memory in the Iliad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kirk, G. S. (1985). The Iliad: A Commentary, vol. I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lattimore, R., (1951). The Iliad of Homer. trans. by Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Minchin, E. (2001). Homer and the Resources of Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


1. As the composition of an oral poet, the Catalogue of Ships is the product not only of Homer, but also the entire oral tradition, consisting of highly formulaic language and content, altered on the occasion of every bard’s performance, stretching back hundreds of years prior to the written form of the poem as we have it. In examining the use of space and geography in Homer’s Catalogue, we are also examining the larger Homeric tradition.