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The battle narrative of the Iliad includes several obscure references to the war being stretched out equally (e.g., ἐπὶ ἶσα μάχη τέτατο, Il. 12.436 = 15.413). This vague expression, as scholars have recognized, suggests the extension of a figurative rope, though its exact meaning has eluded interpretation. (E.g., Hainsworth 1993, ad 11.336: “the image is difficult to understand precisely....” Edwards 1991, ad 17.400–1: “The metaphor seems to be from stretching a rope over something [for an awning or a tent?] but it is not clear exactly what is envisaged.”) Many difficulties can be resolved, I propose, by recognizing that the underlying notion involves the ancient practice of extending a cord over an area in order to set out or measure equivalent distances. Accordingly, in this paper I shall discuss those passages in which the fighting is tightened in equal portions, exploring the development of this and related imagery for ropes, stretching, and measuring in the Iliad. Symbolic surveying of the battlefieldis typically accomplished by Zeus, though occasionally others also pull on the figurative rope, competing for control of this authoritative device. If my interpretation is accepted, this surveyor’s cord would be closely analogous to, but distinct from, the scales which Zeus elsewhere employs to determine the outcome of fighting (e.g., 19.223–24).

Notched measuring rods and knotted ropes are well attested as early as the Bronze Age in Mesopotamia and Egypt, where they are held by gods and kings as emblematic symbols of justice or authority. (E.g., Robson 2007a, 223–24, 246–47. Frankfort 1970, 102–4, 110–12, 119–21, 202. Rossi 2004, 148–59.) Such basic instruments were also known to Homer’s world, and so the Greek king of the gods might at times wield a comparable device. (For evidence about surveying instruments in ancient Greece, see Lewis 2001, 5, 19–22; Kiely 1947, 18–19.) For example, when Zeus threatens to throw other Olympians into Tartarus, challenging them to a kind of cosmic tug-of-war with a golden rope, he observes, as a measure of his superiority, that the distance between heaven and earth is equal to that between Hades and Tartarus (Il. 8.10–27). Though the exact significance of this golden cord has baffled interpreters, who since antiquity have treated it allegorically, I would observe that it conveniently serves as a measuring device by which Zeus effectively determines the equally divided dimensions of the cosmos and asserts his mastery over all.

I shall proceed by interpreting the relevant passages in narrative order: especially Il. 11.336–37 and 12.436 = 15.413, but also 13.358–59 with 14.389. (Cf. 16.662, 17.400–1, 543, 735; 20.100–2.) I shall focus on the meaning of particular words in the Homeric texts: the verbs tanuô, teinô, and titainô (“to stretch”); and the adjective isos (“equal, equitable”) with its adverbs isa, ison. I shall draw particular attention to three similes which precede and so serve as poetic glosses for the expression “the war was stretched out equally”: rival surveyors holding metra (“measuring rods or ropes”) (12.421–24); a woman holding a balance (12.433–35); and a ship-builder holding a carpenter’s string (15.410–12). These passages lead to discussion of Homeric instruments which involve cords: stathmê, tornos, and staphylê.

In conclusion, a “measuring rope” seems an apt symbol for the authority of the “ruler” of gods and men, comparable in its way to his scepter and scales. The device accords well with early Greek conceptions of justice: “straight” judgements are made along the line or rule, while “crooked” ones are not (Thgn. 543–44). Even the term dikê, if derived from deiknumi (see Palmer 1950), suggests a directive, a pointing in the right direction along a straight line (Hdt. 1.96.2–3).


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