How is time represented and distributed in the Iliad? Interest in this question began very early in the history of Homeric scholarship. Zenodotus is credited with having written a calculation of the number of days in the Iliad, a matter which continues to spark debate now more than two thousand years later. It is not hard to see why readers are so consistently drawn to issues of time in the Iliad. The narrator of the Iliad is remarkably precise about marking the passage of time, describing the sunrises that inaugurate each day, the sunsets that bring each night, and the position of the sun to indicate movement through diurnal time. And yet, it is deceptively difficult for the reader to keep track of time in the poem—due in large part to the extremely variable representation of time in the poem. While the narrator passes over the first twenty-two days in under 500 lines, a single day of battle spans well over 5,000.
In this paper I demonstrate that ancient scholarship on Homer (preserved as scholia to the Iliad) was on the whole very attentive to time in the Iliad, and I outline their methods for resolving perceived problems in the poem’s depiction of time. Their acute awareness of chronology leads them in certain instances simply to correct Homer’s usage (schol. Il.1.472a, 19.141) and elsewhere even to athetize certain lines on a charge of anachronism (schol. Il. 1.222). They assume that the Iliad’s chronology is perfectly coherent and, further, that Homer intended his audience to take note of it (schol. Il. 1.477a, 2.48a).
Their attention to story time and their conviction in the flawless chronology of the Iliad generated many zetemata that compelled them to invent creative explanations for the poem’s depiction of time. I highlight the two most important methods of explanation: the recognition of the distinction between story time and discourse time and the recognition of subjective or experiential time. Why is the Great Day of Battle so long? Why has Nestor been drinking for so long? How has Patroclus forgotten about Achilles for so long? The answer to each of these questions points to the divergence of story time and discourse time. Nestor has not actually been drinking in his hut for hours on end (οὐ τοσοῦτον χρόνον ἔπινεν, schol. Il. 14.1) and Patroclus has not actually forgotten about Achilles (οὐ πολὺς μὲν χρόνος, schol. bT Il. 15.390); it is just that “it is impossible to narrate different events at the same time” (schol. Il. 12.1).
The scholia explain (what they perceive to be) peculiarities of time not only by consideration of the audience’s experience of time (i.e., discourse time), but by regard for the characters’ experience of time as well. A scholion to Il. 9.247, for example, justifies Odysseus’ use of the word ὀψέ (“late”) by arguing that even though Achilles has not been gone long, “the time of misfortune seems long to those in distress” (schol. bT Il. 9.247). Similarly, Achilles’ use of δηρόν (“for a long time”) is justified by the argument that “one day was long for Achilles while he stood apart [from the fighting], for he is very fond of war” (schol. Il. 18.125a).
Finally, I show that despite their desire for chronological precision, their own reckoning of the Iliad is often interestingly incomplete. A scholion to Il. 1.4, for example, disregards non-narrated days in his calculation of days in the poem, and a different scholion (to Il. 18.125) omits the twenty-third day (1.493-2.47) and the notoriously problematic twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth days (7.381-482) from his account.
The scholia I discuss here provide important insights into the ways in which ancient readers interpreted the Iliad, and the questions they ask—simple though they sometimes seem—provide fertile ground for further inquiry.
Time as an Organizing Principle