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Pathos by the Numbers: Homeric Numerical Patterns and Achilles’ 23 Sacks

Brian D. McPhee

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

This paper advances a new way to analyze formulaic numerical patterns in Homeric epic. Research into Homeric numbers has repeatedly demonstrated that they are “typical” or “formulaic,” “resulting not from a process of real counting or precise measurement, but from a human desire for literary and symbolic patterning” (Rubincam 448). Germain's monograph on this subject categorizes all Homeric examples and contextualizes them in light of parallels from folklore, ritual, and the Near East. Other studies have investigated Homeric numbers as instances of hyperbole (Waltz, Zanetto), as comparanda for numerical data in historiography (Blom, Rubincam), or as evidence for ancient numeracy (Hawke).

I move the study of Homeric numbers in a new direction by invoking reader-response theory: how do formulaic numerical patterns structure the expectations of audiences acquainted with these conventions? For instance, the most familiar numerical pattern in Homer is the sequence of three failed attempts preceding a different outcome on the fourth try (τρὶς μὲν ἔπειτ᾽ … τρὶς δέ … ἀλλ᾽ ὅτε δὴ τὸ τέταρτον… [e.g., Il. 5.436–438]). The audience’s familiarity with this pattern generates a complex effect of suspense, as for instance, when Achilles chases Hector three times around the walls of Troy (Il. 22.165). On the strength of convention alone the audience already knows that there will not be a fourth lap, but before Athena’s intervention, they do not know precisely how the narrative will unfold.

This approach has the potential to enrich the reading of many numerical passages in Homer. As a case study, I examine a curiously asymmetrical deployment of two numbers at Il. 9.328–329: Achilles resentfully counts among his past services to Agamemnon the pillage of twenty-three cities around Troy—twelve by ship, eleven on foot.  These lines belong to a series of external analepses scattered throughout the epic relating to Greek raiding during the first nine years of the Trojan War (Leaf 242–252), but only here are Achilles’ conquests enumerated. The key to understanding these values is that 11-12, like 3-4, constitutes another variation of the “series and climax” pattern; e.g., Lycaon celebrates his homecoming to Troy for eleven days, but is slain by Achilles on the twelfth (Il. 21.45–47, 80–82; Waltz 29, Germain 15).  Symbolically, twelve functions as the “end-limit” (Laroche 572) and connotes completion, whereas eleven is a “nombre satellite” whose significance lies in being not-yet-12 (Germain 10, 17, 22).

For an audience attuned to these conventions, Achilles’ numbers effectively convey that whereas he has sacked a full complement of twelve cities by sea, one final city remains to sack on land—Troy itself (Il. 1.124–129, Singor 36 n. 52). In other such sequences eleven inevitably gives way to twelve, but this case, I argue, involves a strikingly numerical variety of “Homeric misdirection” (Morrison): the Achaeans will finally sack Troy, but not before Achilles’ early death (Il. 9.410–416). This frustrated 11-12 sequence achieves a pathetic effect purely by manipulating the expectations raised by Homeric numerical conventions, artfully repurposing a traditional formula to novel ends.

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Homer and Hellenistic Literature

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