Mycenaean City Names in the Iliad

Most notable among the passages in the Iliad traceable to Mycenaean times is the so-called Catalogue of Cities and Ships.1

It is an enumeration, in the second book of the Iliad, of the contributions in ships made by various cities and towns of the Achaeans or Greeks of the Heroic Age to the expedition against Troy. There are scores of localities in the list and many of them, actually about half, did not survive into the modern Ionian Age; then how could the Greek poet, separated from the Mycenaean Age by dark centuries, have had such an extensive and detailed knowledge of these localities?

Archaeological research has already identified the ruins of quite a few sites which had not been rebuilt and were not known in the classical period of Greece; and it is safe to assume that future digging will reveal more of the cities of this list. By assuming that the oral delivery from one generation to another can account for the survival of the epics, it is also necessary to assume that a long list of localities, many of them small, many of them no more extant, was capable of surviving by means of such oral tradition. But would generations of bards carry over centuries of the Dark Ages the multitudinous names of towns and villages of which nothing was extant for century upon century? It is conceivable that a few names of ancient palace cities would defy time and survive in the memory of bards. But to assume that almost a hundred names of localities that were but abandoned mounds in the time when the Iliad was put to writing survived in that manner implies nothing short of a miracle. In the view of Denys Page, “There is no escape from this conclusion: the names in the Catalogue afford proof positive and unrefuted that the Catalogue offers a truthful, though selective, description of Mycenaean Greece.”2 At the same time, “there is no scrap of evidence, and no reason whatsoever to assume, that the art of writing was practiced in Greece between the end of the Mycenaean era and the eighth century B.C.”3

Yet “it is inconceivable that such a list should have been first compiled during or after the Dark Ages.”4 But is it a solution that bards transmitted all those names?5

And where did the bards sing? Was not the land without palaces and with hardly any houses of occupation?

Denys Page continues on the subject with growing wonderment: “Descriptive epithets are attached to some fifty of the place names. . . . Many of the epithets are distinctive, not generally applicable. One place is a meadowland, another is rocky; one place is rich in vineyards, another is famous for its sheep; one place is rugged, another has many flowers; one place is on a riverbank, another on the seashore.” “Let us ask,” Page continues, “how could an Ionian poet living in the 10th or 9th or 8th century B.C. know how to describe so many places—some of them very obscure places—all over Greece? How could he know that there were many doves at Messe (if anyone could still find the place); and vineyards at Hine (if it had not yet been swallowed up by the lake); that Aegylips was rugged, Olosson white, Enispe windy, Ptellos a meadowland, Helos on the coast?6

And is it thinkable that the bards came to Greece from the Aegean coast of Asia Minor towards the end of the Dark Ages? But Asia Minor together with its Ionian coast was also immersed in a Dark Age; nor was there recovered a palace in which a bard upon return from Greece could sing of those Mycenaean cities, towns and hamlets—so impoverished was the Greek region of Asia Minor during the Dark Ages, with the highland of Anatolia being quite empty of any human habitation.7

The problem of the Mycenaean heritage in the Homeric poetry is staggering and remains unresolved through hundreds of volumes dealing with it; it is the despair of anyone endeavoring to solve it within the framework of the accepted chronological timetable.


  1. See R. Hope Simpson and J. F. Lazenby, The Catalogue of the Ships in Homer’s Iliad (Oxford University Press, 1970). [Several scholars claim the Catalogue to be a compilation of the late eighth or early seventh centuries. See Rhys Carpenter, Folk Tale, Fiction, and Saga in the Homeric Epics (Berkeley, 1946). J. Chadwick held a similar view. Here again is the five-hundred year controversy.]

  2. Page, op. cit. [A. R. Burn, Minoans, Philistines and Greeks: B.C. 1400-900 (London, 1930), p. 10: “The Catalogue . . . has all the appearance of being a genuine document dating from before the Dorian invasion and the Ionian migration. . . .” ].

  3. Page, op. cit., p. 123.

  4. Page, History and the Homeric Iliad p. 122. Cf.G. S. Kirk, The Language and Background of Homer Cambridge, 1964), p. 175. [Kirk writes: “. . . Much of the substance of the Catalogue of Achaean contingents in the second book of the Iliad, which gives a complex and largely accurate survey of the Mycenaean geography, disrupted by the Dorian invasion, can hardly have been completed more than a generation or so later than the final upheaval. . .” But cf. Chadwick (Minos [1975], pp. 56-58).]

  5. Cf. Rhys Carpenter, Folk Tale, Fiction, and Saga in the Homeric Epics (Berkeley, Ca, 1946).

  6. Page, History and the Homeric Iliad, p. 123. [Carpenter (Folk Tale, Fiction, and Saga in the Homeric Epics, pp. 178-79) denies the possibility of such accurate transmissions and argues instead that the Catalogue points “to the situation in early archaic classical times when Pheidon had extended his rule over Argos, when a league of towns was forming in Boeotia. . . .” His view that Homer wrote about recent events does not in fact contradict the assertions by Page and others that the Catalogue refers to Mycenaean times. Cf. also Chadwick in Minos” (1975) pp. 56-58.]

  7. See above, section “The Dark Age in Asia Minor.