The Iliadic "Bridges of War"

Steve Reece

St. Olaf College

The Homeric collocation p(t)olemoio gephuras (5x Iliad), usually translated literally "bridges of war," has all the marks of an ancient epic formula: the alternation of pt/p and the archaic genitive of p(t)olemoio; the near lexical isolation of gephuras; and, above all, the fossilization of the formula between the common hepthemimeral caesura and verse-end.  In what was probably its earliest form it was preceded by the preposition ana (3x), thus filling the metrical space between the third-foot trochaic caesura and verse-end; then, by analogy, by the preposition epi (1x); and, finally, without any preposition (1x).  The noun form p(t)olemos, and its several cognates, is, of course, used regularly outside this formula in Homer (399x), but the noun form gephurai, and a related verb form gephuroo, each occur but twice outside this formula.

The contexts of the passages in the Iliad where the formula p(t)olemoio gephuras occurs do not offer an unambiguous meaning.  In some passages the formula seems to designate the open space between two opposing armies, in others the compact throngs of the armies themselves.  These are the two main proposals of the ancient lexicographers and Homeric commentators, and they are mirrored by their modern counterparts.  The two opposite definitions offered by the Lexikon des frühgriechischen Epos, for example, are precisely those of the ancients, and the ancient controversy is also mirrored in the contradictory definitions offered by the two most commonly used modern Homeric dictionaries: Autenrieth's "the lanes between files and columns on the battle-field" and Cunliffe's "ranks of men thought of as stemming the tide of war."  Likewise, modern commentators continue to propose meanings that are polar opposites of each other: "the lines of open ground between the moving masses of men, who are perhaps likened to flowing water" (Leaf on Il. 4.371) and "the ranks or squadrons thought of as stemming the tide of war" (Monro on Il. 4.371).

I propose to abandon the usual methods of exegesis and take a different tack altogether: namely, that the ancient formula p(t)olemoio gephuras at some point in its long development and transmission suffered a misapprisal and modification from * p(t)olemoio g' ephurai (with the ubiquitous particle ge) > p(t)olemoio gephurai.  Searching for the etymology of the gephurai of the formula is a vain enterprise, for in origin the form of the word was not gephurai but *ephurai.  The reconstructed *ephurai would be related to the proper name Ephure, an old name of several cities mentioned in Homer, and its main semantic thrust would be "fortifications."  There is strong support for this assumption in the Hittite texts from Boghazköi (= KBo XVIII 54 Rs. 13-17, 18-19, 25.), where an etymological match appears in the infinitive epurawanzi "to besiege" a fortress (two times), the iterative 1st pl. pres. act epuresgawen "we besieged," and the verbal noun epuressar "siege."  These point to a denominative verb form *epurai- "to besiege," from a noun form *epura- "siege."

The ancient epic formula * p(t)olemoio gephurai, then, had a fairly precise and technical meaning: i.e., the siegeworks (earthen mounds and such) that were constructed by an army in its effort to besiege a city.  It is easy to imagine how a ten-year epic narrative about the Achaean siege of Troy gave birth to such a formula.  However, over the course of bardic transmission of the epic, the technical meaning of this formula became unclear, and well before the time of Homer the bards and their audiences had only a vague sense of what it meant.  Hence its rather confused use in its five occurrences in the Iliad.


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