Mapping the Catalogue of Ships

I’m very pleased to share a guest post by UVa Classics professor Jenny Strauss Clay, describing a new project we’ve undertaken at the Scholars’ Lab. We’re excited not only at the opportunity to use GIS techniques to test Professor Clay’s theories about the relation of ancient geography to mnemonic devices and poetic form, but also at the possibility that this process might assist in the identification of lost archaeological sites. — Bethany Nowviskie

Book Two of the Iliad notoriously contains a list of nearly 190 place names and includes the 29 contingents and that make up the Greek expedition to Troy.  Before launching into an over 250-line catalogue of the leaders of the Greek forces and the number of their ships, Homer appeals to the Muses to aid him in this tour-de-force of memory.  Without their help, he says:

I could not recount their numbers nor name them,
Not if I had ten tongues and ten mouths,
And an unbreakable voice and a brazen chest within,
If the Olympian Muses, daughters of aegis-bearing
Zeus, would remind me how many came under Ilium.

The Catalogue of Ships that follows this invocation can be mapped as an itinerary, or more precisely, three itineraries that traverse most of Greece.  The theoretical basis for the project I am undertaking with the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia Library is already complete. In my recent book, Homer’s Trojan Theater (Cambridge University Press, 2011), I argue that Homer was able to recite the Catalogue by creating a mental journey that used the mnemonic techniques involving loci or places, well known from ancient rhetorical writers.  By envisioning a series of places, Homer could mentally walk – or sail – through Greece and produce a detailed catalogue. Our project will reproduce that journey by showing that the itinerary described follows the natural contours of Greek geography and the patterns of early Greek urban organization.

Mapping the Catalogue of Ships involves several steps.  “Least-cost path” GIS analysis by the Scholars Lab is revealing the terrain that must naturally be followed when taking a walking tour of the Greek mainland.  We are creating an interactive map that follows that path.  The Barrington Atlas of the Ancient World (2002) as well as the recent Historischer Atlas der antiken Welt (2007), The Homer Encyclopedia (2011) and the Pleiades Project, a collaborative database for ancient sites, have pinpointed locations for which we have evidence.  We will attempt to link the sites mentioned in Homer with archaeological material and useful bibliographies.  Finally, we hope to do in situ investigations by actually traversing the plotted itinerary at ground level to survey the terrain, and create extensive panoramic photography. Our main goal is to demonstrate that the arrangement of the Catalogue, far from a random list of place names, corresponds to the natural geography of Greece.  In cases where the position of a site is unknown or disputed, we hope that our analysis will provide plausible geographical and literary evidence to help identify its location.

Collaborators in this project include Ben Jasnow and Courtney Evans, two of my graduate students who worked with me on the Trojan Theater project and who are assisting with GIS analysis, under the guidance of Chris Gist and Kelly Johnston of the Scholars’ Lab. Wayne Graham and other members of the Scholars’ Lab R&D division are creating a presentational framework for our maps and text, and Jeremy Boggs is our lead designer.

Jenny Strauss Clay
William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Classics

Bethany directed the Scholars' Lab from 2007 to 2015, and is now Director of the Digital Library Federation at CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources. She remains affiliated with UVa as a Research Associate Professor of Digital Humanities in the English Department. Computing humanist/humane computationalist since 1996. Formerly director of the Scholars' Lab…


  1. This seems like a brilliant project and should be a great example of how intricately GIS can be brought to bear on the study of the humanities. I will look forward to it.