I received a question on Facebook about a comment Thucidides made in the first book of his ὁ πολέμος τῶν Πελοποννησίων καὶ Ἀθηναίων. Discussing the question of when the Greek people came to be called Hellens (the name that gets translated into English as “Greeks”), Thucidides commented that it was not until after the Trojan war, and that even then it was not immediate. The term Hellens, taken from Hellen, king of Phthia, took time to spread.
His comments about this end with this statement:
- οὐ μέντοι πολλοῦ γε χρόνου [ἐδύνατο] καὶ ἅπασιν ἐκνικῆσαι.
On first reading it might seem that what is being negated is πολλοῦ χρόνου, and that we should read οὐ μέντοι πολλοῦ γε χρόνου along the lines of “after not much time”, “after a short time”, or “not long thereafter”. Check the translations of this work into English, though, and you’ll find it read in the opposite sense: “after considerable time” or “though a long time elapsed” (This last one is from Richard Crawley (1840-1893). C.F. Smith (Loeb edition) has, “though it was a long time before the name could prevail among them all.”
What’s going on?
The issue has to do with the scope of negation. What is οὐ negating?
Reading the clause as “After not much time, the name was able to also prevail among them all” implies a semantic structure like this:
[[οὐ μέντοι πολλοῦ γε χρόνου] ἐδύνατο καὶ ἅπασιν ἐκνικῆσαι.]
Crawley and Smith, though, read it this way:
[οὐ μέντοι [πολλοῦ γε χρόνου] ἐδύνατο καὶ ἅπασιν ἐκνικῆσαι.]
That is, οὐ is taken to negate ἐδύνατο or ἐδύνατο καὶ ἅπασιν ἐκνικῆσαι. “For a long time, the name was not able to prevail among them all.”
What might suggest that this is the better reading?
For this we should pay attention to the little words μέντοι and γε. While these words often go untranslated in English, they held meaning as discourse markers for Ancient Greek speakers.
οὐ μέντοι was often used to negate a possible implication from the immediately preceding discourse: Indeed not!, Not however…. In the present case Thucydides has just stated that the name grew in acceptance until it was accepted by all Greeks. οὐ μέντοι implies that he is now going to place some kind of limit on that idea, negate some possible implication. He says that the name was not immediately accepted. The negation in the current clause strengthens or extends that negation. Indeed not!
Here’s the entire sentence/paragraph (complete with links to Pereus in case you need help with vocabulary):
δοκεῖ δέ μοι, οὐδὲ τοὔνομα
τοῦτο ξύμπασά πω εἶχεν, ἀλλὰ τὰ μὲν πρὸ Ἕλληνος τοῦ
Δευκαλίωνος καὶ πάνυ οὐδὲ εἶναι ἡ ἐπίκλησις αὕτη, κατὰ
ἔθνη δὲ ἄλλα τε καὶ τὸ Πελασγικὸν ἐπὶ πλεῖστον ἀφ᾽ ἑαυτῶν
τὴν ἐπωνυμίαν παρέχεσθαι, Ἕλληνος δὲκαὶ τῶν παίδων
αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ Φθιώτιδι ἰσχυσάντων, καὶ ἐπαγομένων αὐτοὺς
ἐπ᾽ὠφελίᾳ ἐς τὰς ἄλλας πόλεις, καθ᾽ ἑκάστους μὲν ἤδη
τῇ ὁμιλίᾳ μᾶλλον καλεῖσθαιἝλληνας, οὐ μέντοι πολλοῦ
γε χρόνου [ἐδύνατο] καὶ ἅπασιν ἐκνικῆσαι.