The Optative in Simple Sentences

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299. The uses of the optative in simple sentences range from the expression of a wish on the part of the speaker to the expression of mere supposition, or admission of possibility.

Without κεν or ἄν the optative may express

a. Simple wish or prayer.

Il. 1.42 τίσειαν Δαναοὶ ἐμὰ δάκρυα σοῖσι βέλεσσι

Od. Il. 453 μὴ γὰρ ὅ γʼ ἔλθοι κτλ.
                  never may he come, etc.

Regarding the Optative οf Wish with εἰ or αἴ, εἴθε, αἴθε, etc. See § 311.

b. Α gentle or deferential imperative, conveying advice, suggestion, or the like.

Il. 4.17 εἰ δʼ αὖ πως τόδε πᾶσι φίλον καὶ ἡδὺ γένοιτο,
            ἦ τοι μὲν οἰκέοιτο πόλις Πριάμοιο κτλ.
            (= I presume the city is inhabited)

Od. 4.735 ἀλλά τις ὀτρηρῶς Δολίον καλέσειε γέροντα
                 (as we say, would someone call, etc.).

Od. 18.141 τῷ μή τίς ποτε πάμπαν ἀνὴρ ἀθεμίστιος εἴη,
                    ἀλλʼ ὅ γε σιγῇ δῶρα θεῶν ἔχοι
                    I would have a man not be lawless, etc.

Note especially this use of the 2nd person, as in-

Od. 4.193 πίθοιό μοι
                 pray listen to me

so in the formal phrase ἦ ῥά νύ μοί τι πίθοιο (Il. 4.93, etc.).

Il. 11.791 ταῦτʼ εἴποις Ἀχιλῆϊ
               suppose you say this to Achilles

Od. 15.24 ἀλλὰ σύ γʼ ἐλθὼν αὐτὸς ἐπιτρέψειας ἕκαστα

Il. 3.406 ἧσο παρʼ αὐτὸν ἰοῦσα, θεῶν δʼ ἀπόεικε κελεύθου,
              μηδ’ ἔτι σοῖσι πόδεσσιν ὑποστρέψειας Ὄλυμπον.

Hence in Il. 1.20 we should read (with the best MSS.) παῖδα δʼ ἐμοὶ λύσαιτε (not λῦσαί τε, Wοlf's conjecture).

c. Rhetorical wish, implying willingness, or indifferance to the happening of some evil: as in imprecations.

ll. 2.340 ἐν πυρὶ δὴ βουλαί τε γενοίατο μήδεα δʼ ἀνδρῶν

Il. 6.164 τεθναίης, ὦ Προῖτʼ, ἢ κάκτανε Βελλεροφόντην
              (= l care not if you were dead, unless you, etc.).

Od. 7.224           ἰδόντα με καὶ λίποι αἰὼν
                 κτῆσιν ἐμὴν κτλ.
                 (= I am content to die when I have seen, etc.).

d. Concession or acquiescence.

ll. 21.359 λῆγʼ ἔριδος, Τρῶας δὲ καὶ αὐτίκα δίος Ἀχιλλεὺς
                ἄστεος ἐξελάσειε
                (cease strife, and I consent that, etc.)

Od. 1.402 κτήματα δʼ αὐτὸς ἔχοις καὶ δώμασι σοῖσιν ἀνάσσοις

Od. 2.232 ἀλλʼ αἰεὶ χαλεπός τʼ εἴη καὶ αἴσυλα ῥέζοι
                 (i.e. he may as well be unjust as just)

Hes. Op. 270 νῦν δὴ ἐγὼ μήτʼ αὐτὸς ἐν ἀνθρώποισι δίκαιος
                      εἴην μήτʼ ἐμὸς υἱός

The following are instances of the 1st person used in this way.

Il. 15.45 αὐτάρ τοι καὶ κείνῳ ἐγὼ παραμυθησαίμην
              I am willing to advise him (a concession)

So Il. 4.318 μάλα μέν τοι ἐγὼν ἐθέλοιμι κτλ., but some MSS. have μέν κεν.

Il. 23.150 νῦν δʼ ἐπεὶ οὐ νέομαί γε φίλην ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν,
                Πατρόκλῳ ἥρωϊ κόμην ὀπάσαιμι φέρεσθαι
                since I am not to return, I may as well, etc.

Od. 16.383 ἀλλὰ φθέωμεν ἑλόντες ἐπʼ ἀγροῦ νόσφι πόληος
                   ἢ ἐν ὁδῷ, βίοτον δʼ αὐτοὶ καὶ κτήματʼ ἔχωμεν
                   δασσάμενοι κατὰ μοῖραν ἐφ ἡμέας, οἰκία δʼ αὖτε
                   κείνου μητέρι δοῖμεν ἔχειν ἠδʼ ὅς τις ὀπυίοι

Here what the suitors are to do for themselves is put in the subjunctive what they do or allow to be done for Penelope in the optative.

Compare Hdt. 7.5.4 τὸ μὲν νῦν ταῦτα πρήσσοις τά περ ἐν χερσὶ ἔχεις, ἡμερώσας δὲ Αἴγυπτον τὴν ἐξυβρίσασαν στρατηλάτεε ἐπὶ τὰς Ἀθήνας, i. e. "I consent to your doing what you have in hand, but when it is done, march against Athens."

e. Strong denial is sometimes implied, under the form of deprecation, by the optative with μή.

Od. 7.316 μὴ τοῦτο φίλον Διῒ πατρὶ γένοιτο
             let us not admit that this is the will of father Zeus

Od. 22.462 μὴ μὲν δὴ καθαρῷ θανάτῳ ἀπὸ θυμὸν ἑλοίμην

f. Admission of possibility, i.e. willingness to suppose or believe that the thing will happen. This use is rarely found without κεν or ἄν: an instance is

Od. 3.231 ῥεῖα θεός γʼ ἐθέλων καὶ τηλόθεν ἄνδρα σαώσαι

This is said as a concession, we men must allow that a god can save even from afar." So perhaps Il. 10.247, 557; alsο

Il. 15.197 θυγατέρεσσιν γάρ τε καὶ υἱάσι βέλτερον εἴη κτλ.

Here the optative is in contrast to the preceding imperative. μή τί με δειδισσέσθω "let him not threaten me: for his own children it may be well enough that he should scold." Other instances are negative.

Il. 19.321 οὐ μὲν γάρ τι κακώτερον ἄλλο πάθοιμι

Od. 14.122 ὦ γέρον, οὔ τις κεῖνον ἀνὴρ ἀλαλήμενος ἐλθὼν
                   ἀγγέλλων πείσειε γυναῖκά τε καὶ φίλον υἱόν

So in the relative clauses.

Il. 5.303 (= 20.286) ὃ οὐ δύο γʼ ἄνδρε φέροιεν

Od. 3.319 ὅθεν οὐκ ἔλποιτό γε θυμῷ ἐλθέμεν

And in one or two interrogative clauses, with implied negation.

Il. 11.838 πῶς τʼ ἄρʼ ἔοι τάδε ἔργα

Od. 5.100 τίς δʼ ἂν ἑκὼν διαδράμοι
                 (since we should probably read τίς δὲ ϝεκὼν) 

In such case the absence of κεν or ἄν marks the negation as sweeping and unconditional. We should compare the corresponding Homeric use of οὐ with the pure subjunctive, which differs in the degree of confidence expressed

οὐδὲ ἴδωμαι
I am sure I shall never see

οὐ πάθοιμι
I suppose I shall never suffer

300. With κεν or ἄν the optative does not express wish (which is essentially unconditional), or even direct willingness on the part of the speaker, but only willingness to admit a consequence, hence expectation in view of particular circumstances.

Il. 1.100 τότε κέν μιν ἱλασσάμενοι πεπίθοιμεν
              then we may expect to appease him and gain grace

The character of a clause of this kind depends chiefly on the manner in which the condition is indicated. The following are the main points to be observed.

a. An optative. with κεν or ἄν often follows an independent clause with a future, imperative, etc.

Il. 22.108 ὣς ἐρέουσιν, ἐμοὶ δὲ τότʼ ἂν πολὺ κέρδιον εἴη κτλ.

Od. 10.269 φεύγωμεν· ἔτι γάρ κεν ἀλύξαιμεν κακὸν ἦμαρ

Il. 3.410 κεῖσε δʼ ἐγὼν οὐκ εἶμι, νεμεσσητὸν δέ κεν εἴη

b. Or the preceding clause may contain a wish.

Il. 7.157 εἴθʼ ὣς ἡβώοιμι, βίη δέ μοι ἔμπεδος εἴη· τῷ κε τάχʼ ἀντήσειε κτλ.

Cp. Il. 4.93 (where the preceding optative is a gentle imperative).

c. The case supposed may be in past time, so that the optative expresses what would have followed on an event which did not occur.

Il. 5.311 καί νύ κεν ἔνθʼ ἀπόλοιτο ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν Αἰνείας, εἰ μὴ ἄρʼ ὀξὺ νόησε κτλ.

Od. 5.73 ἔνθα κʼ ἔπειτα καὶ ἀθάνατός περ ἐπελθὼν θηήσαιτο ἰδών.

So Il. 2.81, 3.220, 4.223, 429, 539, 5.35, 311, 388, 12.58, 13.127, 343, 15.697, 17.70, 366, 398; Od. 7. 293, 13.86. This use of the optative is confined to Homer, and is chiefly found in the Iliad.

A somewhat similar idiom occurs in Herodotus.

Hdt. 1.2 εἴησαν δʼ ἂν οὗτοι Κρῆτες "these may have been Cretans" (= probably were)

Hdt. 7.180 τάχα δʼ ἂν τι καὶ τοῦ οὐνόματος ἐπαύροιτο.

But there the meaning is different—nοt would have happened (= did not), but would be found to have happened (if we knew more).

d. The case supposed may be vague or imaginary.

Il. 8.143 ἀνὴρ δέ κεν οὔ τι Διὸς νόον εἰρύσσαιτο

where the emphatic ἀνήρ suggests a condition: if a man, he cannot, etc.; cp. Od. 4.78, 23.125, also

Od. 12.102 πλησίον ἀλλήλων· καί κεν διοϊστεύσειας
                   one may (on occasion arising) shoot an arrow across

Od. 9.131 οὐ μὲν γάρ τι κακή γε, φέροι δέ κεν ὥρια πάντα

It is natural that an admission that something may happen should generally be made more or less in view of circumstances, given or supposed. Hence the use of κεν or ἄν with an optative of this force became the prevailing use, and exceptions are rare, even in Homer.

The principal clause or apodosis of an ordinary complex conditional sentence belongs to this head. It is erroneous, however, to regard the varieties now explained as complex sentences with the protasis understood. In this, as in some other cases, the complex is to be explained from the simple, not νice νersa.

In some instances the optative with κεν appears to be concessive (expressing willingness). Delbrück (Synt. Forsch. I. p. 200) gives as examples

ll. 22.252           νῦν αὖτέ με θυμὸς ἀνῆκε
                στήμεναι ἀντία σεῖο· ἕλοιμί κεν ἤ κεν ἀλοίην

Od. 8.570           τὰ δέ κεν θεὸς ἢ τελέσειεν
                 ἤ κʼ ἀτέλεστʼ εἴη, ὥς οἱ φίλον ἔπλετο θυμῷ

Tο which may be added

Od. 14.183 ἦ κεν ἁλοίη ἦ κε φύγοι κτλ.

(but ll. 13.486 is different. Possibly the use of κεν in these places is due to the opposition made between the two alternatives: cp. § 285.3.b, § 286, and § 289.2.b.

ll. 24.618 ἀλλʼ ἄγε δὴ καὶ νῶϊ μεδώμεθα, δῖε γεραιέ,
                σίτου· ἔπειτά κεν αὖτε φίλον παῖδα κλαίοισθα

Hes. Op. 33 τοῦ κε κορεσσάμενος νείκεα καὶ δῆριν ὀφέλλοις

Also Od. 16.391, 21.161. But these instances need not be separated from others in which expectation rather than concession is recognized. We may notice as on the border between the two meanings

α. Uses of the 1st person (esp. in the Odyssey).

Od. 15.506 ἠῶθεν δέ κεν ὔμμιν ὁδοιπόριον παραθείμην

Od. 22.262 ὦ φίλοι, δή μέν κεν ἐγὼν εἴποιμι καὶ ἄμμιν κτλ.

Od. 16.354 ἀλλʼ οἶοι σύ τʼ ἐγώ τε γυναικῶν γνώομεν ἰθύν,
καί κέ τεο δμώων ἀνδρῶν ἔτι πειρηθεῖμεν

Od.14.155 πρὶν δέ κε, καὶ μάλα περ κεχρημένος, οὔ τι δεχοίμην

So Od. 2.219, 4.347, 12.387, 15.313 & 449, 18.166, 19.579, 20.326, 21.113 & 193; ll. 9.417, 24.664.

β. Negative Clauses, with the 2nd person.

Il. 14.126 τῷ οὐκ ἄν με . . . φάντες μῦθον ἀτιμήσαιτε
                I do not think you will (I expect you not to), etc.

Od. 20.135 οὐκ ἄν μιν νῦν, τέκνον, ἀναίτιον αἰτιόῳο

So Il. 2.250 τῷ οὐκ ἂν βασιλῆας ἀνὰ στόμʼ ἔχων ἀγορεύοις is to be understood as ironical courtesy (you will not if you are advised by me). This, again, when turned into a question yields another form of polite imperative

ll. 3.52 οὐκ ἂν δὴ μείνειας
            will you not await?

So ll. 5.32 & 456, 10.204; Od. 6.57, 7.22.

The fact that οὐ is the negative particle in all these instances shows that the optative is grammatically more akin to a future than to an expression of wish. So far as wish is intended, the use is a rhetorical one, implying what it does not directly express, like the similar use of the future indicative in Attic.

It will be seen that, except in one or two rare Homeric uses of the pure optative, the usage of the optative in independent sentences is nearly the same in Homer as in later Greek.

Suggested Citation

D.B. Monro, A Grammar of the Homeric Dialect. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2014. ISBN: 978-1-947822-04-7.