Chapter 3: Próbaton and the Homeric Economy


It has been maintained that the term próbaton, created by the Greeks, meant small animals, especially the “sheep,” since in a mixed flock the sheep tend to walk in front (pro-baínein).
It will be shown that this thesis is untenable; 1) próbaton, to begin with, designated the large as well as the small animals. 2) the Greeks had no mixed flocks. 3) probaínein does not mean “walk in front.”
In fact, próbaton, a singular of próbata, is to be connected with próbasis ‘(movable) wealth’. It was because the sheep constituted “movable wealth” par excellence as opposed to possession which were stored in chests (keimḗlia), that it was called “próbaton.”


We have just considered a problem which is raised by the coexistence of several terms which appear to have the same meaning within one and the same language or in a number of Indo-European languages.
An analogous situation is present in Greek, where we also find two terms for the name of another species, the sheep: ówis (ὄwις) and próbaton (πρόβατον). The two terms both designate the sheep from the time of the earliest texts.
The first is an ancient word of the common vocabulary, exactly preserved in Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, which is now attested in Luvian in the form of hawi-. The second is confined to Greek and the form itself gives grounds for believing that it is a relatively late creation.
In Homer, ówis and próbaton coexist, but subsequently ówis disappeared in favor of próbaton, which was the only one to survive until modern times. The problem which poses itself is why there should be two distinct terms. What was the meaning of the new term? As for the first, we can do no more than note that it was a common Indo-European word of the ancestral Indo-European vocabulary, and is not susceptible to further analysis.
As for the second word, próbaton, considered on its own without regard to its meaning, there is an evident connection with probaínō (προβαίνω) ‘to walk in advance’. But what exactly is this connection between “sheep” and “walking” and how can we interpret it? The explanation given by the comparative linguist Lommel [1] has won general acceptance: probaínō means “walk in front”; próbaton designates the small animals because they “walk in front”; but in front of what? In certain African countries, we are told, herds and flocks are formed by assembling animals of various species and it is the sheep which walk at the head. As a consequence of this próbaton would have designated the animals which walk at the head of a mixed herd of animals. This explanation, approved by Wackernagel, has achieved orthodoxy; for instance, it figures in Liddell and Scott’s lexicon.
It is the history of this term which we will now take up again to see whether, from a study of its usage, the development of its meaning in the course of an evolution which we can follow step by step confirms the proposed explanation.
It must be noted at the outset that the form próbaton is not the most common one. The first examples are in the plural, tà próbata, and the singular is unknown at an early date. Only the plural is used in Homer and Herodotus. Especially in Herodotus, thirty-one examples of the plural are found but not a single one of the singular. In the Homeric poems, if one animal is referred to, it is óïs which is used and never próbaton; in fact, the only Homeric form is próbata—and this is not merely a morphological detail. We should not speak of a plural but rather of a collective: próbata. It follows that the form próbaton is what is called a singulative; we may compare the relationship tálanta to tálanton and dákrua to dákruon. The generic names for animals are more frequently collectives, e.g. tà zô̄a, which occurs earlier than tò zō̂on.
A new term of Greek coinage which has persisted down to modern times is tò álogon which, early in our era, occurs with the specialized meaning of “horse” in the papyri. We must regard tò álogon as the singulative of tà áloga ‘the beasts’, those “deprived of reason,” the term given to the most common or most useful of animals, that is, the horse. Similarly, in Latin, animalia is older than animal. This is a very common type of designation: a large proportion of animal names are collectives.
It remains to give precision to the morphological relationships between próbata and probaínō. At first sight próbaton or próbata seems to be a compound form in -batos, this being a verbal adjective derived from baínō. But if this were so, it would not have its normal meaning: for instance, ábatos, dúsbatos, diábatos all have a passive sense, that is to say, “that which is crossed,” with a restriction of sense indicated by the first member of the composite word, or rather “that which can be crossed.” The passive voice is also apparent in the simple adjective batós (βατός) ‘accessible’. A different meaning appears in the composites like hupsíbatos, where -batos has an active meaning (“one who has climbed high, has gone on high”).
But neither the active nor the passive sense fits the suggested interpretation of próbaton, in which the second element functions as a present participle “which walks.” The fact is that the ancient grammarians make a distinction between próbaton and the adjectives in -batos: according to them, the plural dative of próbaton is próbasi (πρόβασι). Here we have a consonantal stem: pro-bat- (προ-βατ). This is the only form which explains the dative and it is this which must be postulated. Such a form can be justified from a morphological point of view because there are root forms suffixed by -t- (cf. Skr. -jit-, kṣit-) which Greek adapted to a suffixal type and to an inflectional category which was more familiar. Compared with the Sanskrit pari-kṣit-, we have Greek peri-ktit-ai (Od. 11, 288); cf. Lat. sacer-dōt-. Where the Greek had -thet- this became normalized as -thét-ēs, this being one of the processes for converting archaic and aberrant forms to a more normal type. An analogous phenomenon, though by a different process, is seen in the case of próbaton: here recourse was had to thematization (facilitated by probatá) to normalize the original form in -bat- which is implicit in the dative plural próbasi and also in the present participial function of the word.
Now that we have considered the morphology with greater precision, we may turn to the problem of meaning. As we have seen, according to Lommel, próbata designated small animals, the sheep, so named because “they walk at the head” of the herd. What is thus essential to Lommel’s thesis is that próbata designated the “small animals.” But is this really the use of the word? Far from it! We have at our disposal many examples in the literary texts and in ancient dialect epigraphy.
First in Homer, Il. 23, 550: “you have in your house much gold, bronze, próbata and servants.” What does próbata mean here? Evidently “animals” in general, since no species is mentioned. Herodotus writes τὰ λεπτὰ τῶν προβάτων to specify “the small animals,” which would be absurd if próbata already meant “small animals.” Consequently what is meant are animals as such without any specification as to kind of size. After scrutiny of all the examples in Herodotus we can affirm that it is applied to live-stock, large or small. In Hippocrates, who wrote in the ancient Ionian dialect and whose vocabulary is of great interest, we find a clear opposition between próbata and ánthrōpoi, live-stock and men.
Next comes a decisive fact from an Arcadian inscription relating to Athene Alea at Tegea, τὸ μὲν μέζον πρόβατον…τὸ δὲ μεῖον ‘the large and small próbaton’, and there is another similar example with μεῖος and μεῖζων. All this is a clear indication that the word designates live-stock in general without further specification. It is possible to fix the moment when the sense became restricted to mean “small animals,” and it was in Attic that this semantic restriction took place.
There is no need to labor this point further: if próbata originally and everywhere designated “live-stock” in general, it becomes impossible to base the prehistory of the term on the sense “small live-stock,” this being a comparatively late development. A second point may be made: what warrant have we that in ancient Greece large mixed herds existed, at the head of which the sheep walked? This custom can be observed, we are told, in Africa. But was it pastoral custom precisely in Greece to assemble large herds of different animals?
We have no testimony about the composition of flocks, and all we have to do is to recall some familiar facts of Greek vocabulary. There is no single noun or a single compound for an assembly of animals. Greek uses different specific terms according to the kind of animals, with specific words for the respective herdsmen:
pô̄ü is exclusively a flock of sheep (shepherd = oiopólos)
agélē ... a herd of cattle (cowherd = boukólos)
subósion ... a herd of pigs (swineherd = subṓtēs)
aipólion ... a herd of goats (goatherd = aipólos)
It should be noted that the name of the shepherd is based on ówis, not próbaton.
This distinction exists in other languages: in Latin, pecudes refers to the sheep (cf. pô̄ü), whereas amenta are “the large animals.” The English flock and herd may also be compared; indeed, English has a whole series of words for assemblages varying according to the species of animal.
If we only encounter special names for particular assemblages this must mean that mixed herds did not exist. Each species had its own special herdsman and was pastured separately.
This is therefore a decisive objection to Lommel’s explanation. The practice of stock breeding was so old in Greece that long before the time of Homer there was a division of labor among the various specialized herdsmen. We find even in Mycenaean Greek a suqota, corresponding to Homeric subṓtēs and a qoukoro, who corresponds to boukólos. The name of the goatherd is also known in Mycenaean: aikipata. Thus there is nothing either in the traditional practice or in the vocabulary which would allow us to posit the existence of mixed herds: the second argument of Lommel falls to the ground.
However, there is still the etymological relationship between próbata and probaínō, which would seem to impose on próbata the meaning “those who walk at the head of.” But even for a verb of so transparent a form as probaínō we must not neglect verification. Now if one re-reads the examples, it emerges that probaínō never means “walk at the head of” even though all the dictionaries affirm it. We must scrutinize the sort of example from which this sense is deduced. The most frequent sense is in fact “to advance, progress, move forwards.” This sense is beyond all argument, for the examples are immediately apparent. In Homer (Il. 13, 18) κραιπνὰ ποσὶ προβιβάς ‘advancing with rapid steps’; Lysias (169, 38) προβεβηκῶς τῇ ἡλικίᾳ ‘of advanced age’. The meaning is thus invariably “to advance.”
But a second sense is posited: “to walk in front of somebody”—which is quite a different thing. This meaning is based on three examples from Homer, all of the same type: ὅ τε κράτεϊ προβεβήκῃ (Il. 16, 54) ‘who surpasses in might the others, who surpasses the others in power’, which has to be understood as “superior in might”; cf. Il. 6, 125; 23, 890. But it is the perfect tense which occurs in all these passages, and much confusion has arisen between the sense of the perfect and the sense of the verb: probaínō ‘I advance, I proceed forward’; thus the perfect probébēka means “I find myself in an advanced position,” e.g. Il. 10, 252 ἄστρα δὲ δὴ προβέβηκε, meaning “the night is advanced.” So an expression like προβέβηκε ἁπάντων or κράτεϊ means “someone is in an advanced position with respect to all” or “in respect to might.” In fact in Homer we find (Il. 6, 125) πολὺ προβέβηκας ἁπάντων, which means literally “you are far in advance of all.” It is because probaínō does not mean “to walk at the head of” but “to advance” that lexicographers have had to rely on these examples in the perfect in order to extract the sense of “to be in front of.” That sense does no more than illustrate the normal value of the perfect; as for the notion of superiority this simply results from the genitive-ablative, which indicates the point of departure from which an advanced position has been reached. Thus there is no difference in the meaning of the verb in the phrase ἄστρα προβέβηκε and in the three examples cited. The sense is one and the same, so that there is no need to subdivide into categories to distinguish between univocal examples. There is, however, a difference in Latin between progredior, which is the exact equivalent of probaínō, and praegredior ‘I walk ahead of the others’. But probaínō corresponds only to progredior.
Accordingly próbata does not mean “those who walk at the head of the herd.” One by one all the reasons which have been advanced in support of this explanation have crumbled: (1) próbata does not designate the small animals; (2) the Greeks did not keep mixed herds; (3) the meaning of probaínō is not “walk at the head of” but “proceed.”
What remains? Simply, a relationship between próbata and probaínō. To understand this relationship our starting point must be the meaning “advance, proceed”: próbata are those which advance, or proceed. But what then? The designation appears most peculiar and not a little puzzling. Is this a special attribute of live-stock or do not all animals “proceed” normally?
The solution is given in an expression morphologically related to próbata which we have not yet considered. It is the Homeric word próbasis (πρόβασις), an abstract word derived by the suffix -ti- from the same verb probaínō, which occurs only once in Homer, but in conditions which are ideal for our purpose. Od. 2, 75: keimḗliá te próbasín te. The Homeric expression denotes wealth: próbasis is a word in -sis of the class of abstract nouns capable of expressing collective meaning. This tendency is illustrated by such words as árosis which means “plowing” but also “arable land,” “corn-land” (cf. the French expression labour in “marcher dans les labours”); ktê̄sis ‘possession’ and also ‘the totality of ktḗmata’, just as árosis is the totality of ploughed land.
Thus próbasis indicates the totality of próbata, and the opposition keimḗlia/próbasis refers to possessions of two different categories, a distinction which seems to be essential in the economy of the Homeric world: Immovable or “lying” (keimḗlia from κεῖμαι ‘lie’), i.e. immovable property, and movable property (hósa probaínei).
This way of regarding property in its two categories has a rough resemblance to the French distinction between meubles (mobilia) and immeubles (immobilia). But immeubles are buildings, whereas meubles are chattels. In Homeric Greece the division was different: all that “lies” (keîtai), keimḗlia, precious metals in ingots, gold, copper and iron, is opposed to próbata, property on the hoof, consisting of the herds and live-stock in general. Such is the sense of próbata as we have established from the textual evidence.
This explanation puts the economy of the Homeric world in a new perspective. Lommel conjured up an extraordinarily primitive type of herd composed of large numbers of animals. In fact próbata, connected as it is with próbasis, implies a much more developed social organization. In Homeric society wealth was a composite thing with a broad distinction on two different levels, between keimḗlia and próbata.
The same distinction was preserved until a much later age in Germanic. In the Scandinavian world we find a term which reminds us of próbata. This is the Icelandic gangandi , German gehendes Vieh (‘walking animals’); but here represents pecus in the Germanic sense, that is to say “wealth.” Got. faihu translates argúrion ‘money’. The literal meaning of the expression is “wealth which moves” and this refers to live-stock (see below, Book One, Chapter Four). A further possible parallel, which we do not press, is offered by the Hittite iyant- ‘sheep’, for the word can be analyzed as the participle of the verb ai- (cf. Gr. eîmi) ‘go, walk’. It is however not yet certain that this is the word for sheep in general and not that of a particular variety. If the sense were confirmed, the parallel would be striking.
These are the essential facts. As for the rest of the semantic development, there is little point in illustrating ramifications of meaning represented by many examples in all languages at all periods.
The meaning to which the generic terms becomes restricted is determined by the most important species. This fact is universal and well attested, thus:
Lat. bestia > Fr. biche ‘hind, doe’
> Engandine becha ‘sheep’
Lat. animal > North Ital. dialects: nimal ‘pig’
> other regions: nemal ‘ox’
It is always the animal par excellence, the best represented species, the most useful locally which takes the generic name: Ital. pecora, ‘sheep’.
We may thus cite próbata among the groups of words subject to constant innovation. The special sense of próbaton derives from the local conditions of animal husbandry. The primary meaning, connected as it is with probaínō, cannot be interpreted except within the framework of a definite economic structure. [2]


[ back ] 1. Zeitschrift für Vergleichende Sprachforschung, 1914, 46–54.
[ back ] 2. For the whole of chapters 1, 2, 3 reference may be made to our article “Noms d’animaux en indo-européen” in Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique de Paris, 1949, pp. 74–103.