Indo-European Language and Society

Chapter 7. Krátos


Krátos does not mean “physical force” (iskhús, sthénos) or “spiritual force” (alkḗ) but “superiority,” whether in battle or in the assembly. This sense, which is constant for krátos, is confirmed by some of the uses of the derivative kraterós which means “without equal,” especially in combat. But in other uses kraterós comes close in sense to krataiós ‘hard, cruel’, kratús ‘hard’.
The etymology gives the reason for this peculiar state of affairs: krátos is to be connected with the Indo-Iranian kratu-, which designates “the (magical) power of the warrior”; kratús is to be connected with a quite different group, that of Gothic hardus, which means exclusively “hard.” In Greek there was some overlap of the two word families and this is particularly well illustrated by the two-fold use of the word kraterós.


The terms which have been studied up to now enable us to define certain ideological concepts of Homeric society. They help us to define the status of the king and to determine the attributes of basileía ‘kingship’. We have analyzed three of these terms: kûdos, timḗ, géras.
There is a further attribute that we must now study, which the texts associate closely with those just listed, and which because of its meaning is of central importance for the understanding of this kingship. This is the word krátos (κράτος), a well-known term of great generality, which because of the simplicity of its sense would appear to be easy to analyze. From the outset it is supposed to have meant nothing more than “force, power.” Its form is both krátos and kártos without distinction of meaning. This ancient neuter has a long series of derivatives which are based on the stem krat– or kart-.
We have: kraterós or karterós with the comparative form kreíssōn and the superlative krátistos or kártistos; and the verb krateîn. Further, on the stem in –u-, we have the adjective kratús and the verb kratûnein, and finally, some derivatives in –ai-, krataiós and the compounds krataípous, krataigúalos.
The translation which is everywhere accepted as “force, power” is in our view unsatisfactory. We shall attempt to give precision to its meaning by analysis of its uses, which are often formulaic, and try to circumscribe the original concept.
That krátos cannot simply signify “strength” emerges from the fact that at least six other Homeric terms have this sense: bía, ís, iskhús, sthénos, alkḗ, dúnamis. This profusion creates many difficulties for translators. But the choice of equivalents can only be guided by exact definitions, that is, an exact idea of the differences between these seven ways of designating “strength.” Here the arbitrary and uncertain hold sway. Translators proceed as they think fit and translate each example differently.
To start with we take a particularly challenging example, an instance of krátos associated with alkḗ, in the stinging address of Diomedes to Agamemnon: “Zeus has given you contrary gifts: he has granted you to be honored above all with the scepter, but he has not given you alkḗ, which is the greatest krátos” (Il. 9, 39). What does Diomedes mean, and what is the meaning of a translation like “Valor, he has refused to you. Yet it is supreme power” (tr. P. Mazon)? Everything is interconnected in these problems and, as soon as the attempt is made to fix the sense of a word, its synonyms present themselves in all their abundance and intricate interrelationships. Let us therefore make the attempt to delimit krátos and alkḗ, and in the first place to determine what alkḗ is.
It is some kind of “force” to be sure, but not physical force, the word for which is sthénos. To understand its nature we must take note of the utterance itself in which the absence of this quality is made the subject of reproach. Why does Diomedes reproach Agamemnon with lacking alkḗ? It is because Agamemnon, under the impact of the reverses suffered, believing that the game is lost since Zeus has betrayed him, advises the assembly to raise the siege and depart: “Let us flee in our ships to our native land; we shall no longer take Troy with its broad streets” (9, 27). Diomedes then challenges him: “Zeus has not given you alkḗ … If you have so great a desire to return home, depart! Others will remain until we have laid waste Troy. Nay, let them also in their turn flee with their ships to their native land. We two, I and Sthenelus, shall fight alone until we win the goal of Ilion, for we have come here with the god” (ibid. 39ff.).
To give up the fight, this is to have no alkḗ, just like those who, wearied of running, stop, “having no alkḗ in their hearts” (4, 245). At the moment of the decisive combat in his house Odysseus finds himself alone with three companions faced with the “numerous and valiant” suitors. Athena comes to him in the guise of Mentor and Odysseus implores him: “Mentor, save me from misfortune! ” Athena, scolds him with the words: “Odysseus, have you no courage or alkḗ? … How is it, now that you have come to your house and possessions, in the face of the suitors you wail at having to be álkimos?” (Od. 22, 226; 231f.).
From this passage we may deduce—a contrario—the definition of alkḗ; to face up to danger without flinching, not to yield under attack, to stand firm in the fray, this is alkḗ. These features characterize the notion in all the examples.
Poseidon, in the guise of Calchas, addresses the two Ajaxes when the Achaeans are giving way under the assault of the Trojans: “You two go and save the Achaean army, having alkḗ in your hearts and not chilly rout” (Il. 13, 48). These are always the alternatives: alkḗ or rout. Menelaus, when he is defending the corpse of Patroclus against Euphorbus, threatens him: “I shall break your spirit if you confront me. I bid you get back into the throng.” But Euphorbus retorts: “The combat will decide: either alkḗ or flight” (17, 42). Between Achilles and Aeneas there is a long exchange of challenges, which the latter concludes thus: “You will not with words deter me, burning with alkḗ, before we battle, face to face, with the bronze” (20, 256). On many occasions when the troops are giving way, the chief exhorts them to “remember alkḗ,” to stand fast without fear and not to retreat. The two Ajaxes make a rampart before the corpse of Patroclus; “clothed in alkḗ” they thrice repulse the assaults of Hector. This hero, too, “confident in his alkḗ” now hurls himself forward, now comes to a halt, but “without retiring one step.” Like a lion that the shepherds cannot drive away from his prey “even so can the two Ajaxes not frighten Hector and hurl him back from the corpse” (18, 157f.). The comparison is no empty one: the great beasts of prey in their hour of danger also give evidence of alkḗ. “Like a panther, plunging forth from a deep thicket and coming face to face with a hunter, is unafraid at heart and does not take flight. If the hunter strikes or wounds her first, even though pierced with the spear she does not cease from alkḗ, until she has come to grips or is killed” (21, 573ff.). The antithetic terms alkḗ and phóbos reappear in the derivatives álkimos ‘endowed with alkḗ’ and phobeîn ‘affright, put to flight’, for instance in the words of Hector: “Zeus is always superior, he puts to flight (phobeî) even the álkimos warrior” (17, 177). But when alkḗ, manifested by portents, comes from Zeus, it is indestructible. When an unexpected thunderbolt strikes in front of the chariot of Diomedes, who faces Hector unafraid, his companion Nestor is seized with fear: “Turn back the horses! Do you not understand that alkḗ that comes from Zeus does not accompany you?” (8, 140). And when Zeus turns aside the shaft launched by Teucer at Hector and breaks the string of his bow, Hector is not deceived: “The alkḗ of Zeus is easy to recognize” (15, 490).
It is the same virtue which is named by Hesiod in his description of the winds which lash the sea, shatter the ships and drown the sailors: “Against this evil there is no alkḗ” (Theog. 876). The formula recurs at the end of a vision of an age to come when all will be overturned: “Against the evil there will be no alkḗ” (Works, 201 ). The investigation could continue with the works of Pindar and Herodotus; everywhere alkḗ shows the same sense: it is spiritual strength, fortitude, which does not yield in the face of danger and remains resolute whatever fate brings.
Now that the nature of alkḗ has been determined, we can approach the definition of krátos. Above we have seen that a passage of the Iliad assimilates these two qualities. However, this would not justify our equating the two terms. Another example would also deter us: “Come to my aid, friends, I am alone,” shouts Idomeneus, “I am sorely afraid of swift-footed Aeneas, who is coming against me; he is very karterós to slay men in battle and he is in the flower of youth, which is the greatest krátos” (Il. 13, 481ff.). This time it is physical strength, the flower of youth, which is krátos. We may conclude that in this logical formula “the x which is krátos,” in which x stands for different things, the predicate “which is …”does not imply identity but the necessary condition. There are therefore, according to circumstances, different conditions of krátos, some pertaining to age and physical condition, and others to qualities such as alkḗ. We may immediately add another condition, a fundamental one, the goodwill of the gods, which shows that in krátos there is a relationship of forces which may vary: “Let us now leave this bow and entrust ourselves to the gods. Tomorrow the god will give krátos to whom he wishes,” says Odysseus to his young rivals (Od. 21, 280). Here krátos is the capacity to win in a trial of strength. Now if we survey the circumstances in which krátos appears, we see that they always amount to such a trial, and that everywhere krátos indicates the superiority of a man, whether he manifests his strength over those of his own camp or the enemy. This “superiority” is said to be “great” (méga) or “greatest” (mégiston). It has no other qualifications.
Being of a temporary character, it is always being put to the test. It can consist in superiority of physical strength. When Idomeneus sees Aeneas coming against him he calls on his friends: “I am afraid: he has the flower of youth, this greatest superiority (krátos mégiston). For if we were of like age in this our ardor, swiftly would he win great advantage (méga krátos) or else I would” (Il. 13, 486). To Athena, who in the guise of Phoenix is urging Menelaus to defend at all costs the corpse of Patroclus, Menelaus replies: “If only Athena would give me krátos and deflect from me the onrush of the shafts.” Then Athena, delighted that he has invoked her first of all the gods, puts strength in his shoulders and his knees, and in his breast the daring of the fly” (17, 561ff.). Glaucus, when he is wounded, implores Apollo: “Lord, tend this my wound; put to sleep my pains, grant me krátos so that I may call and urge my Lycian comrades into battle and that I myself may do battle over the corpse of my dead friend” (16, 524). Apollo has just launched Aeneas against Achilles. Hera is roused and convokes the gods: “Now let one of us stand beside Achilles and give him great krátos so that his heart does not fail him” (20, 121). “I shall give to Hector the krátos of killing,” Zeus proclaims (11, 191; cf. 17, 205). Peleus, when sending his son Achilles to Agamemnon, gave him this advice: “Krátos will be given you by Athena and Hera if they so wish. Do you restrain your proud heart in your breast” (9, 254).
Zeus may confer krátos on one of the two armies engaged. In this case the beneficiary of this superiority is a people, not an individual. Thetis appeals to Zeus in support of her injured son: “Give krátos to the Trojans until the Achaeans do honor to my son and increase him in honor” (1, 509). This “superiority” shifts from camp to camp according to the whim of the gods. Diomedes says to Odysseus under the onslaught of the Trojans: “Truly I shall remain and stand fast: but short will be the advantage for us since Zeus likes better to give krátos to the Trojans rather than to us” (11, 319). “She (Andromache) has heard that the Trojans were weakening, that a great krátos was with the Achaeans” (6, 387). “Use the lash now until you come to our swift ships; you will see that the Achaeans no longer have krátos” (17, 623). “Shall we fall upon the many-benched ships in case the god shall grant us krátos?” (13, 743). “That day Zeus granted krátos to the Pylians” (11, 753). “If Zeus intends to spare steep Ilion and refuses to destroy it and to give great krátos to the Argives, let him know that there will be between us bitter wrath without remedy” (15, 216).
But this “superiority” is manifested not only in combat, as might appear to be implied by the numerous passages which have been quoted and which all come from the Iliad. It is also displayed in the other activity of the hero, in the assembly (cf. 12, 214) and it amounts to a “power” exercised by the king or chief. Achilles is indignant that a man, Agamemnon, wants to deprive a peer of his legitimate portion “because he is superior to him in krátos.” The girl whom the Achaeans had given him as his portion, “Lord Agamemnon has taken her from me” (16, 54ff.). Here we see that krátos is the “power” of the king, a personal and permanent advantage, like the krátos mégiston which Polyphemus has over the other Cyclops (Od. 1, 70), like that of Alcinous in his deme (11, 353) or that of Telemachus in his house (21, 353)·
These two values of krátos, “superiority” in a trial of strength or skill and, more particularly, “power (of authority),” recur in the Homeric uses of the verb krateîn. First “to have the advantage, triumph” (Il. 5, 175; 21, 315); secondly, “exercise power,” often with a determinant in the genitive, the name of a country or people: “over the Argives” (1, 79), “over all” (1, 288), or in the dative in the Odyssey, “over the dead” (11, 485), “over men and gods” (16, 265).
It now remains to examine the sense of the derived adjective karterós. Here an unexpected complication arises. In principle, karterós, formed with the same suffix –r– as in other adjectives, belongs to the same sense group such as iskhurós, sthenarós ‘strong’ and means “provided with krátos.” In a number of its uses it gives clear confirmation of the definition advanced above of the term krátos and it qualifies either, as a conventional epithet, certain heroes, especially Diomedes, or, as an occasional attribute, various persons. “You are very karterós, a goddess gave you birth” says Nestor to Achilles (Il. 1, 280), that is to say, “you will be superior to other men (in strength or in valor)”; aikhmētḕs kraterós ‘a spearsman who triumphs (over his adversary)’, amúmōn kaì kraterós, which could be rendered “blameless and without equal.” The superlative kártistos magnifies this quality to its greatest extent: “I am the kártistos of all the gods,” proclaims Zeus (8, 17), he who holds supreme power. All this, once the relation between the sense of kraterós and that of krátos has been confirmed, needs neither commentary nor laborious verification. The examples of kraterós in this sense can be found easily.
However, there is another sense, perhaps even more frequent, which the dictionaries record but without indicating how far it is different; it is in fact different in several respects.
When we pass from krátos to kraterós, we expect to find in the adjective a notion of the same character as the substantive: since krátos always denotes a heroic quality, one pertaining to brave men or chiefs, it should follow (and this is actually the case) that the adjective kraterós is of a eulogistic character. So it is all the more surprising to find that in its other uses it is far from complimentary and in fact implies blame or reproach. When Hecuba, the wife of Priam, addresses Achilles, who has just killed her son Hector, she calls him anḕr kraterós (24, 212), and this is certainly not meant as a tribute to his warlike qualities; it is translated as “brutal hero.” In order to understand the meaning of kraterós when applied to Ares we must recall other epithets bestowed on this god: “homicidal” (miaiphónos), “man-slayer” (androphónos), “plague of the mortals” (brotoloigós), “destructive” (aídēlos), etc. None of these presents him in a favorable light.
The discordance goes further, and is shown in another relationship. Whereas krátos is used exclusively of gods and men, kraterós can also be applied to animals and things, and the sense is always “hard, cruel, violent.” The poet calls the lion kraterós, not because of its courage, but because it brings on the hind and her young an “outrageous fate” (Od. 4, 335). Entering the hind’s lair, it seizes her young “with its krateroí teeth” (Il. 11, 114, cf. 175). Battle (husmínē), and discord (éris) also receive this epithet and in the most illuminating contexts: éris kraterḗ linked with homoíios ptólemos ‘cruel(?) combat’ (13, 358), and kraterḕ husminē with the adjectives argaléē polúdakrus ‘grievous (battle), which causes so many tears’ (17, 543). Of great significance is, further, the use of kraterós with the names of sufferings or maladies. The sense of the adjective is unmistakable when it is applied to hélkos ‘wound’ (hélkos karterón, Il. 16, 517; 523), if we note that the other epithets are “painful” (argaléos), “mournful” (lugrós), “evil” (kakós). The same is true of the combination with álgea ‘sufferings’ in the expression which had become a cliché kratér’ álgea páskhōn ‘suffering grievous pains’ (2, 721); with pénthos ‘grief’ in krateròn pénthosviolent grief’ (11, 249); with anágkē ‘necessity’ in kraterḕ anágkē ‘brutal destiny’ (6, 458); with desmós ‘bond’: dē̂san kraterō̂i enì desmō̂i ‘they bound him with a brutal bond’ (5, 386). We may note, further, the phrase karterà érga ‘painful things’ in the complaint of the wounded Ares to Zeus: “Zeû páter, ou nemesízēi horō̂n táde karterà érga, which may be translated “Father Zeus, are you not indignant when you see all these horrors?” (5, 782, cf. 757). We are indeed far from the laudatory use of kraterós. Further, kraterós has the sense “hard” when it enters into the compound kraterō̂nux ‘(wolf, lion, horse) with hard claws or hoofs’: the same sense can be seen figuratively in the phrase krateròs mûthos ‘a hard, wounding saying’, where it was observed in ancient times that here kraterós was equivalent to sklērós ‘hard’.
The two senses of kraterós thus distinguished in Homer can be found also in Hesiod, sometimes in the same expressions: the sense is favorable when it accompanies amúmōn ‘without flaw’ (Theog. 1013), and unfavorable when it is applied to Ares, slayer of men (Shield 98; 101), a serpent (Th. 322), the Erinyes (Th. 185), Echidna “of the violent heart” (karteróphrōn, Th. 297), etc. Here, too, we find the material sense of “hard” for kraterós when it is applied to iron (sídēros kraterṓtatos, Th. 864) and to steel (Works 147).
We now consider the nominal forms based on the stem kratai-. The adjective krataiós is the epithet of a number of persons, and also of Destiny (moîra krataiḗ), and of the lion. Here it could be taken in either sense. But the choice is restricted in the compounds: krataípedos certainly means “with a hard ground,” krataigúalos ‘(a cuirass) with a solid plate’; and kartaípous (krataípous), which is mainly post-Homeric, is an epithet of mules “with hard hoofs” and resembles in sense the epithet khalkópous ‘(horses) with hoofs of bronze’ (Il. 8, 41).
Finally we have the adjective kratús, which is constant in the formula kratùs Argeïphóntēs, and is to be understood in the sense “hard.” This sense is supported by the denominative verb kratúnein ‘make hard’, which in Homer describes the maneuvers of the phalanx. The order of battle forms “in serried ranks, dark and bristling with shields and spears” (4, 282). It presents a continuous and compact front. From this comes the choice of figures, which are all material, depicting the phalanx as a solid and metallic body: the phalanx is “broken,” “cut into” (16, 394); one “knocks” against the compact phalanxes (13, 45) or “makes them hard” (ekartúnanto phalággas 11, 215). This is also the sense of kartúnein in Classical Greek, for instance in Hippocrates, for the “hardening” of the bones, or in Xenophon in the following passage: whereas the other Greeks “soften” (hapalúnousi) the feet of their children by giving them shoes, the Spartans “harden” (kratúnousi) the feet of their own children by making them walk barefoot (The Republic of the Lacedaemonians, II, 3). It is worth stressing the gap between this use of kratúnein ‘to harden’, based on kratús, and kratúnein ‘to govern’ (found in tragedy), which was a secondary formation based on krateîn ‘exercise power’.
We must, therefore, take note of a peculiar semantic situation which has been brought out by our investigations and has hitherto passed unnoticed: the lexical family with krátos as its focus is not homogeneous. It is divided into two distinct groups which can be characterized separately.
(1) The first is distinguished by the physical or moral notion of “superiority,” of “advantage” in battle or in the assembly: krátos. From this there develops a whole series of terms with a moral or political reference, which contain the idea of “power” as an individual attribute (egkratḗs, akratḗs, ‘who is’ or ‘who is not master of himself’) or “power” in a territorial or political sense: krateîn ‘be master, have authority’, with numerous derivatives and compounds in –krátēs, –krátōr, –kráteia etc., as well as the comparative and superlative kreíssōn, krátistos. What gives unity to this development is the idea of political “authority,” both individual and collective.
(2) The second group proceeds from the physical notion of “hard” (as opposed to “soft”): kratús, kartúnein ‘harden’; kratai– ‘hard’. This is the only sense which it has, either literally or figuratively: “brutal, cruel, painful.” It never acquires a social or political value and it has unfavorable connotations.
These are two different semantic domains. Between them lies the field of the adjective kraterós, which, as we saw, has uses which belong to both fields. Some belong with krátos and indicate possession of authority; others are attached to kratús ‘hard’ and qualify things such as wounds, maladies or discord as “painful, hard, brutal.” We should not blur this distinction by translating kraterós as “strong.” Such tricks of translation simply obscure the problem. It has already been shown that kraterós does not mean “strong.” A supplementary proof is that this adjective may, without pleonasm, qualify ís “physical strength”: kraterḕ ìs Odusē̂os ‘the rude vigor of Odysseus’ (Il. 23, 720). For the time being we rest content with the conclusion that in these uses of kraterós there coexist without confusion the two notions which the other terms in krat– enable us to distinguish: on the one hand the abstract notion of “superiority, domination” and on the other the physical quality “hard.”
Now it so happens that this distinction which we have elicited by the analysis of its uses and confrontations of senses within Greek itself finds outside Greek its justification in etymological correspondences. Hitherto comparatists have sought the correspondents of the family of krátos in two directions: on the one hand in Got. hardus and on the other in I-Ir. kratu-. But the majority of scholars feel bound to opt for one or the other of these alternatives. They hesitate to accept both because of the great disparity of sense. No one has ventured to question the interpretation of Greek krátos as “force, strength.” Herein lies the error. It now appears that by restoring to the Greek forms their authentic sense we can give a new slant to the etymological problem.
The Gothic adjective hardus means “hard” just like German hart, English hard. It translates the Greek sklērós ‘hard’, and austērós ‘severe, rough’. From it comes the adverb harduba ‘in a hard way’, the compound harduhairtei ‘hardness of heart’, Gr. ‘sklērokardía’ and the verb gahardjan ‘harden’, Gr. ‘sklērúnein’. We can see now that in every respect Gothic hardus ‘hard’ from *kartu– corresponds exactly to Gr. kratús ‘hard’, kartúnein (from *kartu– or *kr̥tu-). It is the same adjectival form with the same meaning, since Gr. kratús and kratúnein mean “hard” in a physical sense.
Quite different is the semantic sphere of Vedic krátu-, Avestan xratu-. This substantive designates an intellectual and spiritual quality, the “power” of the spirit, of ardor, inspiration, which animates the warrior, the poet, or the believer. It is a complex notion [1] which was enriched and refined by later speculation.
Here it will suffice to note the evident connection of the Indo-Iranian kratu-, restored to its original meaning, with the Homeric krátos, which always indicates the notion of “superiority.” In both areas it is a substantive and no longer an adjective. Only in its formation is there a slight difference (masculine in –u in I-Ir., neuter in –es in Greek). But the conceptual nucleus is the same.
We do not believe that it is possible to combine these two groups into a single whole. They must come from two distinct roots, though they were very similar in form, if not actually identical, in Indo-European. We distinguish therefore: (1) an adjective meaning “hard” represented by Gr. kratús, etc., and Got. hardus; (2) a substantive denoting “power,” “superiority” which is represented by I-Ir. kratu– and by the Greek krátos. It will be noted that in Germanic the forms Germ. hart and Engl. hard never developed a moral or political sense and, further, that in Indo-Iranian the forms of kratu– never show the slightest connection with the idea of “hard.” This fact alone brings out the disparity noted above within Greek between kratús ‘hard’ and krátos, krateîn ‘dominate’. But the adjective kraterós brought about a contamination between the two families. On the one hand it provided a doublet (on the model of iskhurós, sthenarós) to kratús, with the sense “hard, cruel, painful,” and on the other hand it provided krátos with an adjective signifying “provided with authority.”
The notion of krátos thus finds its proper definition and, at the same time, its Indo-European correspondence. In this way we lay the foundations for a study of this concept in the epic. It will fall to Hellenists to follow the evolution of the term in the political vocabulary of post-Homeric Greek, in which it so richly proliferated.


[ back ] 1. Analyzed in detail by K. Rönnow, Le Monde Oriental, XXVI, 1932, 1-90. The studies that have appeared since are reviewed by L. Renou, Etudes védiques et paninéennes, III, 1957, p. 59; IV, 1958, p. 18.