A picture tells a thousand words, they say. The Greeks set sail on a thousand ships for Troy.
Why a thousand? Why not a hundred? Why not a million? Why did Homer want there to be a thousand ships sailing out of Greece, carrying Agamemnon, Menelaus, Ajax, Achilles, Odysseus, and Nestor? Why must a picture tell a thousand words? Why does the number “thousand” have such a deep impact on our imaginations? A popular song goes:
“But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
Just to be the man who walked a thousand miles
To fall down at your door.”
We’ve gone beyond a thousand these days. A start-up company is evaluated in millions, Bill Gates is worth billions, the US national debt is in trillions. A thousand dollars isn’t chump change, but it’s hardly a lot of money. You don’t even get a good macbook for one.
And yet, it remains romantic to a poet. “A thousand worries were etched across her brow as she turned to face him.” Try replacing thousand with million in that sentence. It breaks the metre. It breaks the style. It sounds plebian, as a friend of mine would say.
A thousand is a believable exaggerated number. Did the Greeks really sail to Troy in a thousand ships? All accounts of the port they sailed from tell us that it wasn’t big enough to hold that many. But for Homer, whose poetry manages to narrate a story more sublime than a thousand pictures, it had to be that many. The heroes of legend couldn’t go with anything less.