Herbert Weir Smyth [n.d.], A Greek Grammar for Colleges; Machine readable text [info] [word count] [Smyth].
Previous SubSect

Next SubSect


The imperfect represents an action as still going on, or a state as still existing, in the past: Κῦρος οὔπω ἧκεν, ἀλλ' ἔτι προσήλαυνε Cyrus had not yet arrived ( cross1886), but was still marching on X. A. 1.5.12, ἐβασίλευεν Ἀντίοχος Antiochus was reigning T. 2.80. The conclusion of the action is usually to be inferred from the context.


Imperfect of Continuance.—The imperfect thus represents an action as continuing in the past: διέφθειραν Ἀθηναίων πίντε καὶ εἴκοσι,

-- 424 --

οἳ ξυνεπολιορκοῦντο they put to death twenty-five of the Athenians who were besieged (i.e. from the beginning to the end of the siege) T. 3.68.


The imperfect of verbs of sending, going, saying, exhorting, etc., which imply continuous action, is often used where we might expect the aorist of concluded action. Thus, in ἔπεμπον, the action is regarded as unfinished since the goal is not reached: ἄγγελον ἔπεμπον καὶ τοὺς νεκροὺς ὑποσπόνδους ἀπέδοσαν they sent a messenger and surrendered the dead under a truce T. 2.6. In ἐκέλευον gave orders, urged, requested the command, etc., is regarded as not yet executed. In ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς τοιάδε he spoke to them as follows X. H. 1.6.4 (followed by the speech and ἐπεὶ δὲ ταῦτ' εἶπεν 1. 6. cross12) the speech is not thought of as a finished whole, but as developed point by point, as in ἐπἐιδὴ δὲ οὗτος ταῦτα ἔλεγεν, ἔλεξα but when he had said this, I said Ant. 6.21.

a. In messenger's speeches the speaker may go back to the time of receiving a command: ἰέναι σ' ἐκέλευον οἱ στρατηγοὶ τήμερον the generals order you to depart to-day Ar. Ach. 1073.


The imperfect, when accompanied by an expression of past time, is used of actions which had been in progress for some time and were still in progress (cp. cross1885): τὸ Πήγιον ἐπὶ πολὺν χρόνον ἐστασίαζε Rhegium had been for a long time in a state of faction T. 4.1. If the action is regarded as completed the pluperfect is used.


Imperfect of Customary Action.—The imperfect is used to express frequently repeated or customary past actions: ἐπεὶ εἶδον αὐτὸν οἵπερ πρόσθεν προσεκύνουν, καὶ τότε προσεκύνησαν when they caught sight of him, the very men who before this were wont to prostrate themselves before him, prostrated themselves on this occasion also X. A. 1.6.10, (Σωκράτης) τοὺς ἑαυτοῦ ἐπιθυ_μοῦντας οὐκ ἐπρά_ττετο χρήματα Socrates was not in the habit of demanding money from those who were passionately attached to him X. M. 1.2.5. See also cross2340.

a. The repetition of a simple act in the past is expressed by πολλάκις with the aorist ( cross1930).


Iterative Imperfect.—ἄν may be used with this imperfect ( cross1790): ἐπεθύ_μει ἄν τις ἔτι πλείω αὐτοῦ ἀκούειν people would (used to) desire to hear still more from him X. C. 1.4.3.


Conative Imperfect.—The imperfect may express an action attempted, intended, or expected, in the past.

ἔπειθον αὐτούς, καὶ οὓς ἔπεισα, τούτους ἔχων ἐπορευόμην I tried to persuade them, and I marched away with those whom I succeeded in persuading X. C. 5.5.22, Ἁλόννησον ἐδίδου· ὁ δ' ἀπηγόρευε μὴ λαμβάνειν Philip offered (proposed to give) Halonnesus, but he (Demosthenes) dissuaded them from accepting it Aes. 3.83, Θηβαῖοι κατεδουλοῦντ' αὐτούς the Thebans tried to enslave them D. 8.74, ἠπείγοντο ἐς τὴν Κέρκυ_ραν they were for pushing on to Corcyra T. 4.3.

a. Here may be placed the imperfect equivalent in sense to ἔμελλον with the infinitive. Thus, φονεὺς οὖν αὐτῶν ἐγιγνόμην ἐγὼ μὴ εἰπὼν ὑ_υῖν ἃ ἤκουσα. ἔτι δὲ τρια_κοσίους Ἀθηναίων ἀπώλλυον I was on the point of becoming their murderer

-- 425 --

(interfecturus eram) had I not told you what I heard. And besides I threatened three hundred Athenians with death And. 1.58. So ἀπωλλύμην I was threatened with death.


Imperfect of Resistance or Refusal.—With a negative, the imperfect often denotes resistance or refusal (would not or could not). The aorist with a negative denotes unrestricted denial of a fact.

τὴν πρόκλησιν οὐκ ἐδέχεσθε you would not accept the proposal T. 3.64 (τὴν ἱκετεία_ν οὐκ ἐδέξαντο they did not receive the supplication 1. cross24), ὁ μὲν οὐκ ἐγάμει, ὁ δὲ ἔγημεν the one would not marry, the other did D. 44.17, οὐδὲ φωνὴν ἤκουον, εἴ τις ἄλλο τι βούλοιτο λέγειν they would not even listen to a syllable if ever any one wished to say anything to the contrary D. 18.43. So οὐκ εἴα_ he would not allow (he was not for allowing).


If simple positive and negative are contrasted, the aorist is preferred with the latter: τὰ ὑπάρχοντά τε σῴζειν (positive with present) καὶ ἐπιγνῶναι μηδέν (negative with aorist) to preserve what you have, and to form no new plans T. 1.70. But where the verb itself contains or implies a negative idea, the present is used: παρεῖναι καὶ μὴ ἀποδημεῖν to be present and not to be abroad Aes. 2.59.


Imperfect of Description.—The imperfect describes manners and customs; the situation, circumstances, and details, of events; and the development of actions represented as continuing in past time.

ἐκεῖνός τε τοὺς ὑφ' ἑαυτῷ ὥσπερ ἑαυτοῦ παῖδας ἐτί_μα_, οἵ τε ἀρχόμενοι Κῦρον ὡς πατέρα ἐσέβοντο he (Cyrus) treated his subjects with honour as if they were his own children, and his subjects reverenced Cyrus like a father X. C. 8.8.2, εὐθὺς ἀνεβόησάν τε πάντες καὶ προσπεσόντες ἐμάχοντο, ἐώθουν, ἐωθοῦντο, ἔπαιον, ἐπαίοντο immediately all raised a shout and falling upon each other fought, pushed and were pushed, struck and were struck 7. 1. 38, ἐπεὶ δὲ ταῦτα ἐρρήθη, ἐπορεύοντο· τῶν δὲ ἀπαντώντων οἱ μὲν ἀπέθνῃσκον, οἱ δὲ ἔφευγον πάλιν εἴσω, οἱ δὲ ἐβόων and when these words had been spoken, they proceeded to advance; and of those who met them some were killed, others fled back indoors, and others shouted 7. 5. 26, ἐστρατήγει δὲ αὐτῶν Ἀριστεύς Aristeus was their commander T. 1.60; cp. X. C. 4.2.28, X. Ag. 2. 12, X. A. 4.3.8-25, Isocr. 1. 9, 7. 51-53, D. 18.169 ff., Aes. 3.192.

N.—The imperfect often has a dramatic or panoramic force: it enables the reader to follow the course of events as they occurred, as if he were a spectator of the scene depicted.


The imperfect is thus often used to explain, illustrate, offer reasons for an action, and to set forth accompanying and subordinate circumstances that explain or show the result of the main action. Descriptive adverbs are often used with the imperfect.

ἐνταῦθα ἔμεινεν ἡμέρα_ς πέντε· καὶ τοῖς στρατιώταις ὠφείλετο μισθὸς πλέον ἢ τριῶν μηνῶν, καὶ πολλάκις ἰόντες ἐπὶ τὰ_ς θύρα_ς ἀπῄτουν· ὁ δὲ ἐλπίδας λέγων διῆγε καὶ δῆλος ἦν ἀνιώμενος there he remained for five days; and the soldiers whose pay was in arrears for more than three months kept going to headquarters and demanding their dues; but he kept expressing his expectation (of making payment) and was plainly annoyed X. A. 1.2.11. See also cross1907 a.

-- 426 --


Inchoative Imperfect.—The imperfect may denote the beginning of an action or of a series of actions: ἐπειδὴ δὲ καιρὸς ἦν, προσέβαλλον but when the proper time arrived, they began an (proceeded to) attack T. 7.51.


Imperfect for Present.—In descriptions of places and scenery and in other statements of existing facts the imperfect, instead of the present, is often used by assimilation to the time of the narrative (usually set forth in the main verb).

ἀφί_κοντο ἐπὶ τὸν ποταμὸν ὃς ὥριζε τὴν τῶν Μακρώνων χώρα_ν καὶ τὴν τῶν Σκυθηνῶν they came to the river which divided the country of the Macrones from that of the Scytheni X. A. 4.8.1, ἐξελαύνει ἐπὶ ποταμὸν πλήρη ἰχθύων, οὓς οἱ Σύροι θεοὺς ἐνόμιζον he marched to a river full of fish, which the Syrians regarded as gods 1. 4. 9.


Imperfect of a Truth Just Recognized.—The imperfect, usually some form of εἶναι, with ἄρα, is often used to denote that a present fact or truth has just been recognized, although true before: οὐδὲν ἄρ' ἦν πρᾶγμα it is, as it appears, no matter after all P. S. 198e, τοῦτ' ἄρ' ἦν ἀληθές this is true after all E. I. T. 351, ἄρα ἠπίστω you know, sure enough X. H. 3.4.9. ἄρα sure enough, after all appears with other tenses (P. Cr. 49a, P. Ph. 61a, D. 19.160).


The imperfect may refer to a topic previously discussed: ἦν ἡ μουσικὴ ἀντίστροφος τῆς γυμναστικῆς εἰ μέμνησαι music is (as we have seen) the counterpart of gymnastics, if you remember the discussion P. R. 522a. This is called the philosophical imperfect.


The epistolary imperfect is rare in Greek. See cross1942 b.


ἔδει, ἐχρῆν.—The imperfect of verbs expressing obligation or duty may refer to present time and imply that the obligation or duty is not fulfilled: σι_γήσα_ς ἡνίκ' ἔδει λέγειν keeping silence when he ought to speak D. 18.189. So with ἐχρῆν it were proper, εἰκὸς ἦν it were fitting ( cross1774). But the imperfect may also express past obligation without denying the action of the infinitive, as ἔδει μένειν he was obliged to remain (and did remain) D. 19.124, ὅπερ ἔδει δεῖξαι quod erat demonstrandum Euclid 1. 5 ( cross1779).


Imperfect for Pluperfect.—The imperfect has the force of the pluperfect in the case of verbs whose present is used in the sense of the perfect ( cross1886).

Thus, ἧκον I had come (rarely I came), ᾠχόμην I had departed, as ἐνί_κων I was victorious, ἡττώμην I was defeated ( cross1752). So (Ὀλύμπια) οἷς Ἀνδροσθένης παγκράτιον ἐνί_κα_ the Olympic games, at which Androsthenes was the victor (= had won) in the pancratium T. 5.49.


In subordinate clauses, the action expressed by the imperfect may be (a) contemporaneous with or (b) antecedent to that set forth by the main verb: (a) τοσοῦτοι ἦσαν οἱ ξύμπαντες ὅτε ἐς τὴν πολιορκία_ν καθί_σταντο this was their total number when they began to be besieged T. 2.78; (b) τὸ πλοῖον ἧκεν, ἐν ᾧ ἐπλέομεν the vessel arrived in which we (had) sailed Ant. 5.29. Greek has no special form to express time that is anterior to the past.

-- 427 --


Imperfect and Aorist.—The imperfect and aorist often occur in the same passage; and the choice of the one or the other often depends upon the manner in which the writer may view a given action. The imperfect may be represented by a line, along which an action progresses; the aorist denotes a point on the line (either starting point or end), or surveys the whole line from beginning to end.

a. The imperfect of ‘continuance’ or ‘duration’ implies nothing as to the absolute length of the action; cp. πάλιν κατὰ τάχος ἐκόμιζε τὴν στρατιά_ν he took the army back as quickly as possible T. 1.114 with κατὰ τάχος ἀνεχώρησε he retreated as quickly as possible 1. 73. The imperfect does not indicate ‘prolonged’ action in contrast to ‘momentary’ action of the aorist.

b. The imperfect puts the reader in the midst of the events as they were taking place, the aorist simply reports that an event took place: ἔπειτα ψι_λοὶ δώδεκα ἀνέβαινον, ὧν ἡγεῖτο Ἀμμέα_ς, καὶ πρῶτος ἀνέβη then twelve light-armed men proceeded to climb up under the leadership of Ammeas, who was the first to mount T. 3.22. Cp. T. 2.49, 3. 15. 1-2, 4. 14, X. H. 4.4.1, I. 5.53-54, 8. 99-100.


The following statement presents the chief differences between imperfect and aorist as narrative tenses.

circumstances, details, course ofmere fact of occurrence, general state-
progress, enduring condition, con-consummation (culmination, final is-
tinued activitysue, summary process)
general descriptionisolated points, characteristic examples
actions subordinate to the mainmain actions, without reference to
actionother actions

Cp. ξυνεστράτευον they served with them in the war, ξυνεστράτευσαν they took the field with them (both in T. 7.57). ἔπειθον I tried to persuade, ἔπεισα I succeeded in persuading (both in X. C. 5.5.22).

Previous SubSect

Next SubSect

Herbert Weir Smyth [n.d.], A Greek Grammar for Colleges; Machine readable text [info] [word count] [Smyth].
Powered by PhiloLogic