Chariots on the Lelantine plain and the art of taunting the losers, Part 1: Riding into the reenactment

2018.05.17 | By Natasha Bershadsky

§0. This inquiry reconstructs the role of chariots in ancient Greek ritual reenactments of primordial battles fought over the Lelantine plain on the island of Euboea from ca. 750 to 506 BCE (the so-called “Lelantine War”). It also considers the possibility of a homoerotic connection between the Euboean charioteers and apobatai, operating in the framework of their progression toward full adulthood.

§1. I start this exploration with two verses of Theognis:

ἀλλ’ αἰσχρὸν παρεόντα καὶ ὠκυπόδων ἐπιβάντα
ἵππων μὴ πόλεμον δακρυόεντ’ ἐσιδεῖν.

But it would be shameful, being present, not to mount swift-footed
horses and look the dolorous war in the face.

Theognis 889–890

These verses are part of a poem consisting of five couplets (Theognis 885–894).[1] I have argued elsewhere that the last four verses of that poem (Theognis 891–894), lamenting the change of the political regime and the devastation of the Lelantine plain, refer to the Athenian conquest of Chalcis in 506 BCE.[2] According to my reading, the preceding verses recall more decorous times—the epoch when the violence in the Lelantine plain was confined to ritual confrontations between young aristocrats of Eretria and Chalcis and their elite allies from other cities. The poem dramatizes a conversation between such prospective non-local participants, one of whom lightheartedly advises:

Μηδὲ λίην κήρυκος ἀν’ οὖς ἔχε μακρὰ βοῶντος·

And don’t exceedingly give ear to the loud cry of the herald,
for we are not fighting for the land of our fathers.

Theognis 887–888

A more somber voice answers that it would be dishonorable not to participate in the war while being present at the site of the action. I understand πόλεμον δακρυόεντ’ to refer to ritual strife between Eretria and Chalcis for the possession of a part of the Lelantine plain.

§2. The detail on which I focus in this inquiry is a reference to horses, ὠκυπόδων ἐπιβάντα | ἵππων (Theognis 889–890). In what follows I trace appearances of horses and chariots in the myths and rituals of the Lelantine War.

Horses in the Plain

§3. The elites of Eretria were called hippeis; in Chalcis the term for the upper class was hippobotai (Herodotus 5.77.2–3, Aristotle Politics 1306a, Athenian Constitution 15.2; Strabo 10.1.8).[3] Aristotle states that these aristocrats used horses in wars between Eretria and Chalcis:

καὶ τῶν γνωρίμων εἰσὶ διαφοραὶ καὶ κατὰ τὸν πλοῦτον καὶ τὰ μεγέθη τῆς οὐσίας, οἷον ἱπποτροφίας (τοῦτο γὰρ οὐ ῥᾴδιον μὴ πλουτοῦντας ποιεῖν· διόπερ ἐπὶ τῶν ἀρχαίων χρόνων ὅσαις πόλεσιν ἐν τοῖς ἵπποις ἡ δύναμις ἦν, ὀλιγαρχίαι παρὰ τούτοις ἦσαν· ἐχρῶντο δὲ πρὸς τοὺς πολέμους ἵπποις πρὸς τοὺς ἀστυγείτονας οἷον Ἐρετριεῖς καὶ Χαλκιδεῖς καὶ Μάγνητες οἱ ἐπὶ Μαιάνδρῳ καὶ τῶν ἄλλων πολλοὶ περὶ τὴν Ἀσίαν)·

And the upper classes have distinctions also, corresponding to their wealth and the amounts of their property (for example in the keeping of horses—for it is not easy to rear horses without being rich, and this is why in ancient times there were oligarchies in all the states whose strength lay in their cavalry, and they used to use horses for their wars against their neighbors, as for instance did the Eretrians and Chalcidians and the people of Magnesia on the Maeander and many of the other Asiatic peoples).[4]

Aristotle Politics 1289b

§4. In addition, we have Plutarch’s cameo depicting the Chalcidians being concerned about the strength of the Eretrian cavalry, so they invite the Thessalian Cleomachus to lead the cavalry attack. Cleomachus’ assault throws the Eretrian cavalry into disarray, and the Chalcidian hoplites also gain an upper hand (Plutarch The Dialogue on Love 760e4–761a1).

§5. It is difficult to know precisely how to interpret Aristotle’s and Plutarch’s testimonies. I have reconstructed the Archaic ritual confrontations between Eretria and Chalcis as taking the form of close combat on foot.[5] However, is it not surprising to learn that the elites, whose core identities derived from their association with horses, used horses in wars.[6] Perhaps the ritual battles took multiple forms; the format could also have changed over time. On the other hand, both Aristotle and Plutarch wrote when cavalries were well developed, while the existence of cavalries in the Archaic period is unlikely: it has been proposed that at the time the use of horses was limited to hoplites riding into battle.[7] Thus Plutarch’s account may simply show the flexibility of story-making, in which new narrative elements could be introduced at a later date.

§6. My way out of this incertainty is to look for references to horses in the myths and rituals associated with the Lelantine war. Consistent patterns in such references will help us to gauge the symbolic value of horses in the confrontations between Eretria and Chalcis; they may also give us clues about ways in which horses were actually employed in these ritual confrontations.

The chariots and the Curetes

§7. Let me return to Theognis’ poem. The expression ἐπιβάντα ἵππων can refer to mounting a chariot.[8] Compare, for example, an episode from the Iliad, where Hector’s charioteer is killed and Hector finds a substitute driver:

                                                        αἶψα γὰρ εὗρεν
Ἰφιτίδην Ἀρχεπτόλεμον θρασύν, ὅν ῥα τόθ’ ἵππων
ὠκυπόδων ἐπέβησε, δίδου δέ οἱ ἡνία χερσίν.

                                                        for he presently found
brave Archeptolemus, the son of Iphitus, and made him get up
behind the horses, giving the reins into his hand.[9]

Iliad 8.127–129

Thus, we can interpret Theognis’ poem as an indication that a warrior’s participation in the strife for the Lelantine Plain was (at least in some cases) preceded by his mounting a chariot.

§8. Strabo famously describes a stele in the sanctuary of Artemis Amarynthia:

τὴν δὲ δύναμιν τὴν Ἐρετριέων ἣν ἔσχον ποτὲ μαρτυρεῖ ἡ στήλη, ἣν ἀνέθεσάν ποτε ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ τῆς Ἀμαρυνθίας Ἀρτέμιδος· γέγραπται δ’ ἐν αὐτῇ τρισχιλίοις μὲν ὁπλίταις ἑξακοσίοις δ’ ἱππεῦσιν ἑξήκοντα δ’ ἅρμασι ποιεῖν τὴν πομπήν·

As for the power the Eretrians once had, this is evidenced by the stele, which they once set up in the temple of Artemis Amarynthia. It was inscribed upon it that they made their festal procession with three thousand heavy-armed soldiers, six hundred horsemen, and sixty chariots.

Strabo 10.1.10[10]

The date of the stele is unclear;[11] nevertheless, the information about the practice of parading sixty chariots in a festival procession (probably at the festival of Artemisia)[12] is extremely interesting, especially since the sanctuary is associated with the tradition of the Lelantine War.[13] Recently a miniature bronze wheel inscribed with a dedicant’s name has been discovered at the same sanctuary of Artemis Amarynthia.[14] That wheel, similar to inscribed Archaic bronze chariot wheels from the Museum of Fine Arts (35.61) and the British Museum (1880, 1211.1), dates to the middle of the seventh century BCE and provides an enticing link between the sanctuary and the pursuit of chariot-driving already in the Archaic period.

§9. The presence of chariots in a festival procession brings the heroic past alive. I have argued that the ritual battles of the Lelantine War did precisely the same: the participants reenacted the primordial strife of the bronze-armed Curetes over the Lelantine plain.[15] Remarkably, four-horse chariots are in fact connected with the myth depicting the genesis of the Curetes.[16] According to Zenobius, the earth of Chalcis once sprouted chariots:

ἐπειδὴ Χαλκίδα τῆς Εὐβοίας πόλιν φασὶ ποτὲ ἀνθῆσαι δόρασί τε καὶ πλήθει τετρώρων ἁρμάτων.

For they say that the Euboean city Chalcis once blossomed with spears and a multitude of four-horse chariots.

Zenobius 6.50

§10. A variant of the myth that Zenobius reports immediately afterwards describes the nymph Chalcis generating bronze arms and armor and giving birth to a hundred children, that is, the Curetes. The parallelism of the two myths suggests that the Curetes and the chariots were parts of the same myth-ritual complex. That is to say, the reenactments of the Curetes’ strife involved chariot riding, the endeavor referred to by Theognis’ poem.

§11. A practice of having a group of choice warriors fighting on foot while conceptually associated with chariots existed at Thebes, where, as Diodorus reports, there was a unit of three hundred select warriors, who were called hēniokhoi ‘charioteers’ and paraibatai ‘those who stand beside [the charioteers]’ (ἡνίοχοι καὶ παραβάται, Diodorus Siculus 12.70.1). Diodorus describes this corps fighting on foot in the front rank in the battle of Delium in 424 BCE. While it is clear that the Theban unit of three hundred had its own history of transformations, which I am going to explore in a different project,[17] the parallel between the Euboean and the Theban situations supports the validity of my present reconstruction. An additional interesting feature is the prominence of homoerotic associations in the case of the Theban unit, namely, the traditions describing the Sacred Band (an iteration of the group of three hundred select Theban warriors) as consisting of pairs of lovers.[18] Once again, the dense tangle of Theban myth-history needs to be investigated at length;[19] however, the motif of homoerotic connection between the apobatai and the charioteers casts new light on the high profile of pederasty in the Chalcidian lore,[20] and especially on its link with andreia, manliness, attested in a Chalcidian song reported by Aristotle (via Plutarch The Dialogue on Love 761a–b). We can hypothesize that a homoerotic relationship within pairs of young Chalcidians, who eventually acted as apobatai and charioteers, played a part in their progression toward full adulthood.[21]

§12. A further fascinating piece of evidence is a Late Geometric amphora from Eretria, bearing on its neck a representation of an apobatic race (fig. 1).[22]

Figure 1. Fragment of a Late Geometric I amphora from Eretria.
Figure 1. Fragment of a Late Geometric I amphora from Eretria. Museum of Eretria, inv. 16089. Drawing by Natasha Bershadsky.

The apobatic race has long been linked with heroic chariot fighting, especially as pictured by Homeric poetry.[23] Moreover, in the medium of Athenian vase painting, Achilles’ dragging of Hector’s body around Patroclus’ tomb and his leap from the chariot at the moment of his change of heart has been shown to provide an aetiology of the Athenian apobatic contest.[24] A parallel aetiology, also attested in Athenian vase painting, portrays Athena, driven by Erichthonius, as the first apobatēs.[25] Given the referential quality of the apobatic contests, invoking its larger-than-life predecessors,[26] and given our evidence of the chariots’ presence in the myth-ritual complex of the Lelantine war, it is appealing to interpret the apobatic friezes on the Eretrian Geometric amphora as belonging to the same complex, representing a step in a ritual reenactment of the Curetes’ struggles.[27]

§13. A Late Geometric vase fragment from Lefkandi (fig. 2) also evokes a nexus of themes that figure in the traditions about the Lelantine war.

Figure 2. Fragment of a Late Geometric crater from Lefkandi.
Figure 2. Fragment of a Late Geometric crater from Lefkandi. Museum of Eretria, inv. 16635. Drawing by Natasha Bershadsky.

It shows two characters, a bigger and a smaller one. Both are armed with swords, but the bigger one also has a helmet. The bigger figure leads the smaller one by the hand; the smaller one leads a horse. Susan Langdon insightfully described the pair as “an adult guiding the youth into the ways of the warrior”;[28] however, I would like to modify her categorization of the pair as a father and a son. Perhaps we can rather identify them as an apobatēs—or paraibatēs—and a charioteer, and probably also as an erastēs and erōmenos.[29]


Bershadsky, Natasha. 2013. Pushing the Boundaries of Myth: Transformations of Ancient Border Wars in Archaic and Classical Greece. PhD diss., University of Chicago.

———. 2018. “Impossible Memories of the Lelantine War.” Mètis 16:191–213.

Brelich, Angelo. 1961. Guerre, Agoni e Culti Nella Grecia Arcaica. Bonn.

Butler, Samuel. 1898. The Iliad of Homer rendered into English prose for the use of those who cannot read the original. Cambridge.

Coldstream, John Nicolas. 1981. “Some Peculiarities of the Euboean Geometric Figured Style.” Annuario della Scuola Archeologica di Atene e delle Missioni Italiane in Oriente 59:241–249.

Crielaard, J. P. 2016. “Living Heroes: Metal Urn Cremations in Early Iron Age Greece, Cyprus and Italy.” In Omero: Quaestiones disputata, ed. F. Gallo, 43–78. Milan.

Crouwel, Joost H. 1992. Chariots and Other Wheeled Vehicles in Iron Age Greece. Amsterdam.

Crowther, Nigel. 1991. “The Apobates Reconsidered (Demosthenes lxi 23–9).” Journal of Hellenic Studies 111:174–176.

De Fuijk, Iris. 2015. “A Miniature Bronze Wheel-Shaped Object from the Plakari Hill in Southern Euboea, Greece.” Kleos 1:8–23.

Fehr, Burkhard. 2011. Becoming Good Democrates and Wives: Civic Education and Female Socialization on the Parthenon Frieze. Zurich.

Gardiner, E. N. 1910. Greek Athletic Sports and Festivals. London.

Greenhalgh, Peter A. 1973. Early Greek Warfare: Horsemen and Chariots in the Homeric and Archaic Ages. Cambridge.

Harrison, Ernest. 1902. Studies in Theognis, Together with a Text of the Poems. Cambridge.

Howe, Timothy. 2008. Pastoral Politics: Animals, Agriculture, and Society in Ancient Greece. Claremont.

Jones, Horace Leonard. 1924. The Geography of Strabo. Cambridge, MA.

Knoepfler, Denis. 1988. “Sur les traces de l’Artémision d’Amarynthos près d’Érétrie.” Comptes-rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 132:382–421.

Langdon, Susan. 2008. Art and Identity in Dark Age Greece, 1100–700 B.C.E. Cambridge.

Leitao, David. 2002. “The Legend of the Sacred Band.” In The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome, ed. Martha Craven Nussbaum and Juha Sihvola, 143–169. Chicago.

Ma, John. 2008. “Chaironeia 338: Topographies of Commemoration.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 128:72–91.

Nagy, Gregory. 2005. “An Apobatic Moment for Achilles as Athlete at the Festival of the Panathenaia.” Imeros 5:311–317.

———. 2009. “An Apobatic Moment for Achilles as Athlete at the Festival of the Panathenaia.” Washington, DC.

———. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge, MA.

Rackham, H. 1944. Aristotle. The Politics. Cambridge, MA.

Reber, Karl. 1999. “Apobaten auf einem geometrischen Amphorenhals.” Antike Kunst 42:126–141.

Reber, Karl et al. 2015. “Bericht über die Aktivitäten der Schweizerischen Archäologischen Shule in Griechenland 2014.” Antike Kunst 58:129–152, pl. 22–23.

Ringwood, Irene C. 1929. “Local Festivals of Euboea, Chiefly from Inscriptional Evidence.”American Journal of Archaeology 33:385–392.

Rombos, Theodora. 1988. The Iconography of Attic Late Geometric II Pottery. Jonsered.

Rystedt, Eva. 1999. “No Words, Only Pictures: Iconography in the Transition Between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age in Greece.” Opuscula Atheniensia 24:89–98.

Scanlon, Thomas. 2018.03.26. “Achilles and the Apobates Race in Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Aulis.” Classical Inquiries.

Schultz, Peter. 2007. “The Iconography of the Athenian ApobatesRace: Origins, Meanings, Transformations.” In The Panathenaic Games, ed. Olga Palagia and Alkestis Choremi-Spetsieri, 59–72. Oxford.

Shear, J. L. 2001. Polis and Panathenaia: The History of Development of Athena’s Festival. PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania.

Simon, Pascal, and Samuel Verdan. 2014. “Hippotrophia: Chevaux et élites eubéennes à la période Géométrique.” Antike Kunst 57:3–24.

Vetta, Massimo. 2000. “Teognide e anonimi nella Silloge teognidea.” In La letteratura pseudepigrafa nella cultura greca e romana, ed. Giovanni Cerri, 123–141. Naples.

Walker, Keith G. 2004. Archaic Eretria: A Political and Social History from the Earliest Times to 490 BC. London.


[1] Vetta 2000:133–134; Walker 2004:213; Bershadsky 2013:144–150, 154; the suggestion that Theognis 885–894 is a poetic unit is already in Harrison 1902:289.

[2] Bershadsky 2013:158–160; Bershadsky 2018; see also Harrison 1902:294, Vetta2000:136.

[3] On the hippotrophia of the Euboean elites in the Geometric period, see Simon and Verdan 2014. One index of the importance of the horses for the Euboean aristocracy is the centrality of the horse motif on the Euboean Late Geometric vases, observed by Coldstream 1981; see recently Simon and Verdan 2014:5–6.

[4] Translation by Rackham 1944, modified.

[5] Bershadsky 2013:108–110; Bershadsky 2018.

[6] According to my reconstruction, the disputed territory in the Lelantine plain also served as a pasture for the victors’ horses. Bershadsky 2013:139; 2018, with reference to Howe 2008:83; on the Lelantine plain as a land superbly suited for horse-grazing see also Simon and Verdan 2014:17.

[7] Greenhalgh 1973:91–93; Crouwel 1992:102–103.

[8] I am grateful to Gregory Nagy for this suggestion.

[9] Translation by Butler 1898. Other instances in which ἐπιβαίνω+ ἵππων refers to stepping on a chariot’s platform are Iliad 5.46, 5.255, 5.328, 16.343.

[10] Translation by Jones 1924, modified.

[11] Knoepfler 1988:387 believes that the stele predates the Persian wars.

[12] Ringwood 1929:386; Brelich 1961:18–19; Knoepfler 1988:387; Walker 2004:34–35.

[13] Strabo 10.1.12; Brelich 1961:18.

[14] Reber et al. 2015:145–146, fig. 17. On a similar wheel from Euboea, with useful comparanda and discussion, see de Fuijk 2015.

[15] Bershadsky 2013:110–111; Bershadsky 2018.

[16] I am grateful to Gregory Nagy for drawing my attention to this key detail.

[17] One element of the puzzle is the Theban Sacred Band, which Ma 2008:83 evocatively described as a ‘site of memory’, lieu de mémoire.

[18] The principal source is Plutarch Pelopides 18–19. For the list of other ancient sources mentioning an erotic Sacred Band, and for references to relevant Theban traditions—for example, that the lover presented the beloved with a suit of armor—see Leitao 2002:145–146.

[19] See the analysis of Leitao 2002.

[20] According to Hesychius s.v. χαλκιδίζειν, the verb meant ‘to be a lover of boys,’ because of the frequency of the pederastic practice in Chalcis.

[21] On philia between the Athenian apobatai and their chariot-drivers, as represented on the Parthenon frieze, see Fehr 2011:56–63.

[22] Reber 1999:133–140. For examination of apobatic motifs on Attic Late Geometric vases, see Rombos 1988:116–121; Crouwel 1992:56. The Eretrian apobatic amphora probably served originally as an aristocratic grave-marker. Reber 1999:141.

[23] “Pseudo”-Demosthenes 61.25; Gardiner 1910:237; Crowther 1991:175; Nagy 2013:219–223,7C§4–7D§5,

[24] Nagy 2005; Nagy 2009; Nagy 2013:223–234, 7E§1–7G§5; 240–241, 8§13–8§17; see also Scanlon 2018, and his note 2 for additional literature on the apobatēs contest.

[25] Nagy 2013:217–218, 7C§1–3; Shear 2001:305, 529; Schultz 2007.

[26] See also Rystedt 1999:94–98, arguing for a continuity of apobatic games from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age.

[27] The cultural climate of Protogeometric Lefkandi and Geometric Eretria, with their exceptional heroic burials paralleled in the Homeric epics, appears to be a superbly suitable milieu for embracing a concept of reenactment of the heroic past. On the metal urn cremations in Lefkandi and Eretria, see Crielaard 2016.

[28] Langdon 2008:247. Simon and Verdan 2014:20 emphasize the significance of the horse on that fragment, reflecting the key role of horses as “educational implements” in the formation of a Euboean warrior.

[29] The difference of size between the small charioteer and the looming apobatēs finds a parallel, for example, in depictions of a warrior mounting a chariot, while his charioteer holds the reins, on an Attic Late Geometric II fragment (Kerameikos K 2 (cat. no 185), Rombos 1988:121, pl. 27a). Compare also similar representations on two late Archaic Attic grave markers (Metropolitan Museum of Art 38.11.13, and National Archaeological Museum in Athens 3477).