The two sides clashed and fought for the entire day. Their forces were so well matched that by nightfall only three warriors were left alive: two Argives and a Spartan. As they outnumbered their enemy, the Argives considered themselves the victor and rushed back home to Argos to tell their compatriots. But the Spartan survivor, whose name was Othryades, stayed at his post and began to strip the enemy of their armour, carrying the spoils back to camp.
A little later, the Spartans and Argives returned to the battlefield. The Argives claimed to have won because their two survivors outnumbered the lone Spartan. But the Spartans said they had won, since unlike the Argives, Othryades hadn’t abandoned his post. The dispute between the two sides flared up and soon devolved into an all-out brawl. Eventually, the Spartans defeated the Argives.
The Battle of the Champions is noteworthy as one of the few known instances of champion combat. It’s impossible to know for sure if the battle was actually ever fought or we should simply consider it an amusing anecdote. It doesn’t quite support the orthodox idea, expounded perhaps most clearly by Victor Davis Hanson (e.g. The Western Way of War), that early hoplite battles were bound by rules. As Hans van Wees has pointed out in his important book Greek Warfare Myths and Realities (2004): “the Battle of the Champions failed precisely because in the mid-sixth century there were still no agreed rules for determining the winner” (p. 138).
Within the context of Herodotus’ book, however, the Battle of the Champions is used to explain a particular feature of Spartan and Argive cultures. Having lost Thyrea, Herodotus writes, the Argives decided from then on to always cut their hair short “and even pronounced a curse: that no Argive man could grow his hair long, and no Argive woman could wear gold, until Argos had won back Thyrea” (Hdt. 1.82.7). The Spartans, for their part, decided to celebrate the victory by growing their hair long, whereas before they had supposedly kept it short.
This article has only scratched the surface with regards to the difficulties facing the student of Greek warfare. The second episode of our podcast, to be posted next Monday, will delve into further detail, and we’ll be adding more articles on the topic in the not-too-distant future.