The Battle of the Champions

One of the most interesting battles mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus is perhaps the “Battle of the Champions”, fought between the Spartans and the Argives.

Written by Josho Brouwers on 4 December 2017

Tonight, we will record a new episode of our podcast. This episode will deal with the ancient Greek hoplite. The hoplite is a spearman equipped with a so-called “Argive” shield: large, round, and equipped with a double grip. The double grip consists of a band (porpax) through which the left arm is thrust as well as a grip (antilabe) closer to the edge for the left hand. Because the shield is hollow, the construction allows the bearer to carry the weight across the left arm and even the shoulder.

The hoplite has been the source of endless discussions and debate, but it generally boils down to one issue: was the emergence of the hoplite, around 700 BC, accompanied by socio-political and/or military changes? At one extreme end of the scholarly spectrum, the answer is yes: the hoplite came from a “middle class” that effectively ended the supremacy of wealthy aristocrats and kings on the battlefield, fighting in an egalitarian formation known as the phalanx, with combat bound by rules.

At the other end we have commentators, myself included, who argue that the hoplite’s importance is vastly overstated in modern literature. This group is a little more diffuse: fighting in formation is generally thought to have been introduced later, perhaps as late as after the Persian Wars of the early fifth century BC. The appearance of the hoplite is not thought to be tied to socio-political change: hoplites were and remained members of the more affluent strata of society.

Defenders of the first, so-called “orthodox” interpretation of Greek warfare often point to examples in extant literary sources that suggest the existence of rules governing how the ancient Greeks waged their hoplite phalanx-dominated battles. One of the most interesting of these examples is the so-called “Battle of the Champions” described by Herodotus in the very first book of his Histories (1.82).

The Spartans versus the Argives

The battle was fought between the Spartans and the Argives, supposedly around 550 BC. According to Herodotus, they had been feuding for a while about ownership over a strip of land called Thyrea. The decision was made to settle their differences in a single, pitched battle. Each side would pick 300 of their best men. The assumption is that these men fought as hoplites, with orthodox scholars assuming that they would be deployed in phalanx formation (i.e. a regular grid formation of ranks and files). The remainder of the forces would withdraw to their home cities to await the outcome of the battle.

A map of the Aegean with a number of important place names and regions. Note Argos and Sparta, both located in the Peloponnese, the large peninsula attached to mainland Greece.

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.

More to come

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 near future.