The Lelantine War

A conflict lost in time

The Lelantine War is the first major military conflict that pitted two alliances of Greek cities against each other. But did it really happen?

Written by Josho Brouwers on

Last Wednesday, I wrote an article about the warrior-poet Archilochus. A reader contacted me shortly it was published and asked why I hadn’t made mention of a fragment in which the poet seemed to refer to the so-called Lelantine War, a military conflict supposedly fought between the cities of Eretria and Chalcis on the island of Euboea.

The reason I hadn’t mentioned it was because it didn’t add anything to the topic I was writing about. The article focused more generally on Archilochus’ experiences in battle and more specifically I wanted to write about whether or not he earned a living as a mercenary.

But the Lelantine War does feature prominently in discussions on the Archaic age of Greece (ca. 800 to 500 BC). I pick, more or less at random, Anthony Snodgrass’ Arms and Armour of the Greeks (1999 [1967]), where he writes the following on p. 86:

In the Lelantine War of the late eighth century, when a local dispute between two Euboean cities grew into the first widespread conflict in Greek history, Chalcis called in Thessalian cavalry and with their aid won at least one victory over Eretria.

One fragment from Archilochus has been interpreted as a reference to this Lelantine War. I give the fragment here in full (fr. 3 West), though I have modified M.L. West’s translation slightly to better fit the original Greek (noted in parentheses):

There won’t be many bows drawn, nor much slingshot,
when on the plain the War-god brings the fight
together; it will be a work (ergon)
of swords—that is the fighting (machēs) that the spearfamed
rulers (despotai) of Euboea are expert at.

According to this fragment, this particular battle apparently would have been fought mostly with spears and swords. The fragment has even been interpreted as a contest in which the use of ranged weapons (i.e. bows and slings) were outlawed.

My PhD supervisor Jan Paul Crielaard suggested it was “an aristocratic affair”.Show Jan Paul Crielaard, “Past or present? Epic poetry, aristocratic self-representation and the concept of time in the eighth and seventh centuries BC,” in: F. Montanari (ed.), Omero tremila anni dopo (2002), pp. 259-260. On reflection, though, this doesn’t strike me as a very meaningful description, especially for Archaic Greece, when warfare was mostly an affair between aristocrats anyway. (But do check out his article, referred to in the note and available on Academia.edu; it’s good.)

The problem with the Lelantine War

The problem with the Lelantine War is that we don’t have much to go on. The name itself is a modern invention: the ancient sources only refer to a conflict between the Euboean cities of Eretria and Chalcis, presumably fought on the Plain of Lelanton.

The earliest source is Thucydides (1.15), who wrote in the later fifth century BC and pointed out that it involved almost the whole of the Greek world. Later ancient authors added further details: Snodgrass’ remark about the Thessalian cavalry, for example, is borrowed from Plutarch (ca. AD 46–120).

Even the date is uncertain: scholarly consensus, as exemplified by the quote from Snodgrass, above, places it around the late eighth century BC. Archaeologists in particular have used the Lelantine War as a way to explain certain things: a possible military camp at Skala Oropou (Oropos) of the seventh century was perhaps connected to it, the destruction of the site of Lefkandi around 700 BC is sometimes attributed to the settlement being swallowed up in the Euboean conflict, and so on.

No one has better sought to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the Lelantine War than Jonathan M. Hall in his A History of the Archaic Greek World, ca. 1200–479 BCE (2007). This is one of my favourite books on Archaic Greece and if you have any interest at all in this time period I heartily recommend you buy a copy if you haven’t already.

The very first section of the first chapter of this book kicks off with a discussion of the Lelantine War. Hall summarizes the ancient sources and touches upon the modern interpretations of the war, even giving a detailed list of the different participants in the war and the alliances that they were a part of (figure 1.1. on p. 3).

Hall concludes that “The foregoing sketch would appear to offer an impressive demonstration of how historians can assemble fragments of evidence from various literary authors and combine them with the findings of archaeologists to draw a vivid picture of past events” (p. 4).

Not as solid as it appears to be

Hall then springs a surprise: “this whole reconstruction is probably little more than a modern historian’s fantasy, cobbled together from isolated pieces of information that, both singly and in combination, command little confidence” (p. 4).

In the next section, the Lelantine War is thoroughly deconstructed, with Hall pointing out the obvious – and not-so-obvious – problems involved with trying to reconstruct something based on very disparate and very fragmentary evidence.

Hall’s discussion of the sources is sobering. The fragment attributed by Archilochus may or may not refer to the Lelantine War. And in any event, much of what we take for granted, especially dates and attributions, is not nearly as secure as we would like to believe.

His treatment of the evidence for the site of Lefkandi, for example, is instructive. The idea that the site was destroyed around 700 BC is based on a single house: “since perhaps no more than 2 percent […] has been excavated and since sixth-century pottery has also been reported, […] it is entirely possible that the so-called ‘destruction’ of the site was merely a local conflagration” (p. 7).

In short, we know nothing about the so-called Lelantine War. The only thing we have is a reference in Thucydides about some conflict between two Euboean cities, to which later authors added further details. Whether those details are accurate or simply embellishments cannot be stated for certain, but the foundations are very shaky indeed.