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Did the Lelantine War in Ancient Greece Really Happen?

The Lelantine War was allegedly one of the only wars in ancient Greece which drew in multiple city-states. But historians are uncertain whether it really happened.
The Lelantine War was allegedly one of the only wars in ancient Greece which drew in multiple city-states. However, historians are uncertain whether it actually happened. Credit: mharrsch. CC BY 2.0/flickr

The Lelantine War (Greek: Ληλάντιος πόλεμος) was supposedly fought between two cities in ancient Greece, Chalcis and Eretria on the island of Euboea, and occurred, according to some ancient writers, because both parties wanted access to the fertile Lelantine Plain. However, whether the war happened in reality or the realm of mythology is still unknown.

Taking place in the early Archaic Period between 710 and 650 BC, the Lelantine War involved two ancient Greek cities of considerable economic importance. This thus drew in many more city states on either side, leading to a war in which much of Greece participated.

The Euboea region, which encompassed the two cities, was allegedly one of the economically strongest areas in Greece in the eighth century, and Chalcis and Eretria were the two leading powers.

Lelantine War map
Lelantine War map. Credit: Lelantine War fr.svg, historicair, Amphipolis. CC BY 2.5/Wikimedia Commons/Lelantine War, fr.svg, historicair

Ancient Greek historian Thucydides described the Lelantine War as exceptional because it was the only conflict in Greece between the mythical Trojan War and the Persian Wars of the early fifth century BC in which allied—rather than single—cities were involved.

Why did the conflict begin?

For quite some time, Chalcis and Eretria were collaborators, acting, alongside other cities, to establish the colonies (Greek: apoikiai), or “home away from home,” of the Mediterranean. It is largely unclear what brought the two powers to blows over the fertile Lelantine Plain after apparently managing it jointly for long periods of time.

Although wars over agriculturally productive land were not uncommon in the Archaic Period in ancient Greece—an example being the war between Megara and Athens—the origin of the Lelantine War may have been connected to a natural disaster.

At the end of the eighth century, Attica, Euboea, and various other nearby islands, were struck by severe drought. Historians believe the Eretrian settlement on Andros was abandoned as a result. It is claimed that this drought and the resulting famine may have led to both Chalcis and Eretria attempting to assert their ownership over the Lelantine Plain.

How was the conflict carried out?

Despite both cities boasting large fleets, the war was fought on land, and since the conflict took place before the development of hoplite warfare (spears and shields in the phalanx formation), the majority of combatants were likely lightly armed swordsmen. However, some historians have argued the war comprised mainly cavalry clashes.

Artist's impression of an Hoplite warrior in ancient Greece.
Artist’s impression of a Hoplite warrior in ancient Greece. Credit: Niko978. CC BY 2.0/flickr

The expansion of the war and consequent involvement of other cities beyond the original two is disputed. There have been direct references to at least three more participants, including Miletus, who allegedly fought on the side of Eretria, and Samos and Thessaly, who partnered with Chalcis. Indirect mentions of the war from various other sources, however, have led historians to suggest that as many as forty cities took part.

Other scholars have argued that this level of political alliance was not likely to be in place in the eighth century.

Once the war was over, Euboea, a prosperous region of ancient Greece, had fallen into relative obscurity. The defeated Eretria and the victor Chalcis had lost their former economic and political power. Corinthian vase painting had replaced Euboean pottery on the Mediterranean markets, and the leading colonizers were now the cities of Asia Minor. This included Miletus and Phokaia. Chalcis suffered a long decline while the islands in the Cyclades that Eretria ran earlier, seem to have become independent.

Did the Lelantine War in ancient Greece even happen?

There is still much debate among historians as to whether the Lelantine War actually took place or whether it was a myth, as no thorough record of the conflict was ever produced by a contemporary (ancient Greek) historian.

The only contemporary sources on the Lelantine War are scarce references in the works of the early poets Hesiod and Archilochus. The first reference in historical works was from the 5th century BC. This was two centuries after the very events, which continue to remain vague and brief.

Bust of Hesiod.
Bust of Hesiod. Credit: Jay Adan. CC BY 2.0/flickr

In the introduction of his work on the Peloponnesian War, ancient Greek historian Thucydides presents a brief summary of earlier Greek history, writing that there were no major multi-city wars by Greeks between the Trojan War and the Persian Wars. As an exception, he makes reference to the war between Chalcidians and Eretrians, during which the majority of Greek cities sided with one of the warring parties.

“There was no union of subject cities round a great state, no spontaneous combination of equals for confederate expeditions; what fighting there was consisted merely of local warfare between rival [neighbors],” Thucydides wrote. “The nearest approach to a coalition took place in the old war between Chalcis and Eretria; this was a quarrel in which the rest of the Hellenic name did to some extent take sides.”

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus also mentions the war, writing, “for the Milesians in former times had borne with the Eretrians the burden of all that war which they had with the Chalcidians at the time when the Chalcidians on their side were helped by the Samians against the Eretrians and Milesians.”

Plutarch, the Platonist philosopher and historian, mentions tradition regarding the Lelantine War in his Moralia in which he states that, during the war, the Chalcidians were on a par with the Eretrian foot soldiers but not with their cavalry, and, as such, procured the help of a Thessalian, Kleomachos of Pharsalos, whose cavalry defeated the Eretrians in battle.

“Kleomachos went with the Thessalian force to aid the Chalcidians; at what time it was evident that the Chalcidians were the stronger in foot, but they found it a difficult thing to withstand the force of the enemies’ horse,” he wrote.

“Kleomachos, being surrounded with some few of the flower of the Thessalian horse, he charged into the thickest of the enemy and put them to the rout,” wrote Plutarch, “which the heavy-armed infantry seeing, they betook themselves also to flight, so that the Chalcidians obtained a noble victory. However, Kleomachos was there slain, and the Chalcidians show his monument erected in the market-place, with a fair pillar standing upon it to this day.”

Archaeological excavations have shown that the first warrior burials in the area of what was once Eretria took place around 740 to 730 BC. The site of Chalcis, however, has not seen much archaeological research carried out, though similar burials of soldiers are implied by various written sources.

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