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The Lelantine War

"The war between Chalkis and Eretria was the one in which most cities belonging to the rest of Greece were divided up into alliances with one side or the other."

Thucydides (I 15, 3)

Thucydides' statement is complemented by Herodotos (V 99) who specifies that Samos sided with Chalkis, while Miletos sided with Eretria. The two great Euboean cities and their allies fought for the possession of the fertile plain watered by the Lelantos river, which flowed between the territories of the two adversaries. According to tradition, the troops of Chalkis, aided by Thessalian cavalry, enjoyed at least one victory over the Eretrians and their allies. It is generally thought that this conflict took place ca. 700 BC, at a date that situates it halfway between history and legend. At the very same time, the site of Lefkandi was being deserted, perhaps as a consequence of the turmoil. The Lelantine plain was probably the scene of the battle between the glorious hippobotes, the horse-trainers of Chalkis, and the hippeis, the Eretrian cavalrymen. The custom prohibiting the use of weapons that strike the enemy from a distance -arrows, javelins, slings- is supposed to originate in this conflict (Strabo, X 1, 12).

But the reference to a chivalric and idealized past is surely a posteriori creation, and not a historical reality. Other parts of the tradition are certainly based on historical facts. The involvement of Miletos and Samos shows that the two Euboean cities had retained an extensive network of alliances abroad. On the basis of such clues, one cannot exclude the possibility that the Lelantine War belongs to a more recent past (7th or even 6th century BC).

Despite the many legendary aspects of this conflict, and the uncertainties of its chronology, one cannot deny the testimony of Herodotos and Thucydides: the Lelantine War actually took place.

by Pierre Ducrey

Raptors devouring fallen men. Fragment of stamped relief-vase (7th century BC). Eretria, Museum

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