Literary texts

Homer and the Homeric tradition | Euboika & Eretriaka | Historians | Geographers

Homer and the Homeric tradition

As elsewhere, the oldest literary text mentioning the city is a passage in Homer's Iliad, the starting point of a long poetic and scholarly tradition. The few verses in the Iliad (II, 537) devoted to Euboea and its inhabitants, the fearsome Abantes, are part of an excursus that has been known since antiquity as the Catalog of Ships, since it lists the naval forces the Achaeans or Greeks brought to the siege of Troy. These verses are hardly more than an enumeration of the seven "cities" then existing in Euboea. Eretria heads the list:

"Euboea is the land of the Abantes, warriors of immense ardor. They come from Eretria or Chalkis, from Histiaea of the splendid grapes, from seaside Kerinthos, from lofty Dion, from Karystos, from Styra. Their leader was Elephenor scion of Ares, son of Chalkodon, lord of the valiant Abantes, ferocious soldiers who wear their hair long on the backs of their heads (...) Forty black ships follow Elephenor."

Despite its brevity, this passage constitutes a reference of inestimable historical value. It was quoted by all later writers when they mentioned a Euboean locality, starting with the most famous Archaic poets (such as Hesiod of Askra in Boeotia, Archilochos of Paros, and Theognis of Megara). We also find echoes of it in the great Athenian tragedies, among others in Sophocles' Trachinian Women and Euripides' Iphigeneia in Aulis, two plays whose action takes place in the immediate vicinity of Euboea.
In the Hellenistic Period, the Homeric Catalog of Ships served as a distant model for the poet Lycophron's deliberately hermetic description of the Aegean coast of Euboea (Alexandra, vv. 373 ff.) and, still more precisely, for the author (called Pseudo-Skymnos) of a long geographical poem, Journey Around the World (vv. 567-578 refer to Euboea). Oddly, the island of Euboea is omitted in the mediocre description written by Dionysios, son of Kalliphon.
Furthermore, starting in the 2nd century BC, the Homeric Catalog was the subject of several very detailed commentaries concerned with geography and history. The most famous of these commentaries was written by the chronographer Apollodoros of Athens, whose work was constantly used and quoted by Strabo in his books on Greece (including the chapter on Euboea), in parallel with Artemidoros of Ephesos's Geography. The last element in this erudite tradition is represented by the monumental work of Eustathius of Thessalonica in the Byzantine era.
Finally, let us recall that as late as the 5th century AD, the Catalog of Ships was very closely imitated in the Dionysiaca (Book XIII, v. 159 ff.) of Nonnos of Panopolis (Egypt). This poet is the only author to attribute to the city of Eretria (mentionned once again at the head of the list) the adjective "supercilious" (ophryoessa, derived from ophrys, eyebrow). This epithet can probably be explained by the presence of the acropolis and by the role of observation post it was supposed to play. It is likely that this very cultivated author, who knew virtually all earlier Greek literature, borrowed the rare epithet in question from a poet of the Classical or Hellenistic age, perhaps Kallimachos of Cyrene or even Simonides of Keos. We know that more than a thousand years before, Simonides had sung the noble warriors of Eretria who died fighting the Persians, and he may well have also celebrated their homeland by adorning it, as was usual, with a glowing epithet (a fine epigram mentioning a battle at the foot of Mount Dirphys, the great mountain in the center of the island, was attributed in antiquity to Simonides).


Euboika & Eretriaka

In antiquity several works were especially devoted to Euboea, its history, its traditions and the resources peculiar to it. These Euboika, as they were called, are unfortunately known only through rare collective and usually anonymous quotations. Concerning the so-called "Myrtoan Sea", in his famous Description of Greece, Pausanias makes a reference to "those who retain the memory of Euboean things" (VIII 14, 12).

We even know of a work that deals more specifically with matters relating to Eretria (Ta peri Eretrias); strangely enough, its author was not an Eretrian, but an inhabitant of distant Cilicia (southern Asia Minor), a certain Lysanias of Mallos, who probably lived in the 1st century AD at the latest (Plutarch, Moralia 861 C). He probably borrowed part of his material from the Constitution of the Eretrians, one of the numerous monographs devoted by the Aristotelian school (second half of the 4th century BC) to the history and description of the political systems used in Greek cities.
Since we are unable to consult these precious works, all of which have been lost, we must turn to the whole of Greek (and to a lesser extent, Latin) literature in order to glean information about Eretria and central Euboea.



The first known prose-writers appear only ca. 500 BC with the historian and geographer Hekataios of Miletos. In his Journey round the world, he mentions Eretria and its territory (notably the small town of Oichalia facing the island of Skyros), as well as the various Eretrian settlements outside Euboea.

However, the two great historians of the 5th century, Herodotos and Thucydides, constitute the main source of information about Eretria's vicissitudes during the Persian Wars and its conflictual relations with Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Among their successors in the following century, we may mention -in addition to the author of the Persika, the physician Ktesias of Knidos, whose important passage on the Eretrians deported to Asia was preserved, unbeknownst to modern scholarship, in a long, anonymous quotation in a work by the "novelist" Philostratos written in the Roman Imperial age -the Athenian Xenophon, in his work Hellenika, and the two universalist historians Theopompos and Ephoros. Although the works of the latter two authors are only partly preserved, they served as a source for the Bibliotheca historica composed by Diodoros of Sicily, an author who is rather late (1st century AD) but nonetheless extremely useful for the history of the 5th and 4th centuries BC.

His testimony must be combined with that of various contemporary authors; thus, for the events of the middle of the 4th century, we have the ample series of Attic orators, among the most important of which are -less on account of their talent than because of the sustained interest they took in Euboean affairs- the famous Demosthenes and his adversary Aeschines.

We have unfortunately fewer sources for the Hellenistic Period, especially after 300 BC. This is due to the disappearance of almost all historical writing directly preceding the Histories of Polybios (2nd century BC), whose work, as it has come down to us, contains little regarding Eretria; it must therefore be complemented by Livy's History of Rome, which often follows it very closely. There is no doubt that further information is to be gleaned among authors of the Roman Imperial era -Appian, Plutarch (in his biographies as well as in his "moral" essays), Cassius Dio, and especially Diogenes Laertios, since this historian of the ancient philosophers left us a precious biography of Menedemos of Eretria, an essential source for the history of the city in the early Hellenistic Period.



We must also mention the works of geographers, in particular Pseudo- Skylax's Journey (middle of the 4th century BC), Artemidoros of Ephesos' Geography (c. 100 BC), and especially Strabo's major work describing the Mediterranean world at the time of Augustus. If Strabo's chapter on Euboea (X 1) is hardly among his most successful, that is due to the fact that the great traveler did not have an opportunity to visit the island himself. Strabo's contribution to the knowledge of the island and its history is nevertheless considerable.

Other authors, such as the Roman Pomponius Mela and Pliny the Elder at the beginning of the Roman Imperial era, limited themselves to establishing, without much order or criticism, a more or less elaborate catalogue of the cities and towns of Euboea.

One cannot make the same reproach against the very learned Ptolemy of Alexandria (2nd century AD), for this astronomer set out to draw up a map of the world using the coordinates of longitude and latitude. Despite the errors it may contain, his list of Euboean localities is therefore very precious for anyone seeking to locate them precisely. Other works on geography or topography may have disappeared without leaving many traces.

It is particularly regrettable that the traveler Pausanias, who lived in the time of the Antonines, did not have an opportunity to include the island of Euboea in his Description of Greece (or at least that this chapter, if ever written, was lost). Our knowledge of the city of Eretria, its sanctuaries, and its cults would certainly be much greater if Pausanias could guide archaeologists' steps there as he can in Athens, Argos, or Delphi!

by Denis Knoepfler


Map of Euboea according to Ptolemy of Alexandria's Geography.
Illumination of the Parisinus Latinus 10764, drawn in Naples in 1490


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