In ancient Greece, between 710 and 650 BC, a significant military conflict known as the Lelantine War took place. The main players were the city-states of Chalcis and Eretria, located on the island of Euboea. According to ancient sources, the initial cause of the conflict was a dispute over control of the fertile Lelantine Plain, situated in the center of Euboea.

This plain held great agricultural importance, producing grains and wine. It’s likely that a period of drought in the late 8th century BC exacerbated tensions between the two cities for control of the area. Chalcis and Eretria had been increasing their wealth through trade and the founding of colonies, and possessing the plain was of significant economic importance.

It’s also possible that the dispute’s origin lay in a natural disaster, as there was a severe drought in many parts of the Greek world, including Attica, Euboea itself, and neighboring islands, toward the end of the 8th century BC, leading to famine.

Location of the Lelanto plain on the island of Euboea
Location of the Lelanto plain on the island of Euboea. Credit: Rowanwindwhistler / Wikimedia Commons

Modern historians are uncertain about the true extent of the conflict. According to some ancient sources, the war began in 710 BC and spread throughout much of Greece, with many other city-states aligning with one side or the other. The Lelantine War would have thus been the most extensive and important Greek conflict between the Trojan War and the Persian Wars (the Persian invasions of Greece).

However, more recent studies cast doubt on the existence of such early formal alliances, and the ambiguity of the scant contemporary sources (Herodotus would write about 200 years later) makes its historicity controversial.

From these scanty testimonies, it is inferred that Eretria had the support of Miletus, while Chalcis allied with Samos and Thessaly. Thucydides refers to the Lelantine War in his “History of the Peloponnesian War”, written around 411 BC:

By land, no war was of great importance, because all the wars fought were against neighboring regions and neighbors; and the Greeks did not go out to wage war in distant foreign lands to subjugate others. Neither did the subjects rise up against the great cities, nor did these cities, by mutual agreement, form armies, because they almost always disagreed with each other, and thus they fought among themselves, especially until the ancient war between the Chalcidians and Eretrians, in which the rest of Greece divided to help one side or the other.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, I.15
The Lelantine plain today
The Lelantine plain today. Credit: George E. Koronaios / Wikimedia Commons

The war was primarily fought on land, according to the poet Archilochus of Paros, a contemporary witness, who refers to confrontations without bows or slings, possibly fulfilling agreements between both sides. In any case, hoplite tactics had not yet been introduced, so it’s probable that swords and light armor were mainly used.

This is also reported by Strabo in the late 1st century BC, indicating that both cities, by virtue of their ancient friendship, agreed not to use long-range weapons in battle. Other sources indicate that the armies were mainly composed of horsemen who fought each other.

The conflict dragged on for decades until around 645 BC when a Thessalian cavalry charge led by Cleomachus of Pharsalus decided the victory for Chalcis (at least in that battle), although Cleomachus himself was killed, as recounted by Plutarch.

Cleomachus came with Thessalian forces to aid the Chalcidians because it was evident that the Chalcidians were superior in infantry, but they were having great difficulty defeating the cavalry. (…) Cleomachus gathered the best riders among the Thessalians with him, charged brilliantly, and defeated the enemies, frightening and putting to flight the enemy cavalry force. For this reason, the hoplites also fled: the Chalcidians had won the victory. However, Cleomachus lay dead, and a tomb was erected for him in the agora of Chalcis, where to this day an imposing column stands.

Plutarch, Amatorius 17 (Moralia 760)
Hellenic fighters
Hellenic fighters. Credit: Ava Babili / Flickr

It is unknown who ultimately won the war. What is known is that after the long conflict, Euboea no longer led the Greek world as before.

Both Eretria and Chalcis lost their economic and political primacy, and the region entered a period of relative decline, while other city-states like Miletus and Phocaea took over in colonizing the Mediterranean. Euboean painted pottery was replaced in the market by Corinthian pottery.

Chalcis, the possible victor in the conflict, would retain control of the Lelantine Plain until 506 BC, when Athens established a cleruchy there, finally dominating the area.

The Lelantine War, even though its existence is disputed by modern researchers, marked a foundational milestone in the early history of Greece. Despite the scarcity of sources, it illustrates the origins of the first conflicts between city-states for control of territory and resources, as well as the emergence of political-military alliances that would shape the course of the Hellenic world.

According to Oswyn Murray, the Lelantine War marked the end of an era in another sense. It was the last war fought in the old style between the main proponents of that style. According to an ancient oracle, ‘the best of all lands is the Pelasgian Argos, the horses of Thessaly, the women of Sparta, and the men who drink the water of holy Arethusa in Chalcis’.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on April 9, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Guerra Lelantina, el primer conflicto entre ciudades griegas que no ganó nadie y cuya existencia es discutida

Sources

Burn AR. The so-called ‘Trade-Leagues’ in Early Greek History and the Lelantine War. The Journal of Hellenic Studies. 1929;49(1):14-37. doi:10.2307/625000 | Bradeen, D. W. (1947). The Lelantine War and Pheidon of Argos. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 78, 223–241. doi.org/10.2307/283496 | Donlan, W. (1970). Archilochus, Strabo and the Lelantine War. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 101, 131–142. doi.org/10.2307/2936044 | Oswyn Murray, Early Greece | Wikipedia


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