Following Achilles’ victory over Cycnus in the Trojan War, the Greeks hold a feast, at which great stories are told. After Nestor has related that of Caeneus, who had been born a woman, he tells a second story, of the battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs, at which he claims to have been present.
This is one of a pair of primaeval battles which were said to have established world order: that between the Titans and the Gods ended the heavenly Titanomachy, and that between the Lapiths and Centaurs ended the earthly Centauromachy. These were celebrated in prominent places: the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs was shown in sculpture on the temple of Zeus at Olympia, and on the Parthenon at Athens. It was Ovid, though, who chose to tell this story in the context of the Trojan War.
When Pirithous married Hippodame, the couple invited centaurs to the feast. Unfortunately, passions of the centaur Eurytus became inflamed by drink and lust for the bride, and he carried off Hippodame by her hair. The other centaurs followed suit by each seizing a woman of their choice, turning the wedding feast into utter chaos, like a city being sacked.
Theseus castigated Eurytus and rescued the bride, so the centaur attacked him. Theseus responded by throwing a huge wine krater at Eurytus, killing him. The centaurs then started throwing goblets and crockery, and the battle escalated from there.
Nestor, as the narrator, gives a succession of grisly accounts of Lapiths and Centaurs killed. Gryneus the centaur ripped up the altar and crushed two Lapiths with its weight, only to have his eyballs gouged out by a Lapith using the prongs of some antlers. Not content with using the objects around them as weapons, they started using their own lances and swords.
When the centaur Petraeus was trying to uproot a whole oak tree, Pirithous, the groom, pinned the centaur to the tree-trunk with his lance. Nestor also tells of the centaur couple, Cyllarus and Hylonome: Cyllarus was struck by a javelin at the base of his neck, and died in Hylonome’s arms from his wound.
Nestor also tells of the success of Caeneus, formerly Caenis, in killing five centaurs. The centaur Latreus taunted Caeneus, so the latter wounded the centaur with his spear. Latreus thrust his lance in Caeneus’ face, but was unable to hurt him, so he tried with his sword, which broke against the invulnerable Caeneus, leaving him to finish the centaur off with thrusts of his own sword.
The centaurs then united to try to overwhelm Caeneus by crushing him under their combined weight:
What happened to him could not well be known.
Some thought his body was borne down by weight
into the vast expanse of Tartarus.
The son of Ampycus did not agree,
for from the middle of the pile we saw
a bird with golden wings mount high in air.
Before or since, I never saw the like.
When Mopsus was aware of that bird’s flight —
it circled round the camp on rustling wings —
with eyes and mind he followed it and shouted aloud:
“Hail, glory of the Lapithaean race,
their greatest hero, now a bird unique!”
and we believed the verdict of the seer.
Our grief increased resentment, and we bore
it with disgust that one was overwhelmed
by such a multitude. Then in revenge
we plied our swords, till half our foes were dead,
and only flight and darkness saved the rest.
With Caeneus transformed into a bird, the survivors dispersed, the Lapiths having won the day.
In his Metamorphoses, Ovid describes some catastrophic wedding feasts, such as that of Perseus, but they don’t come any worse than that of Pirithous and Hippodame.
Ovid’s account of this epic mythical battle is the most detailed to have survived, and unsurprisingly has been the theme for many paintings since. Seen as a battle between the forces of good (Lapiths) and evil (Centaurs), a succession of masters of narrative painting have tackled the problem of telling its story amidst its chaos and carnage.
Piero di Cosimo’s The Fight between Lapiths and Centaurs (1500-15) is my favourite among the earlier paintings, and remains one of the best-structured and complete accounts.
In the centre foreground, Hylonome embraces and kisses the dying Cyllarus, a huge arrow-like spear resting underneath them. Immediately behind them, on the large carpets laid out for the wedding feast, centaurs are still abducting women. All around are scenes of pitched and bloody battles, with eyes being gouged out, Lapiths and Centaurs wielding clubs and other weapons at one another.
The artist had clearly read his copy of Metamorphoses very carefully, and shows many of Ovid’s scenes in detail.
Towards the end of his life, Peter Paul Rubens painted this brilliant oil sketch of The Rape of Hippodame (c 1637-38). At the right, Eurytus is trying to carry off Hippodame, the bride, with Theseus just about to rescue her from the centaur’s back. At the left, Lapiths are attacking with their weapons, and behind them another centaur is trying to abduct a woman.
That became the finished painting, The Rape of Hippodame (Lapiths and Centaurs) (1636-38), which remains faithful to Rubens’ sketch and its composition. Facial expressions, particularly that of the Lapith at the left bearing a sword, are particularly powerful.
Luca Giordano’s later painting of the Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs from 1688 lacks the narrative structure of Piero di Cosimo’s, and covers later action than Rubens’. As a result, its story has become a little lost in the mêlée of battle.
Sebastiano Ricci’s The Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs from about 1705 has similar problems, although it does use multiplex narrative to help. In the left background, Hippodame is seen being carried away by Eurytus, and to the right there are scenes of abduction at the wedding feast.
Francesco Solimena’s Battle between Lapiths and Centaurs (1735-40) puts multiple abductions in the foreground, with pitched battles taking place behind.
To my eye, the paintings which succeed best in telling this story are carefully structured, as is Piero di Cosimo’s, or like Rubens’ they show its early stages, before all hell breaks loose. As in many other situations, trying to convey visual narrative from a disorderly mass of interlocked figures is no easy task. Just as Ovid carefully structured and composed his account, the narrative artist needs to do the same.
The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.