Herakles & the mares of Diomedes, Athenian black-
figure kylix C6th B.C., State Hermitage Museum
DIOMEDES was a barbaric king of the Bistonian tribe of Thrake who fed his mares a diet of human flesh.
Herakles was commanded to fetch these horses by King Eurystheus as the eighth of his twelve Labours. He captured the animals and left them in the care of his young squire Abderos while he went to deal with Diomedes. But during his absence the boy was devoured. Herakles then fed Diomedes to the beasts, stilling their unnatural appetite with a meal of their master's flesh.
A variation of this myth can be found in the story of Pyraikhmes of Euboia.
[1.1] ARES & KYRENE (Apollodorus 2.5.8)
[1.2] ARES (Hyginus Fabulae 159)
DIOMEDES (Diomêdês), a son of Ares and Cyrene, was king of the Bistones in Thrace. (Apollod. ii. 5. § 8; Diod. iv. 15; Serv. ad Aen. i. 756.) Hyginus (Fab. 250) calls him a son of Atlas by his own daughter Asteria. He fed his horses with human flesh, and Eurystheus now ordered Heracles to fetch those animals to Mycenae. For this purpose, the hero took with him some companions. He made an unexpected attack on those who guarded the horses in their stables, took the animals, and conducted them to the sea coast. But here he was overtaken by the Bistones, and during the ensuing fight he entrusted the mares to his friend Abderus, a son of Hermes of Opus, who was eaten up by them; but Heracles defeated the Bistones, killed Diomedes, whose body he threw before the mares, built the town of Abdera, in honour of his unfortunate friend, and then returned to Mycenae, with the horses which had become tame after eating the flesh of their master. The horses were afterwards set free, and destroyed on Mount Olympus by wild beasts. (Apollod. ii. 5. § 8; Diod. iv. 15; Hygin. Fab. 30; Eurip. Alcest. 483, 493, Herc. Fur. 380, &c.; Gell. iii. 9; Ptolem. Heph. 5.)
Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2. 5. 8 (trans. Frazer) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"The eighth labour he [Eurystheus] enjoined on him [Herakles] was to bring the mares of Diomedes Thrakios (the Thrakian) to Mykenai. Now this Diomedes was a son of Ares and Kyrene, and he was king of the Bistones, a very warlike Thrakian people, and he owned man-eating mares. So Herakles sailed with a band of volunteers, and having overpowered the grooms who were in charge of the mangers, he drove the mares to the sea. When the Bistones in arms came to the rescue, he committed the mares to the guardianship of Abderos, who was a son of Hermes, a native of Opous in Lokris, and a minion of Herakles; but the mares killed him by dragging him after them. But Herakles fought against the Bistones, slew Diomedes and compelled the rest to flee. And he founded a city Abdera beside the grave of Abderos who had been done to death, and bringing the mares he gave them to Eurystheus. But Eurystheus let them go, and they came to Mount Olympus, as it is called, and there they were destroyed by the wild beasts."
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 15. 3 - 4 (trans. Oldfather) (Greek historian C1st B.C.) :
"The next [eighth] Labour which Herakles undertook was the bringing back of the horses of Diomedes Thrakios (the Thrakian). The feeding-troughs of those horses were of brass because the steeds were so savage, and they were fastened by iron chains because of their strength, and the food they ate was not the natural produce of the soil but they tore apart the limbs of strangers and so got their food from the ill lot of hapless men. Herakles, in order to control them, threw to them their master Diomedes, and when he had satisfied the hunger of the animals by means of the flesh of the man who had taught them to violate human law in this fashion, he had them under his control.
And when the horses were brought to Eurystheus he consecrated them to Hera, and in fact their breed continued down to the reign of Alexandros of Makedon [i.e. the historic Alexander the Great]."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 3. 18. 12 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"[Amongst the scenes depicted on the throne of Apollon at Amyklai near Sparta :] There is wrought . . . Herakles avenging himself upon Diomedes Thrakios (the Thrakian), and upon Nessos at the river Euenos."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 10. 9 :
"[Amongst the scenes depicted on the pediments of the temple of Zeus at Olympia :] Most of the labours of Herakles are represented at Olympia. Above the doors of the temple is carved the hunting of the Arkadian boar, his exploit against Diomedes Thrakios (the Thrakian)."
Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy 6. 270 ff (trans. Way) (Greek epic C4th A.D.) :
"[The Labours of Herakles were depicted on the shield of his grandson Eurypylos :] There in the Thrakian land were Diomedes' grim man-eating steeds : these at their gruesome mangers had he slain, and dead they lay with their fiend-hearted lord."
Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 17 (trans. Fairbanks) (Greek rhetorician C3rd A.D.) :
"[From a descriptin of an ancient Greek painting :] And look at Oinomaos, how like he is to Diomedes Thrax (the Thrakian) as he lies there, a barbarian and savage of aspect."
Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 2. 25 :
"[Ostensibly a description of an ancient Greek painting at Neapolis (Naples) :] The Burial of Abderos. Let us not consider the mares of Diomedes to have been a task for Herakles, my boy, since he has already overcome them and crushed them with his club--one of them lies on the ground, another is gasping for breath, a third, you will say, is leaping up, another is falling down; their manes are unkempt, they are shaggy down to their hoofs, and in every way they resemble wild beasts; their stalls are tainted with flesh and bones of the men whom Diomedes used as food for his horses, and the breeder of the mares himself is even more savage of aspect than the mares near whom he has fallen--but you must regard this present labour as the more difficult, since Eros (Love) enjoins it upon Herakles in addition to many others, and since the hardship laid upon him was no slight matter. For Herakles is bearing the half-eaten body of Abderos, which he has snatched from the mares; and they devoured him white yet a tender youth and younger than Iphitos, to judge from the portions that are left; for, still beautiful, they are lying on the lion’s skin. The tears he shed over them, the embraces he may have given them, the laments he uttered, the burden of grief on his countenance--let such marks of sorrow be assigned to another lover; for another likewise let the monument placed upon the fair beloved’s tomb carry the same tribute of honour; but, not content with the honours paid by most lovers, Heracles erects for Abderos a city, which we call by his name, and games also will be instituted for him, and in his honour contests will be celebrated, boxing and the pancratium and wrestling and all the other contests except horse-racing."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 30 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
Twelve Labors of Hercules Ordered by Eurystheus . . .
Diomede, King of Thrace, and his four horses which fed on human flesh he killed along with the slave Abderus. The horses’ names were Podargus, Lampon, Xanthus, and Dinus."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 159 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Sons of Mars [Ares] . . . Diomedes, the Thracian."
Ovid, Heroides 9. 69 ff (trans. Showerman) (Roman poetry C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"Did there come to your mind no image of savage Diomede, fiercely feeding his mares on human meat?"
Ovid, Heroides 9. 87 ff :
"[Herakles] told of the deeds . . . You do not omit the skulls nailed up in Thracian homes, nor the mares made fat with the flesh of slain men."
Seneca, Agamemnon 850 ff (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy C1st A.D.) :
"[The Labours of Herakles :] He drove the Thracian herd which the tyrant [Diomedes] fed, not on the grass of the Strymon or on the banks of the Hebrus; cruel, he offered his savage horses the gore of strangers--and the blood of their driver was the last to stain red their jaws."
Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus 18 ff ff :
"The herds [of Diomedes], well known to Hebrus, fat with strangers’ blood, have I [Herakles] destroyed."
Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus 1785 ff :
"[Following the death of Herakles, his mother Alkmena laments that the sons of his foes may come to avenge themselves upon her :] What lands shall an aged woman seek, hated by savage kings, if spite of all any savage king is left alive? Oh, woe is me! All sons who lament their murdered sires will seek revenge from me; they all will overwhelm me. If any young Busiris or if any young Antaeus terrifies the region of the burning zone, I shall be led off as booty; if any Ismarian seeks revenge for the herds of the bloody king of Thrace [i.e. Diomedes], upon my limbs will his horrid herds be fed."
Seneca, Troades 1106 ff :
"No blood of children stained the altars of Busiris, cruel though he was, nor did Diomedes set limbs of babes for his herds to feast on. Who will take up thy limbs and consign them to the tomb."
Statius, Thebaid 12. 154 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) :
"Sooner may one prevail upon the merciless altars of Busiris or the ravening Odrysian stall [i.e. of Diomedes]."
- Apollodorus, The Library - Greek Mythography C2nd A.D.
- Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History - Greek History C1st B.C.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece - Greek Travelogue C2nd A.D.
- Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy - Greek Epic C4th A.D.
- Philostratus the Elder, Imagines - Greek Rhetoric C3rd A.D.
- Ovid, Heroides - Latin Poetry C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Seneca, Hercules Furens - Latin Tragedy C1st A.D.
- Seneca, Troades - Latin Tragedy C1st A.D.
- Statius, Thebaid - Latin Epic C1st A.D.
Other references not currently quoted here : Euripides Alcestis 483 & 493, Madness of Heracles 380 ; Ptolemy Hephaestion 5; Tzetzes, Childiades 2.299; Strabo 7 Frag. 44, 47; Stephanus Byzantium s.v. Abdêra