THE SPARTOI (Sparti) were a tribe of warlike, earth-born men which sprang fully grown and armed for battle from the sown teeth of a Drakon (Dragon) sacred to the war-god Ares.
The first of the Spartoi were sown by the hero Kadmos (Cadmus) from the teeth of the Drakon of the Ismenian Spring of Thebes. As they were sprouting from the earth, he cast a stone amongst them and they fell to fighting. The five survivors afterwards assisted Kadmos in founding the city of Thebes.
A second batch of Spartoi was sown by Iason (Jason) in the fields of Kolkhis (Colchis) on the Black Sea--a task demanded of him by King Aeetes in his quest for the Golden Fleece. Like Kadmos Iason threw a stone amongst the sprouting warriors and they slew one another in battle.
FAMILY OF THE SPARTI
DRAKON ISMENIOS (sown from its teeth) (Apollodorus 3.22, Pausanias 9.10.1, Apollonius Rhodius Argonautica 3.1179f, Hyginus Fabulae 178, Ovid Metamorphoses 3.874, Seneca Hercules Furens 260, Nonnus Dionysiaca 4.352)
NAMES OF THEBAN SPARTOI
EKHION, OUDAIOS, KHTHONIOS, HYPERENOR, PELOROS (Apollodorus 3.22, Pausanias 9.5.3, Hyginus Fabulae 178, Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius 3.1179)
SPARTI (Spartoi), from the verb speirô, and accordingly signifies "the sown men ;" it is the name given to the armed men who sprang from the dragon's teeth sown by Cadmus, and were believed to be the ancestors of the five oldest families at Thebes. (Apollod. iii. 4. § l; Paus. ix. 5. § 1, 10. § l ; Schol. ad Apollon. Rhod. iii. 1179, ad Pind. Isthm. i. 41, ad Eurip. Phoen. 670, ad Soph. Antig. 128 ; Ov. Met. iii. 101, &c.; comp. Cadmus).
ECHI′ON (Echiôn). One of the five surviving Spartae that had grown up from the dragon's teeth, which Cadmus had sown. (Apollod. iii. 4. § 1; Hygin. Fab. 178; Ov. Met. iii. 126.) He was married to Agave, by whom he became the father of Pentheus. (Apollod. iii. 5. § 2.) He is said to have dedicated a temple of Cybele in Boeotia, and to have assisted Cadmus in the building of Thebes. (Ov. Met. x. 68(6.)
PELOR (Pelôr), one of the Spartae or men that grew forth from the dragons' teeth which Cadmus sowed at Thebes. (Apollod. iii. 4. § 1 ; Paus. ix. 5. § 1; Schol. ad Eurip. Phoen. 670 ; comp. Cadmus.)
Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.
NAMES OF THE THEBAN SPARTI
Of the Viper
Of the Earth
Of the Earth
CLASSICAL LITERATURE QUOTES
CADMUS & THE SOWING OF THE DRAGON'S TEETH
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 22 ff (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"[Kadmos (Cadmus)] sent some of his men to fetch water from the spring of Ares, but a Serpent (Dragon), said by many to be a child of Ares, guarded the spring and destroyed most of those who had been sent. In outrage Kadmos killed the serpent, and then, following the instructions of Athena, planted its teeth. From this sowing there sprang from the earth armed men, called Spartoi (Sparti). These proceeded to kill each other, some in voluntary encounters, and others in ignorance. Pherekydes (Pherecydes) says that when Kadmos saw the armed men growing up from the earth, he threw stones at them, and they, believing that they were being hit by each other, started their fight.
However, five of them survived, Ekhion (Echion), Oudaios (Udaeus), Khthonios (Chthonius), Hyperenor, and Peloros (Pelorus). As for Kadmos, to atone for the deaths he served Ares as a laborer for an ‘everlasting’ year, for a year then was equal to eight years now . . . And to Kadmos were born daughters, Autonoe, Ino, Semele, Agaue (Agave) . . . and Agaue was married to Ekhion."
Plato, Laws 663e (trans. Lamb) (Greek philosopher C4th B.C.) :
"The tale of the teeth that were sown, and how armed men [Spartoi] sprang out of them."
Plato, Laws 641c :
"The victories which men win in war often have been, and will be, ‘Kadmeian’.” [I.e. Involving more loss than gain--a proverbial expression, possibly derived from the fate of the Spartoi.]
Plato, Sophist 247c :
"The aboriginal sons of the dragon's teeth (ge autôn spartoi te kai autochthones auton) among them . . . would maintain that nothing which they cannot squeeze with their hands has any existence at all." [I.e. They are too earthy to grasp philosophical concepts.]
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3. 1179 ff (trans. Rieu) (Greek epic C3rd B.C.) :
"The Aonian Serpent (Dragon), the guardian of Ares' spring, Kadmos (Cadmus) killed in Ogygian Thebes . . . Athene, Lady of Trito, tore the teeth out of the Serpent's jaws and divided them between Aeetes and Kadmos, the slayer of the beast. Kadmos sowed them in the Aonian plain and founded an earthborn clan [the Spartoi] with all who had escaped the spear of Ares when he did his harvesting."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 9. 10. 1 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"Not far from the gate [of Thebes in Boiotia (Boeotia)] . . . they show a place where, it is said, Kadmos (Cadmus) sowed the teeth of the Drakon (Dragon-Serpent), which he slew at the fountain, from which teeth men came up out of the earth."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 9. 5. 2 :
"Kadmos (Cadmus) built the city [of Thebes] which even at the present day is called Kadmeia (Cadmea) . . . In the time of Kadmos, the greatest power, next after his, was in the hands of the Spartoi (Sparti)i, namely, Khthonios (Chthonius), Hyperenor, Peloros (Pelorus) and Oudaios (Udaeus); but it was Ekhion (Echion) who, for his great valor, was preferred by Kadmos to be his son-in-law. As I was unable to discover anything new about these men, I adopt the story that makes their name result from the way in which they came into being."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 178 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Cadmus in his wanderings came to Delphi. There the oracle told him to buy from farmers an ox which had a moon-shaped mark on its side, and to drive it before him. Where it lay down it was fated that he found a town and rule. When Cadmus heard the oracle, he did as he was told. While seeking water he came to the fountain of Castalia [Hyginus' error, it was actually the Ismenian spring], which a Dracon (Dragon), the offspring of Mars [Ares], was guarding. It killed the comrades of Cadmus, but was killed by Cadmus with a stone. Under Minerva's [Athena's] instructions he sowed the teeth and ploughed them under. From them sprang the Sparti. These fought themselves, but from them five survived, namely, Chthonius, Udaeus, Hyperenor, Pelorus, and Echion. Moreover, Boeotia was named from the ox Cadmus followed."
Ovid, Metamorphoses 3. 101 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"[Kadmos (Cadmus) slew the Drakon (Dragon) guarding the sacred spring of Ares in Boiotia (Boeotia) :] Gliding down out of the sky Pallas [Athena] appears and bids him [Kadmos] plough the soil and plant the Serpent's (Dragon's) teeth, from which a future people should arise. Cadmus obeys, and with his plough's deep share opens wide furrows, then across the soil scatters the teeth, the seed of humankind. The tilth--beyond belief!--began to stir: first from the furrows points of spears were seen, next helmets, bright with nodding painted plumes, then shoulders, chests and weapon-laden arms arose, a growing crop of men in mail. So, when the curtain at a theatre is raised, figures rise up, their faces first, then gradually the rest, until at last, drawn slowly, smoothly up, they stand revealed complete, their feet placed on the fringe below.
In fear of these new foemen Cadmus sprang to arms. ‘Lay down your arms!’ a warrior cried, one of the Earth-born (Terrigenae) regiment, ‘Take no part in civil strife.’ So saying, with his sword he felled a Soil-sprung (Terrigenis) brother by his side, then fell himself, struck by a far-flung lance. He too who dealt him death was dead as soon and of that new-given lifebreath breathed his last. In the same mould of madness all that host, that sudden brotherhood, in battle joined, with wound for wound fell dead. That prime of youth, whose lot was life so short, lay writhing on their mother's bloodstained bosom--all save five [the Spartoi], five who survived. Among them was Echion, who at Tritonis' [Athena's] bidding dropped his arms and joined his brothers in a pact of peace. These were his comrades when the Prince of Sidon, obedient to the oracle's command, founded his city in that foreign land."
Ovid, Metamorphoses 3. 545 ff :
"[The Spartoi] Race of Mars (Proles Marvotia), you Children of the Serpent (Anguigenae) . . . Recall your lineage, brace your courage with the spirit of that Snake (Serpens) who killed, alone, so many. For his pool and spring he died. You, for your honour, you must fight and win! He did brave men to death."
Ovid, Metamorphoses 4. 565 :
"Cadmus said ‘Was that a sacred Snake (Dragon-Serpent) my spear transfixed when I had made my way from Sidon's walls and scattered on the soil the Serpent's teeth, those seeds of magic power?’"
Seneca, Hercules Furens 260 ff (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy C1st A.D.) :
"[Thebes] the city from whose fields and fecund bosom a band of youth [the Spartoi] stood forth with swords ready drawn . . . O seed of Cadmus and Ophion's [the Serpent's] race."
Seneca, Oedipus 725 ff :
"Our land [Thebes] has e'er produced strange monsters . . . the earth, teeming with impious birth, brings forth armed men [the Spartoi] : loud resounding the battle-call from the curving horn, and the brazen trumpet sent forth its piercing notes. Their tongues and lips, ne'er nimble before, were first employed in the battle-cry of their unfamiliar voice. The kindred bands filled the plains, and this offspring, worthy the seed [i.e. the Dragon's teeth] that had been sown, measured their life by a single day; born after the passing of Lucifer [Eosphoros, the Dawn Star], they perished ere Hesperus [the Evening Star] arose. The wanderer [Kadmos (Cadmus)] quaked at prodigies so strange, and fearfully awaited the assault of the new-born folk; until the savage youth fell in death, and their mother [the earth] beheld the children she had but now brought forth returned to her own bosom."
Statius, Thebaid 10. 806 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) :
"Verily 'tis the Snake of Mars [Ares], and the ground that burgeoned fresh with our armed sires [the Spartoi]--thence comes that desperate valour [displayed by their descendants], that o'er-mastering love of war."
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 4. 352 - 5. 6 (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic C5th A.D.) :
"[Athena addresses Kadmos (Cadmus) as he advances to fight the Drakon (Dragon-Serpent) :] ‘Kadmos . . . Pallas bids you on! Brazen Ares shall not save his reptile guardian beside murderous Dirke. But when he is killed, take the creature's horrible teeth, sow the ground all about with the snaky corn, reap the viperous harvest of warrior giants, join the battalions of the Gegenees (Earthborn) in once common destruction, and leave only five living: let the crop of the Sown sprout up to glorious fruitage for Thebes that shall be.’ . . .
[After slaying the dragon Kadmos] gathered the fruit of death inside a helmet of bronze, the grim harvest of the creature's jaws [i.e. he collected the teeth of the Dragon]. Then he drew upon the land the humped plow of Pallas [Athene] from her holy place in those parts, and plowed a battle-breeding furrow in the bright earth and sowed long lines of the poison-casting teeth. There grew out the self-delivered crop of Gegenees (Earth-Born): one shot up with head high, shaking the top of a mailcoated breast; one with jutting head stretched a horrid shoulder over the opening earth; another bent forward above ground as far as the midnipple, one again rose on the ground half-finished and lifted a soil-grown shield; another shook a nodding plume before him and showed not yet his chest; while still creeping up slowly from his mother's flanks he showed fight against fearless Kadmos, clad in the armour he was born in. O what a great miracle! Eileithyia [goddess of childbirth] armed him whom the mother had not yet spawned! And there was one who cast his brother-spear, fumbling and half visible; one who lightly drew the whole body in to the light, but left his toes unfinished sticking in the ground.
Kadmos for all that did not neglect Athena's injunction. He reaped the stubble of Gigantes (Earth-Born) spring up ever anew. One he struck with windswift spear over the breast, hit one on the broad neck by the collarbone shearing the bones of the hairy throat: another he tore with hurtling stone while he showed as far as the belly. The blood of the dreadful Gigantes flowed in rivers; Ares slipt in the gore staining his limbs with crimson, and Nike's (Victory's) robe was reddened with purple drops while she stood beside the battle. Another showed fight, and Kadmos rang his sword through his cognate shield of oxhide, into the hip-joint and out at the small of his back. The slaughter stayed not: as the Gigantes were cut and smitten with the sword, a deadly spout of bloody dew bubbled up.
Then by the wise counsel of Pallas he lifted a stone high above the Gegenees' heads; and they drunken with gory lust for Enyo (War), went wild with warlike fury and destroyed each other with the steel their cousin, and found burial in the dust. One fought with another: with ruddy gore the surface of the shield was drenched and spotted and darkened, as a Gegeneos died; the crop of that field was shorn by the brother-murdering blade of an earth-grown knife.
As Kadmos had reaped the snaky crop of toothplanted battles, and shorn the stubble of the Gigantes, pouring the libation to Ares as the firstling feast of harvest-slaughter, he cleansed his body in drakon-breeding Dirke (Dirce), and sacrificed the Delphian cow on the god-built altar as fair offering for Pallas."
GHOSTS OF THE THEBAN SPARTI
The ghosts of the ancient Spartoi were believed to haunt the sacred field of Ares near Thebes.
Seneca, Oedipus 582 ff (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy C1st A.D.) :
"[The seer Teiresias (Tiresias) of Thebes performs necromancy :] Suddenly the earth yawned and opened wide with gulf immeasurable . . . Forth leaped a savage cohort and stood full-armed, the whole viper brood, the troop of brothers [the Spartoi] sprung from Dircaean teeth." [N.B. The Spartoi were ancestors of the Thebans so appear when the Theban seer summons the ghosts of the heroes of old.]
Statius, Thebaid 4. 564 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) :
"[The seer Teiresias (Tiresias) employs necomrancy (nekromankia) to summon the ghosts of the heroes of Thebes during the War of the Seven Against Thebes :] The [ghosts of] earth-born company [Spartoi], seed of Mars [Ares] throngs round them, whose span of life one day did measure, and every hand is on its weapon, yea, on the sword-hilt; they repel and bar approach, and rush to combat with the fury of living men, nor care they to stoop in the gloomy trench, but thirst to drain each other's blood."
Statius, Thebaid 4. 410 ff :
"Of vast extent, stretches the plain of Mars [Ares], the field that bore its harvest [of armed warriors] to Cadmus. Hardy was he who first after the kindred warfare [of the earthborn Spartoi] and the crime of those same furrows dared with the ploughshare till the soil and upturned the bloody meads; even yet the accursed earth breathes mighty tumults at midday and in the lonely night's dim shadows, when the black sons of earth arise to phantom combat: with trembling limbs the husband-man flees and leaves the field unfinished, and his oxen hie them to their stalls, distraught."
DESCENDANTS OF THE FIVE THEBAN SPARTI
Some of the descendants of the Spartoi ruled Thebes as regents in between the reigns of the various Kadmeian (Cadmean) kings. These regents included Pentheus--regent for the child Polydoros--, Lykos (Lycus) and Nykteus (Nycteus)--for the young Laios (Laeus)--, and Kreon (Creon)--regent for the princes Polyneikes (Polynices) and Eteokles (Eteocles). The descendants of the Spartoi all bore distinctive spear-shaped birth marks which indentified them as members of the clan.
Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes 407 ff (trans. Weir Smyth) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.) :
"[A scene from the War of the Seven Against Thebes :] Against Tydeus [one of the Seven] I will station the trusty son of Astakos (Astacus) as defender of this gate . . . His race springs from the Spartoi (Sown-Men), from one of those whom Ares spared, and so Melanippos is truly born of our land. Ares will decide the outcome with a throw of the dice; but Dike (Justice), his [Ares'] kin by blood, indeed sends this man forth to keep the enemy spear from the mother [the earth] that gave him birth."
Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes 474 ff :
"[A scene from the War of the Seven Against Thebes :] His [Eteokles' (Eteocles')] shield is decorated in great style . . . [and] shouts in syllables of written letters that even Ares could not hurl him from the battlements. Send a dependable opponent against this man, too, to keep the yoke of slavery from our city. I would send this man here, and with good fortune. Indeed, he has already been sent, his only boast in his hands, Megareus, Kreon's (Creon's) seed, of the race of the sown-men (genos spartôn)." [N.B. Eteokles makes a vain boast against Ares, so one of the Spartoi, as a descendant of Ares, is sent to fight him.]
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 5. 2 (trans. Frazer) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Pentheus, whom Agaue (Agave) [daughter of Kadmos (Cadmus)] bore to Ekhion (Echion), had succeeded Kadmos as king [of Thebes]."
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 5. 5 :
"Polydoros, having become king of Thebes [after Pentheus], married Nykteis (Nycteis), daughter of Nykteus (Nycteus), son of [the Spartos] Khthonios (Chthonius), and begat Labdakos (Labdacus), who perished after Pentheus . . . But Labdakos having left a year--old son, Laios (Laeus), the government was usurped by Lykos (Lycus), brother of Nykteus, so long as Laios was a child."
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 6. 7 :
"Now there was among the Thebans a soothsayer, Teiresias (Tiresias), son of Eueres (Everes) and a nymph Khariklo (Chariclo), of the family of Oudaios (Udaeus), the Spartos."
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 73 (trans. Aldrich) :
"[During the War of the Seven Against Thebes :] When the Thebans consulted Teiresias (Tiresias), he told them that they would win the battle if Kreon's (Creon's) son Menoikeus (Menoeceus) [a descendant of the Spartoi, sons of Ares] were to offer himself as a victim to Ares. When he heard this, Menoikeus took his life in front of the gates."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 11. 8 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"On the grave [of the historical Theban Epaminondas] stands a pillar, and on it is a shield with a Drakon (Dragon-Serpent) in relief. The Drakon means that Epaminondas belonged to the race of those called the Spartoi."
Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 4 (trans. Fairbanks) (Greek rhetorician C3rd A.D.) :
"[During the war of the Seven Against Thebes :] Nor are the Thebans without their prophet, for Teiresias is uttering an oracle pertaining to Menoikeus (Menoecius) the son of Kreon (Creon), how that by his death at the Drakon's (Dragon-Serpent's) hole [i.e. the spring of Dirke] the city should thenceforth be free . . . He [Menoikeus] stands at the drakon's hole, drawing out the sword which has already been thrust into his side."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 72 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"When she [Antigona] bore a son [to Haimon (Haemon), son of Kreon (Creon)], and he grew to manhood, he came to Thebes to the Games; Creon recognised him because all those of the Dracon's (Dragon-Serpent's) progeny [the Spartoi] have a mark on their bodies [this was a spear-shaped birthmark according to a Scholiast]."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 67 :
"Oedipus received his father's kingdom, and Jocasta his mother as wife, unwittingly, and begat on her [four children] . . . Meanwhile barrenness of crops and want fell on Thebes because of the crimes of Oedipus, and Tiresias, questioned as to why Thebes was so harassed, replied that if anyone from the Dracon's (Dragon-Serpent's) blood survived and died for his country, he would free Thebes from the plague. Then Menoeceus [father of Jocasta] threw himself from the walls."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 68 :
"When the others [of the army of the Seven Against Thebes] were attacking Thebes, and the Thebans were despairing of their royal family, Tiresias, son of Everes, a prophet, foretold hat if anyone of the Dracon's (Dragon's) descendants should perish, the town would be freed from that disaster. Menoeceus, realizing that he alone of the citizens could bring safety, threw himself from the wall; the Thebans won the victory."
Ovid, Metamorphoses 3. 531 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"[The Spartoi] Race of Mars (proles Marvotia), you Children of the Serpent (Anguigenae) . . . Recall your lineage, brace your courage with the spirit of that Snake (Serpens) who killed, alone, so many. For his pool and spring he died."
JASON & THE SOWING OF THE DRAGON'S TEETH
When Iason (Jason) arrived at Kolkhis (Colchis) in his quest for the Golden Fleece, King Aeetes commanded that he sow the teeth of a Drakon (Dragon-Serpent) in the sacred field of Ares. When he did so a legion of armed Spartoi warriors was born from the earth.
In the oldest versions of the myth the teeth were presumably extracted from the Drakon-guardian of the Golden-Fleece. But according to later writers they came from the Drakon slain by Kadmos (Cadmus) in Thebes.
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1. 128 - 131 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Aeetes ordered him [Iason] to yoke them [metallic bulls created by Hephaistos (Hephaestus)] and sow some drakon-teeth (dragon-teeth) which he had received from Athena: they were half of the teeth which Kadmos (Cadmus) had sown in Thebes . . .
And she [Medeia] explained to him that when he had sown the drakon-teeth, armed warriors would rise up from the earth to attack him. When he saw them grouped together he was to throw stones in their midst, keeping his distance, and as they were fighting each other over the stones, he was to slay them . . . he sowed the drakon-teeth, and armed men did rise up from the earth. Wherever he saw a quantity of them, he threw stones without their seeing him, and as they fought with each other he moved in and slaughtered them."
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3. 407 ff (trans. Rieu) (Greek epic C3rd B.C.) :
"[King Aeetes challenges the Argonaut Iason (Jason) :] ‘I propose to test your courage and abilities by setting you a task which, though formidable, is not beyond the strength of my two hands. Grazing on the plain of Ares, I have a pair of bronze-footed and fire-breathing bulls. These I yoke and drive over the hard fallow of the plain, quickly ploughing a four-acre field up to the ridge at either end. Then I sow the furrows, not with corn, but with the teeth of a monstrous serpent, which presently come up in the form of armed men, whom I cut down and kill with my spear as they rise up against me on all sides. It is morning when I yoke my team and by evening I have done my harvesting. That is what I do. If you, sir, can do as well, you may carry off the fleece to your king's palace on the very same day.’"
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3. 1045 ff :
"[Medea instructs Iason (Jaosn) :] ‘In the morning, melt this charm, strip, and using it like oil, anoint your body. It will endow you with tremendous strength and boundless confidence . . . neither the spear-points of the earthborn men nor the consuming flames that the savage bulls spew out will find you vulnerable . . . And here is something else that will stand you in good stead. You have yoked the mighty bulls; you have ploughed the stubborn fallow (with those great hands and all that strength it will not take you long); you have sown the Serpent's (Dragon's) teeth in the dark earth; and now the Gigantes (Earth-Born) [i.e. Spartoi warriors] are springing up along the furrows. Watch till you see a number of them rise from the soil, then, before they see you, throw a great boulder in among them; and they will fall on it like famished dogs and kill one another. That is your moment; plunge into the fray yourself.’"
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3. 1179 ff :
"The teeth were those of the Aonian Serpent (Dragon), the guardian of Ares' spring, which Kadmos (Cadmus) killed in Ogygian Thebes. He had come there in his search for Europa, and there he settled, under the guidance of a heifer picked out for him by Apollon in an oracle. Athene, Lady of Trito, tore the teeth out of the Serpent's jaws and divided them between Aeetes and Kadmos, the slayer of the beast. Kadmos sowed them in the Aonian [Theban] plain and founded an earthborn clan [the Spartoi] with all who had escaped the spear of Ares when he did his harvesting. Such wee the teeth that Aeetes let them take back to the ship. He gave them willingly, as he was satisfied that Iason (Jason), even if he yoked the bulls, would prove unable to finish of the task."
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3. 493 ff :
"[Jason addresses his fellow Argonauts :] ‘He [Aeetes] said he had a couple of bronze-footed and fire-breathing bulls grazing on the plain of Ares, and told me to plough a four-acre field with these. He will give me seed from the Serpent's jaws which will produce a crop of earthborn men in panoplies of bronze [i.e. Spartoi]. And I have got to kill them before the day is done.’"
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3. 1277 - 1404 :
"Iason (Jason), as soon as his men had made the hawsers fast, leapt from the ship and entered the lists with spear and shield. He also took with him a shining bronze helmet full of sharp teeth, and his sword was slung from his shoulder. But his body was bare, so that he looked like Apollon of the golden sword as much as Ares god of war. Glancing round the field, he saw the bronze yoke for the bulls and beside it the plough of indurated steel, all in one piece. He went up to them, planted his heavy spear in the ground by its butt and laid the helmet down, leaning it against the spear.
Then he went forward with his shield alone to examine the countless tracks that the bulls had made. And now, from somewhere in the bowels of the earth, from the smoky stronghold where they slept, the pair of bulls appeared, breathing flames of fire. The Argonauts wee terrified at the sight. But Iason planting his feet apart stood to receive them, as a reef in the sea confronts the tossing billows in a gale. He held his shield in front of him, and the two bulls, bellowing loudly, charged and butted it with their strong horns. But he was not shifted from his stance, not by so much as an inch. The bulls snorted and spurted from their mouths devouring flames, like a perforated crucible when the leather bellows of the smith, sometimes ceasing, sometimes blowing hard, have made a blaze and the fire leaps up from the bellow with a terrific roar. The deadly heat assailed him on all sides with the force of lightning. But he was protected by Medea's magic. Seizing the right-hand bull by the tip of its horn, he dragged it with all his might towards the yoke, and then brought it down on its knees with a sudden kick on its bronze foot. The other charged, and was felled in the same way at a single blow; and Iason, who had cast his shield aside stood with his feet apart, and though the flames at once enveloped him, held them both down on their fore-knees where they fell. Aeetes marvelled at the man's strength.
Kastor (Castor) and Polydeukes (Polydeuces) picked up the yoke and gave it to Iason--they had been detailed for the task and were close at hand. Iason bound it tight on the bulls' necks, lifted the bronze pole between them and fastened it to the yoke by its pointed end, while the Twins backed out of the heat and returned to the ship. Then, taking his shield from the ground he slung it on his back, picked up the heavy helmet full of teeth and grasped his unconquerable spear, with which, like some ploughman using his Pelasgian goad, he pricked the bulls under their flanks and with a firm grip on its well-made handle guided the adamantine plough.
At first the bulls in their high fury spurted flames of fire. Their breath came out with a roar like that of the blustering wind that causes frightened mariners to take in sail. But presently, admonished by the spear, they went ahead, and the rough fallow cleft by their own and the great ploughman's might lay broken up behind them. The huge clods as they were torn away along the furrow groaned aloud; and Iason came behind, planting his feet down firmly on the field. As he ploughed he sowed the teeth, casting them far from himself with many a backward glance lest a deadly crop of earthborn men should catch him unawares. And the bulls, thrusting their bronze hoofs into the earth, toiled on till only a third of the passing day was left. Then, when weary labourers in other fields were hoping it would soon be time to free their oxen from the yoke, this indefatigable ploughman's work was done--the whole four-acre field was ploughed.
Iason freed his bulls from the plough and shooed them off. They fled across the plain; and he, seeing that no earthborn men had yet appeared in the furrows, seized the occasion to go back to the ship, where his comrades gathered round him with heartening words. He dipped his helmet in the flowing river and with its water quenched his thirst, then flexed his knees to keep them supple; and as fresh courage filled his heart, he lashed himself into a fury . . .
By now the earthborn men were shooting up like corn in all parts of the field. The deadly War-god's sacred plot bristled with stout shields, double-pointed spears, and glittering helmets. The splendour of it flashed through the air above and struck Olympos. Indeed this army springing from the earth shone out like the full congregation of the stars piercing the darkness of a murky night, when snow lies deep and the winds have chased the wintry clouds away. But Iason did not forget the counsel he had had from Medea of the many wiles. He picked up from the field a huge round boulder, a formidable quoit that Ares might have thrown, but four strong men together could not have budged from its place. Rushing forward with this in his hands he hurled it far away among the earthborn men, then crouched behind his shield, unseen and full of confidence. The Kolkhians (Colchians) gave a mighty shout like the roar of the sea beating on jagged rocks; and the king himself was astounded as he saw the great quoit hurtle through the air. But the earthborn men, like nimble hounds, leapt on one another and with loud yells began to slay. Beneath each other's spears they fell on their mother earth, as pines or oaks are blown down by a gale.
And now, like a bright meteor that leaps from heaven and leaves a fiery trail behind it, portentious to all those who see it flash across the night, the son of Aeson hurled himself on them with his sword unsheathed and in promiscuous slaughter mowed them down, striking as he could, for many of them had but half emerged and showed their flanks and bellies only, some had their shoulders clear, some had just stood up, and others were afoot already and rushing into battle. So might some farmer threatened by a frontier war snatch up a newly sharpened sickle and, lest the enemy should reap his fields before him, hasten to cut down the unripe corn, not waiting for the season and the sun to ripen it. Thus Iason cut his crop of earthborn men. Blood filled the furrows as water fills the conduits of a spring. And still they fell, some on their faces biting the rough clods, some on their backs, and others on their hands and sides, looking like monsters from the sea. Many were struck before they could lift up their feet, and rested there with the death-dew on their brows, each trailing on the earth so much of him as had come up into the light of day. They lay like saplings in an orchard bowed to the ground when Zeus has sent torrential rain and snapped them at the foot . . .
Such was the scene that King Aeetes now surveyed, and such his bitterness."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 22 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Aeetes appointed this task to Jason, if he wished to take away the golden fleece--to yoke with yoke of adamant the bronze-footed bulls which breathed flames from their nostrils, and plow, and sow from a helmet the Dragon's teeth, from which a tribe of armed men should arise and slay each other . . . When he had plowed with bulls, and the armed men had been born, by Medea's advice he threw a stone among them. They then fought among themselves and slew each other."
Ovid, Metamorphoses 7. 29 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"[Medea addresses herself :] ‘Unless I help [Jason], the Bull's hot breath will blast him; he will meet fierce foes of his own sowing, Earth-Created (Creati-Telluria), or to the Draco (Dragon) be cast for prey and prize. If I permit such things, I'll surely own a tigress was my dam and in my heart I nurture iron and stone!--Yet why not watch him dying there, my own gazing guilty eyes sharing the crime? Why not urge on the bulls, the Earth-Born (Terrigenae) warriors and the unsleeping Draco?’"
Ovid, Metamorphoses 7. 121 ff :
"With daring hand he [Jason] stroked their [the Fire-Breathing Bulls'] hanging dewlaps; on their necks fitted the yoke and forced the beasts to draw the heavy plough and cut a furrow deep across the sacred ground never ploughed before. The Colchians were amazed; the shouting Greeks cheered on their prince; then from the brazen helm he took the Serpent's (Dragon's) teeth and scattered them over the new-ploughed tilth; the waiting earth softened the seeds, in powerful venom steeped, and the teeth formed new creatures in the soil; and as a baby in his mother's womb takes human shape and, part by part within, is perfected and not until the hour is ripe issues into the common air, so, when within the dark and pregnant earth the forms of men were finished, up they rose from the whole teeming field and each came forth clashing--most wonderful--the arms of war.
Then when the Greeks beheld the multitude with sharp spears poised to hurl at Jason's head, their brave hearts failed; fear was on every face; she too who had made him safe [i.e. the witch Medeia] was filled with dread, and when she saw him there alone, attacked by foes so many, sudden terror drained her blood away, and cold and faint she sat; and lest her herbs should fail she reinforced them with her spells and summoned secret charms. He hurled a heavy rock amidst his foes and thereby turned their onslaught from himself on to each other; then by mutual wounds in civil strife the Earthborn (Terrigenae) brethren died. The Greeks acclaimed the victor and embraced their glorious prince with eager arms; and she, the foreign witch, longed to embrace him too, but modesty--and her fair name--forbade. With silent secret joy her heart was full and gratitude to her triumphant spells and to the gods who gave their magic power."
Ovid, Metamorphoses 7. 210 :
"[Medea invokes Hekate and the gods of night :] ‘You at my prayer tempered the flaming breath of the dread Bulls, you placed upon their necks, necks never yoked before, the curving plough; you turned the warriors, Serpent-Born (Serpentigenae) [i.e. the Spartoi], to war against themselves.’"
Ovid, Heroides 6. 9 ff (trans. Showerman) (Roman poetry C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"Rumour brought me tidings of you [Jason] . . . tidings that the sacred bulls of Mars [Ares] had received the curving yoke; that at the scattering of the seed there sprang forth the harvest of men, who for their doom had no need of your right arm."
Ovid, Heroides 6. 31 ff :
"I began to ask of your [Jason's] fortunes. He tells me of the brazen-footed oxen of Mars [Ares], how they ploughed, of the serpent's teeth scattered upon the ground in way of seed, of men sprung suddenly forth and bearing arms--earth-born peoples slain in combat with their fellows, filling out the fates of their lives in the space of a day."
Ovid, Heroides 12. 13 ff :
"[Medea, betrayed by Jason, laments :] ‘All unanointed would the unremembering [Jason] son of Aeson have gone forth to meet the fires exhaled from the flame-scorched nostrils of the bulls; he would have scattered the seeds--as many as the seeds were the enemy, too--for the sower himself to fall in strife with his own sowing!’"
Ovid, Heroides 12. 39 ff :
"The condition is imposed that you [Jason] press the hard necks of the fierce bulls at the unaccustomed plow. To Mars [Ares] the bulls belonged, raging with more than mere horns, for their breathing was of terrible fire; of solid bronze were their feet, wrought round with bronze their nostrils, made black, too, by the blasts of their own breath. Besides this, you are bidden to scatter with obedient hand over the wide fields the seeds that should beget peoples to assail you with weapons born with themselves; a baneful harvest, that, to its own husbandman. The eyes of the guardian that know not yielding to sleep--by some art to elude them is your final task."
Ovid, Heroides 12. 62 & 93 ff :
"[Medea recounts how she helped Jason in Kolkhis (Colchis) :] ‘Before my eyes appeared the bulls and the dreadful harvest, before my eyes the unsleeping Serpent (Dragon). On the one hand was love, on the other, fear; and fear increased my very love. Morning came, and my dear sister, admitted to my chamber, found me with loosened hair and lying prone upon my face, and everywhere my tears. She implores aid for your Minyae [Argonauts]. What one asks, another is to receive; what she petitions for the Aesonian youth [Jason], I grant . . .
‘You yoke together the bronze-footed bulls with your body unharmed by their fire, and cleave the solid mould with the share as you were bid. The ploughed fields you sow full with envenomed teeth in place of seed; and there rises out of the earth, with sword and shield, a warrior band. Myself, the giver of the charmèd drug, sat pallid there at sight of men all suddenly arisen and in arms; until the earth-born brothers--O deed most wonderful!--drew arms and came to the grapple each with each.’"
Seneca, Medea 465 ff (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy C1st A.D.) :
"[Medea rebukes Jason :] ‘O ungrateful man, let thy heart recall the bull's fiery breath, and, midst the savage terrors of unconquered race, the fire-breathing herd on Aeëtes' arm-bearing plain, the weapons of the suddenly appearing foe, when, at my order, the earth-born soldiery fell in mutual slaughter.’"
Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 7. 62 (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) :
"[King Aeetes addresses the Argonauts :] ‘Before the city there lies the plain of Mars [Ares], rough with neglect through many years, and fiery bulls there are, slow sometimes to recognise me when the ploughshare bites the ground. These more and more have my increasing years now suffered to grow wild and unruly, and a prouder flame than of wont shoots from their bellowing mouths. Succeed then, valiant stranger, to my renown, and till my fields once more. The seed which once I sowed will not be lacking, nor the harvest which once I encountered alone . . . I know not yet whether I would have thee straightway enwrapped in flame and darkness, or rather see thee endure a while till the plain be upturned and the seeds sown and warriors come forth from the teeth of Cadmus' snake and the fallows flower with armed men.’"
Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 7. 610 ff :
"Then, as though it were the Libyan plain or the fertile plough-lands of rich Nile that he [Jason] were cleaving [with the fire-breathing bulls], he joyfully scatters the seeds by handfuls on the ground and burdens the newly-tilled land with war. Then thrice from the very ploughshare issued the trump of Mars [Ares] and from every furrow blared the horns; then was the warlike soil shaken, and the phalanx took life and arms together, and sprang up over all the plain.
The hero withdrew and betook himself for a space to his companions, waiting till the earth should show him the first troop. But when he saw the furrows at last open before the summits of the crests, and the surface quivering with the helmet-peaks, he darted upon them, and where the earth lay closest to the base of their necks, nor yet had their shoulders seen the light, quick to work with obedient sword he levels the trunks with the ground; and as they follow, gleaming corselet or hands first rising from their mother doth he attack and lays them low ere they can strike. Yet suffices he not for the thousands who on this side and on that are springing up . . .
Once more then he has recourse to the Colchian's [Medea's] friendly arts, and disjoins the chain and fastening at his helmet's base; yet he hesitates and would fain himself to challenge the whole array; but no hope offers, so closely throng the banners of the Earth-born on every side, so loud their shouts and trumpet calls. And now all caught sight of the man, and at once all weapons are flying at him. Then mad with fear in such peril he flung into their midst the helmet which Medea of late had drugged with hellish poison: straightway the spears were turned about. And just as the anger of the mournful Mother [Rhea-Kybele] rends every year the frenzied Phyrgians, or as Bellona [Enyo] lacerates the long-haired eunuchs, so doth Medea suddenly inflame and embroil the cohorts, and drive the doomed brethren to battle with their kin. Each one thinks that it is Jason he is laying low, all alike are fired with similar rage. Aeetes stands aghast and would fain recall the madmen, but all the host was on the ground, nor was nay first to fall or last to remain, but the earth of a sudden swallowed up all her dead."
- Pindar, Odes - Greek Lyric C5th B.C.
- Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes - Greek Tragedy C5th B.C.
- Plato, Laws - Greek Philosophy C4th B.C.
- Plato, Sophist - Greek Philosophy C4th B.C.
- Apollodorus, The Library - Greek Mythography C2nd A.D.
- Apollonius Rhodius, The Argonautica - Greek Epic C3rd B.C.
- Lycophron, Alexandra - Greek Poetry C3rd B.C.
- Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History - Greek History C1st B.C.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece - Greek Travelogue C2nd A.D.
- Philostratus the Elder, Imagines - Greek Rhetoric C3rd A.D.
- Hyginus, Fabulae - Latin Mythography C2nd A.D.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses - Latin Epic C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Ovid, Heroides - Latin Poetry C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Propertius, Elegies - Latin Elegy C1st B.C.
- Seneca, Hercules Furens - Latin Tragedy C1st A.D.
- Seneca, Medea - Latin Tragedy C1st A.D.
- Seneca, Oedipus - Latin Tragedy C1st A.D.
- Valerius Flaccus, The Argonautica - Latin Epic C1st A.D.
- Statius, Thebaid - Latin Epic C1st A.D.
A complete bibliography of the translations quoted on this page.