Speaking of Centaurs…Nestor’s Tale in Iliad 1

In the first book of the Iliad, Nestor attempts to intervene in the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon. He eventually tells both men to simmer down—Achilles should act insubordinately and Agamemnon shouldn’t take Briseis. Neither of them listen to him. The reason—beyond the fact that neither of them are in a compromising state of mind—may in part be because of the story Nestor tells.

Il. 1.259–273

“But listen to me: both of you are younger than me; for long before have I accompanied men better than even you and they never disregarded me. For I never have seen those sort of men since, nor do I expect to see them; men like Perithoos and Dryas, the shepherd of the host, and Kaineus and Exadios and godly Polyphemos and Aigeus’ son Theseus, who was equal to the gods; indeed these were the strongest of mortal men who lived—they were the strongest and they fought with the strongest, mountain-inhabiting beasts, and they destroyed them violently. And I accompanied them when I left Pylos far off from a distant land when they summoned me themselves; and I fought on my own. No one could fight with them, none of those mortals who now are on the earth. Even they listened to my counsel and heeded my speech.”

ἀλλὰ πίθεσθ’· ἄμφω δὲ νεωτέρω ἐστὸν ἐμεῖο·
ἤδη γάρ ποτ’ ἐγὼ καὶ ἀρείοσιν ἠέ περ ὑμῖν
ἀνδράσιν ὡμίλησα, καὶ οὔ ποτέ μ’ οἵ γ’ ἀθέριζον.
οὐ γάρ πω τοίους ἴδον ἀνέρας οὐδὲ ἴδωμαι,
οἷον Πειρίθοόν τε Δρύαντά τε ποιμένα λαῶν
Καινέα τ’ ᾿Εξάδιόν τε καὶ ἀντίθεον Πολύφημον
Θησέα τ’ Αἰγεΐδην, ἐπιείκελον ἀθανάτοισιν·
κάρτιστοι δὴ κεῖνοι ἐπιχθονίων τράφεν ἀνδρῶν·
κάρτιστοι μὲν ἔσαν καὶ καρτίστοις ἐμάχοντο
φηρσὶν ὀρεσκῴοισι καὶ ἐκπάγλως ἀπόλεσσαν.
καὶ μὲν τοῖσιν ἐγὼ μεθομίλεον ἐκ Πύλου ἐλθὼν
τηλόθεν ἐξ ἀπίης γαίης· καλέσαντο γὰρ αὐτοί·
καὶ μαχόμην κατ’ ἔμ’ αὐτὸν ἐγώ· κείνοισι δ’ ἂν οὔ τις
τῶν οἳ νῦν βροτοί εἰσιν ἐπιχθόνιοι μαχέοιτο·
καὶ μέν μευ βουλέων ξύνιεν πείθοντό τε μύθῳ·


Ancient commentators praise Nestor elsewhere for his ability to apply appropriate examples in his persuasive speeches:

Schol. Ad Il. 23.630b ex. 1-6: “[Nestor] always uses appropriate examples. For, whenever he wants to encourage someone to enter one-on-one combat, he speaks of the story of Ereuthaliôn (7.136-56); when he wanted to rouse Achilles to battle, he told the story of the Elean war (11.671¬–761). And here in the games for Patroklos, he reminds them of an ancient funeral contest.”

ex. ὡς ὁπότε κρείοντ'<—᾿Επειοί>: ἀεὶ οἰκείοις παραδείγμασι χρῆται· ὅταν μὲν γάρ τινα ἐπὶ μονομάχιον ἐξαναστῆσαι θέλῃ, τὰ περὶ ᾿Ερευθαλίωνα (sc. Η 136—56) λέγει, ὅταν δὲ ᾿Αχιλλέα ἐπὶ τὴν μάχην, τὰ περὶ τὸν ᾿Ηλειακὸν πόλεμον (sc. Λ 671—761)·
καὶ ἐν τοῖς ἐπὶ Πατρόκλῳ ἄθλοις παλαιοῦ ἐπιταφίου μέμνηται ἀγῶνος.

The scholia also assert that such use of stories from the past is typical of and appropriate to elders:

Schol. ad Il. 9.447b ex. 1-2 : “The elderly are storytellers and they persuade with examples from the past. In other cases, the tale assuages the anger…”

μυθολόγοι οἱ γέροντες καὶ παραδείγμασι παραμυθούμενοι. ἄλλως τε ψυχαγωγεῖ τὴν ὀργὴν ὁ μῦθος.

Not just elders of course! Singers and teachers are positioned as authorities who should (and do) use narrative examples to form the characters of the young (the first comment comes in response to Achilles’ playing of the lyre; the second comment is prompted by Phoinix’s tale of Meleager presented to Achilles in the 9th book of the Iliad:

Schol. A ad. Il. 9.189b ex. 1-2: “Klea andrôn: [this is because] it is right to be ever-mindful of good men. For singers make their audiences wise through ancient narratives.”

ex. κλέα ἀνδρῶν: ὅτι ἀειμνήστους δεῖ τοὺς ἀγαθοὺς εἶναι· οἱ γὰρ ἀοιδοὶ διὰ τῶν παλαιῶν ἱστοριῶν τοὺς ἀκούοντας ἐσωφρόνιζον.

Schol. ad Il. 9.447b ex. 1-2 : “The elderly are storytellers and they persuade with examples from the past. In other cases, the tale assuages the anger…”

μυθολόγοι οἱ γέροντες καὶ παραδείγμασι παραμυθούμενοι. ἄλλως τε ψυχαγωγεῖ τὴν ὀργὴν ὁ μῦθος.

For Nestor’s speech, the ancient critics do concede that there is some rhetorical grace in the elder’s choice of detail:

Schol. bT ad Il. 1.271c ex. 3-5: “[Nestor] does not mention that Peleus [Achilles’ father] was Agamemnon’s friend so that he doesn’t appear to be rebuking Achilles if his father obeyed him some, but he does not.”

Πηλέως δὲ οὐκ ἐμνήσθη ὡς ᾿Αγαμέμνονος φίλος, ἵνα μὴ δοκῇ ἐλέγχειν ᾿Αχιλλέα, εἴ γε ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ τι πέπεισται, ὁ δὲ οὔ. b(BCE3E4)T

But in explaining the details of Nestor’s speech—that he is alluding to the mythical battle of the Lapiths vs. the Centaurs—the scholiast may hit upon part of the problem of Nestor’s example:

Schol. T ad Il. 1.266 ex 1-2: “These were the strongest men: but they were the strongest in competing against the remaining beasts”.

ex. | ex. <κάρτιστοι δὴ κεῖνοι—ἀπόλεσσαν:> κάρτιστοι μὲν οὗτοι τῶν ἀνδρῶν· ἐκεῖνοι δὲ κράτιστοι πρὸς τὰ λοιπὰ συγκρινόμενοι θηρία. b(BCE3E4)TT

Unlike Nestor’s other tales, this one does not fit the context. He uses it in an attempt to establish his own heroic bona fides. But what his audience(s) hear is some rambling tale about fighting beasts they are not fighting. The conflict is between men who are supposed to be on the same side.

As an aside, Xenophanes would prefer we avoid talking about Centaurs altogether:


Xenophanes, fr. B1 13-24

“First, it is right for merry men to praise the god
with righteous tales and cleansing words
after they have poured libations and prayed to be able to do
what is right: in fact, these things are easier to do,
instead of sacrilege. It is right as well to drink as much as you can
and still go home without help, unless you are very old.
It is right to praise a man who shares noble ideas when drinking
so that we remember and work towards excellence.
It is not right to narrate the wars of Titans or Giants
nor again of Centaurs, the fantasies of our forebears,
Nor of destructive strife. There is nothing useful in these tales.
It is right always to keep in mind good thoughts of the gods.”

χρὴ δὲ πρῶτον μὲν θεὸν ὑμνεῖν εὔφρονας ἄνδρας
εὐφήμοις μύθοις καὶ καθαροῖσι λόγοις,
σπείσαντάς τε καὶ εὐξαμένους τὰ δίκαια δύνασθαι
πρήσσειν• ταῦτα γὰρ ὦν ἐστι προχειρότερον,
οὐχ ὕβρεις• πίνειν δ’ ὁπόσον κεν ἔχων ἀφίκοιο
οἴκαδ’ ἄνευ προπόλου μὴ πάνυ γηραλέος.
ἀνδρῶν δ’ αἰνεῖν τοῦτον ὃς ἐσθλὰ πιὼν ἀναφαίνει,
ὡς ἦι μνημοσύνη καὶ τόνος ἀμφ’ ἀρετῆς,
οὔ τι μάχας διέπειν Τιτήνων οὐδὲ Γιγάντων
οὐδὲ Κενταύρων, πλάσμα τῶν προτέρων,
ἢ στάσιας σφεδανάς• τοῖς οὐδὲν χρηστὸν ἔνεστιν•
θεῶν προμηθείην αἰὲν ἔχειν ἀγαθήν.

5 thoughts on “Speaking of Centaurs…Nestor’s Tale in Iliad 1

    1. Hey Bill

      I don’t know if it does–he says he was called to join the fight against centaurs, so it does not mean that he was there beforehand. He was one of the younger sons of Neleus, so maybe his brothers and father were there?

      This is a great question that needs further thought…Peleus was there…

      let me muse on this a bit.

      1. Joel,

        Apparently, I should have googled the question before answering. Apparently, Ovid thought Nestor attended Hippodamia’s wedding. ( Ov.Met.12.441.). Ovid lists 3 or 4 centaurs Bestor slays. I have found no Greek source and still can’t figure why his was invited


  1. Joel,

    Nikoloz Shamugia (Pisa) in “The Thessalian Centauromachy and Common Greek Identity in Homer” says “The inclusion of Nestor in the traditional legendary battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths constitutes a Homeric innovation.” Shamugia argues that Nestor is using the story as an example of pan-hellenic. He offers the following refences. (Cantieni, 1942, 70 and Lang, 1983, 14) I found the paper here; http://phasis.tsu.ge/index.php/phasis/article/view/318/html#_ftnref22


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