A centauromachy is a fight in which centaurs are involved, although many people are referring specifically to the Centauromachy, a famous fight featured in Greek mythology, when they use this word. The legend of the Centauromachy is one of several myths in which the theme of civilization triumphing over perceived barbarity is celebrated. This theme is not uncommon in Greek mythology, perhaps because the Ancient Greeks regarded their culture as the height of civilization.
Greek legends about the origins of the centaurs vary, with at least three different sets of mythological figures being given credit for the parentage of the centaurs. However the centaurs originated, in Greek mythology, they are portrayed as barbarous and uncivilized. According to legend, these residents of Thessaly came into conflict with the Greeks when they showed up uninvited at the wedding of Hippodamia and Pirithous, the King of the Lapiths.
The centaurs were overcome by the strong wine served at the wedding, and they attempted to carry off Hippodamia, along with the other Lapithian women. The Lapithian men, naturally, did not take kindly to this, and took up arms against the centaurs, assisted by the Greek hero Theseus, who happened to be present for the festivities. Theseus threw his lot in with the Lapithians, helping them defeat and repel the centaurs. This legend carries an implication of celebration, lauding the victory of civilizing influences over barbarous cultures.
The Centauromachy is depicted in a number of works of Greek art, including the Elgin Marbles which once adorned the Parthenon and a number of Greek vases. The myth of the Centauromachy also proved appealing to artists in other cultures, who created their own versions in paintings and works of sculpture. Examples of many other themes from Classical art and mythology can be found in European art from many eras of history, illustrating the deep interest in Ancient Greece which consumed many European artists.
Centaurs are often depicted as wild, fierce, and untamed in stories which borrow these mythological figures, although J. K. Rowling notably made the centaurs in the Harry Potter novels wise as well as ferocious. Some historians theorize that the legends about the centaurs may have arisen from exposure to cultures which uses horses. To the non-riding Greeks, men and women mounted on horses might have seemed like mythical monsters. These cultures were regarded as barbaric and savage, with this idea being reinforced by legends such as the story of the Centauromachy.