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The Elegiac Poems of Tyrtaeus

From a Papyrus of the 3rd Century B.C.1 ... of stones ...2 like tribes of [swarming flies.3 Some of them did] Ares, bane of men, [hungry for the war-cry, take in open fight4], others [cast he] over the [crags. Let us, then,] go forward behind our hollow shields like [a flight of locusts]5 or [of cranes], Pamphyli, Hylleis, [Dymanes],6 each tribe severally brandishing its man-slaying ashen spears. And [thus ordered, entrusting] all to the Immortal Gods, we shall obey our [holy] leader7 for ever without end. But in a moment one and all [together] shall we be wielding the flail, standing up to spearmen; and dire will be the din when both sides clash rounded shield against rounded shield, [and awful the shrieks] as they fall one upon another, [piercing] men's breasts with [the spear; and no whit] will they draw back for the pounding [of the missiles, nay,] despite the battery of great hurlstones, the helms shall abide the rattle [of war unbowed.]

“.... nurse of Dionysus .... of fair-tressed Semele” From a Papyrus of the 3rd Century B.C. ... 8 .... triumphant about victory .... looking to the end .... bringing a wheeled chariot .... -ing .... hastening [them] backward .... locks over [her] head .... we will bear keen War together ........ nor will [he] tell in story (?) .... having

... 9 ... 10 ... 11


“He says he is of that place12 in the Elegy entitled Eunomia or Orderliness :

For Cronus' Son Himself, Zeus the husband of fair-crowned Hera, hath given this city to the children of Heracles, with whom we came into the wide isle of Pelops from windy Erineus.

Strabo Geography [Tyrtaeus]
“In aristocratic states faction arises ... also when some of the citizens have too little and others more than enough —which happens particularly often in war; for instance at Sparta about the time of the Messenian War, as appears from the poem of Tyrtaeus called Eunomia. Crushed by the burden of the war, certain citizens demanded a re-distribution of the land.” Aristotle Politics:
“When the commons were assembled, he suffered no other to give his opinion, but the people had the right of giving judgment on an opinion laid before them by the Elders and Kings. Later, however, when the commons began to twist and distort the opinions13 of the Elders and Kings by addition and subtraction, Kings Polydorus and Theopompus inserted in the rhetra or ordinance the following clause: ‘If the commons choose a crooked opinion,14 the elderborn and archleaders [that is the Elders and Kings] have powers of dissolution’ —which means that they may refuse to ratify it and may withdraw themselves altogether and dismiss the commons, as trying to divert and change the opinion of the Elders and Kings contrary to what is best —, and themselves persuaded the people to accept it in the belief that this was the command of the God, as indeed Tyrtaeus mentions in the following lines:

They heard the voice of Phoebus and brought home from Pytho oracles of the God and words of sure fulfilment;15 for thus the Lord of the Silver Bow, Far-Shooting Apollo of the Golden Hair, gave answer from out his rich sanctuary: The beginning of counsel shall belong to the God-honoured Kings whose care is the delightsome city of Sparta, and to the men of elder birth; after them shall the commons, answering them back with forthright ordinances,16 both say things honourable and do all that is right, nor give the city any crooked counsel; so shall the common people have victory and might; for this hath Phoebus declared unto their city in these matters.

Plutarch Life of Lycurgus: “... that the same Lycurgus brought an oracle from Delphi concerning their love of money, remembered as a proverb: ‘By love of pelf and nothing else shall Sparta be destroyed; for this hath Phoebus’ etc.” Diodorus of Sicily Historical Library:
17The man who brought the war to an end was this Theopompus, as is testified by the Elegiac lines of Tyrtaeus, which say ‘to our King’ etc. (ll. 1-2).

... to our king, the friend of the Gods, Theopompus, through whom we took spacious Messene, Messene so good to plough and so good to plant, for which there fought ever unceasingly nineteen years, keeping an unfaltering heart, the spearmen fathers of our fathers, and in the twentieth year the foeman left his rich lands and fled from the great uplands of Ithome.

Pausanias Description of Greece [the Second Messenian War] “On Tyrtaeus' arrival in Lacedaemon he became inspired, and urged the Spartans to end the war against the Messenians by every means in his power, among others by the famous line ‘Messene is good,’ etc.” Scholiast on Plato “Messene was taken after a war of nineteen years; compare Tyrtaeus: (ll. 4-8).” Strabo Geography:

“The vengeance the Spartans took on the Messenians is referred to in these lines of Tyrtaeus:

galled with great burdens like asses, bringing to their lords under grievous necessity a half of all the fruit of the soil.

And that they were obliged to join in their lamentations he shows in the following couplet:

making lamentation for their lords both themselves and their wives, whenever one was overtaken with the dolorous fate of Death.


Pausanias Description of Greece:

“They fought more than once because of rebellion on the part of the Messenians. The first conquest, according to the poems of Tyrtaeus, took place two generations before his time, and the second, when they rebelled in alliance with the Argives, Arcadians, and Pisatans, the Arcadians making Aristocrates king of Orchomenus their general and the Pisatans Pantaleon son of Omphalion; in the latter war he declares that he led the Lacedaemonians himself.” Strabo Geography:
“They are compelled to fight by their masters ..., and their generals and other officers who beat them if they give ground do the same thing, and the commanders who draw them up in front of trenches and the like —they all compel them; whereas a man should be brave not because he must but because he ought.” Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics [on soldiers] “As the Persians in Herodotus; for it was under such commanders that they fought the Greeks at Thermopylae. ‘In front of trenches’ etc.: this he must say of the Spartans; for such was the manner of their fighting in their war with the Messenians, recorded by Tyrtaeus.” Scholiast on the passage:
“So great was the energy, both public and private, of the men who then inhabited Athens, that the bravest people of Greece, in their war of long ago against the Messenians, received an oracle which bade them if they would defeat their enemies to take a leader from us. Now if the God preferred a general of Athens above the two Heracleid kings who rule at Sparta, that general must have been a man of extraordinary valour. Everyone in Greece knows that the general they took from our city was Tyrtaeus, by whose aid, with a wisdom that looked far beyond the dangers of that day, they both defeated their enemies and established their system of education. Tyrtaeus left behind him Elegiac Poems which are used to teach them courage, and a people whose practice is to take no account of poets, have made so much of Tyrtaeus as to pass a law that whenever they take the field under arms they shall all be summoned to the king's tent to hear his poems, in the belief that this will make them most willing to die for their country. And it would be well for you to hear the Elegiac verses, so that you may know what it was that made men famous among them:

For 'tis a fair thing for a good man to fall and die fighting in the van for his native land, whereas to leave his city and his rich fields and go a-begging is of all things the most miserable, wandering with mother dear and aged father, with little children and wedded wife. For hateful shall such an one be among all those to whom he shall come in bondage to Want and loathsome Penury, and doth shame his lineage and belie his noble beauty, followed by all evil and dishonour. Now if so little thought be taken of a wanderer, and so little honour, respect, or pity, let us fight with a will for this land, and die for our children and never spare our lives.

Abide then, O young men, shoulder to shoulder and fight; begin not foul flight nor yet be afraid, but make the heart in your breasts both great and stout, and never shrink when you fight the foe.18 And the elder sort, whose knees are no longer nimble, fly not ye to leave them fallen to earth.19 For 'tis a foul thing, in sooth, for an elder to fall in the van and lie before the younger, his head white and his beard hoary, breathing forth his stout soul in the dust, with his privities20 all bloody in his hands, a sight so foul to see and fraught with such ill to the seer, and his flesh also all naked; yet to a young man all is seemly enough, so long as he have the noble bloom of lovely youth, aye a marvel he for men to behold, and desirable unto women, so long as ever he be alive, and fair in like manner when he be fallen in the vanguard. So let each man bite his lip with his teeth and abide firm-set astride upon the ground.

Lycurgus21 Against Leocrates [to the Athenians about their ancestors]
“Tyrtaeus: —

Ye are of the lineage of the invincible Heracles22; so be ye of good cheer; not yet is the head of Zeus turned away. Fear ye not a multitude of men, nor flinch, but let every man hold his shield straight towards the van, making Life his enemy and the black Spirits of Death dear as the rays of the sun. For ye know the destroying deeds of lamentable Ares, and well have learnt the disposition of woeful War; ye have tasted both of the fleeing and the pursuing, lads, and had more than your fill of either. Those who abiding shoulder go with a will into the mellay and the van, of these are fewer slain, these save the people afterward; as for them that turn to fear, all their valour is lost —no man could tell in words each and all the ills that befall a man if he once come to dishonour. For pleasant it is in dreadful warfare to pierce the midriff of a flying man, and disgraced is the dead that lieth in the dust with a spear-point in his back. So let each man bite his lip and abide firm-set astride upon the ground, covering with the belly of his broad buckler thighs and legs below and breast and shoulders above; let him brandish the massy spear in his right hand, let him wave the dire crest upon his head; let him learn how to fight by doing doughty deeds, and not stand shield in hand beyond the missiles. Nay, let each man close the foe, and with his own long spear, or else with his sword, wound and take an enemy, and setting foot beside foot, resting shield against shield, crest beside crest, helm beside helm, fight his man breast to breast with sword or long spear in hand. And ye also, ye light-armed, crouch ye on either hand beneath the shield and fling your great hurlstones and throw against them your smooth javelins, in your place beside the men of heavier armament.23

Stobaeus Anthology [on war]

24I would neither call a man to mind nor put him in my tale for prowess in the race or the wrestling, not even had he the stature and strength of a Cyclops and surpassed in swiftness the Thracian Northwind, nor were he a comelier man than Tithonus and a richer than Midas or Cinyras, nor though he were a greater king than Pelops son of Tantalus, and had Adrastus' suasiveness of tongue, nor yet though all fame were his save of warlike strength; for a man is not good in war if he have not endured the sight25 of bloody slaughter and stood nigh and reached forth to strike the foe. This is prowess,26 this is the noblest prize and the fairest for a lad to win in the world; a common good this27 both for the city and all her people, when a man standeth firm in the forefront without ceasing, and making heart and soul to abide, forgetteth foul flight altogether and hearteneth by his words him that he standeth by. Such a man is good in war; he quickly turneth the savage hosts of the enemy, and stemmeth the wave of battle with a will; moreover he that falleth in the van and loseth dear life to the glory of his city and his countrymen and his father, with many a frontwise wound through breast and breastplate and through bossy shield, he is bewailed alike by young and old, and lamented with sore regret by all the city. His grave and his children are conspicuous among men, and his children's and his line after them; nor ever doth his name and good fame perish, but though he be underground he liveth evermore, seeing that he was doing nobly and abiding in the fight for country's and children's sake when fierce Ares brought him low. But and if he escape the doom of outstretched Death and by victory make good the splendid boast of battle,28 he hath honour of all,29 alike young as old, and cometh to his death after much happiness; as he groweth old he standeth out among his people, and there's none that will do him hurt either in honour or in right; all yield him place on the benches, alike the young and his peers and his elders. This is the prowess each man should this day aspire to,30 never relaxing from war.

Stobaeus Anthology [praise of valour]
“... he cites a very large number of verses of the poets, all equally absurd, as when he praises Tyrtaeus for saying31:

with the heart of a tawny lion in his breast

Galen Hippocrates and Plato [on Chrysippus]
“Compare Tyrtaeus too:

before [ye] draw near to the bounds betwixt prowess and death

Plutarch Inconsistencies of the Stoics:

32The simple vowel (o) occurs anceps in the middle of a word and in an antibacchius ( ——*), as in Tyrtaeus' ἥροες (for ἥρωες


for this is how he scanned the second foot of the line.

Scholiast on Hephaestion [the shortening of the diphtong oi]

1 preceded by a mutilated column containing ἀγαλλομένη rejoicing in, κροκόεντα yellow, [τερ]άεσσι Διὸς signs from Zeus

2 perh. pouches of slingstones and quivers of arrows (Diels)

3 cf. Il. 2. 469

4 cf. Il. 17. 168

5 cf. Ar. Ach. 150

6 the three Spartan ‘tribes’

7 one of the two Spartan kings

8 (7 ll. lost or much mutilated )

9 ( col. 2 (4) of 17 ll. lost or much mutilated )

10 ( col. 3 (5) almost entirely lost )

11 ( col. 4 (6) much mutilated, containing wherein quivering, of the Messenians, those without ... and we in the midst, and they as from out the [hoary sea ...], waves ... like to them, of august Hera, when the children of Tyndareus)

12 Strabo seems to mistake the ‘we’ by which T. means ‘we Spartans’ (historically speaking) for ‘you and I' of this generation; but as Erineus has not been mentioned above there clearly has been loss in the mss

13 i.e. motions

14 i.e. adopt a motion whose sense they have changed

15 Plut. gives ll. 1-2 and 5-8, Diod. 3-12; every other line (i.e. the pentameters) seems to have been added by Tyrtaeus to the original oracle (B)

16 prob. means shaping their counsel into decrees which truly represent it

17 cf. Paus. 4. 15. 2(ll.4-6), 4. 13. 6(ll. 7-8)

18 cf. Il. 9. 327

19 reading doubtful

20 or perh. emending the Gr. entrails

21 the Athenian orator, 330 B.C.

22 cf. [Plut.] Nobil. 2. 1

23 the last sentence has the air of an addition,which itself, to judge by the slightly confused syntax, may have once ended at ‘hurlstones’

24 cf. Plat. Legg. 629a, 660e, Phaedr. 269a, Clem. Al. Paed. 3. 233, Stob. Fl. 51.1

25 or persevered in sight

26 or this is the noblest virtue (supplying ἀρίστη );cf. Theogn. 1003

27 or this is the noblest virtue (supplying ἀρίστη );cf. Theogn. 1003

28 or of his spear

29 cf. Theogn. 935

30 lit. try to come to the top of

31 or quotes this from T.

32 for the Spartan March-Songs sometimes ascribed to Aleman and Tyrtaeus, see Lyra Graeca iii. p. 535

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