Tyrtaeus (//; Greek: Τυρταῖος Tyrtaios) was a Greek lyric poet from Sparta who composed verses around the time of the Second Messenian War, the date of which is not clearly established, but sometime in the latter part of the seventh century BC. He is known especially for political and military elegies, exhorting Spartans to support the state authorities and to fight bravely against the Messenians, who had temporarily succeeded in wresting their estates from Spartan control.
Traditional accounts of his life, on which we rely for biographical details, were almost entirely deduced from his poetry or were simply fiction, as for example an account by Pausanias of his supposed transformation from a lame, stupid school teacher in Athens to the mastermind of Spartan victories against the Messenians.
Nevertheless, the Byzantine encyclopedia the Suda has two entries for Tyrtaeus, summarizing conflicting reports that were current at that time. The first of them runs as follows:
Tyrtaeus, son of Archembrotus, a Laconian or Milesian elegiac poet and pipe-player. It is said that by means of his songs he urged on the Lacedaemonians in their war with the Messenians and in this way enabled them to get the upper hand. He is very ancient, contemporary with those called the Seven sages, or even earlier. He flourished in the 35th Olympiad (640–37 BC). He wrote a constitution for the Lacedaemonians, precepts in elegiac verse, and war songs, in five books.
The second entry states that the Spartans took him as their general from among the Athenians in response to an oracle.
The floruit given in the first entry is perhaps too early since Jerome offers a date of 633–32. Modern scholars are less specific: dates for the Second Messenian War and hence for Tyrtaeus are given as broad approximations, such as "the latter part of the 7th century" and "any time between the sixties and the thirties" of the seventh century. The claim in the Suda's second entry that Tyrtaeus was a Spartan general is made also by Athenaeus and Strabo.
Some of the other issues raised by the Suda are addressed under the following headings.
Confusion about his place of origin could have had several causes. It might have been due to ancient assumptions that Sparta was too "spartan" ever to have produced a talented poet of its own, or because Tyrtaeus didn't compose in the Doric dialect or vernacular of Sparta (unlike his near contemporary, Alcman) but imitated the conventional literary dialect of Homer, which was Ionian. Ancient Athenian propaganda might also have played a role. One ancient source even listed his Athenian deme, Aphidnae, but there was also a place of that name in Laconia. Variations on his Athenian origin and his deformity are found in numerous ancient sources, including Diogenes Laërtius, who said that the Athenians regarded him as deranged, and Porphyry, who labelled him "one-eyed", and Justin, who believed that he was sent to the Spartans by the Athenians as a deliberate insult. According to Pausanias, the Athenians sent the lame, mentally defective teacher/poet to Sparta as a compromise, wishing to obey the oracle, which had demanded an Athenian, but not wishing to help the Spartans in their war, which would have required a more capable individual. Even a luminary such as Plato gave credence to the poet's Athenian origin and yet Tyrtaeus wasn't listed by Herodotus among the two foreigners ever to have been awarded Spartan citizenship. The poet's tone of authority when addressing the Spartan warrior class, and the occasional Doric word in his vocabulary, indicate that he was in fact Laconian. However, the picture is complicated by modern doubts about the authenticity of the extant verses, some or all being dated by various scholars to the fifth or fourth century BC. A theory that "Tyrtaeus" was in fact a fifth century Athenian was posited by Eduard Schwartz as early as 1899.
His poems are the martial hymn-book of that discipline and devotion to the state which held Spartan ranks steady in the face of certain death at Thermopylae and became one of the enduring legends of western history.— Barron and P. Easterling
However his Sparta wasn't that Spartan. The conquest of Messenia in the eighth century, by the grandfathers of Tyrtaeus's generation, provided the foundation for a sophisticated and cultivated lifestyle. Foreign poets like the Lesbian Terpander and Cretan Thaletas were welcome guests. Ivory and gold ornaments, bronze vessels of ornate workmanship, fine pottery and the odes of Alcman all testify to refined tastes, continuing even into the sixth century. The continuance of those luxuries was "dearly purchased" in blood and toil by Tyrtaeus's generation when the Messenians revolted, and the ensuing war and civil strife inspired his entire poetic work. The crisis was mentioned by Aristotle for its instructive power:
"Moreover, factions arise whenever some (aristocrats) are extremely poor and others are well off. And this happens especially during wars; it happened too in Sparta in the course of the Messenian War, as is clear from the poem of Tyrtaeus called Eunomia. For some, hard pressed because of the war, demanded a redistribution of the land."—Aristotle
His verses seem to mark a critical point in Spartan history, when Spartans began to turn from their flourishing arts and crafts and from the lighter verses of poets like Alcman (roughly his contemporary), to embrace a regime of military austerity: "life in Sparta became spartan". Some modern scholars believe that Tyrtaeus helped to precipitate and formulate this transition but others see no real evidence for this.
Tyrtaeus in his poetry urged the Spartans to remain loyal to the state and he reminded them of a constitution based on divine providence, requiring co-operation of kings, elders and the people.[nb 1] He sought to inspire them in battle by celebrating the example of their grandfathers' generation, when Messenia was first captured, in the rule of King Theopompus,[nb 2] and he gave practical advice on weapons, armour and tactics (see for example the verses below). Some modern scholars however think his advice shows more familiarity with the schoolroom than with the battlefield, appearing to feature obsolete armour and tactics typical of Homeric rather than hoplite warfare. Others have argued that the Spartans at that time were still developing hoplite tactics or that they were adapting hoplite tactics to encounter Messenian guerillas.
Tyrtaeus's poetry is almost always interpreted teleologically, for signs of its subsequent impact on Spartan society. The similarities in meter and phrasing between Homeric epic and early elegy have encouraged this tendency, sometimes leading to dramatic conclusions about Tyrtaeus's significance. He has been called, for example, "the first poet of the Greek city state" and, in a similar vein, "he has recast the Homeric ideal of the single champion's arete (excellence) into the arete of the patriot". For some scholars, this is to credit Tyrtaeus with too much: his use of arete was not an advance on Homer's use of it but can still be interpreted as signifying "virtue" in the archaic sense of an individual's power to achieve something rather than as an anticipation of the classical sense of moral excellence, familiar to Plato and others.
The constitution mentioned by the Suda seems to be the Eunomia mentioned by Aristotle. Surviving only in a few fragments, it seems to have emphasized the role of divine providence in the development of the state and of its government. Eventually the Spartans emerged from the Second Messenian War with their constitution intact, either because victory made change unnecessary or because "religious propaganda" of the kind promoted by Tyrtaeus stemmed the pressure for change. According to the Suda, both his "constitution" (Εὐνομία) and his "precepts" (Ὑποθῆκαι) were composed in elegiac couplets, but Pausanias also mentions "anapests", a few lines of which, quoted by Dio Chrysostom and attributed to Tyrtaeus by a scholiast, could have belonged to the so-called "war songs" (Πολεμιστήρια), of which nothing else survives. According to Philodemus, who presented it as a little-known fact, Tyrtaeus was honoured above others because of his music, not just his verses, Pollux stated that he introduced Spartans to three choruses based on age (boys, young and old men) and some modern scholars in fact argue that he composed his elegies in units of five couplets each, alternating between exhortation and reflection, in a kind of responsion similar to Greek choral poetry. Ancient commentators included Tyrtaeus with Archilochus and Callinus as the possible inventor of the elegy. In fact one fanciful explanation of his lameness is that it alludes to the elegiac couplet, one verse of which is shorter than the other.
Tyrtaeus was predominantly an elegiac poet and elegy may be described as "a variation upon the heroic hexameter, in the direction of lyric poetry". Heroic hexameters were used by Homer, whose phrases and Ionian vocabulary became the mainstay of Tyrtaeus's verse, even though that was composed for Doric-speaking Spartan audiences—"...a measure of the extent to which the Ionian epics had by now created among the Greeks a cultural unity which transcended dialect and ethnic rivalry". The use of Ionian vocabulary is all the more remarkable in that Tyrtaeus gave voice to a national, military ethic peculiar to Sparta, and his verses were possibly sung at banquets on campaign and even on the march.[nb 3] However, the only verse surviving from the marching songs (Ἐμβατήρια) is in anapests, it includes Dorisms and its authenticity is doubtful[nb 4]
The elegies, being sung at military banquets, belong to a tradition of sympotic poetry while also being representative of the genre of martial exhortation. The adoption of language and thematic concerns from Homeric epic is characteristic of this genre. For instance, the words of Tyrtaeus 10.1–2 ("For it is a fine thing for a man having fallen nobly amid the fore-fighters to die, fighting on behalf of the fatherland") undoubtedly echo Hector's speech in 15.494–7 of Homer's Iliad.: ("And whoever hit by a missile or struck by a sword find his death and fated end, let him die. It is not unseemly for one to die protecting the land of his fathers"). It is possible that Tyrtaeus intentionally alludes to Homer in instances such as these for political reasons: given the fact that his poetry, like that of other archaic authors, was most likely performed in the context of aristocratic symposia, his references to epic heroism served to praise the elite status of his aristocratic audience.
The three longest fragments of surviving verse (fr. 10–12) are complete or virtually complete poems describing the ideal warrior and the disgrace or glory that attends his personal choices. Their poetic quality is uneven, they include some arresting imagery and there are some clumsy transitions, repetitions and padding. The following lines belong to one of these (fr. 11, lines 27–34, here referred to as lines 1–8) and they give a compelling picture of battle between hoplite forces.
ἔρδων δ' ὄβριμα ἔργα διδασκέσθω πολεμίζειν,
Let a man learn how to fight by first daring to perform mighty deeds,
The noble sentiment of line 1 seems to be original yet the vocabulary is entirely Homeric and, though lines 5–7 are adapted from Homer's Iliad (13.130–33),[nb 5] there is an important difference: Homer describes the advance of one side in close formation, whereas Tyrtaeus describes two sides meeting in the hoplite style of fighting. The description of the battle is rejected however by some scholars as anachronistic: for example, missiles were not characteristic of hoplite warfare. The passage demonstrates one of the more common devices employed by Tyrtaeus—the use of parallel phrases for amplification, sometimes degenerating into tedious repetition. Here it is used to communicate a sense of the crowded battlefield.
There are English verse translations by Richard Polwhele (1792) and imitations by H. J. Pye, poet laureate (1795), and an Italian version by F. Cavallotti, with text, introduction and notes (1898). The fragment beginning Τεθνάμεναι γὰρ καλόν (fr. 10 West) has been translated by Thomas Campbell, the poet. The edition by C. A. Klotz (1827) contains a dissertation on the war-songs of different countries.