15 Facts About Tyrtaeus


Tyrtaeus wrote at a time of two crises affecting the city: a civic unrest threatening the authority of kings and elders, later recalled in a poem named Eunomia, where he reminded citizens to respect the divine and constitutional roles of kings, council, and demos; and the Second Messenian War, during which he served as a sort of "state poet", exhorting Spartans to fight to the death for their city.

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Virtually all that is known about the life of Tyrtaeus is found in two entries of the Suda, a Byzantine encyclopedia redacted in the 10th century AD.

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Tyrtaeus is very ancient, contemporary with those called the Seven sages, or even earlier.

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Tyrtaeus wrote a constitution for the Lacedaemonians, precepts in elegiac verse, and war songs, in five books.

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Yet, Tyrtaeus was not listed by Herodotus among the two foreigners ever to have been awarded Spartan citizenship.

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Scholars generally agree that Tyrtaeus was a native of Laconia for several reasons: the use of the first personal plural to include himself among the Heraclidae whom Zeus had given to Sparta in fragment 2; the presence of occasional Doric words in his vocabulary; and his tone of authority when addressing Spartan warriors, which would have been tolerated only if delivered by a Spartan-born poet.

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Conquest of Messenia in the eighth century, by the grandfathers of Tyrtaeus's generation, provided the foundation for a sophisticated and cultivated lifestyle.

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Tyrtaeus's 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, to embrace a regime of military austerity: "life in Sparta became spartan".

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Some modern scholars believe that Tyrtaeus helped to precipitate and formulate this transition but others see no real evidence for this.

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Tyrtaeus 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, and he gave practical advice on weapons, armour and tactics.

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Tyrtaeus's 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.

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Tyrtaeus's poetry is almost always interpreted teleologically, for signs of its subsequent impact on Spartan society.

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Tyrtaeus 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 into the arete of the patriot".

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Athenaeus, Strabo and the second entry of the Suda claim that Tyrtaeus was a Spartan general.

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Pollux stated that Tyrtaeus introduced Spartans to three choruses based on age, and some modern scholars in fact contend 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.

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