Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Wednesday with Words: The power of a poet

We all know what it means to be spartan – stern, austere, brave, frugal – but Sparta, the home of Menelaus and Helen, was not always “spartan.”  During the Dark Age and the early Archaic Age of Greece she was not so different from other Greek cities like Athens.  Sparta’s merchants traveled to other cities to trade, her poets wrote lyric verse, her craftsmen and artisans flourished.

In the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. the Spartans fought two wars with neighboring Messenia. During the First Messenia War, Lycurgus gave his famous laws to Sparta, but scholars see the warrior-poet Tyrtaeus, who lived during the Second Messenian War, as the man who first envisioned the true Spartan – the people they became and whom we think of as Classical Spartans.

“Spartan Soldier”
~Tyrtaeus of Sparta (c. 620 B.C.)

It is beautiful when a brave man of the front ranks,
falls and dies, battling for his homeland,
and ghastly when a man flees planted fields and city
and wanders begging with his dear mother,
aging father, little children and true wife.
He will be scorned in every new village,
reduced to want and loathsome poverty; and shame
will brand his family line, his noble
figure. Derision and disaster will hound him.
A turncoat gets no respect or pity;
so let us battle for our country and freely give
our lives to save our darling children.

Young men, fight shield to shield and never succumb
to panic or miserable flight,
but steel the heart in your chests with magnificence
and courage. Forget your own life
when you grapple with the enemy. Never run
and let an old soldier collapse
whose legs have lost their power. It is shocking when
an old man lies on the front line
before a youth: an old warrior whose head is white
and beard gray, exhaling his strong soul
into the dust, clutching his bloody genitals
into his hands: an abominable vision,
foul to see: his flesh naked. But in a young man
all is beautiful when he still
possesses the shining flower of lovely youth.
Alive he is adored by men,
desired by women, and finest to look upon
when he falls dead in the forward clash.

Let each man spread his legs, rooting them in the ground,
bite his teeth into his lips, and hold.


  1. One thing that always strikes me about the Greeks is how their will to fight was based solely on their love of hearth. They were never just fighters like the Romans.

    1. I like the Greeks a lot better than the Romans. One thing I'm hoping to learn from this Ancient Greeks course is why their polity failed.

    2. Yes, the more I read the more I love the Greeks and the less I like the Romans.

  2. It's fascinating how those sentiments clash with all the modern poets-- especially the notion that it is good for the young do die, rather than the old.

    Really, you prefer the Greeks? I have to admit I feel the opposite! The Greeks were awfully... pragmatic, a lot of the time, while the Romans were inclined (like us) to romanticize and pursue a more Western sense of nobility, virtue, and morality. Aeneas is sure different from Achilles! I wrote a paper about that, but I shall spare you from having to read it here. :-)

    1. I love the Romans that I meet in Rosemary Sutcliff's books (especially Marcus in The Eagle of the Ninth; he reminds me of Aeneas), but in Edith Hamilton's books (The Greek Way, The Roman Way) I like the Greeks better. I like their sense of humor and their way of seeing into the nature of things, as how math and music are the same thing. Also, I like their political order better -- the independent city-states, the confederations between them, the citizen-soldier/militia rather than a standing army. The Romans appeal to the Welsh in me, but the Greeks appeal to the Scottish and Choctaw side. :-)

      You should post your paper on your blog. I'd like to read it. I'm not actually a great fan of Achilles. I love Hector the best.

  3. Thank you for sharing that, Kelly! The course sounds fascinating. :)


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