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.
~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.