Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology/Tyrtaeus

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TYRTAEUS (Τυρταῖος, or Τύρταιος), son of Archembrotus, the celebrated poet, who assisted the Spartans in the Second Messenian War, was the second in order of time of the Greek elegiac poets, Callinus being the first. At the time when his name first appears in history, he is represented, according to the prevalent account, as living at Aphidnae in Attica; but the whole tradition, of which this statement forms a part, has the same mythical complexion by which all the accounts of the early Greek poets are more or less pervaded. In attempting to trace the tradition to its source, we find in Plato the brief statement, that Tyrtaeus was by birth an Athenian, but became a citizen of Lacedaemon (De Legg. i. p. 629). The orator Lycurgus tells the story more fully; that, when the Spartans were at war with the Messenians, they were commanded by an oracle to take a leader from among the Athenians, and thus to conquer their enemies; and that the leader they so chose from Athens was Tyrtaeus. (Lvcurg. c. Leocr. p. 211, ed. Reiske.) We learn also from Strabo (viii. p. 362) and Athenaeus (xiv. p. 630, f.) that Philochorus and Callisthenes and many other historians gave a similar account, and made Tyrtaeus an Athenian of Aphidnae (εἰποῦσιν ἐξ Ἀθηνῶν καὶ Ἀφιδνῶν ἀφικέσθαι). The tradition appears in a still more enlarged form in Pausanias (iv. 15. § 3), Diodorus (xv. 66), the Scholia to Plato (p. 448, ed. Bekker), Themistius (xv. p. 242, s. 197, 198), Justin (iii. 5), the scholiast on Horace (Art. Poet. 402), and other writers (see Clinton, F. H. vol. i. s. a. 683). Of these writers, however, only Pausanias, Justin, the Scholiast on Horace, and Suidas, give us the well-known embellishment of the story which represents Tyrtaeus as a lame schoolmaster, of low family and reputation, whom the Athenians, when applied to by the Lacedaemonians in accordance with the oracle, purposely sent as the most inefficient leader they could select, being unwilling to assist the Lacedaemonians in extending their dominion in the Peloponnesus, but little thinking that the poetry of Tyrtaeus would achieve that victory, which his physical constitution seemed to forbid his aspiring to. Now to accept the details of this tradition as historical facts would be to reject all the principles of criticism, and to fall back on the literal interpretation of mythical accounts; but, on the other hand, we are equally forbidden by sound criticism to reject altogether that element of the tradition, which represents Tyrtaeus as, in some way or other, connected with the Attic town of Aphidnae. Perhaps the explanation may be found in the comparison of the tradition with the facts, that Tyrtaeus was an elegiac poet, and that the elegy had its origin in Ionia, and also with another tradition, preserved by Suidas (s. v.), which made the poet a native of Miletus; from which results the probability that either Tyrtaeus himself, or his immediate ancestors, migrated from Ionia to Sparta, either directly, or by way of Attica, carrying with them a knowledge of the principles of the elegy. Aphidnae, the town of Attica to which the tradition assigns him, was connected with Laconia, from a very early period, by the legends about the Dioscuri; but it is hard to say whether this circumstance renders the story more probable or more suspicious; for, on the supposition that the story is an invention, we have in the connection of Aphidnae with Laconia a reason why that town, above all others in Attica, should have been fixed upon as the abode of Tyrtaeus, On the same supposition the motive for the fabrication of the tradition is to be found in the desire which Athenian writers so often displayed, and which is the leading idea in the passage of Lycurgus referred to above, to claim for Athens the greatest possible share of all the greatness and goodness which illustrated the Hellenic race:—

"Sunt quibus unum opus est, intactae Palladis urbem
Carmine perpetuo celebrare, et
Undique discerptam fronti praeponere olivam."

On the other hand, Strabo (l. c.) rejects the tradition altogether, and makes Tyrtaeus a native of Lacedaemon, on the authority of certain passages in his poems. He tells us that Tyrtaeus stated that the first conquest of Messenia was made in the time of the grandfathers of the men of his own generation (κατὰ τοὺς τῶν πατέρων πατέρας), and that in the second he himself was leader of the Lacedaemonians; and then Strabo adds,—directly after the words τοῖς Λακεδαιμονίοις,—καὶ γὰρ εἷναι φησὶν ἐκεῖθεν ἐν τῇ ποιήσει ἐλεγείᾳ, ἣν ἐπιγράφουσιν Εὐνομίαν·

Αὐτὸς γὰρ Κρονίων καλλιστεφάνου πόσις Ἥρης
Ζεὺς Ἡρακλείδαις τηνδὲ δέδωκε πόλιν.
Οἵσιν ἅμα προλιπόντες Ἐρινεὸν ἠνεμόεντα,
Εὐρεῖαν Πέλοπος νῆσον ἀφικόμεθα.

From which Strabo draws the conclusion, that either the elegies containing these verses are spurious, or else that the statement of Philochorus, &c. (as already quoted) must be rejected. The commentators, however, are not content with Strabo's own negative inference from the verses quoted, but will have it that he understood them as declaring that Tyrtaeus himself came from Erineos to join the Spartans in their war against the Messenians; and, to give a colour to this interpretation, Casaubon assumes as self-evident that after τοῖς Λακεδαιμονίοις some such words as ἐλθὼν ἐξ Ἐρινέου have been lost. But, if the passage says that Tyrtaeus came from Erineos at all, it says as plainly that he came thence to Peloponnesus together with the Heracleidae; and it is therefore clear that the verses refer, not to any removal of Tyrtaeus himself, but to the great migration of the Dorian ancestors of those Lacedaemonians for whom he spoke, and among whom he, in some sense, included himself; and the argument of Strabo, as the passage stands, is that Tyrtaeus was a Lacedaemonian (ἐκεῖθεν referring, of course, to Λακεδαιμονίοις), because of the intimate way in which he associates himself with the descendants of the Dorians who migrated from Erineos (one of the four Dorian states of Thessaly) to the Peloponnesus. The true question that remains is this, whether his manner of identifying himself with the Lacedaemonians in this passage, and in the phrase about their fathers' fathers, implies that he himself was really a descendant of those Dorians who invaded the Peloponnesus, and of those Lacedaemonians who fought in the first Messenian war, or whether this mode of expression is sufficiently explained by the close association into which he had been thrown with the Spartans, whom he not only aided in war, but by whom he had been made a citizen. This last fact is expressly stated by Plato (l. c.), and its probability is confinned by the statement of Aristotle (Pol. ii. 6. § 12) that, in the times of the early kings, the Spartans sometimes conferred the citizenship upon foreigners. Plutarch ascribes a saying to Pausanias, the son of Cleombrotus, that, when asked why they had made Tyrtaeus a citizen, he replied, "that a foreigner might never appear to be our leader " (Apophth. Lacon. p. 230, d.). Of course, a mere floating apophthegm like this can have little weight; it may be a genuine tradition, or it may be the invention of some writer who wished to reconcile the common story about Tyrtaeus with the well-known repugnance of the Lacedaemonians to confer their franchise upon foreigners. The statement of Suidas, that Tyrtaeus was a Lacedaemonian, according to some, furnishes no additional evidence, but must be interpreted according to the conclusion which may be arrived at respecting the whole question. It should not be forgotten, in estimating the value of Strabo's opinion, that he may have found other passages in the writings of Tyrtaeus, which seemed to imply that he was a Lacedaemonian, besides those which he quotes; but of course this possibility cannot be adduced as a positive argument, unless it were confirmed by the actual occurrence of such passages in the extant fragments of Tyrtaeus.

In the opinion of those modern critics, who reject the account of the Attic origin of Tyrtaeus, the extant fragments do actually furnish evidence of his being a Lacedaemonian. The spirit displayed in them is said to be thoroughly Dorian; and the patriotic energy, with which the poet praises those who face danger for their native land, is certainly extraordinary for a foreigner, especially when it is remembered that Tyrtaeus is not only said to have shown his influence over the Spartans by leading them in war, but also by appeasing their civil discords at home; and all this becomes the more extraordinary, if we reflect that this patriotic ardour was excited, and this influence was exerted, by an Ionian over and on behalf of Dorians. Neither does it seem probable that, whatever aid the Lacedaemonians might be willing to accept from a foreigner, they would entrust to him the command of their armies.

On the other hand, it is urged by Müller with some force, that "If Tyrtaeus came from Attica, it is easy to understand how the elegiac metre, which had its origin in Ionia, should have been used by him, and that in the very style of Callinus. Athens was so closely connected with her Ionic colonies, that this new kind of poetry must have been soon known in the mother city. This circumstance would be far more inexplicable if Tyrtaeus had been a Lacedaemonian by birth, as was stated vaguely [1] by some ancient authors. For although Sparta was not at this period a stranger to the efforts of the other Greeks in poetry and music, yet the Spartans, with their peculiar modes of thinking, would not have been very ready to appropriate the new invention of the Ionians."[2] (Hist. of Lit. of Greece, vol. i. p. 111.)

Discussions of this sort are extremely unsatisfactory, in respect of the establishment of any positive conclusions; but for that very reason they are extremely important, in order to mark the limits of our knowledge of the early history of Greek lyric poetry, and to show the danger of accepting the positive statements of writers who lived long after the period with reference to which their evidence is brought forward, as if their being positive statements were alone sufficient to authenticate them. In the present case, the question of the country of Tyrtaeus appears to us still undecided, and likely to remain so.

The other points of the popular story, namely, that Tyrtaeus was a lame schoolmaster, are rejected by all modern writers. It would lead us too far to discuss their probable origin: we will only observe that the statement of his being a schoolmaster may simply mean that he was, like the other early musicians and poets, a teacher of his own art; and his alleged lameness may possibly be connected with some misunderstanding of expressions used by the earlier writers to describe his metres. These suggestions, however, are by no means put forward as altogether satisfactory explanations of the tradition.

Turning now to the more certain facts of the poet's history, we find him presented to us in the double light of a statesman and a military leader, composing the dissensions of the Spartans at home, and animating their courage in the field. And this representation is quite consistent with the position occupied by a poet in those early times, as the teacher and prime mover both in knowledge and in virtue; a position attested by abundant evidence, and recognised by the very phrase which is several times used to describe those early poets, ὁ σοφὸς ποιήτης. It is remarkable that the power of the poet to teach political wisdom, and to appease civil discords, is not only recognised in the traditions about the early history of Greece, from the legends respecting Orpheus downwards, but also that, in the semi-historical period now under consideration, and with specific reference to the Lacedaemonian state, we are told of civil tumults being appeased, not only by Tyrtaeus, but also by Terpander and Thaletas, who, according to the received chronology, were his contemporaries [Terpander; Thales]. The nature of these dissensions it is the province of the political historian to investigate: the form which the tradition assumes in the case of Tyrtaeus is the following. Among the calamities, which the revolt of the Messenians brought upon the Spartan state, and which, according to the common story, Tyrtaeus was the divinely-appointed minister to remedy, not the least was the discontent of those citizens, who, having possessed lands in Messenia, or on the borders, had either been expelled from their estates, or had been forced to leave them uncultivated for fear of the enemy, and, being thus deprived of their means of subsistence, demanded compensation by a new division of landed property. To convince these sufferers of their error in disturbing public order, Tyrtaeus composed his elegy entitled "Legal Order" (Εὐνομία), which Suidas calls also Πολιτεία. (Aristot. Polit. v. 7. § 1; Paus. iv. 18. § 2.) Of this work Müller gives the following excellent description:—"It is not difficult, on considering attentively the character of the early Greek elegy, to form an idea of the manner in which Tyrtaeus probably handled this subject. He doubtless began with remarking the anarchical movement among the Spartan citizens, and by expressing the concern with which he viewed it. But, as in general the elegy seeks to pass from an excited state of the mind through sentiments and images of a miscellaneous description to a state of calmness and tranquillity, it may be conjectured that the poet in the Eunomia made this transition by drawing a picture of the well-regulated constitution of Sparta, and the legal existence of its citizens, which, founded with the divine assistance, ought not to be destroyed by the threatened innovations; and that at the same time he reminded the Spartans, who had been deprived of their lands by the Messenian war, that on their courage would depend the recovery of their possessions, and the restoration of the former prosperity of the state. This view is entirely confirmed by the fragments of Tyrtaeus, some of which are distinctly stated to belong to the Eunomia. In these the constitution of Sparta is extolled, as being founded by the power of the gods; Zeus himself having given the country to the Heracleids, and the power having been distributed in the justest manner, according to the oracles of the Pythian Apollo, among the kings, the gerons in the council, and the men of the commonalty in the popular assembly." (Hist. of the Lit. of Anc. Greece, vol. i. p. 111.)

But Tyrtaeus is still more celebrated for the compositions by which he animated the courage of the Spartans in their conflict with the Messenians,

"Tyrtaeusque mares animos in Martia bella
Versibus exacuit." (Horat. Ars Poët. 402.)

The poems were of two kinds; namely, elegies, containing exhortations to constancy and courage, and descriptions of the glory of fighting bravely for one's native land; and more spirited compositions, in the anapaestic measure, which were intended as marching songs, to be performed with the music of the flute. The former are called ὑποθῆκαι, or ὑποθῆκαι δι᾽ ἐλεγείας, or ἐλεγεῖα simply; the latter ἔπη ἀνάπαιστα, μέλη πολεμιστήρια, ἐμϐατήρια, ἐπόπλια or προτρεπτικά. Both classes of compositions, we are told, he used to recite or sing to the rulers of the state in private, and to bodies of the citizens, just as he might happen to collect them around him, in order to stimulate them to the prosecution of the war (Paus. iv. 15); and with the same songs he animated their spirits on the march and on the battle field. He lived to see the success of his efforts in the entire conquest of the Messenians, and their reduction to the condition of Helots. (Paus. iv. 14. § 3.)

It thus appears that the period when Tyrtaeus flourished was precisely coincident with the time of the second Messenian War; for the history of which, indeed, his poems appear to have been the only trustworthy authority that the ancients possessed, although it is very doubtful how far the later writers on the subject, such as Myron and Rhianus, adhered to the information they obtained from that source. (See Grote, Hist, of Greece, Pt. ii. c. 7, vol. ii. pp. 556, foll.) The time of the war, according to Pausanias (iv. 15, § 1) was B. C. 685—668; but Mr. Clinton and Mr. Grote agree in the opinion that this date is too high. (Clinton, F. H. s. a. 685; Grote, l. c. p. 558). Suidas places Tyrtaeus at the 35th Olympiad, and also indicates his time by saying that he was contemporary with the so-called Seven Wise Men, and also older. At all events, he lived during the period of that great development of music and poetry, which took place at Sparta during the seventh century, B. C., although we have no distinct account of his relation to the other musicians and poets whose efforts contributed to that development. The absence of any statement of a connection between him and Terpander or Thaletas is easily explained by the fact that he was not, properly speaking, a lyric poet. Besides his anapaestic war-songs, his compositions, so far as we are informed, were all elegiac, and his music was that of the flute. He is expressly called by Suidas ἐλεγειοποιὸς καὶ αὐλητής.

The estimation in which Tyrtaeus was held at Sparta, as long as the state preserved her independence, was of the highest order. Even in his own time, his poems were used in the instruction of the young, as we learn from the orator Lycurgus (l. c.), who goes on to say that the Lacedaemonians, though they made no account of the other poets, set such value upon this one, that, when they were engaged in a military expedition, it was their practice to summon all the soldiers to the king's tent, that they might hear the poems of Tyrtaeus. Athenaeus also (xiv. p. 630, f.) tells us that, in time of war, the Lacedaemonians regulated their evolutions by performing the poems of Tyrtaeus (τὰ Τυρταίου ποιήματα ἀπομνημονεύοντες ἔῤῥυθμον κίνησιν ποιοῦνται), and that they had the custom in their camps, that, when they had supped and sung the paean, they sang, each in his turn, the poems of Tyrtaeus. Pollux (iv. 107) ascribes to Tyrtaeus the establishment of the triple choruses, of boys, men, and old men. The influence of his poetry on the minds of the Spartan youth is also indicated by the saying ascribed to Leonidas, who, being asked what sort of a poet Tyrtaeus appeared to him, replied, "A good one to tickle the minds of the young." (Plut. Cleom. 2.)

The extant fragments of Tyrtaeus are contained in most of the older and more recent collections of the Greek poets, and, among the rest, in Gaisford's Poetae Minores Graeci, Schneidewin's Delectus Poëseos Graecorum, and Bergk's Poetae Lyrici Graeci. The best separate editions are those of Klotz, Bremae, 1764, 8vo., reprinted, with a German translation by Weiss, Altenb. 1767, 8vo.; of Franke, in his edition of Callinus, 1816, 8vo.; of Stock, with a German translation and historical introduction, Leipz. 1819, 8vo.; of Didot, with an elegant French translation, a Dissertation on the poet's life, and a modern Greek version by Clonaras, Paris, 1826, 8vo.; and of N. Bach, with the remains of the elegiac poets, Callinus and Asius, Lips. 1831. There are numerous translations of the fragments into the European languages, a list of which, and of the other editions, will be found in Hoffmann's Lexicon Bibliographicum Scriptorum Graecorum. (Fabric. Bibl. Graec. vol. ii. pp.17, foll.; Müller, Dorier, passim, see Index, Hist. of Lit. of Greece, vol. i. pp. 110—112; Ulrici; Bode; Bernhardy, Grundriss d. Griech. Litt. vol. ii. pp. 341—347; Clinton, Fast. Hell. s. a. 683; Grote, History of Greece, loc. sup. cit.) [P. S.]



  1. This mode of disposing of positive evidence is worth notice.
  2. How was it, then (one may ask), that they were so "very ready to appropriate" Tyrtaeus and the invention together?