Terpander of Lesbos Analysis


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Modern scholars discount many of the more picturesque details that ancient authors present concerning Terpander of Lesbos (tur-PAN-dur of LEHZ-bohs), such as that he was forced to flee his homeland because of homicide and that he eventually died from choking on a fig. Fairly uncontroversial, though, is that he acquired fame as a musical performer in Lesbos and that he subsequently went to Sparta, where he won various musical competitions.

Terpander’s career also had a literary dimension. In his time, music and poetry were closely associated, and various ancient sources refer to his performing both his own poems and those of Homer. Particularly suggestive in this regard is a passage in the Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616) in which the warlike hero Achilles is presented as a kind of bard, celebrating the “fame of men.” This combination of poetry and warfare sounds like an idealized picture of Sparta, where Terpander spent much of his career.