Tyrtaeus Analysis

Life

Although Athenians claim Tyrtaeus (tur-TEE-uhs) was a schoolmaster called by an oracle to a Sparta in crisis, he was almost certainly a Spartan hoplite soldier who rose to emergency high command by using patriotic poetry and song to motivate. Five books of his poetry seem to have survived in Alexandria, of which some 250 lines remain: fragments of war chants, quotations from patriotic, hortatory elegies, and part, at least, of one extraordinary constitutional poem, Eunomia (seventh century b.c.e.; English translation in Greek Literary Papyri, 1942).

The crisis that brought Tyrtaeus to Sparta was probably the Second Messenian War, a great Messenian revolt in the mid-seventh century b.c.e. that led to the final enslavement of the helots. He seems to have won the war, figuratively and perhaps even literally, by invoking the Spartans’ Heraclid descent, their Delphic Apollonian kings, council, and demos, their law and order (eunomia), and their just and justified victories in the First Messenian War, all in stirring Ionian epic and lyric verse with echoes of the Greek Homer.

Influence

Tyrtaeus probably influenced the patriotic and political poetry of exhortation such as that produced by Solon and thereby Greek politics in general, but his Homeric lyrics may not have been influential in their own right.

Additional Resources

Forrest, W. G. A History of Sparta. London: Bristol Classics, 1995.

Huxley, G. L. Early Sparta. London: Faber and Faber, 1962.