1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Tyrtaeus
TYRTAEUS, Greek elegiac poet, lived at Sparta about the middle of the 7th century B.C. According to the older tradition he was a native of the Attic deme of Aphidnae, and was invited to Sparta at the suggestion of the Delphic oracle to assist the Spartans in the second Messenian war. According to a later version, he was a lame schoolmaster, sent by the Athenians as likely to be of the least assistance to the Spartans (Justin iii. 5; Themistius, Orat. xv. 242; Diod. Sic. xv. 67). A fanciful explanation of his lameness is that it alludes to the elegiac couplet, one verse of which is shorter than the other. According to Plato (Laws, p. 629 A), the citizenship of Sparta was conferred upon Tyrtaeus, although Herodotus (ix. 35) makes no mention of him among the foreigners so honoured. Basing his inference on the ground that Tyrtaeus speaks of himself as a citizen of Sparta (Fr. 2), Strabo (viii. 362) is inclined to reject the story of his Athenian origin. Suidas speaks of him as “Laconian or Milesian”; possibly he visited Miletus in his youth, where he became familiar with the Ionic elegy. Busolt, who suggests that Tyrtaeus was a native of Aphidnae in Laconia, conjectures that the entire legend may have been concocted in connexion with the expedition sent to the assistance of Sparta in her struggle with the revolted Helots at Ithome (464). However this may be, it is generally admitted that Tyrtaeus flourished during the second Messenian war (c. 650 B.C.) — a period of remarkable musical and poetical activity at Sparta, when poets like Terpander and Thaletas were welcomed — that he not only wrote poetry but served in the field, and that he endeavoured to compose the internal dissensions of Sparta (Aristotle, Politics, v. 6) by inspiring the citizens with a patriotic love for their fatherland. About twelve fragments (three of them complete poems) are preserved in Strabo, Lycurgus, Stobaeus and others. They are mainly elegiac and in the Ionic dialect, written partly in praise of the Spartan constitution and King Theopompus (Eὐνομία), partly to stimulate the Spartan soldiers to deeds of heroism in the field (Ὑποθῆκαι — the title is, however, later than Tyrtaeus). The interest of the fragments preserved from the Eὐνομία is mainly historical, and connected with the first Messenian war. The Ὑποθῆκαι which are of considerable merit, contain exhortations to bravery and a warning against the disgrace of cowardice. The popularity of these elegies in the Spartan army was such that, according to Athenaeus (xiv. 630 F), it became the custom for the soldiers to sing them round the camp fires at night, the polemarch rewarding the best singer with a piece of flesh. Of the marching songs (Ἐμβατήρια), written in the anapaestic measure and the Doric dialect, only scanty fragments remain (Lycurgus, In Leocratem, p. 211, § 107; Pausanias iv. 14, 5. 15, 2; fragments in T. Bergk, Poetae lyrici graeci, ii.).
Verrall (Classical Review, July 1896, May 1897) definitely places the lifetime of Tyrtaeus in the middle of the 5th century B.C., while Schwartz (Hermes, 1899, xxxiv.) disputes the existence of the poet altogether; see also Macan in Classical Review (February 1897); H. Weil, Études sur l'antiquité grecque (1900), and C. Giarratani, Tirteo e i suoi carmi (1905). There are English verse translations by R. Polwhele (1792) and imitations by H. J. Pye, poet laureate (1795), and an Italian version by F. Cavallotti, with text, introduction and notes (1898). The fragment beginning Τεθναμέναι γάρ καλόν has been translated by Thomas Campbell, the poet. The edition by C. A. Klotz (1827) contains a dissertation on the war-songs of different countries.