Telesilla of Argos

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published on 25 March 2014
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Telesilla of Argos was a lyric poet of the 5th century BCE, listed by Antipater of Thesalonike (c. 15 BCE) as one of the great Nine Female Lyric Poets of Greece (along with Praxilla, Moiro, Anyte, Sappho, Erinna, Corinna, Nossis, and Myrtis). She was responsible for the metrical innovation of lyric poetry known as the Telesillean Metre. Antipater writes:

These are the divinely tongued women who were reared
on the hymns of Helicon and the Pierian Rock of Macedon:
Praxilla, Moiro, Anyte the female Homer,
Sappho the ornament of the fair-tressed Lesbian women,
Erinna, renowned Telesilla, and you, Corinna,
who sang of Athena's martial shield,
Nossis the maiden-throated, and Myrtis the sweet-voiced,
All of them fashioners of the everlasting page.
Nine Muses Great Ouranos bore, Nine likewise Gaia,
to be a joy undying for mortals (Anthologia Palatina, 9.26).

In her youth, she was continually sickly and so consulted the gods for help in restoring her to health. The answer came from the oracle that she should devote herself to the Muses, and so Telesilla dedicated herself to the study of poetry and music. She soon found herself healed and, additionally, grew in fame as a great lyric poet. Of the considerable body of work she produced, only two lines remain extant as quoted by the ancient grammarian Hephaistion of Alexandria in his Handbook on Meter (c. 96 CE). References to her, however, appear in the works of Pausanius (c. 110-180 CE), Plutarch (45-120 CE), Athenaeus (c. 3rd century CE), and the work Bibliotheca ascribed (wrongly) to Apollodorus of Alexandria (2nd century CE), among others. She was an extremely influential artist who is always cited with respect by other ancient authors, no matter the subject.

While she was famous during her life for her poetry, she was equally respected by later writers for driving the Spartan forces from her home city of Argos in 494/493 BCE.

Telesilla & the Salvation of Argos

While she was famous during her life for her poetry, she was equally respected by later writers for driving the Spartan forces from her home city of Argos in 494/493 BCE. Telesilla seems to have been at her work as a poet when the hostilities began. The Spartan king Cleomenes I consulted the Oracle of Apollo on what would happen if he marched on Argos, and he was assured that he would capture it. He was met on the field by the Argives at Sepeia and, through trickery, took the troops by surprise, slaughtered many, and chased the survivors from the field. These Argive soldiers took refuge in the sacred grove of Argus and claimed sanctuary from the god. Cleomenes questioned his Argive prisoners as to the names of those in hiding and, once he had these names, sent a herald to call them out personally and to guarantee their safety. As each man came out of the sanctuary, Cleomenes had him killed. This went on until one of the men remaining in the sacred grove climbed a tree and saw what was going on outside of the sanctuary. Afterwards, of course, no other Argive answered Cleomenes’ call. Since he could not get any more Argives to come out willingly, he set fire to the grove and burned the rest of the men to death. Herodotus reports that, as the flames were rising, he asked one of the Argive deserters to which god the grove was sacred. When the man said it was the grove of Argus, Cleomenes groaned and said, “Apollo, god of prophecy, you seriously misled me when you foretold that I would capture Argos; I think your prediction has now come true” (Histories, VI.80).

Even though it seemed the oracle had meant he would only conquer the sanctuary of Argus, he left the grove and marched on the city. Telesilla heard of what had happened to the men of the army and mobilized the women, youth, and elders of Argos for defense. Plutarch writes:

No action taken by women for the common good is more famous than the conflict against Cleomenes by the Argive women, which they fought at the instigation of the poetess Telesilla. When Cleomenes king of Sparta had killed many Argives (but not, as some have imagined, Seven thousand, seven hundred, and seventy-seven) and marched against the city, an impulsive courage, divinely inspired, impelled the younger women to defend their country against the enemy. With Telesilla as general, they took up arms and made their defense by manning the walls around the city, and the enemy was amazed. They drove Cleomenes off after inflicting many losses. They also repulsed the other Spartan king, Demaratus, who (according to the Argive historian Socrates) managed to get inside and seize the Pamphylacium. After the city was saved, they buried the women who had fallen in battle by the Argive road, and as a memorial to the achievements of the women who were spared they dedicated a temple to Ares Enyalius ... Up to the present day they celebrate the Festival of Impudence (Hybristika) on the anniversary [of the battle] putting the women into men's tunics and cloaks and the men in women's dresses and head-coverings (Moralia 245c-f).

Telesilla’s actions were interpreted by other writers as the fulfillment of a prophecy by the oracle, referenced by Herodotus, concerning Argos. Pausanius writes:

Above the Theater [at Argos] there is a temple of Aphrodite and in front of the seated statue of the goddess is a stele engraved with an image of Telesilla the writer of poems. These lie as though thrown down beside her feet and she herself is looking at a helmet which she holds in her hand and is about to put on her head. Telesilla was famous among women for her poetry but still more famous for the following achievement.

Her fellow citizens had sustained an indescribable disaster at the hands of the Spartans under Cleomenes son of Anaxandridas. Some had fallen in actual battle and of the others, who took sanctuary in the grove of Argus, some had at first ventured out under a truce, only to be burnt to death when Cleomenes set fire to the grove. By these means Cleomenes, proceeding to Argos, led his Lacedaemonians against a city of women.

But Telesilla took all the slaves and all such male citizens who through youth or age had been unable to bear arms, and made them man the walls, and gathering together all the weapons of war that had been left in the houses or were hanging in the temples, armed the younger women and marshalled them at a place she knew the enemy must pass. There, undismayed by the war cry, the women stood their ground and fought with the greatest determination, until the Spartans, reflecting that the slaughter of an army of women would be an equivocal victory, and defeat at their hands would be dishonor as well as disaster, laid down their arms. Now this battle had been foretold by the Pythian Priestess, and Herodotus [VI. 77], whether he understood it or not, quotes the oracle as follows:

When male by female is put to flight
And Argos' name with honor is bright
Many an Argive wife will show
Both cheeks marred with scars of woe.

Such is the part of the oracle which refers to the women.

Historical Debate over the Battle

Historians have questioned the validity of the story of Telesilla and the Spartans for centuries noting the fact that Herodotus, in Book VI of his Histories, tells the story of Cleomenes’ assault on Argos and the massacre of the Argives, and even references the oracle, but makes no mention of Telesilla. Since Herodotus was always eager to include a good story in his Histories, it is argued, he would have included the exploits of Telesilla if they had actually happened. It has also been noted that Herodotus goes to great lengths in admiring the accomplishments of Artemisia I of Caria at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE and so would have had no qualms about including the heroics of a woman in his work. Among the other aspects of the story called into question is the unlikelihood of the women manning the walls of the city against an invading force, especially one as formidable as the Spartans.

The historian Jane McIntosh Snyder cites the scholar Lisi as claiming that it was Telesilla’s martial poetry which inspired the city of Argos to resist the Spartans and not an actual physical act on her part or on the part of the women who allegedly followed her. Lisi cites the 2nd century CE writer Maximus of Tyre who wrote that “The Spartiates were roused by the poems of Tyrtaeus, the Argives by the songs of Telesilla” (62). Snyder, however, discounts this possibility citing the fact that there is no record of Telesilla composing martial poetry and that “her chief sphere was religious poetry rather than war songs” (62). Snyder further points out that Maximus of Tyre never says that Telesilla composed martial poetry, only that the Argives were inspired by her songs. It is also interesting to note why Maximus of Tyre would mention which poet inspired which side in the conflict if that conflict had never happened. The historian Marcel Pierat agrees with Snyder, writing that the story of Telesilla and her defeat of the Spartans is:

...not entirely lacking for realistic parallels. On the shield of Achilles, the women, young children, and old men stood on the ramparts and defended them whilst the men went off to fight outside the walls. Historical texts mention more than one fight undertaken from roof tops by women who threw roof-tiles and stones down upon attackers. The fact of their [the women of Argos] presence on the ramparts constitutes in itself less of an exploit than the fact of donning the armour of the men and taking their place after the annihilation of the Argive infantry (Herodotus and His World, 278-279).

Snyder concludes that there is “nothing inherently improbable in Pausanius’ account” (62) and points out that “in the second century A.D. her poems were still in circulation some seven hundred years after her death” (59). That her name was famous both for her written work and her exploits at Argos against the Spartans strongly suggests that the account of Telesilla leading the women of the city into battle is based on an historical event.

The Battle’s Aftermath & Telesilla’s Legacy

Plutarch notes that, after the battle:

To restore the balance of the sexes in the city, they did not (despite Herodotus’ claim) marry the women to slaves, but to the best men in the surrounding towns, whom they made citizens of Argos. The women appeared not to show respect for their husbands and despised them when they slept with them as if they were inferior, so they made a law that says that women who have beards must spend the night with their husbands.

The reference to “women who have beards” is thought to mean those women who fought for the city as though they were men. The female veterans seem to have refused to return to their former status as subservient to their husband’s wishes, and so laws had to be enacted to restore the community to the traditional mores which existed before the battle and the rise of the women in defense of Argos. Marcel Pierat points out that, after the battle, the “sex roles and roles of social classes were exchanged” (282), and the chaos that had threatened the social order would have to have been remedied by some kind of edict.

What happened to Telesilla after the engagement with the Spartans is unknown, but she continued to serve as a role model of heroic achievement for centuries. Clement of Alexandria (c.150-215 CE) preserved an earlier poem regarding her heroism which contains the lines, “They say that the women of Argos, under the leadership of the poetess Telesilla, by their simple appearance put to flight the Spartans, strong at war, and made themselves fearless in the face of death.” Her reputation for courage was such that, almost 700 years after the event, she continued to be remembered and honored for it.



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Timeline

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  • 494 BCE - 493 BCE
    Spartan forces under Cleomenes I attack the city of Argos.
  • 494 BCE - 493 BCE
    Telesilla of Argos defends her city against the Spartan forces with an army of women.

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