What was the reason that the Spartans accepted the foreigner Tyrtaeus to be a citizen of Sparta? Their answer was in order to avoid foreigners to rule their country!


Tyrtaeus ( Τυρταῖος) was a Greek elegiac poet who lived at Sparta about the middle of the 7th century BC.

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, Oral. 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 connection 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 BC)--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.

Monument in Limassol with inscription from Tyrtaeus ,

τεθνάμεναι γὰρ καλὸν ἐνὶ προμάχοισι πεσόντα
ἄνδρ’ ἀγαθὸν περὶ ἧι πατρίδι μαρνάμενον

(For it is fine to die in the front line, a brave man fighting for his fatherland)

Photo: Michael Lahanas

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, partly to stimulate this Spartan soldiers to deeds of heroism in the field. The interest of the fragments preserved from the Ewoyuia is mainly historical, and connected with the first Messenian war.

Verrall (Classical Review, July 1896, May 1897) definitely places the lifetime of Tyrtaeus in the middle of the 5th century BC, while Schwartz (Hermes, 1899, xxxiv.) disputes the existence of the poet altogether; see also Macan in Classical Review (February 1897); H Weil, Etudes sur l'antiquite grecque (1900), and C Giarratani, Tirteo e i suoi carmi (1905). There are English verse translations by R. Polwhele (1792) and imitations by HJ Pye, poet laureate (1795), and an Italian version by F Cavallotti, with text, introduction and notes (1898). The fragment beginning TfSvaiiivai yap Ka\6v has been translated by Thomas Campbell, the poet. The edition by CA Klotz (1827) contains a dissertation on the war-songs of different countries.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.

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