Poetry of Tyrtaeus

From Tyrtaeus of Sparta. As reproduced in Early Greek Lyric Poetry, trans. David Mulroy (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 48-49.

Tyrtaeus is one of the very few Spartan authors known. As it developed, the Spartan system did not produce poetry or other artistic accomplishments. This poem written around 640 B.C. emphasizes martial accomplishment. Notice how the style of combat described in it differs from the heroic battles narrated by Homer.

It is a beautiful thing when a good man falls and dies fighting for his country.

The worst pain is leaving one's city and fertile fields for the life of a beggar,
      wandering with mother, old father, little children, and wedded wife.
The man beaten by need and odious poverty is detested everywhere he goes,
      a disgrace to his family and noble appearance, trailed by dishonor and evil.
If no one takes care of the wanderer or gives him honor, respect, or pity,
     we must fight to the death for our land and children, giving no thought to lengthening life.

Fight in a stubborn, close array, my boys! Never waver or retreat!
Feel your anger swell. There is no place in combat for love of life.

Older soldiers, whose knees are not so light, need you to stand and protect them.
An aging warrior cut down in the vanguard of battle disgraces the young.
     His head is white, his beard is grey, and now he is spilling his powerful spirit in dust,
     naked, clutching his bloody groin: a sight for shame and anger.

But youthful warriors always look good, until the blossom withers.
     Men gape at them and women sigh, and dying in combat they are handsome still.
     Now is the time for a man to stand, planting his feet and biting his lip.

I would not say anything for a man, nor take account of him
     for any speed of his feet, or wrestling skill he might have. 

Not if he had the size of a Cyclops and the strength to go with it.
Not if he could outrun Boreas the north wind.
Not if he were more handsome and gracefully formed than Tythonius
     or had more riches than Midas had, or Cenarius too.
Not if he were more of a king than Tantalus or Pelops,
     or had the power of speech and persuasion that Adrastas had.
I don't care about any of those things
     not if he had all splendors except for a fighting spirit.

For no man ever proves himself a good man in war
     unless he can endure to face the blood and the slaughter,
     to go close against the enemy and fight with his hands.

It is a good thing his city and all the people share with him,
when a man plants his feet and stands firm among the foremost spears relentlessly.
All thought of foul flight completely forgotten
     and as well trained his heart to be steadfast and endure,
     and with words encourages the man who is stationed besides him.

Here is a man who proves himself valiant in war.
With a sudden rush he turns to fight the rugged battalions of the enemy
     and sustains the beating wave of assault

And he who so falls among the champions and loses his sweet life
     so blessing with honor, his polis, his father, and all his people
     with wounds in his chest where the spear that he was facing
     has transfixed the massive guard of his shield and gone through his breastplate as well. 

Why such a man is lamented alike by the young and the elders,
     and all his city goes into mourning and grieves for his loss.
His tomb is pointed to with pride and so are his children,
     and his children's children, and afterward all the race that is his.
His shining glory is never forgotten. His name is remembered,
     and he becomes an immortal though he lies under the ground,
     when one who was a brave man has been killed by the furious war god,
     standing his ground, and fighting hard for his children and his land.

But if he escapes the doom of that death, the destroyer of bodies
     and wins his battle, and bright renown for the work of his spear,
     all men give place to him alike. The youth and the elders,
     and much joy comes his way before he goes down to the dead. 

Aging, he has reputation among his citizens.
No one tries to interfere with his honors or all he deserves.
All men withdraw before his presence and yield their seats to him,
     the youth and the men his age, and even those older than he. 

Thus, a man should endeavor to reach this place of courage with all his heart,
     and so trying never be backward in war.