Preserving Tradition:
Tyrtaean Martial Poetry and Spartan Society

Nicholas Gresens

At some point in the second half of the 7th century the poet Tyrteaus composed several poems exhorting Spartans to service (among them, fr. 10, 11, 12 West), and from the late 7th century until at least the 4th century Tyrtaeus’ poetry was sung actively on the march (Lyc. Leoc. 107). Synnøve des Bouvrie emphasizes that new cultural creations can quickly become traditions when society is being rapidly transformed and a need is felt for the establishment of cohesion, the legitimization of institutions, and socialization (Myth and Symbol I, 22-27).  Despite its origins in the 7th century, Tyrtaeus’ poetry quickly became traditional literature, functioning much as any piece of folk literature might function.

This paper considers how Spartan society preserved the tradition of singing Tyrtaeus’ poetry. Once this poetry was established as traditional literature, how did it maintain its status as an active tradition into the 4th century?  By utilizing theories developed by learning theorists and folklorists, this paper explores the close interplay between the poetry and the culture that made Tyrtaeus’ poetry prone to being learned and transmitted.

All theories of learning include some combination of drive (primary stimulus to act), cues (secondary stimuli or context), response (in our case the singing and learning of Tyrtaeus’ poems), and reward for a successful response.  Both the drive and the cues for singing the poetry of Tyrtaeus can be found within the cultural context of Archaic and Classical Sparta.  The drive to sing the poetry stemmed ultimately from a need to maintain what Paul Cartledge has called “a specifically hoplite value-system and code of honour … necessarily devised to accompany and reinforce the ritualization of hoplite militarism” (Spartan Reflections, 161).  Because of the constant need to suppress the Messenian helots, this ritualized militarism also served as a constant context for the performance of Tyrtaeus.  Tyrtaeus could be sung whenever the drive to preserve the status quo was aroused, a drive constantly evoked within the confines of the agôgê.  Ultimately, however, it was the rewards found within the poetry itself that reinforced the performance.  Through the singing of the poetry, not only did the Spartan vicariously partake of the reward won by those who lived and died with aretê in the past, but he actually played an active role within the poetry.  It was this active role, or ego-involvement, that must have played one of the most significant roles in memorization and ultimately the preservation of the tradition.

The other side of this learning process is that when any of these factors change, most significantly when the reward is withheld, extinction can occur.  Towards the end of the 4th century the Spartan military saw a rapid decline, the Messenians regained their independence, and the agôgê underwent considerable decay.  These events removed not only significant cues for performance, but also much of the recalled glory of Sparta.  It is at this point that Tyrtaeus likely ceased to exist as a living tradition.  Even if the performance of Tyrtaeus continued past this point, the poetry no longer functioned as it did in the Archaic and Classical periods as a living tradition.

Because of the fragmentary state of Tyrtaeus’ poetry and our uncertain knowledge of Archaic Spartan history, there seems little that can be known about the origins of the Tyrtaean corpus.  Rather than search for origins, however, a focus on the poetry’s function throughout Spartan history may prove more productive for the study of Sparta as a whole, as this paper hopes to show. 

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