Telesilla and the Brave Women of Argos

An ancient oracle told by a Pythian priestess says, “But when the time shall come that the female conquers in battle, driving away the male, and wins great glory in Argos, then many wives of the Argives shall tear both cheeks in their mourning.” This oracle was later alluded to by historian Herodotus (c. 484 – c. 425 BC) and geographer Pausanias (c. 110 AD – c. 180 AD). The female whom this oracle refers to was Telesilla, a woman renowned for her leadership of Argos through its political and military crisis and subsequent re-building. Telesilla was also a poet. She was evidently renowned enough that Antipater of Thessalonica, the author of over a hundred epigrams in the Greek Anthology, saw it fit to include her in his canon of nine female poets.

Limestone statuette of Artemis-Hekate with a fawn, one of five surviving fragments of the life of Telesilla

Limestone statuette of Artemis-Hekate with a fawn, one of five surviving fragments of the life of Telesilla

In battle, Telesilla was formidable. In his Mulierum Virtutes (“Bravery of Women”), Plutarch tells us that in 494 BC, when king of the Spartans Cleomenes I moved his troops against the city of Argives after killing many of the Argaean men, the younger women of Argives rose up to hold off the enemy for their country’s sake. Led by Telesilla, the women took up arms and guard the walls all around the city. Socrates tells us that despite experiencing great loss in their numbers, the women fought Cleomenes and another king, Demaratus, who managed to get inside the city wall and gained possession of the Pamphyliacum. The women saved the city, those who fell in battle were buried close by the Argive Road. A statue of Ares was erected as a memorial of the valor of those who died and those who survived.  Legend has it that the battle happened on the seventh day of the month which is now known as the tetartou (Fourth Month). Polyaenus tells us that the Argives knew this month as Hermaeus. On the first day of the month of Hermaeus, they celebrate the Hybristika (Festival of Impudence) where the women were clothed in men’s shirts and cloacks, and the men in women’s veils and robes.  

Limestone statue of Apollo, one of five surviving fragments of the life of Telesilla
Limestone statue of Apollo, one of five surviving fragments of the life of Telesilla

Telesilla, the Poetess and the Leader

Telesilla, the woman who is credited in instigating the rise of the women of Argos, was a poetess. A daughter of a well-known family, Telesilla was a sickly young girl. She later went to Pythia to ask for advice about her health. Pythia, the high priestess and oracle of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, told her to τὰς Μούσας θεραπεύειν (“serve the Muses”).  Taking this advice to heart, Telesilla thus dedicated herself to the study of poetry and music. She soon found herself healed. As an additional blessing, she also grew in fame as a great lyric poet. From the considerable body of work she produced, only two lines remains as quoted by the ancient grammarian Hephaistion of Alexandria  in his  Ἐγχειρίδιον περὶ μέτρων (“Handbook on Meter”) (c. 96 AD). However, references to Telesilla herself appear in the works of Pausanius (c. 110-180 AD), Plutarch (45-120 AD) and  Athenaeus (c. 3rd century AD), among others.

Antipater of Thesalonike (c. 15 BC) listed Telesilla as one of the great Nine Female Lyric Poets of Greece in his Anthologia Palatina. She was listed along with Praxilla of Sicyon, the Byzantium poet Moero, the Arcadian poet Anyte of Tegea whom Antipater dubbed “the female Homer”, Sappho of Lesbos whom he called “the ornament of the fair-tressed Lesbian women”, Erinna of Tilos, Corinna of Tanagra “who sang of Athena’s martial shield”, the “maiden-throated” Nossis, and Myrtis “the sweet-voiced”.  “These are the divinely tongued women who were reared on the hymns of Helicon and the Pierian Rock of Macedon” Antipater wrote, “all of them fashioners of the everlasting page. Nine Muses Great Ouranos bore, Nine likewise Gaia, to be a joy undying for mortals.”

Votive relief showing a heroized youth in the pose of the Doryphoros. From Argos, early 4th century BC. On display in Room 19-20 of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. By Giovanni Dall'Orto.
Votive relief showing a heroized youth in the pose of the Doryphoros. From Argos, early 4th century BC. On display in Room 19-20 of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. By Giovanni Dall’Orto.

Telesilla seems to have been at her work as a poet when the Spartan forces invaded her home city of Argos in 494/493 BC. Before he marched to Argos, king Cleomenes I, King of Sparta, first consulted the Pythia. The Pythia assured him that he would capture Argos. Confident, Cleomenes marched to Argos. He was met on the field at Sepeia by the Argives. Cleomenes  took the Argive troops by surprise, slaughtered many, and chased the survivors from the field. The Argive soldiers then claimed sanctuary in the sacred grove of Apollo. Cleomenes interrogated his Argive prisoners and forced them to give him the names of those in hiding. Once he had the names he required, Cleomenes then sent a herald to call them out and personally guarantee their safety. As each man came out of the sanctuary, Cleomenes promptly had him killed. This strategy continued until one of the remaining men climbed a tree and saw what happened to his friends outside of the sanctuary. Of course, afterwards no other Argive men were willing to answer Cleomenes’ call. As he could not get any more Argives to come out willingly to meet him, Cleomenes then set fire to the grove and burned the rest of the men to death. Herodotus, in his Histories, tells us that as the flames were rising Cleomenes asked one of the Argive deserters to which god the grove was sacred. When the man told him that it was the grove of Apollo, Cleomenes groaned and said, “Apollo, god of prophecy, you misled me when you foretold that I would capture Argos”. It seemed the Pythia (the oracle of Apollo) had meant he would only conquer the sanctuary of Argus, and not the city of Argos itself. Nevertheless, Cleomenes left the grove and marched on the city leaving many Argives victim in his wake.

Small bronze kouros. Argos, Kefalari, 560-540 BC. Archaeological Museum of Nafplion. By Zde - CC BY-SA 4.0
Small bronze kouros. Argos, Kefalari, 560-540 BC. Archaeological Museum of Nafplion. By Zde – CC BY-SA 4.0

Hearing that her fellow citizens had sustained an indescribable disaster at the hands of the Spartans, Hearing this, Telesilla mobilized the women, youth, and elders of Argos to defend the city.    
She instructed the slaves and all male citizens who were too young or too old to be soldiers to guard the walls. She then gathered every war weapons she could find in the houses and temples, armed the younger women and marshalled them at a place where she knew the enemy would pass. There, undismayed by the war cries, the women of Argos stood their ground and fought the Spartans with such determination that the Spartans laid down their weapons, understanding that the slaughter of an army of women would not be an honorable victory and being defeated by these women would have also been humiliating. 

Debating Telesilla’s Role in Saving the City of Argos

As what often happens with discussions regarding accomplished women from the ancient world, there is a debate on whether Telesilla’s accomplishment actually happened. Although the existence of Telesilla and her poetry are unquestioned, for centuries historians have questioned the validity of Telesilla’s role in saving the city of Argos from the Spartans. We can note the fact that although in Book VI of his Histories, Herodotues tells us the story of Cleomenes’ assault on Argos, his massacre of the Argives and even references the oracle, he makes no mention of Telesilla. There are a few arguments that can be made based on this alone. As someone who was always eager to include a good story in his Histories, would Herodotusnot have included Telesilla’s exploits if they have actually happened?It could not have been because Telesilla was a woman as Herodotushas proven himself to be willing to go to great lengths in admiring the accomplishments of Artemisia I of Caria at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. He would have had no qualms about including the heroics of a woman in his work.

The Nymphaion of Ancient Argos by By Ploync -  CC BY 3.0
The Nymphaion of Ancient Argos by By Ploync – CC BY 3.0

It is also difficult to take Pausanias’ account of her role in the post-Sepeia siege of Argos at face value as Pausanias’ account is the most remote in time from the events in question. Therefore, Pausanias’ account would have contributed greatly to this debate. Some aspects to consider here is that Pausanias would have viewed a very much changed Argive cityscape and would heard stories that were susceptible to exaggeration or muddling of details. On the other hand, even if Telesilla’s role is not exactly the same as Pausanias’ description of it, the information gathered in his visit there would have already proven Telesilla’s influence over an important event in Argive history – an event that was significant enough to still be remembered even in Pausanias’ time more than half a millennium later.

British Archaeologist Richard Tomlinson questions the historical accuracy of Pausanias’ account. He notes that, from the archaeological records, it is not clear that the lower city of Argos was even  walled at this point of Telesilla’s time. He further argued that an assault on even the unwalled city itself by the Spartans would have violated taboos against attacking women and would have potentially been very costly to them as, although the city may not have walls, the city was protected by fortified hills on the west side which would have made it very difficult for the enemies to invade from this area. There were also a number of temples and other civic edifices that could have doubled as strong points of attacts. Most of the streets in and around Argos were essentially very narrow alleys densely lined with housing and open sewers instead of wide open spaces. This would have been a big problem for the Spartan army as they were optimized for fighting in close order on an open battlefield instead of an urban warfare. Tomlinson also noted that, in this time period, it was not unusual for a Greek a city to be defended by women in this manner when there was an attack. Regarded as one of the greatest generals in antiquity, Pyrrhus of Epirus.  failed in his Siege of Sparta, a city with no walls, and Pyrrhus was killed shortly afterwards in his unsuccessful attack on Argos after being knocked unconscious by a roof tile thrown down by one of the armed male defenders’ mother. Unlike Pyrrhus, the Spartans would have tried to avoid this kind of costly fighting and would have also wanted to keen to keep a little political order in Argos to maintain it as a buffer state against Athens. However, while disputing Pausanias’ description of women and armed slaves mounting a possibly non-existent wall, Tomlinson allowed that Telesilla could have played a pivotal role in overseeing the distribution of reserve arms from the temples of Argos. She could have also organized the  women of Argos to look “battle ready” enough to help convince the Spartans not to attack the city of Argos itself.

The Odeon of Ancient Argos By Ploync - CC BY 3.0
The Odeon of Ancient Argos By Ploync – CC BY 3.0

Although Herodotus describes post-battle Argos as “emptied of men” and controlled by the slaves, this also likely means that most (if not all) landowning male citizens of military age were killed. However, there were other men  as Argos was divided into a society of hoplites, craftsmen, and farmers at this time. As for the slaves, Tomlinson argued that the term doulos used by Pausanias could mean “slave”, or a more neutral “worker”. It is also likely that in this instance it referred to the gymnetes, a large body of disenfranchised free agricultural workers of the Argolid who were not, strictly speaking, bought and sold “slaves”. If so, this, like the wall, would be an anachronism from Pausanias’ time, as Argos’ physical nature, as well as its social organization and settlement patterns, had changed.

There were also claims that it was Telesilla’s martial poetry which inspired the city of Argos to resist the Spartans instead of an actual physical act on her part or on the part of the women who followed her. This perhaps came from the 2nd century AD writer Maximus of Tyre who wrote that “The Spartans were roused by the poems of Tyrtaeus, the Argives by the songs of Telesilla”. However, there is no record of Telesilla composing martial poetry  as her main subject was religious poetry instead of war songs. Maximus of Tyre never claims that Telesilla wrote martial poetry, only that her poetry inspired the Argives. One might also question why Maximus of Tyre would mention which poet inspired which side in the conflict if that conflict had never happened to begin with. The story of Telesilla and her defeat of the Spartans is not entirely lacking in realistic parallels. For example, it was entirely possible for women to defend the city. In the war between the Greeks and the Trojans, the women, young children, and old men stood on the ramparts and defended them whilst the men went out to fight outside the walls. Several fights from roof tops are mentioned in historical texts, with women hurling roof tiles and stones down on attackers. The mere presence of Argonian women on the ramparts is less of an exploit than donning men’s armour and taking their place following the annihilation of the Argive infantry.

Ancient Theatre of Argos by By Ljuba brank - CC BY-SA 3.0
Ancient Theatre of Argos by By Ljuba brank – CC BY-SA 3.0

In the end, despite the many different variations offered to counter his account, there is nothing completely improbable in Pausanius’ account of Telesilla. Telesilla’s poems were still circulated seven hundred years after her death, in the second century AD. The fact that her name was famous for both her written work and her exploits at Argos against the Spartans suggests that the account of Telesilla leading the city’s women into battle is based on a historical event.

The Battle’s Aftermath and Telesilla’s Legacy

Plutarch observes that, contrary to Herodotus’ claim to “restore the balance of the sexes in the city” by marrying the upper-class women to slaves, the Argives married the women to the best men in the surrounding towns whom they then made citizens of Argos. However, as the women appeared to despise and disrespect their husbands, they slept with their husbands as if the men were inferior. Because of this, a law was passed requiring “women with beards” to spend the night with their husbands. The reference to “women with beards” very likely referred to the women who fought for the city as if they were men. Because the female veterans appeared to have refused to return to their former status as subservient to their husbands’ wishes (in the bedroom or even in the households in general), laws were enacted to return the community to the traditional mores that the city lived by prior to the battle and the rise of the women in defence of the city.

Although we do not know what happened to Telesilla after the battle, she seems to have served as a role model for heroic achievement for centuries. Christian theologian and philosopher  Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215 AD) preserved an earlier poem about Telesilla’s heroism around 700 years after the event. “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,” according to the poem.

Sanctuaries of Apollo Deiradiotis and Athena Oxyderkous By Doktorius - CC BY-SA 4.0
Sanctuaries of Apollo Deiradiotis and Athena Oxyderkous By Doktorius – CC BY-SA 4.0

Lucian of Samosata ( c. 125 – after 180) mentions in his Amores that after Telesilla’s victory over the Spartans, a statue of Ares was erected  at Argos and placed among the statues of the goddesses, presumably to commemorate the women’s bravery in battle. According to Pausanias’ Hellados Periegesis (“Description of Greece”), there was a relief statue in front of the temple of Aphrodite dedicated to Telesilla in Argos. The statue depicted a woman holding a helmet in her hand and in the process of putting it on her head. Books were strewn about at her feet. We can imagine this woman tossing her books and donning a helmet in remembrance of what Telesilla would have done. However, it is possible that the statue seen by Pausanias was not intended for Telesilla but rather to represent Aphrodite in her role as Ares’ consort and a warlike goddess, though this theory would have made the books appear out of place.

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