May 27, 2022

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Poetry: Sparta

13 min read

Simonides of Creos: Battle of Thermopylae

Epitaph for the Spartan Dead at Thermopylae
(There is a possibility of this being incorrectly attributed to Simonides.)
Go, stranger, and to the Spartans tell
That here, obedient to their word, we fell.

Epitaph for Megistias
The great Megistias’ tomb,
you here may view,
Who slew the Medes, fresh
from Sperchius’ fords.
Well the wise seer the coming
death foreknew,
Yet scorned he to forsake
his Spartan lords.

On those Who Died with Leonidas
Leonidas, king of the open fields of Sparta,
those slain with you lie famous in their graves,
For they attacked absorbing the head-long assault
of endless Persian men, arrows and swift horse.

Epitaph for the Tomb of Leonidas
(In Sparta, on which stood a stone lion.)
I am the most valiant of beasts,
and most valiant of men is he
Whom I guard standing on this stone tomb.

On those Who Died at Thermopylae
Of those who perished at the Hot Gates,
all glorious is the fortune, fair the doom;
Their grave’s an altar, ceaseless memory’s theirs
instead of lamentation, and their fate
Is chant of praise. Such winding sheet as this
no mould nor all-consuming time shall waste.
This sepulchre of valiant men has taken
the fair renown of Hellas for its inmate.
And witness is Leonidas, once king
of Sparta, who hath left behind a crown
Of valour mighty and undying fame.


On the Spartans Fallen at Plataea
These men left an altar of glory on their land,
shining in all weather,
When they were enveloped by the black mists of
But though they died
They are not dead, for their courage raises them
in glory
From the rooms of Hell.

Tyrtaeus of Sparta c. 630 BC

You should reach the limits of virtue
before you cross the border of death.

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

Here is courage, mankind’s finest possession, here is
the noblest prize that a young man can endeavor to win,
and it is a good thing his city and all the people share with him
when a man plants his feet and stands in the foremost spears
relentlessly, all thought of foul flight completely forgotten,
and has well trained his heart to be steadfast and to endure,
and with words encourages the man who is stationed beside him.

Here is a man who proves himself to be valiant in war.
With a sudden rush he turns to flight the rugged battalions
of the enemy, and sustains the beating waves of assault.
And he who so falls among the champions and loses his sweet life,
so blessing with honor his city, his father, and all his people,
with wounds in his chest, where the spear that he was facing has transfixed
that 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 land.

But if he escapes the doom of death, the destroyer of bodies,
and wins his battle, and bright renown for the work of his spear,
all men give place to him like, 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 high place of courage
with all his heart, and, so trying, never be backward in war.

To the Soldiers; after a defeat
Now, since you are the seed of Heracles the invincible,
courage! Zeus has not yet turned away from us. Do not
fear the multitude of their men, nor run away from them.
Each man should bear his shield straight at the foremost ranks
and make his heart a thing full of hate, and hold the black flying
spirits of death as dear as he holds the flash of the sun.

You know what havoc is the work of the painful War God,
you have learned well how things go in exhausting war,
for you have been with those who ran and with the pursuers,
O young men, you have had as much of both as you want.

Those who, standing their ground and closing their ranks together,
endure the onset at close quarters and fight in the front,
they lose fewer men. They also protect the army behind them.
Once they flinch, the spirit of the whole army falls apart.
And no man could count over and tell all the number of evils,
all that can come to a man, once he gives way to disgrace.
For once a man reverses and runs in the terror of battle,
he offers his back, a tempting mark to spear from behind,
and it is a shameful sight when a dead man lies in the dust there,
driven through from behind by the stroke of an enemy spear.

No, no, let him take a wide stance and stand up strongly against them,
digging both heels in the ground, biting his lip with his teeth,
covering thighs and legs beneath, his chest and his shoulders
under the hollowed-out protection of his broad shield,
while in his right hand he brandishes the powerful war-spear,
and shakes terribly the crest high above his helm.
Our man should be disciplined in the work of the heavy fighter,
and not stand out from the missiles when he carries a shield,
but go right up and fight at close quarters and, with his long spear
or short sword, thrust home and strike his enemy down.
Let him fight toe to toe and shield against shield hard driven,
crest against crest and helmet on helmet, chest against chest;
let him close hard and fight it out with his opposite foeman,
holding tight to the hilt of his sword, or to his long spear.
And you, O light-armed fighters, from shield to shield of your fellows,
dodge for protection and keep steadily throwing great stones,
and keep on pelting the enemy with your javelins, only
remember always to stand near your own heavy-armed men.

Spartan Soldier
It is beautiful when a brave man of the front ranks,
falls and dies, battling for his homeland,
and ghastly when a man flees planted fields and city
and wanders begging with his dear mother,
aging father, little children and true wife.
He will be scorned in every new village,
reduced to want and loathsome poverty; and shame
will brand his family line, his noble
figure. Derision and disaster will hound him.
A turncoat gets no respect or pity;
so let us battle for our country and freely give
our lives to save our darling children.

Young men, fight shield to shield and never succumb
to panic or miserable flight,
but steel the heart in your chests with magnificence
and courage. Forget your own life
when you grapple with the enemy. Never run
and let an old soldier collapse
whose legs have lost their power. It is shocking when
an old man lies on the front line
before a youth: an old warrior whose head is white
and beard gray, exhaling his strong soul
into the dust, clutching his bloody genitals
into his hands: an abominable vision,
foul to see: his flesh naked. But in a young man
all is beautiful when he still
possesses the shining flower of lovely youth.
Alive he is adored by men,
desired by women, and finest to look upon
when he falls dead in the forward clash.

Let each man spread his legs, rooting them in the ground,
bite his teeth into his lips, and hold.

Lord Byron 1788-1824

The Isles of Greece

The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.

The Scian and the Teian muse,
The hero’s harp, the lover’s lute,
Have found the fame your shores refuse:
Their place of birth alone is mute
To sounds which echo further west
Than your sires’ “Islands of the Blest.”

The mountains look on Marathon –
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dreamed that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians’ grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.

A king sate on the rocky brow
Which looks o’er sea-born Salamis;
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
And men in nations; – all were his!
He counted them at break of day –
And when the sun set, where were they?

And where are they? and where art thou,
My country? On thy voiceless shore
The heroic lay is tuneless now –
The heroic bosom beats no more!
And must thy lyre, so long divine,
Degenerate into hands like mine?

‘Tis something in the dearth of fame,
Though linked among a fettered race,
To feel at least a patriot’s shame,
Even as I sing, suffuse my face;
For what is left the poet here?
For Greeks a blush – for Greece a tear.

Must we but weep o’er days more blest?
Must we but blush? – Our fathers bled.
Earth! render back from out thy breast
A remnant of our Spartan dead!
Of the three hundred grant but three,
To make a new Thermopylae!

What, silent still? and silent all?
Ah! no; – the voices of the dead
Sound like a distant torrent’s fall,
And answer, “Let one living head,
But one, arise, – we come, we come!”
‘Tis but the living who are dumb.

In vain – in vain: strike other chords;
Fill high the cup with Samian wine!
Leave battles to the Turkish hordes,
And shed the blood of Scio’s vine!
Hark! rising to the ignoble call –
How answers each bold Bacchanal!

You have the Pyrrhic dance as yet;
Where is the Pyrrhic phalanx gone?
Of two such lessons, why forget
The nobler and the manlier one?
You have the letters Cadmus gave –
Think ye he meant them for a slave?

Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
We will not think of themes like these!
It made Anacreon’s song divine:
He served – but served Polycrates –
A tyrant; but our masters then
Were still, at least, our countrymen.

The tyrant of the Chersonese
Was freedom’s best and bravest friend;
That tyrant was Miltiades!
O that the present hour would lend
Another despot of the kind!
Such chains as his were sure to bind,

Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
On Suli’s rock, and Parga’s shore,
Exists the remnant of a line
Such as the Doric mothers bore;
And there, perhaps, some seed is sown,
The Heracleidan blood might own.

Trust not for freedom to the Franks –
They have a king who buys and sells;
In native swords and native ranks
The only hope of courage dwells:
But Turkish force and Latin fraud
Would break your shield, however broad.

Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
Our virgins dance beneath the shade –
I see their glorious black eyes shine;
But gazing on each glowing maid,
My own the burning tear-drop laves,
To think such breasts must suckle slaves.

Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
There, swan-like, let me sing and die:
A land of slaves shall ne’er be mine –
Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!

E. Housman 1859-1936

The Oracles

‘Tis mute, the word they went to hear on high Dodona mountain
When winds were in the oakenshaws and all the cauldrons tolled,
And mute’s the midland navel-stone beside the singing fountain,
And echoes list to silence now where gods told lies of old.

I took my question to the shrine that has not ceased from speaking,
The heart within, that tells the truth and tells it twice as plain;
And from the cave of oracles I heard the priestess shrieking
That she and I should surely die and never live again.

Oh priestess, what you cry is clear, and sound good sense I think it;
But let the screaming echoes rest, and froth your mouth no more.
‘Tis true there’s better boose than brine, but he that drowns must drink it;
And oh, my lass, the news is news that men have heard before.

The King with half the East at heel is marched from lands of morning;
Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air.
And he that stands will die for naught, and home there’s no returning.
The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.

P. Cavafy 1863-1933

(Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard


Honor to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do
but showing pity also, and compassion;
generous when they’re rich, and when they’re poor,

still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.

And even more honor is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that Ephialtes will turn up in the end,
that the Medes will break through after all.

“Spartan Choral Dance” no.1
(from Lysistrata)
send me
your Muse,
who knows
our glory,
knows Athens’ —
Tell the story:
At Artemisium
like gods, they stampeded
the hulks of the Medes, and beat them.

And Leonidas
leading us —
the wild boars
whetting their tusks.
And the foam flowered,
flowered and flowed,
down our cheeks
to our knees below.
The Persians there
like the sands of the sea —

Hither, huntress,
virgin, goddess,
tracker, slayer,
to our truce!
Hold us ever
fast together;
bring our pledges
love and increase;
wean us from the fox’s wiles —

Hither, huntress!
Virgin, hither!

Aristophanes (Athenian dramatist, c. 450BC-c.388BC.)

“Spartan Choral Dance” no.2

Leave darling Taygetus,
Spartan Muse! Come to us
once more, flying
and glorifying
Spartan themes:
the god at Amyclae,
bronze-house Athena,
Tyndarus’ twins,
the valiant ones,
playing still by Eurotas’ streams.

Up! Advance!
Leap to the dance!

Help us hymn Sparta,
lover of dancing,
lover of footfalls,
where girls go prancing
like fillies along Eurotas’ banks,
whirling the dust, twinkling their shanks,
shaking their hair
like Maenads playing
and juggling the thyrsis,
in frenzy obeying
Leda’s daughter, the fair, the pure
Helen, the mistress of the choir.

Here, Muse, here!
Bind up your hair!

Stamp like a deer! Pound your feet!
Clap your hands! Give us a beat!

Sing the greatest,
sing the mightiest,
sing the conqueror,
sing to honor her —

Athena of the Bronze House!
Sing Athena!

Alcman of Sparta c. 625 B.C.

On His Poetry

Muse of the round sky, daughter

of Zeus,

I sing my poems loud and clear
to you.

Man’s Lessons
Experience and suffering
are the mother of wisdom.

Ars Poetica
I know the tunes
of every bird,
but I, Alcman, found my words and song
in the tongue of the strident partridge.

Now chasms and mountain summits are asleep,
and sierra slopes and ravines;
creeping things nourished by the dark earth,
hillside beasts and generations of bees,
monsters in the depths of the purple brine,
all lie asleep,
and also tribes of flying birds.

On a Poetess
Aphrodite commands and love rains
upon my body and melts my heart
for Megalostrata, to whom the sweet Muse
gave the gift of poetry.
O happy girl of the goldenrod hair!

The Journey
Narrow is our way of life
and necessity is pitiless.

To the Moon Goddess
I am your servant, Artemis.
You draw your long bow at night,
clothed in the skins of wild beasts.
Now hear our beautiful singing.

I Am Old
O girls of honey-sweet voices, my limbs are weak.
They will not bear me. I wish, ah, I wish I were
a carefree kingfisher flying over flowering foam
with the halcyons — sea-blue holy birds of Spring.

Maiden Song (excerpt of a fragment)
There is vengeance from the gods;
but blessed is he who blithely
winds out all his day of life
without tears. But I must sing the
light of Agido. I see
her like the sun, whose shining
on us is witnessed through Agido.
But our lovely choir leader
will not let me praise her, nor
say she is not fair.
She knows well that she herself is
something dazzling,
just as if among a herd of
cattle one should set a racehorse,
sinewy, swift, and with feet full of thunder,
creature out of a dream with wings.

Is not Hagesichora
of the lovely step here beside us?
Does she wait with Agido,
and with her commend our performance?
But you Gods, accept their prayers,
for the end and the achievement
come from God. My chorus leader,
maiden as I am, I say
I have only shrilled in vain
from the roof tops
like an owl; yet I would also
please our Lady
of the Dawn; for it was she who
came to heal us of our trouble.
Maidens, we have come to the peace desired,
all through Hagesichora’s grace.

All the chariot’s course is swung
to the running of the trace-horse,
all the ship must come to heel,
swiftly to the captain’s handling.
She has sung her song today
not more sweetly than the Sirens
(they are gods). But how we sang,
we ten girls instead of the Eleven!
One is trilling like a swan by
Xanthus river,
one with splendid tawny hair….





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