June 13, 2003
Ancient War Poetry

Natalie Solent asks about pro-war poets, and mentions Homer as one possibility. Some other archaic Greek poets may be even more appropriate. Tyrtaeus was a Spartan who wrote in the mid-7th century, three or four generations after Homer, and that is nearly all we know about him, except that his poems were still being recited by Spartan soldiers 300 years later. Here is Fragment 10, translated by M. L. West (Greek Lyric Poetry, Oxford World Classics series, 1999):

For it is fine to die in the front line,
    a brave man fighting for his fatherland,
and the most painful fate's to leave one’s town
    and fertile farmlands for a beggar's life,
roaming with mother dear and aged father,
    with little children and with wedded wife.
He'll not be welcome anywhere he goes,
    bowing to need and horrid poverty,
his line disgraced, his handsome face belied;
    every humiliation dogs his steps.
This is the truth: the vagrant is ignored
    and slighted, and his children after him.
So let us fight with spirit for our land,
    die for our sons, and spare our lives no more.
You young men, keep together, hold the line,
    do not start panic or disgraceful rout.
Keep grand and valiant spirits in your hearts,
    be not in love with life -- the fight's with men!
Do not desert your elders, men with legs
    no longer nimble, by recourse to flight:
it is disgraceful when an older man
    falls in the front line while the young hold back,
with head already white, and grizzled beard,
    gasping his valiant breath out in the dust
and clutching at his bloodied genitals,
    his nakedness exposed: a shameful sight
and scandalous. But for the young man, still
    in glorious prime, it is all beautiful:
alive, he draws men's eyes and women's hearts;
    felled in the front line, he is lovely yet.
Let every man then, feet set firm apart,
    bite on his lip and stand against the foe.

There's more where that came from, but it should be enough to give the flavor. Callinus of Ephesus was a near contemporary, and his one large fragment is equally martial. The Greek lyric, iambic, and elegiac poets are mostly forgotten today except for Sappho of Lesbos and perhaps Archilochus of Paros, soldier and poet, now remembered mostly for fragment 201:

The fox knows many tricks,
the hedgehog one big one.

One problem with these works is that they survive only in fragments, though some of these, like Tyrtaeus 10, are quite substantial. Others are just tantalizing scraps, or less-than-tantalizing bits and pieces. For instance, Simonides 519 consists of 166 tiny scraps of papyrus, some of which contain only a single readable letter: fragment 64 is a nu, 68 an omicron, and 67 a pi with a dot under it to show that the editor was not really sure that it was a pi. Despite the devastation of the ages, it's clear from what survives of Greek lyric that the poets took war for granted as an inevitable part of human life. Even Sappho, a woman and a love poet, begins a poem (16) with positive martial imagery:

Some think a fleet, a troop of horse
or soldiery the finest sight
in all the world; but I say, what one loves.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at June 13, 2003 12:53 AM