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Hypatia, the Mathematician
Telesilla, the Warrior Poet - Amazing Women of the Ancient World
135    Dibyendu Banerjee    23/05/2024

Telesilla, an ancient lyric poet of the 5th century from the Peloponnesian city of Argos, was listed by Antipater of Thessaloniki, a prolific writer of epigrams, who lived during the later part of the reign of the emperor Augustus and perhaps into the reign of Caligula, as one of the great Nine Female Lyric Poets of ancient Greece, along with Praxilla, Anyte, Sappho, Erinna, Nossis and others. However, she was also glorified by several later writers, like the Greek Philosopher Plutarch, for her courage, bravery and patriotism in defending her city against the Spartan force of King Cleomenes, in the Battle of Sepeia in 494 BC. But in his account of the battle, the Greek historian Herodotus never mentioned the name of Telesilla in the matter and her role in the battle is also doubted by the modern scholars.

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However, some scholars like the British archaeologist Richard Allan Tomlinson and Jennifer Martinez Morales have argued that the story of women defending the city is possible, although Tomlinson have also suggested that Telesilla's role in the battle was exaggerated.

telesilla the warrior poet

Nevertheless, Telesilla was famous in antiquity, despite the fact, only a few fragments of her poetry survive, several of which have reference to the gods Apollo and Artemis.

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However, little is known of her life. According to Plutarch, she was from an aristocratic family, while the British philologist and classical scholar Martin Litchfield West suggested that she held a hereditary priesthood, because the first part of her name, ‘Telesi’, was sometimes associated with the families of priests. The accounts of Plutarch depicted Telesilla as a sickly child, who was continually sickly in her youth and when she consulted an oracle, a health profession of her day, with the hope to solve her health hazards, she was advised to dedicate herself to the Muses and by devoting herself to poetry and music she was quickly relieved of her trouble and became an avid and innovative poet.

telesilla the warrior poet

Unfortunately, only nine fragments of Telesilla's poetry survive in the quotation or paraphrase, and five fragments of her poetry relate to the gods Artemis and Apollo, one of which is probably from a poem relating to the wedding of Zeus and Hera. While her surviving works suggest that she concentrated on local legends and was particularly interested in women's lives, both Pausanias and Plutarch stated that she was well regarded by the women in particular. Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that she was an extremely influential artist in her days and was always cited with respect by other ancient authors, no matter the subject.

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Even a Glyconic Meter, a form of meter in classical Greek and Latin poetry, was named as the Telesillean Meter, in her honour. To illustrate the meter, Hephaestion, a grammarian of Alexandria, quoted two lines, the longest surviving fragment of Telesilla, about the myth of Alpheus and addressed to maidens, which is probably a choral poem, written for the performance the girls of the noble families at local festivals.

telesilla the warrior poet

Apart from being known as a great lyric poet in her days, Telesilla is also remembered for her courage and bravery as a warrior and her role as a leader in defending her city from the attacking Spartans, as mentioned by the Greek Philosopher Plutarch and Pausanias, a Greek traveller and geographer of the second century AD. According to their accounts, when the Spartan King Cleomenes I moved his troops against the city of Argos in 494/493 BC and faced the Argives at Sepeia, he took the Argive force by surprise through trickery, slaughtered many them, even brutally murdered those Argive soldiers, who took refuge in the sacred grove of Argus, claiming sanctuary of the god and then set the grove on fire to burn the rest to death. During that precarious situation, Telesilla took the initiative to mobilise the women of Argos for defence, armed them with the ornamental shields and swords gathered from the temples in the city and led by her, the armed women of Argos took up position to guard the walls all around the city.

telesilla the warrior poet

According to the accounts of Socrates, the women brigade of Argos stood their ground firmly, fought with the greatest determination and despite experiencing great loss in their numbers, did not give up. However, the invincible spirit of the fighting women created a dilemma deep in the heart of the Spartan king. He realised that, it would not be a glorious, but rather a shameful victory, by slaughtering an army of women, while a defeat at their hands would also be a matter of dishonour, as well as a disaster. After a second thought, he therefore decided to withdraw his army, and Argos was saved. Later, in memory of her achievements in poetry, and her contribution towards Argos, an engraved image of Telesilla was created in front of the temple of Aphrodite at Argos, depicting a woman holding a helmet in her hand and in the process of putting it on her head, while books were strewn about at her feet.

telesilla the warrior poet
Hypatia, the Mathematician
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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