Spartan Writing & Literature

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ancient Sparta is remembered for many things, but literature usually isn't one of them. In this lesson, we'll talk about the role of literature in Sparta and see why the city-state isn't remembered for its literary contributions.

Literature in Sparta

Think of the great Spartan civilization. The Spartans were famous across Greece, renowned for one thing in particular: poetry. Most of us think of Sparta as a purely military state, but the Spartans themselves were never entirely without other intellectual pursuits. In fact, around the seventh century BCE Sparta was one of the most poetically-inclined Greek city-states, producing more poetry that survives or is known today than even Athens. So, which was Sparta, home of warriors or home of poets? Why not both?

Literature in a Military Culture

If the Spartans had great poets among them, why don't we hear about them more often? There are actually a few reasons. Most significantly, while literature, philosophy, and fine arts did exist in Sparta, these were the pursuits of only a minority of the people. The majority of Spartans were never trained in literature or philosophy, and most men spent their entire lives in military service. While Athens was a democracy which widely encouraged education and artistic development, the rigid monarchy of Sparta was much less inclined toward these ideals. So, Sparta had great poets and artists who produced large amounts of work, but they were the exceptions in Spartan society and not the rule.

Since the Spartans did not record as much about their lives as did the people of other Greek city-states, it is also very possible that much of their literature was orally transmitted and lost to time. However, the names of two of Sparta's greatest poets have survived.

Alcman

First is Alcman. Alcman is considered to be one of the greatest lyric poets in Greek history, writing songs about Spartan life, religion, and philosophy in the seventh century BCE. His most famous collection of surviving lyrics is part of a 'parthenion', a song performed by a chorus of young unmarried women. His poetry focused on life and religion in Sparta and was likely performed at festivals. Alcman's poems are notable because they were often written in the Doric dialect of the Greek language (the dialect used in Sparta), of which we have few examples.

Alcman depicted in a Roman mosaic
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Tyrtaeus

The second of the famous Spartan poets was Tyrtaeus, another seventh-century Spartan master of Greek literature. While Alcman is remembered for his light, uplifting festival poems, Tyrtaeus' work is perhaps more in line with what we'd expect from Sparta. He wrote military lyric poems, songs that could be sung by the hoplite foot soldiers to keep the unit marching in time and together. Accounts of Spartan armies from the time indicate that they were almost always accompanied by flute players, and that music was used to organize the troops.

Poems by Tyrtaeus have strong militaristic themes, like the one depicted in this amphora from the 6th century BCE
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In this sense Tyrtaeus' poems are functional, but they also held deep intellectual and cultural significance. The lyrics themselves communicate extreme Spartan patriotism, fealty to the Spartan monarchs, and a devotion to maintaining one's place in the Spartan class system. Scholars see these songs as indicators that the monarchy was centralizing its power, and building support in the massive military class. It's also worth noting that Tyrtaeus' poems aren't actually in the Doric dialect. They reflect other Greek dialects, which could be thanks to the Spartan monarchs' attempts to important other Greek intellectuals into their courts.

Greeks and Sparta

Since the Spartans themselves did not write much about themselves, a lot of what we know about Sparta comes from other sources, particularly from Athens. This means that much of what we know about Alcman and Tyrtaeus may reflect the biases of those authors.

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