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Telesilla of Argos › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 25 March 2014
Erato ()

Telesilla of Argos was a lyric poet of the 5th century BCE, listed by Antipater of Thesalonike (c. 15 BCE) as one of the great Nine Female Lyric Poets of Greece (along with Praxilla, Moiro, Anyte, Sappho, Erinna, Corinna, Nossis, and Myrtis). She was responsible for the metrical innovation of lyric poetry known as the Telesillean Metre. Antipater writes:
These are the divinely tongued women who were reared
on the hymns of Helicon and the Pierian Rock of Macedon :
Praxilla, Moiro, Anyte the female Homer,
Sappho the ornament of the fair-tressed Lesbian women,
Erinna, renowned Telesilla, and you, Corinna,
who sang of Athena 's martial shield,
Nossis the maiden-throated, and Myrtis the sweet-voiced,
All of them fashioners of the everlasting page.
Nine Muses Great Ouranos bore, Nine likewise Gaia,
to be a joy undying for mortals (Anthologia Palatina, 9.26).
In her youth, she was continually sickly and so consulted the gods for help in restoring her to health. The answer came from the oracle that she should devote herself to the Muses, and so Telesilla dedicated herself to the study of poetry and music.She soon found herself healed and, additionally, grew in fame as a great lyric poet. Of the considerable body of work she produced, only two lines remain extant as quoted by the ancient grammarian Hephaistion of Alexandria in his Handbook on Meter (c. 96 CE). References to her, however, appear in the works of Pausanius (c. 110-180 CE), Plutarch (45-120 CE), Athenaeus (c. 3rd century CE), and the work Bibliotheca ascribed (wrongly) to Apollodorus of Alexandria (2nd century CE), among others. She was an extremely influential artist who is always cited with respect by other ancient authors, no matter the subject.



While she was famous during her life for her poetry, she was equally respected by later writers for driving the Spartan forces from her home city of Argos in 494/493 BCE. Telesilla seems to have been at her work as a poet when the hostilities began.The Spartan king Cleomenes I consulted the Oracle of Apollo on what would happen if he marched on Argos, and he was assured that he would capture it. He was met on the field by the Argives at Sepeia and, through trickery, took the troops by surprise, slaughtered many, and chased the survivors from the field. These Argive soldiers took refuge in the sacred grove of Argus and claimed sanctuary from the god. Cleomenes questioned his Argive prisoners as to the names of those in hiding and, once he had these names, sent a herald to call them out personally and to guarantee their safety. As each man came out of the sanctuary, Cleomenes had him killed. This went on until one of the men remaining in the sacred grove climbed a tree and saw what was going on outside of the sanctuary. Afterwards, of course, no other Argive answered Cleomenes' call. Since he could not get any more Argives to come out willingly, he set fire to the grove and burned the rest of the men to death.Herodotus reports that, as the flames were rising, he asked one of the Argive deserters to which god the grove was sacred.When the man said it was the grove of Argus, Cleomenes groaned and said, “Apollo, god of prophecy, you seriously misled me when you foretold that I would capture Argos; I think your prediction has now come true” ( Histories, VI.80).
Even though it seemed the oracle had meant he would only conquer the sanctuary of Argos, he left the grove and marched on the city. Telesilla heard of what had happened to the men of the army and mobilized the women, youth, and elders of Argos for defense. Plutarch writes:
No action taken by women for the common good is more famous than the conflict against Cleomenes by the Argive women, which they fought at the instigation of the poetess Telesilla. When Cleomenes king of Sparta had killed many Argives (but not, as some have imagined, Seven thousand, seven hundred, and seventy-seven) and marched against the city, an impulsive courage, divinely inspired, impelled the younger women to defend their country against the enemy. With Telesilla as general, they took up arms and made their defense by manning the walls around the city, and the enemy was amazed. They drove Cleomenes off after inflicting many losses. They also repulsed the other Spartan king, Demaratus, who (according to the Argive historian Socrates ) managed to get inside and seize the Pamphylacium. After the city was saved, they buried the women who had fallen in battleby the Argive road, and as a memorial to the achievements of the women who were spared they dedicated a temple to Ares Enyalius... Up to the present day they celebrate the Festival of Impudence (Hybristika) on the anniversary [of the battle] putting the women into men's tunics and cloaks and the men in women's dresses and head-coverings ( Moralia 245c-f).
Telesilla's actions were interpreted by other writers as the fulfillment of a prophecy by the oracle, referenced by Herodotus, concerning Argos. Pausanius writes:
Above the Theater [at Argos] there is a temple of Aphrodite and in front of the seated statue of the goddess is a stele engraved with an image of Telesilla the writer of poems. These lie as though thrown down beside her feet and she herself is looking at a helmet which she holds in her hand and is about to put on her head. Telesilla was famous among women for her poetry but still more famous for the following achievement.
Her fellow citizens had sustained an indescribable disaster at the hands of the Spartans under Cleomenes son of Anaxandridas. Some had fallen in actual battle and of the others, who took sanctuary in the grove of Argus, some had at first ventured out under a truce, only to be burnt to death when Cleomenes set fire to the grove. By these means Cleomenes, proceeding to Argos, led his Lacedaemonians against a city of women.
But Telesilla took all the slaves and all such male citizens who through youth or age had been unable to bear arms, and made them man the walls, and gathering together all the weapons of war that had been left in the houses or were hanging in the temples, armed the younger women and marshalled them at a place she knew the enemy must pass. There, undismayed by the war cry, the women stood their ground and fought with the greatest determination, until the Spartans, reflecting that the slaughter of an army of women would be an equivocal victory, and defeat at their hands would be dishonor as well as disaster, laid down their arms. Now this battle had been foretold by the Pythian Priestess, and Herodotus [VI. 77], whether he understood it or not, quotes the oracle as follows:
When male by female is put to flight
And Argos' name with honor is bright
Many an Argive wife will show
Both cheeks marred with scars of woe.
Such is the part of the oracle which refers to the women.

Theatre of Argos


Historians have questioned the validity of the story of Telesilla and the Spartans for centuries noting the fact that Herodotus, in Book VI of his Histories, tells the story of Cleomenes' assault on Argos and the massacre of the Argives, and even references the oracle, but makes no mention of Telesilla. Since Herodotus was always eager to include a good story in his Histories, it is argued, he would have included the exploits of Telesilla if they had actually happened. It has also been noted that Herodotus goes to great lengths in admiring the accomplishments of Artemisia I of Caria at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE and so would have had no qualms about including the heroics of a woman in his work. Among the other aspects of the story called into question is the unlikelihood of the women manning the walls of the city against an invading force, especially one as formidable as the Spartans.
The historian Jane McIntosh Snyder cites the scholar Lisi as claiming that it was Telesilla's martial poetry which inspired the city of Argos to resist the Spartans and not an actual physical act on her part or on the part of the women who allegedly followed her. Lisi cites the 2nd century CE writer Maximus of Tyre who wrote that “The Spartiates were roused by the poems of Tyrtaeus, the Argives by the songs of Telesilla” (62). Snyder, however, discounts this possibility citing the fact that there is no record of Telesilla composing martial poetry and that “her chief sphere was religious poetry rather than war songs” (62).Snyder further points out that Maximus of Tyre never says that Telesilla composed martial poetry, only that the Argives were inspired by her songs. It is also interesting to note why Maximus of Tyre would mention which poet inspired which side in the conflict if that conflict had never happened. The historian Marcel Pierat agrees with Snyder, writing that the story of Telesilla and her defeat of the Spartans is:
...not entirely lacking for realistic parallels. On the shield of Achilles, the women, young children, and old men stood on the ramparts and defended them whilst the men went off to fight outside the walls. Historical texts mention more than one fight undertaken from roof tops by women who threw roof-tiles and stones down upon attackers. The fact of their [the women of Argos] presence on the ramparts constitutes in itself less of an exploit than the fact of donning the armour of the men and taking their place after the annihilation of the Argive infantry ( Herodotus and His World, 278-279).
Snyder concludes that there is “nothing inherently improbable in Pausanius' account” (62) and points out that “in the second century AD her poems were still in circulation some seven hundred years after her death” (59). That her name was famous both for her written work and her exploits at Argos against the Spartans strongly suggests that the account of Telesilla leading the women of the city into battle is based on an historical event.
Acropolis of Argos

Acropolis of Argos


Plutarch notes that, after the battle:
To restore the balance of the sexes in the city, they did not (despite Herodotus' claim) marry the women to slaves, but to the best men in the surrounding towns, whom they made citizens of Argos. The women appeared not to show respect for their husbands and despised them when they slept with them as if they were inferior, so they made a law that says that women who have beards must spend the night with their husbands.
The reference to “women who have beards” is thought to mean those women who fought for the city as though they were men.The female veterans seem to have refused to return to their former status as subservient to their husband's wishes, and so laws had to be enacted to restore the community to the traditional mores which existed before the battle and the rise of the women in defense of Argos. Marcel Pierat points out that, after the battle, the “sex roles and roles of social classes were exchanged” (282), and the chaos that had threatened the social order would have to have been remedied by some kind of edict.
What happened to Telesilla after the engagement with the Spartans is unknown, but she continued to serve as a role model of heroic achievement for centuries. Clement of Alexandria (c.150-215 CE) preserved an earlier poem regarding her heroism which contains the lines, “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.” Her reputation for courage was such that, almost 700 years after the event, she continued to be remembered and honored for it.

Domitian › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Donald L. Wasson
published on 25 April 2013
Roman Emperor Domitian (Mary Harrsch (Photographed at the Musée de Louvre))

Domitian was Roman Emperor from 81 to 96 CE and his reign, although one of relative peace and stability, became engulfed in both fear and paranoia. His death at the hands of those who were closest to him brought an end to the short dynasty of the Flavians and it was those emperors who would follow, at least for the next one hundred years, who would see a rebirth of some of the grandeur and power of old Rome.


Titus Flavius Domitianus, Domitian, was born October 24, 51 CE on Pomegranate Street in the sixth district of Rome, youngest son of the future emperor Vespasian (64 -79 CE); his mother, Flavia Domitillia Major, died in his youth. Unlike his much older brother, Titus, he did not share in the court education, although many considered him bright. According to historian Suetonius, his “rather degraded youth” was spent in poverty. In December of 69 CE while Vespasian was battling in the eastern provinces in an attempt to secure the throne away from Emperor Vitellius, Domitian was in Rome with his uncle Flavius Sabinus. When Vitellius's forces besieged Rome and set fire to the temple where Domitian was hiding, he was able to escape with a friend across the Tiber to safety.
When Flavian forces entered the city, Domitian returned to Rome becoming, albeit temporarily, the representative of the Flavian family; he was even hailed by Roman citizens as “ caesar ”; however, most of the administrative decisions were left to others. Vespasian returned to the city in October of 70 CE and was immediately hailed as the new emperor. Afterwards, although given titles and honours, Domitian never sought any real responsibility and was given little by either his father or later his brother, a poor preparation for a future emperor.



His ascension to the throne came on September 14, 81 CE when Titus died of natural causes while he and his brother were travelling outside Rome. Later, rumours circulated that Domitian may have had a hand in his brother's death, possibly by poison. Gossip also ran rampant that the new emperor had at one point even plotted to overthrow his brother and take the throne for himself. Whether or not he had a hand in Titus's death, Domitian did not wait for his brother to die. He quickly returned to Rome and the Praetorian camp to be proclaimed emperor. Mystery, however, surrounded the last minutes before Titus's death. There is some disagreement on the meaning of Titus's last words: “I have made but one mistake.” Suetonius wrote he “gazed up at the sky, and complained bitterly that life was being undeservedly taken from him, since a single sin lay on his conscience.” He added, “… this enigmatic remark has been taken as referring to incest with Domitian's wife, Domitia, she herself solemnly denied the allegation.” Suetonius did not believe this was the case because if she had had an affair, she would have bragged about it. Some, those not overly fond of the new emperor, took a more negative view of these words - Titus meant he should have killed Domitian when he had the chance.
Early in his reign, Domitian proved to be an able administrator and did not ignore the welfare of the people. Before the Flavians came to power, much of Rome needed rebuilding, mostly due to fire, decay, and the failure of previous emperors to do anything about it. He restored the gutted ruins of many public buildings, including the Capitol which had burned in 80 CE, built a new temple to Jupiter the Guardian, a new stadium, and a concert hall for musicians and poets. For himself, because he didn't like the old imperial palace, he built a new Flavian Palace on Palatine Hill for official functions, and to the south he constructed the Domus Augustana where he held numerous banquets and receptions. Despite his own lack of moral values, he attempted to raise the standards of public morality by forbidding male castration, admonishing senators who practiced homosexuality, and censuring the Vestal Virgins for, among other indiscretions, incest - one was even buried alive (her lover was also executed). By those around him, at least early in his reign, he was viewed as being generous, possessing self-restraint, considerate of all of his friends, and conscientious when dispensing justice.
Domitian also liked games, in particular, chariot races, even adding two new factions - Golden and Purple. In fact he loved public entertainments of any kind, especially those involving women and dwarves. There were also wild beast hunts and gladiatorial contests by torchlight and there were competitions to the death between infantry and cavalry. The basement of the Colosseum (built by his father) was flooded and used for a naval battle. He even founded a festival of music, horsemanship, and gymnastics that was to be held every five years. However, while both Domitian and the public enjoyed these entertainments, their cost would eventually take a heavy toll on his and the empire ’s finances.
The Colosseum of Rome

The Colosseum of Rome

Although not a military man (unlike Vespasian and Titus), he considered himself one and constantly sent messages to the generals in the field with advice and recommendations. Having no personal experience himself and hoping to claim some credibility with the army, he embarked on a victorious campaign to Germany to engage the Chatti in 83 CE. Afterwards, he awarded himself the title of Germanicus for his “success.” In 85 CE the Dacians crossed the Danube onto the northern frontier, killing a Roman commander. Four years later, the Roman army won another decisive victory at Tapae; however, Domitian was forced reluctantly to conclude a truce with King Decebalus. In 92 CE, the Samatians crossed the Danube and attacked the Roman frontier, a war that would endure until after the emperor's death. Despite the results of his military achievements, he earned the respect of the army when he became the first emperor since Augustus to give them a raise.


In his The Twelve Caesars Suetonius claimed that Domitian was not evil to begin with; however, greed and fear of assassination made him cruel. Historian Cassius Dio in his Roman History said the emperor was both bold and quick to anger.He was treacherous as well as secretive, feeling no affection for anyone (except women). He was extremely vain and very self-conscience of his being bald. As his reign progressed and the pressures of ruling mounted, his paranoia seized him. In order to pay for his extravagances he tightened the Jewish tax enacted by his father and seized the fortunes of senators and wealthy Romans. His paranoia even extended to his wife, Domitia Logina. He accused her of adultery (some accounts claimed she deserved it) and planned to put her to death, a common practice for the time. Domitia had been married to a senator, Aelius Lamia, but he was convinced to divorce her so she could marry Domitian. Domitian temporarily left his wife to live with his niece Julia, Titus's daughter by his second marriage, until he was convinced by others to return to his wife.
The emperor saw himself as an absolute ruler and took pride in being called master or god: “ dominus et deus.” He even renamed two of the months after himself - Germanicus (September) and Domitianus (October). The Senate was almost stripped entirely of its power and his paranoia led to the execution of both senators and imperial officers for the most trivial of offences. Out of jealousy, he had Sullustius Lucullus, governor of Britannia, executed for naming a new type of lance after himself and he recalled Agricola, a victorious general in Britain because he became too popular.
In his book On Britain and Germany Tacitus recounted the tenuous relationship between Agricola and Domitian. The general's victories in Britain put the emperor in a precarious position as he was torn between pride for a Roman victory (and keeping up appearances to the public) and jealousy because of his own failure as a commander. “Agricola…was received by Domitian with the smile on his face that so often masked a secret disquiet. He was bitterly aware of the ridicule that had greeted his sham triumph over Germany….”. Upon returning to Rome, the general was offered the governorship of Syria but refused. His death at the young age of fifty-four, again, put Domitian in a difficult position. “Domitian made a decent show of genuine sorrow; he was relieved of the need to hate, and he could always hide satisfaction more convincingly than fear.”
Roman Emperor Domitian

Roman Emperor Domitian

His paranoia led him to take extreme measures such as employing informers. As a means to obtain information on possible plots or rebels, he ordered interrogators to cut off the hands (or scorched the genitals) of prisoners. He lined the gallery where he took his daily walks with highly-polished moonstone so that it reflected everything behind him. He executed another niece's husband Flavius Clemons on the charge of atheism because he was sympathetic to the plight of the Roman Jews. However, plots against the emperor did exist. In September of 87 CE several senators were implemented in a conspiracy and were executed and a mutiny by Lucius Antonius Saturninus, governor of Upper Germany, in 89 CE was stamped out.


The final conspiracy against his life, however, was successful - a plot that even suggested the approval of Domitia herself (she remained fearful of her life.) According to Suetonius and others, a group of conspirators (they had heard their names were on a “list”) were debating on whether to assassinate the emperor in his bath or at dinner. Stephanus, a member of Domitian's imperial staff (he had been accused of embezzlement and feared for his life) approached the conspirators, offering his services. For several days he faked an arm injury and wore a protective wrapping; however, the bandage concealed a dagger.Approaching Parthenius, Domitian's valet, he said he had a list of possible conspirators and as Stemphanus approached the emperor, he pulled out the dagger and stabbed the unsuspecting Domitian in the groin. The two men struggled with Domitian reaching for the knife he kept under his pillow but Parthenus had removed the blade. Then other conspirators hurried into the room and hacked the emperor to death. He was only forty-four years old. His ashes were taken by his old nurse Phyllus and interred in the Temple of Flavian.
On hearing of his death the Senate was overjoyed. Suetonius wrote, “The Senators, on the other hand, were delighted and thronged to denounce Domitian in the House with bitter and insulting cries. Then, seeking for ladders, they had his images and the votive shields engraved with his likeness, brought smashing down….” Immediately, Marcus Cocceius Nerva was hailed as the new emperor - a temporary fix until someone better could be found. In the months that followed, the city celebrated the death of the old emperor by turning over his statues and ceremonial arches, however, the Praetorian Guard would not take the assassination lightly and eventually many of the conspirators would meet their own deaths.


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