This woman was renowned for her poetry, but also legendary for her bravery as a warrior…
The life of Telesilla was distinctive in many ways. As a young woman, she suffered from ill-health and travelled from her homeland Argos to Delphi to visit the Pythia. The Oracle told her: τὰς Μούσας θεραπεύειν – Serve the Muses. So when Telesilla returned to Argos she devoted her life to poetry.
Only two lines of any of Telesilla’s poetry remains – part of a song meant for a chrorus of women to sing, but she was well known during her lifetime for her talents.
However, she was to be remembered for another reason…
In 510 BCE, Cleomenes of Sparta invaded the Argives. The men of Argos left for battle and were slaughtered, leaving Argos undefended. Cleomenes and his army of Spartan warriors began to march towards the city.
Fortunately for Argos, the Pythia had spoken another prophecy which would be fulfilled by Telesilla:
“the time shall come that the female conquers in battle, driving away the male and winning great glory in Argos. Then many wives of the Argives shall tear both cheeks in their mourning.”
With the Spartans closing in on the weakened city, Telesilla sprang into action. She gathered all of the slaves of the city, as well as elderly or young men who were usually excempt from service, stationing them at the city walls. She also armed all of the women of Argos, placing them in position for battle and standing at the head of the army.
When the Spartans arrived and saw Telesilla’s army, they made a battle cry in an attempt to frighten them. But Telesilla’s troops stood firm, and fought bravely. Eventually Cleomenes realized that he could not face the shame of being defeated by an army of women, and nor could he defeat them in good conscience, so he ordered the Spartans to leave the city.
It is said that after her victory, a statue was built in Telesilla’s honour. The statue portrays her placing a warrior’s helmet on her head, with her poetry scattered at her feet.