The ancient Hellenic writers were dedicated historians, but they often neglected to mention the achievements of ancient Hellenic women. Now it so happens that I am a woman and I quite like having a few female heroes to look up to, so I want to introduce you to them. Today: the poet and warrior Telesilla of Argos.

Telesilla of Argos was a lyric poet of the 5th century BCE, listed by Antipater of Thesalonike (c. 15 BCE), the author of over a hundred epigrams in the 'Greek Anthology', 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. She is also said to be the masermind behind the defense of Argos when Cleomenes, king of Sparta, invaded the land of the Argives in 510 BC. He defeated and killed all the hoplites of Argos in the Battle of Sepeia and massacred the survivors, leaving Argos seemingly defenseless. Telesilla, however, organized all the slaves and women to the defense of the city and won (although it was mostly because the Spartans realized that fighting women and slaves would be very shameful and left).

First we must address her value as a very renowned poet. When Telesilla was younger, she was often sickly. She visited an oracle for help in restoring her health and heard that she should devote herself to the Muses. So Telesilla dedicated herself to the study of poetry and music. Her health did improve and she rose to great fame as a 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 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. Antipater writes in the 'Greek Anthology':

"These are the divine-voiced women that Helicon
fed with song, Helicon and Macedonian Pieria's
rock: Praxilla; Moero; Anyte, the female Homer;
Sappho, glory of the Lesbian women with lovely
tresses; Erinna; renowned Telesilla; and thou,
Corinna, who didst sing the martial shield of Athena;
Nossis, the tender-voiced, and dulcet-toned Myrtis —
all craftswomen of eternal pages. Great Heaven
gave birth to nine Muses, and Earth to these ten,
the deathless delight of men." [9.26]

Now, the tale of how she organized the salvation of Argos. Some background first. The Spartan king Cleomenes I consulted the Oracle of Apollo on what would happen if he marched on Argos, and he would be victorious if he tried. So Cleomenes I took to the field and met Argives at Sepeia. He tricked his way to victory, killed most of the warriors and murdered those who fled by more trickery and cruelty, even going so far as to set fire to a sacred grove where they had sought refuge. After the massacre, Cleomenes I  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 in his 'Moralia':

"Of all the deeds performed by women for the community none is more famous than the struggle against Cleomenes for Argos (494 B.C.), which the women carried out at the instigation of Telesilla the poet. She, as they say, was the daughter of a famous house, but sickly in body, and so she sent to the god to ask about health; and when an oracle was given her to cultivate the Muses, she followed the god's advice, and by devoting herself to poetry and music she was quickly relieved of her trouble, and was greatly admired by the women for her poetic art.

But when Cleomenes (I), king of the Spartans, having slain many Argives (but not by any means seven thousand seven hundred and seventy seven [cf. Herodotus, VII.148] as some fabulous narrative have it), proceeded against the city, an impulsive daring, divinely inspired, came to the younger women to try, for their country's sake, to hold off the enemy. Under the lead of Telesilla, they took up arms, and, taking their stand by the battlements, manned the walls all round, so that the enemy were amazed. The result was that they repulsed Cleomenes with great loss, and the other king, Demaratus, who managed to get inside, as Socrates [FHG IV, p. 497] says, and gained possession of the Pamphyliacum, they drove out. In this way the city was saved. The women who fell in the battle they buried close by the Argive Road, and to the survivors they granted the privilege of erecting a statue of Ares as a memorial of their surpassing valor. Some say that the battle took place on the seventh day of the month which is now known as the Fourth Month [tetartou], but anciently was called Hermaeus among the Argives; others say that it was on the first day of that month, on the anniversary of which they celebrate even to this day the 'Festival of Impudence', at which they clothe the women in men's shirts and cloaks, and the men in women's robes and veils.

To repair the scarcity of men they did not unite the women with slaves, as Herodotus (VI. 77-83) records, but with the best of their neighboring subjects, whom they made Argive citizens. It was reputed that the women showed disrespect and an intentional indifference to those husbands in their married relations from a feeling that they were underlings. Wherefore the Argives enacted a law, the one which says that married women having a beard must occupy the same bed with their husbands." [245c-f]

The reference to 'women who have beards' above is thought to refer to the women who fought for the city as though they were men and then refused to return to their former status as subservients. as such, laws had to be enacted to restore the community to the traditionalsituation that existed before the battle and the rise of the women in defense of Argos.

Historians have questioned the validity of the story of Telesilla and the Spartans for centuries, most notably because Herodotus, in Book VI of his Histories, writes about Cleomenes’ assault on Argos and the massacre of the Argives, and even references the oracle, but does not mention Telesilla. The credibility of women and slaves manning walls to attack invaders is also often called into question, even though there are historic accounts of women and slaves in other cities doing the same. After all, many ancient Hellenic cities lended themselves very well for this type of assault from above.

What happened to Telesilla after the battle with the Spartans is unknown, but she was remembered for her 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 as well as her poetry. In the city of Argos, a stele of her was errected in the temple of Aphrodite. Pausanias writes in his 'Periegesis Hellados':
"...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." [II. 20 8]