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160. The courage of the poet Telesilla. Argos, 5th cent. B.C. (Plutarch, On the Bravery of Women 4, Moralia 245c-f, 2nd cent. A.D. G)

No action taken by women for the common good is more famous than the conflict against Cleomenes[1] by the Argive women, which they fought at the instigation of the poetess Telesilla. They say that she was the daughter of a distinguished family but, because she was sickly in body, inquired about her health at Delphi; the oracle said to cultivate the Muses. In obedience to the god she applied herself to song and harmony and was quickly cured of her suffering and admired by the women for her poetry.

But when Cleomenes king of Sparta had killed many Argives (but not, as some have imagined, 7777) 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 Socrates)[2] managed to get inside and seize the Pamphylacium. After the city was saved, they buried the women who had fallen in battle by 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.[3]

To restore the balance of the sexes in the city, they did not (despite Herodotus) 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 despise them when they slept with them as if they were inferior, so they made a law that says that women who have beards may spend the night with their husbands.


Notes:

1. 494 B.C.; cf. Herodotus 6.77-83; Pausanias 2. 20. 8-10.

2. The historian Socrates of Argos, 310 FGrHist F6.

3. Plutarch omits the oracle (Parke 1956, no. 85) that is said to have predicted the women's victory, which begins: 'But when the female conquers the male and drives him out and wins great glory in Argos, she will cause many women in Argos to tear their cheeks [in mourning]'; is the whole story an aetion, or fictional narrative explanation, for the ritual and the strange law about women with beards? Cf. Snyder 1989, 59-63. Transvestism is also associated with rites de passage, such as Plutarch's account of the origin of the Athenian festival Oschophoria (Life of Theseus 7).