What follows may — or may not — be true. But the story is compelling, and I think it deserves to be told.
Telesilla of Argos was a woman known in her day as being a great lyric poet. In fact, she was listed in Antipater’s roll of earthly muses in the 5th century BC.
But she is remembered more for her role as a warrior. Legend says that in either 494 or 493 BC, King Cleomenes I of Sparta came to invade the city of Argos. After luring the male warriors of the city out to a pine grove, he slaughtered them, leaving the city populated only by women, slaves, the very young, and the very old.
Cleomenes marched on the city, and Telesilla took action. She gathered ornamental shields and swords from temples in the city, raided the city armory for whatever equipment was left over, and provided the women of the city with arms.
According to Plutarch in his On the Bravery of Women, “With Telesilla as general, [the women] took up arms and made their defense by manning the walls around the city, and the enemy was amazed.”
King Cleomenes saw that he was facing a tricky situation. He could fight against the women and defeat them, which would bring him dishonor in slaughtering women. Or, if they defeated him, Sparta would have been bested by a group of untrained women, also leading to dishonor.
Pausanius wrote: “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.”
The Spartan king withdrew, and Argos was saved.
In memory of Telesilla’s achievement, her statue was built in the temple of Aphrodite at Argos. The Greek war-god Ares was worshipped thereafter in Argos as a patron deity of women.
As I said at the start, this story may or may not be true. And modern historians still debate over its authenticity. But as the tale was repeated by many ancient sources, it is considered to be plausible by many scholars.
Clement of Alexandria, who lived from approximately 150 to 215 AD, preserved a poem detailing Telesilla’s heroism. Telesilla’s reputation for courage was such that, almost 700 years after the events in Argos, she continued to be remembered by the people of the ancient world.