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Did Spartan mothers really tell their sons, "With your shield or on it?"

September 23, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

"With it or on it." We've all heard that Spartan mothers said it while giving their sons shields before their first battle. With it = victorious hero; on it = fallen hero; without it = coward. I've heard this quote attributed to Herodotus, but I've never seen any specific reference. It's consistent with modern conceptions of Sparta, but is it real? Is it just an old wives' tale concocted to make us believe our own mothers aren't so bad?

SDSTAFF Una replies:

You've got a point. After you hear about the mothers of Sparta, you don't think your own mom is so bad because she makes you drink your milk.

Your question is more complex than it might seem. First let's look at the source of the shield story, which isn't Herodotus but the Roman writer Plutarch. He writes, "Another woman handed her son his shield, and exhorted him: 'Son, either with this or on this.'" This quote is found in Plutarch's Moralia, a collection of morals, tales, and short stories, in a section called Sayings of Spartan Women.

Plutarch was a Greek, born approximately 46 AD in the town of Chaeronea in the region of Boeotia. He isn't a contemporary source of the saying, as the days of Spartan military glory had ended more than three centuries earlier. As a modern commentator observes, he could have been taking poetic license:

At the beginning of his Life of Alexander … Plutarch says, explicitly, that his purpose is not to write political history, but to bring out the subjects' particular virtues and vices and to illustrate his character. This purpose is worth bearing in mind — Plutarch's lives are not necessarily objective historical accounts, but narrative pictures aiming to convey a particular moral point. [See reference 1.]

In his work Plutarch consistently portrays the Spartans as having a tough, no-nonsense warrior culture, a characterization backed up by other Greek writers, including contemporaries of Sparta in its glory.

Is the quote typical of the attitude of Spartan women towards their sons? It's certainly representative of what we find in Plutarch. Here are some other quotes from the Sayings of Spartan Women:

Because Damatria heard that her son was a coward and not worthy of her, she killed him when he arrived. This is the epigram about her: His mother killed Damatrius who broke the laws, She a Spartan lady, he a Spartan Youth.

As a woman was burying her son, a shabby old woman came up to her and said, "You poor woman, what a misfortune!" "No, by the two goddesses, what a good fortune," she replied, "because I bore him so that he might die for Sparta, and that is what has happened for me."

Another Spartan woman killed her son, who had deserted his post because he was unworthy of Sparta. She declared: "He was not my offspring for I did not bear one unworthy of Sparta."

Another, hearing that her son had fallen at his post, said: "Let the cowards be mourned. I, however, bury you without a tear, my son and Sparta's."

Clearly a Spartan mother wasn't the first person you'd turn to if you got a boo-boo on your knee. Some more quotes:

Some Amphipolitans came to Sparta and visited Archileonis, the mother of Brasidas, after her son's death. She asked if her son had died nobly, in a manner worthy of Sparta. As they heaped praise on him and declared that in his exploits he was the best of all the Spartans, she said: "Strangers, my son was indeed noble and brave, but Sparta has many better men than he."

Once her grandson Acrotatus was brought home from some boys' combat badly battered and seemingly dead, and both her family and friends were sobbing, Gyrtias said: "Won't you keep quiet? He's shown what kind of blood he has in him," and she added that brave men should not be howled over but should be under medical care.

Away to the darkness, cowardly offspring, where out of hatred / Eurotas does not flow even for timorous deer. / Useless pup, worthless portion, away to Hell. / Away! This son unworthy of Sparta was not mine at all.

Another woman, as she was sending her lame son up the battlefield, said: "Son, with each step you take bear courage in mind."

You get the drift. Nonetheless, these quotes suffer from an obvious defect: They all come from Plutarch and can't be corroborated, since few others wrote in detail on the attitude of Spartan women towards their men. Herodotus testifies to their mettle by telling of the strength of Gorgo, the wife of the great Spartan king Leonidas. He also writes of Spartan women freeing their husbands from the Lakedaimonians by bravely entering their prison and switching clothes with them, allowing the men to escape and return to the fighting while they remained behind. But he has little to say specifically about their attitudes towards the military service of their sons and family members.

Pomeroy (reference 3) reports that the "goal of the educational system devised for Spartan girls was to create mothers who would produce the best hoplites and mothers of hoplites," a hoplite being a Greek warrior. Spartan women were known to be competitive at sports and even light combat — something that set them apart from other Greek societies at the time. Physical fitness training of girls was mandatory and financed by the state. It's easy to imagine that a desire to be "brave, strong, and unyielding" would be common among the women of Sparta.

Spartan men also encouraged their sons to be brave in the service of the state. According to Plutarch, when asked why it was dishonorable to return without a shield and not without a helmet, the Spartan king Demaratos (510-491 BC) is said to have replied: "Because the latter they put on for their own protection, but the shield for the common good of all."

Finally, a practical question: Could Spartan shields be used as stretchers, and were they?

The shield was a key part of the equipment of the Greek hoplite — in fact, "hoplite" is said to derive from the Greek word for a type of heavy shield, hoplon. We often think of Greek shields as being relatively small and round, but having seen Greek shields in museums in Athens, I can say that their size varied considerably over time. Though small in the early days, Greek shields increased in size in middle to later eras, evolving to a much larger round form, and later still to a rectangular shape, similar to Roman-style shields, like a door. Although shields varied in size and shape among the armies of the various city-states, most military forces did have access to large shields that could carry a body. The shield was made of multiple layers of metal (bronze, copper, or sometimes tin), wood, and tough linen, cloth, or leather, and could weigh as much as 15 to 20 pounds. In the Greek battle formation known as the phalanx, the shield protected not only the warrior holding it (while leaving his right arm free to wield a spear), but also the warrior on his left. A phalanx that stayed in tight formation was well protected by the interlocking shields.

Because of its size and sturdiness, a shield did make a good battlefield stretcher — and if the shield used for that purpose belonged to the stretchee, no one else needed to go unprotected. Carrying someone back on his shield served another purpose as well. A shield was one of the more complicated and valuable parts of a Greek hoplite's armor. It and other items of equipment were traditionally passed down from father to son, brother to brother, or even uncles to cousins. Families of a warrior culture such as the Spartans depended on re-use of the family shield if possible. Returning without one's shield generaly meant the warrior had either thrown it away in panic, was too weak to carry it home, or had lost it due to carelessness or stupidity.

In sum, while Plutarch's quote is anecdotal, uncorroborated, and far removed from the source, it's plausible. That's about the best we can do. 

References

1. Christopher W. Blackwell, "Plutarch," in Dêmos: Classical Athenian Democracy (C. Blackwell, ed.), a publication of The Stoa: A Consortium for Electronic Publication in the Humanities (www.stoa.org), April 8, 2003.

2. Herodotus, Histories.

3. Sarah B. Pomeroy, Spartan Women, Oxford University Press, 2002.

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