Spartans focused less than other Greeks on the development of education, arts, and literature. Some view this as having contributed to the characteristically blunt Laconian speech. However, Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras, noting Spartans’ ability to seemingly effortlessly throw off pithy comments, appears to reject the idea that Spartans’ economy with words was simply a consequence of poor literary education: ” they conceal their wisdom, and pretend to be blockheads, so that they may seem to be superior only because of their prowess in battle This is how you may know that I am speaking the truth and that the Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and speaking: if you talk to any ordinary Spartan, he seems to be stupid, but eventually, like an expert marksman, he shoots in some brief remark that proves you to be only a child”. Socrates was known to have admired Spartan laws, as did many other Athenians, but modern scholars have doubted the seriousness of his attribution of a secret love of philosophy to Spartans. Still, two Spartans – Myson of Chenae and Chilon of Sparta – were traditionally counted among the Seven Sages of Greece to whom many famous sayings were ascribed.
In general, however, Spartans were expected to be men of few words, to hold rhetoric in disdain, and to stick to the point. Loquacity was seen as a sign of frivolity, and unbecoming of sensible, down-to-earth Spartan peers. A Spartan youth was reportedly liable to have his thumb bitten as punishment for too verbose a response to a teacher’s question.
- A witticism attributed to Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver of Sparta, was a response to a proposal to set up a democracy there: “Begin with your own family.”
- On another occasion, Lycurgus was reportedly asked the reason for the less-than-extravagant size of Sparta’s sacrifices to the gods. He replied, “So that we may always have something to offer.”
- When he was consulted on how Spartans might best forestall invasion of their homeland, Lycurgus advised, “By remaining poor, and each man not desiring to possess more than his fellow.”
- When asked whether it would be prudent to build a defensive wall enclosing the city, Lycurgus answered, “A city is well-fortified which has a wall of men instead of brick.”
- Responding to a visitor who questioned why they put their fields in the hands of the helots rather than cultivate them themselves, Anaxandridas explained, “It was not by taking care of the fields, but of ourselves, that we acquired those fields.”
- King Demaratus, being annoyed by someone pestering him with a question concerning who the most exemplary Spartan was, answered “He that is least like you.”
- When the Persians sent envoys to the Spartans demanding the traditional symbol of surrender, an offering of soil and water, the Spartans threw them into a deep well, suggesting that upon their arrival at the bottom, they could “Dig it out for yourselves.”
- On her husband Leonidas’s departure for battle with the Persians at Thermopylae, Gorgo, Queen of Sparta asked what she should do. He advised her: “Marry a good man and bear good children.”
- When Leonidas was in charge of guarding the narrow mountain pass at Thermopylae with just 7,000 Greek men in order to delay the invading Persian army, Xerxes offered to spare his men if they gave up their arms. Leonidas replied “Molon labe” , which translates to “Come and take them”. Today this is the motto of the Greek 1st Army Corps.
- When he was asked why he had come to fight such a huge host with so few men, Leonidas answered, “If numbers are what matters, all Greece cannot match a small part of that army; but if courage is what counts, this number is sufficient.” On being again asked a similar question, he replied, “I have plenty, since they are all to be slain.”
- Herodotus recounted another incident that preceded the Battle of Thermopylae. The Spartan Dienekes was told that the Persian archers were so numerous that when they fired their volleys, their arrows would blot out the sun. He responded with “So much the better, we’ll fight in the shade”. Today Dienekes’s phrase is the motto of the Greek 20th Armored Division.
- On the morning of the third and final day of the battle, Leonidas, knowing they were being surrounded, exhorted his men, “Eat well, for tonight we dine in Hades.”
- Leonidas asked a Spartan to take a final communication about the battle home; the man declined, saying “I came here to fight, not to act as a messenger.” He made the same request of another Spartan, and received the reply: “I shall do my duty better by staying here, and in that way the news will be better.”
- After the Greeks ended the threat of the second Persian invasion with their victory at Plataea, the Spartan commander Pausanias ordered that a sumptuous banquet the Persians had prepared be served to him and his officers. “The Persians must be greedy,” he remarked, “when, having all this, yet they come to take our barleycakes.”
- When asked by a woman from Attica, “Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?”, Gorgo replied, “Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men.”
- In an account from Herodotus, “When the banished Samians reached Sparta, they had audience of the magistrates, before whom they made a long speech, as was natural with persons greatly in want of aid. Accordingly at this first sitting the Spartans answered them that they had forgotten the first half of their speech, and could make nothing of the remainder. Afterwards the Samians had another audience, whereat they simply said, showing a bag which they had brought with them, ‘The bag wants flour.’ The Spartans answered that they did not need to have said ‘the bag’; however, they resolved to give them aid.”
- Polycratidas was one of several Spartans sent on a diplomatic mission to some Persian generals, and being asked whether they came in a private or a public capacity, answered, “If we succeed, public; if not, private.”
- Following the disastrous sea battle of Cyzicus, the admiral Mindaros’ first mate dispatched a succinct distress signal to Sparta. The message was intercepted by the Athenians and was recorded by Xenophon in his Hellenica: “The ships sank. Mindaros died. The men go hungry. What should we do?”
- After invading Greece and receiving the submission of other key city-states, Philip II of Macedon sent a message to Sparta: “If I win this war, you will be slaves forever.” In another version, he warned: “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.” According to both accounts, the Spartan ephors replied with one word: “If”. Subsequently both Philip and Alexander avoided Sparta entirely.
- When a Spartan argued in favor of waging war against Macedon, citing as support their previous successes against Persia, King Eudamidas retorted “You seem not to realize that your proposition is the same as fighting fifty wolves after defeating a thousand sheep.”
- When someone from Argos pointed out that Spartans were susceptible to being corrupted by foreign travel, Eudamidas replied “But you, when you come to Sparta, do not become worse, but better.”
- Demetrius I of Macedon was offended when the Spartans sent his court a single envoy, and exclaimed angrily, “What! Have the Lacedaemonians sent no more than one ambassador?” The Spartan responded, “Aye, one ambassador to one king.”
- After being invited to dine at a public table, the sophist Hecataeus was criticized for failing to utter a single word during the entire meal. Archidamidas answered in his defense, “He who knows how to speak, knows also when.”
- Spartan mothers or wives gave a departing warrior his shield with the words: “With it or on it!”, implying that he should return (victoriously) with his shield, or (his dead body) upon it, but by no means after saving himself by throwing away his heavy shield and fleeing.
- The king of Pontus engaged a Spartan cook to prepare their famous black broth for him, but found it distasteful. The cook explained, “To relish this dish, one must first bathe in the Eurotas.”
- Upon being asked to go listen to a person who could perfectly imitate a nightingale, a Spartan answered, “I have heard the nightingale itself.”
- After an Athenian accused Spartans of being ignorant, the Spartan Pleistoanax agreed: “What you say is true. We alone of all the Greeks have learned none of your evil ways.”