The Art of Laconic Speech – from Ancient Sparta

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.

Here are some examples of Spartan wit:

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!” (Greek: Συν ται η επι ται! Syn tai e epi tai! or Ή ταν ή επί τας! E tan i epi tas!), 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 come hear a person who could perfectly imitate a nightingale, a Spartan answered, “I have heard the nightingale itself.”

When asked what dowry she was giving her bridegroom, a poor Spartan girl said: “My father’s common sense.”

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.

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 was advisable to build a defensive wall enclosing the city, Lycurgus answered, “A city is well-fortified which has a wall of men instead of brick.”

When asked why they put their fields in the hands of the helots, rather than take care of 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.”