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Plutarch on Sparta

Selected and edited by M. Divjak


    Few Words
    Small Possessions
    Serious Occupations
    Courage and Despicing Death
    Excellence and Self Esteem
    Fairness toward Equals


    On noticing a house in Asia roofed with square beams, Agesilaus
    asked the owner whether timber grew square in that area. When
    told no, he said: "What then? If it were square, would you make
    it round?"

    Ecprepes, when ephor, took an adze and cut away two of the nine
    strings from the musician Phrynis' lyre, declaring: "Don't do
    harm to music!"

    To the man who was amazed at how modest his clothes and his
    meals were, and those of the other Spartans as well, Agesilaus
    said: "Freedom is what we reap from this way of life, my

    Agis came alone on an embassy to Philip. When the latter said:
    "What's this? Have you come alone?", he replied: "Yes, since
    I've come to see one man."

    After seeng Aristagoras having his shoes put on by one of his
    servants, Gorgo said: "Father, the stranger has no hands."

Few Words

    At a council meeting Demaratus was asked whether he was keeping
    quiet because he was stupid or because he was at a loss for
    words. "Well certainly," he said, "a stupid person wouldn't be
    able to keep quiet."

    Anaxandridas said to the man who, while giving necessary
    information to the ephors, used more than enough words:
    "Stranger, you meet the need, but at needless length."

    When the envoy from the Aberdans had stopped after a lenghty
    speech and was asking what he should report back to his fellow
    citizens, Agis said: "Say that throughout the entire time you
    needed for speaking, I continued listening in silence."

    When envoys from Samos were urging him to go to war against the
    tyrant Polycrates and made protracted speeches for the purpose,
    Cleomenes said: "I don't recall the beginning of what you said,
    and consequently I also don't grasp the middle sections, while
    the part at the end I don't approve of."

    When some sophist was about to read a eulogy of Heracles,
    Antalcidas said: "But who finds fault with him?"

    When someone was making constant threaths against the enemy,
    Polydorus said: "Don't you realize that to a very great extent
    you are wasting your vindictiveness?"

    Lysander said to the man who declared his admiration and
    special affection for him: "I have two oxen in a field; even
    though neither says anything, I'm fully aware of which one
    idles and which one works."

Small Posessions

    When someone asked him how much property he owned, Teleclus
    said: "No more than enough."

    When amongst the spoils some people were amazed at the
    extravagance of the Persians' clothing, Pausanias said: "Better
    for them to be men of great worth rather than to have
    possessions of great worth."

Serious Occupations

    When some advocate was making jokes, Pleistarchus said: "My
    friend, as you keep cracking jokes, shouldn't you take care not
    to turn into a clown, in just the way that those who keep
    wrestling turn into wrestlers?"

    When some harpist had been a great success, Eudamidas was asked
    his impression of him and said: "In his own small line he puts
    on a great show."

    As he was listening to a harpist, Demaratus remarked: "To me
    it's just foolery, but he does it pretty well."

    When he was invited to listen to the man who used to imitate
    the nightingale's song, Agesilaus declined, with the statement:
    "I've heard the bird herself often."

    To the man who was praising a lyre-player and marvelling at his
    ability, Archidamus said: "Dear friend, what kind of compliment
    will you find to bestow on true men, when you praise a
    lyre-player in these terms?"

    After he had seen Xenocrates, by now quite elderly, having a
    philosophical discussion with his pupils in the Academy,
    Eudamidas inquired who the old man was. When somebody said that
    he was a wise man and one of those who search for virtue,
    Eudamidas said: "And when will he make use of it if he is still
    searching for it?"

Courage and Despicing Death

    When Xerxes wrote: "Deliver up your arms," Leonidas wrote back:
    "Come and take them."

    When another person said: "They are close to us," Leonidas
    replied: "Then we're also close to them."

    When someone was saying: "It isn't even possible to see the sun
    because of the Persians' arrows," Leonidas said: "How pleasant
    then, if we're going to fight them in the shade."

    As someone was remarking that the enemy's numbers were
    substantial, Pedaritus said: "Then we shall win greater fame
    since we shall inflict higher casualties."

    When someone was inquiring what the number of Spartans was,
    Agis said: "One sufficient to keep out undesirables."

    When Panthoidas was on an embassy to Asia and some people were
    showing him a great high wall, he said: "By the gods, my
    friends, what splendid women's quarters!"

    As he was passing through the Corinthians' walls and observed
    their height and strength and great extent, Agis said: "What
    women live in this place?"

    When he was trapped in an ambush by the Athenian general
    Iphicrates and his soldiers asked what was to be done,
    Anaxibius replied: "What else, except that you save yourselves,
    while I die fighting?"

    Lochagus, the father of Polyaenides and Seiron, when informed
    by somebody that one of his two sons was dead, said: "I have
    long been aware that he has to die."

    After hearing a philosopher who had argued that the wise man is
    the only good general, Eudamidas said: "It's a wonderful claim,
    but the man who makes it is untrustworthy, because he has not
    heard the battle-trumpets sound."

    When someone was inquiring why they keep their laws about
    bravery unwritten, without setting them down and handing them
    to the young men to read, Zeuxidamus said: "Because it's better
    for them to get used to acts of bravery rather than to study
    written documents."

    When asked how one should remain a free man, Agis said: "By
    despising death."

    Questioned as to how he had gained his great reputation,
    Agesilaus said: "By having despised death."

    When a messanger came from Crete to report Acrotatus' death
    Gyrtias said: "To hear that he died in a fashion worthy of me
    and the city and his ancestors is pleasanter than if he were
    immortal but a coward."

    A woman, as she was handing her son his shield and giving him
    some encouragement, said: "Son, either with this or on this."

    A woman, in reply to her son who declared that the sword he had
    was a small one, said: "Then extend it by a stride."

Excellence and Self-esteem

    When not selected as one of the Three Hundred (which was rated
    as the outstanding distinction in the state), Pedaritus
    withdrew with a bright smile. Yet when summoned back by the
    ephors and asked what was making him cheerful, he said:
    "Because I congratulate the state on having three hundreds
    citizens better than I."

    When he was assigned the last place in the chorus by the man
    who was organizing the dancing, Damonidas said: "Splendid,
    director! You have discovered how even this undistinguished
    place may become distinguished."

    When Agesilaus was still a boy, at a celebration of the
    Gymnopaediae the choral director put him in an inconspicious
    position. Even though he was already in line to become a king,
    he complied, and remarked: "That's fine, for I shall show that
    it isn't positions which lend men distinction, but men who
    enhance positions."

    When someone said to him: "Exept for being king you are not at
    all superior to us," Leonidas replied: "But were I not better
    than you, I should not be king."

    When Lysander's friend were asking him to allow them to do away
    with one particular opponent of theirs in exchange for fifty
    talents, Callicratidas as navarch refused, even though he was
    desparate for money to provide rations for his sailors. His
    adviser Cleander said: "But I would certainly have accepted if
    I were you." To which Callicratidas replied: "I would have too,
    if I were you."

    When someone asked him which type of government he considered
    the best, Charillus said: "The one in which the largest number
    of citizens are willing to compete with each other in
    excellence and without civil disorder."

Fairness toward Equals

    When the great Agesilaus was once chosen by lot to preside at a
    drinking session, and the cupbearer asked him how much to serve
    each man, his answer was: "If plenty of wine has been provided,
    then as much as each pleases; but if there is only a little,
    then give evertone an equal amount."

    As he saw the runners at Olympia eagerly seeking to gain an
    advantage at the starting-line, Leon remarked: "How much more
    concerned the runners are about speed than about fairness."


    Once when the ephors said to him: "Take the young men and march
    against this man's country: he will personally conduct you to the
    acropolis," Agis replied: "And how is it proper, ephors, for so
    many young men to trust this one man who is betraying his own

    One of the Persians had revolted from the Great King and had been
    persuaded by Demaratus to return to him. The king was about to
    have this Persian disposed of when Demaratus said: "O king, what
    a disgrace it is that when this man was your enemy you could not
    punish him for his revolt, but now that he's become your friend,
    you are executing him!"


    Since Periander the doctor was professionally well respected and
    very highly recomanded, but used to write dreadful poetry,
    Archidamus said to him: "Why ever is it, Periander, that you are
    so keen to be called a bad poet instead of an expert doctor?"

    When Cleomenes was dragged down by a long bout of illness and
    turned to ritual healers and seers (which he had not done
    previously), somebody expressed amazement. But he said: "What are
    you amazed at? I'm not the same person that I was before, and not
    being the same, what I approve of isn't the same either."

    When asked what dowry she was giving the man marrying her, a
    poor girl said: "My father's common sense."

    A Spartan woman who was up for sale and was asked what skills
    she possessed, said: "To be trustworthy."

    When a woman was asked by somebody whether she would be good if
    he were to buy her, she said: "Yes, and even if you don't buy

    When someone inquired of him what children should learn,
    Agesilaus said: "What they will also use when they become men."