The Spartans of the classical period would return their war dead to the city, carried on their shields, as described by Plutarch.
In his collection Sayings of Spartan Women, Plutarch records a phrase that embodies what we think of as the Spartan ideology of military endurance, of honour and integrity, of duty and loyalty. A Spartan mother is shown preparing her son for war, and reminds him of his ultimate duty (Sayings of Spartan Women, 6.16):
Another, as she handed her son his shield, exhorted him, saying, “Either this or upon this.”
The expression is most commonly interpreted as meaning he is to return home with his shield as a victor, or to return dead on his shield having sacrificed his life for the good of the state. There is another possible interpretation that she is not suggesting that he comes home on the shield, but that he is to die on his shield, so having fallen on it. Both interpretations get to the heart of the phrase, the son is not to return home without his shield, having discarded it in battle like a coward.
This quote has given rise to the understandable misconception that the Spartans brought their war dead back home from the field on their shields. This would align the Spartans with Athenian practice, the Athenians were the first recorded European culture to practice a state sanctioned repatriation process for their war dead. But the evidence for classical Sparta shows, categorically, that they buried their dead on the field or in a nearby territory.
Spartan burial practices were transformed in or around the 6th century BC, we cannot be sure exactly when. They went from burying their war dead in tombs, as described in the poetry of Tyrtaios, to burying their dead on the battlefield. This shift is clear to see in the Battle of the Champions, in the mid 6th century, where the Spartan dead are described by Pausanias (2.38.5) as being buried on site. In 512 BC, we are told about an unsuccessful invasion of Attica by the Spartan Anchimolios, who was possibly buried along with his men at Alopeke in Attica (Herodotus 5.63.4). By the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC, we are told that the Spartans were buried in 3 large graves: one for Helots, one for Spartans, and one for ‘holy ones’.
It was not always possible to bury the dead on the field, especially after a defeat or when they were in a hostile region, so the Spartans were also known to remove their dead from the field and bury them in a nearby, friendly territory. For instance, after the battle of Mantinea in 418 BC, Thucydides tells us that they were buried in the land of Tegea (5.74.2).
For some of the Spartan war dead, they were given the honour of having a memorial raised, an austere headstone with their name and the words EN POLEMOI (in war) inscribed (see also Plutarch, Lycurgus 27.2). It is presumed that these were erected in Spartan territory, and not at the site of the battle - so they were not grave markers necessarily - but the sparse number of examples means we do not really know.
There are various recorded epigrams dedicated to Spartan warriors from the Battle of the Champions of the archaic period, which suggest that the body of the dead did come home:
Dead on his shield to Pitana came Thrasybulus, having received seven wounds from the Argives, exposing his whole front to them; and old Tynnichus, as he laid his son’s blood-stained body on the pyre, said: “Let cowards weep, but I will bury you, my son, without a tear, you who are both mine and Sparta’s.”
Pitana was a Spartan village, and the epigram describes the father, Tynnichus, clearly having access to the body and burning it himself. The presence of the shield would suggest that Plutarch’s maxim may reflect an accurate set of archaic rituals. However, the supposed author of the epigram was Dioscorides, a 3rd century BC writer who lived in Egypt, so this does not reflect classical Spartan practice, and cannot really be presumed to be a recording of a real inscription erected anywhere. This epigram is recorded in both the Greek Anthology (Volume II, 7.229), which assigned Dioscorides as the author, but also in Plutarch’s Sayings of the Spartans, so it is a poem that Plutarch knew of. It is also worth considering that, if this is a fictional piece, then the choice of Pitana as the village may also be classically inspired. In Herodotus’ account of the battle of Plataea (9.53), Pitana is explicitly mentioned as the origin of the Spartan sub-commander Amompharetus who refused the order from Pausanias to tactically retreat during the night before the battle.
As we know that the classical Spartans preferred to bury their dead on the field, it can be safely concluded that Plutarch’s recorded maxim is incorrect when discussing the most popular image of Sparta (in the classical period). It may be imbued with an ethos and an ideology that the Spartans may have associated with, possibly reflecting the earlier archaic Spartan practice, but in terms of ritual practice in the classical period it is unsubstantiated. For this reason we have deemed this claim to be mostly false.
- Polly Low, “Commemorating the Spartan war-dead”, in: Stephen Hodkinson & Anton Powell (eds), Sparta & War (2006), pp. 85-109.
- Matthew Dillon, “Were Spartan women who died in childbirth honoured with grave inscriptions?” Hermes, 135.2 (2007), pp. 149-165 .
- W.K. Pritchett, The Greek State at War IV (1985).
- Paul Christesen, “Herodotus 9.85 and Spartiate burial customs”, Classica et Mediaevalia 69 (due 2020/1), pp. 1-72.
- Anton Powell, Athens and Sparta. Constructing Greek Political and Social History from 478 BC (2001).