On Sparta by Plutarch: Summary & Notes

Front cover of On Sparta by Plutarch.

In short

On Sparta is a collection of small biographies, anecdotes and sayings that Plutarch collected on Sparta and it’s kings and individuals. While it doesn’t provide any background or history of Sparta, it is quite an interesting read if you want to know more on the city-state, their culture, or some of its colorful characters.

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Book Summary & Notes

“Here are some examples of those remarks which I mentioned earlier as being sharp, yet attractive. A wretched character bombarded Demaratus with inopportune questions, and in particular the persistent query was: ‘Who is the best of the Spartiates?’ Demaratus’ answer was: ‘The one least like you.’ […] When some foreigner was expressing his goodwill towards Sparta and claiming that in his own city he was called a friend of Sparta, Theopompus said: ‘Stranger, it would be more honourable for you to be called a friend of your own city. The reaction of Pausanias’ son, Pleistoanax, to an Athenian politician’s disparagement of Spartans as uneducated, was to say: ‘Your point it correct, since we are the only Greeks who have learned nothing wicked from you Athenians.’ Archidamidas’ answer to a man who inquired how many Spartiates there were was: ‘Enough, my friend, to keep out undesirables.”

“They bore in mind one of Lycurgus’ statements about long hair, that it renders handsome men better looking, and ugly ones more frightening.”

“After they had beaten the enemy and made them flee, they gave chase only far enough to confirm the victory by their opponents’ flight, and then at once pulled back, because in their view it was neither noble nor Hellenic to butcher and slaughter men who had given up and yielded their ground. This practice was not only splendid and magnanimous, it also paid dividends: it was known that Spartans would kill those who stood in their way, but would spare those who surrendered, so that adversaries saw it as more advantageous to flee than to stand their ground.”

“Spartiates’ training extended into adulthood, for no one was permitted to live as he pleased. Instead, just as in a camp, so in the city, they followed a prescribed lifestyle and devoted themselves to communal concerns. They viewed themselves absolutely as part of their country, rather than as individuals, and so unless assigned to a particular job they would always be observing the boys and giving them some useful piece of instruction, or learning themselves from their elders. Abundant leisure was unquestionably among the wonderful benefits which Lycurgus had conferred upon his fellow citizens. While he totally banned their involvement in any manual craft, there was equally no need for them to amass wealth (with all the work and concentration which that entails), since riches were emphatically neither envied nor esteemed.”

“Men do not submit to orders from those with no ability for leadership, but such obedience is in fact a lessons taught by the commander. (It is the good leader who produced good followers. Just as the object of schooling a horse is to produce one that is docile and responsive, so the science of kingship has the function of instilling prompt obedience in men.) What the Spartans instilled in others was not just prompt obedience but a positive desire to come under their command and submit to them. It was not ships or money or hoplites that these other Greeks would ask Sparta to send them, but just a single Spartiate commander. Once they obtained him they would treat him with respect and awe, as the Scicilians and Chalcidians treated Gylippus and Brasidas respectiviely, and all the Greeks living in Asia treated Lysander, Callicratidas and Agesilaus. These men they termed harmosts and discipliners of peoples and rulers everywhere, while the Spartiates’ entire city they viewed as a tutor or instructor in decent living and orderly government.”

On an occasion when allies refused to follow Sparta because they send so few soldiers:
“It was on this occasion, we are told, that Agesilaus used the following device to demonstrate the unimportance of their mere numbers. He ordered all the allies to sit down together at random, and the Spartans separately on their own. Next he announced that the potters should stand up first, and when they had done so, then the smiths second, then in turn carpenters, builders, and workers in every other craft. In this way almost all the allies stood up, but not one of the Spartans, since they were forbidden to practice or learn a manual craft. So Agesilaus remarked with a laugh, ‘You see, my men, how many more soldiers we send out than you.”

“Sophocles’ herdsmen say of their flocks:

‘Whilst masters of these we are enslaved to them.
And must listen to them even though they are dumb.’

This really is the predicament of men in public life who respond to the caprices and impulses of mobs: they make themselves slaves and followers so that they may be called leaders of the people and rulers. For in just the same way as the forward look-outs spot what lies ahead before the helmsmen do, yet respect them and carry out their instructions, so those politicians, too, whose sights are set on glory, are servants of the crowds even though they are called rulers.”

“When someone asked him [Demaratus] why they deprive of their status those among them who discarded their shields, but not those who discarded their helmets and breastplates, he said: ‘Because they put on the latter for their own benefit, but their shields fro the sake of the battle-line as a whole.”

“When envoys from Samos were urging him to go to war against the tyrant Polycrates and made protracted speeches for the purpose, he [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 someone was saying: ‘It isn’t even possible to see the sun because of the Persians’ arrows,’ he said: ‘How pleasant then, if we’re going to fight them in the shade.”

“When someone said: ‘Leonidas, are you here like this, to run such a risk with a few men against many?’, he replied: ‘If you think that I should rely on numbers, then not even the whole of Greece is enough, since it is a small fraction of their horde; but if I am to rely on courage, then even this number is quite adequate.”

“He passed the word to his soldiers to eat breakfast in the expectation that they would be having dinner in Hades.”

“When asked why the best men prefer an honourable death to a life without honour, he said: ‘Because they regard the latter as the gift of Nature, and the former as being in their own hands.”

“When asked by a woman from Attica: ‘Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?’, she [Gorgo] said: ‘Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men.”

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