In Plutarch’s collections of Spartan sayings there are eighteen attributed to Spartan women (many of them unidentified) which share the familiar theme of “with your shield or upon it.” Presumably, all these women, named and unnamed, shared the Spartan ethos of preferring to see their sons dead than defeated or disgraced. They either express themselves in graphic and often insulting language to sons who failed to live up to their ideals, or reject comfort and exhibit no grief when told of a son’s death. Three of them even go so far as to kill their disgraced sons with their own hand.
These sayings are all too commonly taken at face value, despite serious grounds to doubt their authenticity. First and foremost, with the exception of the quotes attributed to Gyrtias and Damatria, all these sayings are anonymous. “Anonymous” has been the author of most slander in the history of mankind, and while “anonymous” clearly does have a real identity, he/she is very rarely who he/she purports to be.
Second, except for the quote attributed to Gyrtias, all quotes are vague and generic, with nothing to suggest the date and context. Thus nothing about them requires an intimate knowledge of Spartan society or personalities. Yet the sayings undoubtedly convey an unattractive, not to say alienating, image of Sparta.
After all, what could be more alienating and repulsive than a mother so unnatural that she wants her son to die? The love of a mother for her child is one of the most primeval feelings in the world, a love that mankind has long acknowledged and cherished. Ancient Greek literature sets the standard. Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband is understandable not because he brings Cassandra into her home, but because she is revenging the murder of Iphigenia. Medea remains a repulsive barbarian because she is willing to kill her children out of jealousy. In this context, it is clear that the sayings attributed to Spartan mothers are intended to make Spartan women sound like barbarians, like unnatural, unfeminine creatures, who deserve no sympathy even in their adversity.
Furthermore, all the sayings are predicated on cowardice on the part of young Spartan men. So, allegedly, while the women were upholding Sparta’s post-Thermopylae ethos of victory or death, the young men were deserting in droves having failed to absorb the proper ethos despite their harsh upbringing. Based on these sayings, Sparta was populated by cowardly men, a situation that seems hard to square with the historical record – even if we admit that Spartans were probably no braver than most other Greeks.
Keeping in mind that slogans and apocryphal stories often evolve to counter sentiments that those in power find dangerous, one could hypothesize that these sayings were developed as examples of the “good old days” and were supposed to depict model behavior. Maybe they were intended to inspire young men and women, who the Elders did not think were living up to the ideals of their youth, to behave more courageously. But it seems odd that, if the Spartan elders wanted to motivate the younger generation to behave more like their ancestors, they did not put the slogans into the mouths of historical figures rather than anonymous ones. Surely it would have been more effective to give the women and their sons names? Wouldn’t, for example, the story of the young man killed by his mother after reporting “all the men are dead” have been more effective and intimidating if it had been attributed to the mother of one of the two survivors of Thermopylae?
More plausible to me is that all these sayings are the invention of Athenian or other enemy commentators intended to create/reinforce the “Feindbild” – the image of the enemy as alien and contemptible. The sayings had the two-fold benefit of making Sparta’s warriors seem less frightening, and Spartan women less human. Sparta’s warriors were diminished because these sayings proved that many of them were really cowards, who would run home to their mothers if they could. At the same time, unlike the Trojan women, who are frequently portrayed as loving mothers deserving of sympathy (see Euripides plays), these sayings make Spartan women seem so repulsively unnatural that Athenians could feel justified in any kind of atrocities against them.
The greatest pity is that most modern readers take the image of Spartan women evoked by these sayings at face value and imagine Spartan women as unfeeling beasts – curiously without likewise adopting the image of cowardly Spartan men.