TRUE SPARTAN HEARTS
In times of war the Spartan women used to say to their
husbands and sons, "Return with your shield, or on
it," meaning that they must either conquer or die.
There was no affection or indulgence shown towards
the warriors who survived a defeat; for loyalty to the
State was thought of more account than personal loss,
and he who had not died striking his last blow for
Sparta, was deemed unworthy of remembrance, and
could expect no mercy from those who had loved him and sent him to
the battlefield "to conquer or die."
So this was how the Spartans felt about their warriors; and you
can imagine their indignation as well as their dismay when, in the year
371 b.c., news reached Sparta that their army had been defeated at the
battle of Leuctra by the Bœotians, a rival Grecian State, and that three
hundred men had saved their lives in flight. The news was brought at
the moment when some great festival was being celebrated in the city.
The Ephors commanded the names of the slain to be made known to
their relatives, and the women were forbidden to mourn. But the
mother of Eucrates could not at first hide her grief, and her neighbours
said among themselves:
"Why should she be sorrowful? Her son has died bravely. If
he had disgraced himself by flight, then only would she have the right
The old man Phidon came in to see her, and found her spinning,
busily engaged at her work, it is true, but with tears in her saddened
eyes. He was a very stern old man, a Spartan every inch of him, and
he spoke harshly to poor Ione.
"Ione," he said, "not one single tear should course down your
cheeks, not one single pang of grief should assail your heart. I it is
who should weep. I it is who should mourn. For Callias, my grandson,
is not amongst the slain. Unlike your brave son Eucrates, my Callias
has not died at his post of duty. He lives, and by living he has brought
dishonour and shame on his family. How can I meet him? What
can I say to him? Nay, I will not look upon his face. I will not
vouchsafe one word of greeting to him. His father was the glory of
my life, but he is the soul of its shame. The gods have been cruel to
me in my old age; but they have been merciful to you, Ione. For
your son, death with honour. For my Callias, life with dishonour. His
father won the crown of wild olive in the Olympic games, and earned
the right of fighting by the king's side, and died there; and I was proud
of him. But woe is me that I cannot be proud of Callias."
And, Spartan mother as she truly was, Ione knew well that here
was a grief far greater than her own loss of her beloved son. She
brushed her last tear aside, and tried to comfort old Phidon, whom
she had known all her life. Her son Eucrates and this very Callias had
been friends together ever since they were children; and in the days
gone by, Phidon and Ione's father had fought side by side for Sparta.
"May be, Phidon," she said, "the gods have spared Callias and
his comrades, so that they may yet serve Sparta, and help her to
triumph over her enemies."
But he shook his head, and would hear no word of comfort, though,
as the days went by, it seemed to ease his stern spirit to sit beside her,
and watch her at her work. And then she would speak to him of
Callias, and urge him not to be over hard on the lad when he returned.
"You must pardon him, Phidon," she said. "Perchance he will
live to do great things for Sparta."
But the old man said proudly: "Nay, Ione, never a word will I
speak to Callias again."
And it was in vain that Ione pleaded for the friend of Eucrates,
always imploring the old man to believe that the gods in their wisdom
had preserved Callias for some splendid act of service and sacrifice yet
Full of these thoughts, and haunted by Phidon's unyielding
severity, she had a strange dream one night. She dreamed that King
Agesilaus was willing to pardon all those three hundred soldiers who
had fled from the field of Leuctra; but that Phidon interposed, and
standing in the Public Assembly, gave his vote against the pardon.
"My own grandson is one of the survivors," he cried. "Sparta
may pardon him, but I never will."
The next day she told her dream to Phidon, and described to him
how with her mind's eye she had seen Callias standing lonely and
forsaken, the only one of the three hundred survivors who had been
spurned and unforgiven. His loneliness stabbed her to her heart,
more even than the loss of her son; and because there was no one else,
she had been impelled to stand by his side, to greet him, to encourage
him, to reassure him. And just as he lifted his head, bowed in grief and
shame, she awoke. When Phidon had heard her dream-story, his stern
heart was softened.
"I will not turn from Callias," he said. "It may be that you are
right, Ione. It may be that the gods will yet give him some great and
glorious chance. I will steel my heart to receive him."
So Ione triumphed at last. And truly her dream would seem to
have been some kind of divination, for, two or three days afterwards,
a decree was proposed by the king, and passed in the Assembly, to the
effect that all those who had fled from the field of Leuctra were
to be pardoned and received home without dishonour.
Ordinarily all survivors of a defeat were subject to penalties of
civil offence, and so this was quite an unusual proceeding; but no
doubt it was thought dangerous to take stern measures against such
a large number of Spartan citizens. Well, whatever the reason was,
there were many glad hearts in Sparta that day, and old Phidon himself
owned in secret to Ione that he longed to see Callias once more.
"For I must needs forgive him wholeheartedly," he said, "since
Sparta has forgiven him; but with my last breath I would tell you
and all the world that I would far, far rather he had fallen by the side
of the brave Eucrates. That would have been my glory."
As soon as news had come of the defeat of the Spartan army,
the whole remaining military force of Sparta was sent to the rescue,
and after some time returned to Sparta, bringing back the survivors
from the disastrous field of Leuctra.
Then Spartan hearts were softened, and mothers, wives, and sisters
stood waiting to greet those whom the gods had spared for further
service. But Ione sat at home spinning. There were no tears in her
eyes now, and her countenance was lit up by a calm pride. She had
learnt to be glad that she had no one to meet that day.
Suddenly the door opened, and Phidon came in. His manner
was strangely excited.
"Callias is not amongst us," he cried. "I have asked for him, and
no one knows. Could there have been some mistake, I wonder? Is
it possible that——"
At that moment there came a loud knock at the door, and Ione
opened it to Timotheus, a neighbour's son.
"Greetings to the mother of Eucrates," he said, as he stood before
Ione. "I am from Leuctra. I saw Eucrates fighting in the thickest
of the fray. I saw him fall; and there fell another by his side, fighting
as gallantly as he—his comrade in death as well as in life."
"And who was it that died with my brave son?" asked Ione,
whose hands were pressed together deep into her breast, and whose
face was ashen, though tearless.
"It was Callias," answered the young man. "Farewell, honoured
mother of Eucrates. I must go and seek Phidon to tell him."
But Phidon rose to his full height, and there was a smile of triumph
on his face and a new life in his bearing.
"Phidon has heard the news," he said, "and he thanks the gods for
this crowning mercy. For though in his inmost heart he would fain
have seen the face of his grandson once more, there was something
dearer to him than the face of Callias—it was the honour of Callias."
Then, turning to Ione, he said: "Now we can think of them together,
and share our pride in them, Ione."
For one fleeting moment Ione saw a vision of her young, fair son
falling before the foe, but her voice never faltered as she said: "Yes, we
can share our pride in them."
That was the true Spartan tribute to the heroes of Leuctra.
* * * * * * *
You see, the Spartans would not admit of despair in their lives;
they believed that while there was yet strength in the body, there must
needs be hope in the heart that the victory would be won. And so it
was the duty of a true Spartan to fight and conquer and live, or to die,
striving to conquer to the very last, with no thought of any possibility
What do you think about this grand old Spartan code of honour?
Do you not think that we ourselves, each in our own way, young and
old, man and woman, boy and girl, may find something helpful in it to
bring to the service of our country?