translated by John D’Agata
Sources say that one evening, at a dinner party, an Athenian woman was showing off one of the new tapestries she’d woven. A Spartan mother who happened to be at that party overheard this woman’s boasting, so she walked over to the tapestry to see what was the fuss. She lifted up the tapestry, put it back down, then called out for her four sons to join her inside.
The four Spartan boys rushed immediately to their mother, picked her up above their shoulders and carried her around the party.
Their mother looked back at the Athenian hostess, standing in silence with the tapestry in her hands.
“It is a lovely wall hanging,” said the Spartan to the Athenian. “But this is what a woman should really boast of having made!”
Another mother in Sparta once said to her son: “I send you off to battle with this shield your father made. Through many years and many battles he kept this weapon safe. Let me suggest that you also keep it safe, for the terrors of the battlefield won’t be anything in comparison to returning home without it.”
There is the story of the Spartan boy complaining to his mother that the sword she had given him was too small for battle.
His mother replied sternly: “A real man doesn’t need a sword.”
One day, at the funeral of a Spartan boy who had been killed in a battle, an elderly woman approached the boy’s mother.
“O, what a loss!” the elderly woman said.
“Loss?” replied the mother. “Old woman, you’re nuts! This is a blessing from the gods. I gave that boy life that he might do something with it, and now he has died for Sparta!”
When a battle veteran was describing to one Spartan mother the way that her son had died in battle, she said to the vet: “I wouldn’t expect anything less from my boy.”
Then paused for a moment.
“But I can’t help noticing that you are still alive…”
Another woman, upon hearing that her son had died in battle, said to those neighbors who offered their condolences, “Yes, thank you. He was my very good boy.”
But later during the war, when her other son managed to survive a battle, that same mother turned her head away from the news, saying to her neighbors: “I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
It is said that when another woman’s son arrived home from a battle with his left arm missing and the stump bleeding terribly in a long trail behind him, she said: “Turn around and follow that back to your courage.”
One Spartan mother saw her son in the distance, panting and in tears as he returned home from battle.
She called out to the boy: “How did we do there, my son?”
The boy called back crying, “All my friends are dead, mom!”
The mother picked up a stone and then hurled it at her son.
He was struck in the head and died there in the road.
“May they forgive you, then, for your treachery.”
When another mother’s son fled back home from a battle, she met him at the door with her dress over her head.
“Do you plan on crawling back inside here like an infant?”
And while handing her only child his weapon before battle, another Spartan mother offered a last word of advice:
“Son,” she told her boy, “either with this, or on it.”