The ancient Spartans are legendary for their courage and discipline, but these warriors were also famous in their time for their dry, sarcastic humor. A "laconic phrase," a phrase that is especially concise and blunt, is actually named after Laconia, the Greek region where Sparta was located. Some Greeks attributed the Spartan terseness to ignorance, but others thought differently. The Athenian philosopher Plato wrote, "If you talk to any ordinary Spartan, he seems to be stupid, but eventually, like an expert marksman, he shoots in some brief remark that proves you to be only a child." Here are some of the best examples of Spartan wit.
1. King Demartus
According to the ancient Roman historian Plutarch, King Demaratus of Sparta was once being pestered by a man with endless questions, especially who was the best among the Spartans. The irritated king finally responded, "Whoever is least like you."
2. King Pleistoanax
Plutarch also describes King Pleistoanax, who heard an Athenian orator claim that the Spartans had no education. Pleistoanax retorted, "True, we are indeed the only Greeks who have learned no evil from you."
In Zack Snyder's 300, after hearing from a Persian emissary that the Persian archers' arrows would blot out the sun, the Spartan soldier Stelios jokes that the Spartans will fight in the shade. This actually comes from Herodotus's Histories, the ancient source on the Persian War, except it is spoken by the soldier Deinekes. However, an ancient source from Plutarch does mention King Leonidas telling his men, "Eat well, for tonight we dine in Hades."
4. Commander Pausanias
After the Spartans routed the Persian invasion at the Battle of Plataea, the Spartan commander Pausanias decided that the banquet the Persians had set out for themselves should be served to himself and his officers instead. Upon seeing the feast, Pausanias cracked that, "The Persian is an abominable glutton who, when he has such delicacies at home, comes to eat our barley-cakes." Spartan food was notoriously disgusting. When a traveler from Sybaris visited Sparta and tasted their infamous "black broth" he exclaimed, "No wonder Spartans are the bravest of men. Anyone in their right mind would rather die a thousand times than live like this."
5. Spartan women
It wasn't just the Spartan men who cracked jokes. Unlike most Greek women who were expected to be subservient to their husbands, the women of Sparta held considerable political and economic power. The Spartan men were always preparing for a war or fighting one, so the women were expected to manage their households themselves. A non-Spartan woman once asked Queen Gorgo, wife of Leonidas, why the Spartan women were the only ones who could rule over men. Gorgo responded, "Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men."
6. Short but sweet
When King Philip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) invaded southern Greece, he sent a message to the Spartans asking if he would be received as a friend or enemy. The Spartans' reply was brief: "Neither." Offended, Philip sent a threat: "You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city." The Spartans' reply was just as short as before: "If."
7. Spartan response
The Macedonians eventually did conquer Greece, and the later Macedonian king Demetrius I offended many Greeks through his extravagance and prideful attitude. He even forced the ambassadors of Athens, his favorite of the Greek cities, to wait two whole years at court before speaking to them. Sparta resented the Macedonian rule, and sent only one ambassador to the court on behalf of the city. Demetrius was infuriated and demanded to know if Sparta had really sent only one man to speak with the king; the Spartan responded, "Aye, one ambassador to one king."
8. King Agesilaus II
King Agesilaus II of Sparta was respected for his martial virtue as well as his wit. Someone asked him what the boundaries of Sparta were, as unlike most Greek cities Sparta had no defensive walls. Agesilaus drew his spear and extended it, claiming that the borders were "as far as this can reach." When asked why Sparta had no walls, he pointed to the armored citizens and explained that "these are the Spartans' walls." After Agesilaus was wounded in a battle against Thebes, the Spartan warrior Antalcidas joked that "The Thebans pay you well for having taught them to fight, which they were neither willing nor able to do before."
For the Spartans, humor was more than just entertainment. It taught them how to think on their feet, how to conserve resources by training them to be economical with their words, and encouraged camaraderie between the citizens. All of us have something to learn from this warlike people, not just from their wisdom, but from their wisecracks.