The Spartans are well-known to us as some of the bravest and toughest soldiers in Western history, with a culture completely focussed on breeding the best of the best warriors. However, during ancient times they were famous for another trait.
Spartans were famous for stating their arguments in concise statements, able to express their ideas with just a few words. This type of speech was known as laconic phrase, named after the region of Laconia where Sparta was located. Laconic phrases are not only short, but extremely efficient and often witty. In fact, another trait that Spartans shared was a sense of dry wit known as laconic humour.
There are plenty of records, such as Socrates’, that describe the Spartan’s ability to effortlessly throw off pithy comments in retaliation. Ergo, the Spartans did not use little words because they were illiterate or did not value education and culture; they used as little words as possible to conceal their wisdom in a concentrated phrase. The Spartans deemed this a valuable skill as a true professional is efficient in whatever he does, including language.
Many examples of laconic phrase can be drawn from the historic Battle of Thermopylae – the battle portrayed by the movie 300 (which, despite a rather dramatic presentation, quite accurately portrays many aspects of the battle).
- Before the war, a Persian envoy came to Sparta demanding an offering of soil and water – a traditional symbol of surrender. The Spartans threw them in a well and said “Dig it out for yourselves”.
- This infuriated the Persian Empire and war broke out. As King Leonidas departed for the Battle of Thermopylae, he advised her wife: “Marry a good man and bear good children”.
- When Xerxes of Persia offered to spare the Spartan army in exchange for their surrender and giving up their weapons, Leonidas simply retorted: “Molon labe”, which translates to “Come and take them”.
- On the morning of the last day of the battle, Leonidas knew that defeat was inevitable. To boost his troop’s morale, he spoke the famous line: “Eat well, for tonight we dine in Hades”.
The Spartans’ efficiency with words and wit inspired many famous words over history. These range from responding to the enemy’s demand for surrender (at the end of the Battle of Waterloo, British forces demand the French surrender, to which General Cambronne replied: “Merde” or “Go to hell”), a pithy description of a disastrous situation (during the Battle of Imjin River of the Korean War, Lieutenant Colonel Carne – surrounded by the Chinese and his forces utterly destroyed – described the situation as “A bit sticky”), to the modern day epic burn.