According to popular belief, when ancient Spartan warriors marched to war, their mothers told them, "Come home with your shield or on it." This saying, recorded in "Moralia" by the first century Greco-Roman historian Plutarch, illustrates the importance that Spartan warriors placed on both their duty and their shields.
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In ancient times, the Spartans dominated the southern part of Greece known as the Peloponnese. In 640 B.C, after a near-defeat in a conflict with their neighbours, the Messenians, the Spartans turned their society into a military state where every male was a warrior. While men in other Greek cities, such as Athens, earned livings as farmers, craftsmen or merchants, Spartans trained for and practised war from the time they entered school at age seven until they retired at age 60. Spartan warriors carried many pieces of equipment but the shield was, perhaps, the most important.
The ancient Greek shield varied in size and construction throughout the centuries. During the period of Spartan dominance, the shield was composed of a wooden core covered with a thin sheet of bronze. It was circular in shape, curved towards the body and weighed between 6.8 and 9.07 Kilogram. According to the historian Nicholas Sekunda, Greek warriors, or hoplites, preferred mobility to the complete protection offered by heavier shields. Their shields could deflect sword strikes and spear thrusts, but could be pierced by arrows and javelins. According to Plutarch, the Spartan general Brasidas blamed a wound on a "traitorous" shield.
In the formation called the phalanx, hoplites lined up shoulder to shoulder. They carried their spears in their right hands, their shields in their left hands. The shield protected both the warrior holding it and the man to his left. Spartan fathers told their sons their shield was more important than their helmets because a helmet was given to them for their own protection while the shield protected the common good.
A coward might throw down his shield and run at the start of battle. A careless or weak man might leave it behind or lose it before returning home. A dutiful warrior, however, held his ground and returned home with his shield. If he died, his comrades carried him home using his shield as a stretcher. Either way, returning with his shield or on it showed the man was brave and provided his family with a valuable heirloom. Most ancient Greek city states, including Sparta, required warriors to provide their own equipment. It was so expensive that most families passed it down from generation to generation so long as it was usable.
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- "Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World"; David Sacks; 2005
- "Greek Hoplite"; Nicholas Sekunda, Adam Hook; 2000
- "Warfare in the Ancient World"; Stefan G. Chrissanthos; 2008
- "Plutarch's Moralia"; Plutarch, Arthur Richard Shilleto; 2010