on greek shields

Every Classics student worth his salt (and the general public now too, thanks to the film 300) has heard of the anonymous Spartan mother’s command to her son after handing him his battle shield:

“Either with this or on it.”

[ie. “I would rather you die in battle and be brought home on a stretcher than shame yourself by discarding your shield in retreat.”]

(Plutarch, Moralia, Unknown Spartan Women)

Stirring stuff but what about a very different view from another Greek? This is by the Parian soldier-poet Archilochus, writing in the 7th century BC:

“Some barbarian is waving my shield,
since I was obliged to
leave that perfectly good piece of equipment behind
under a bush.
But I got away, so what does it matter?
Life seemed somehow more precious.
Let the shield go; I can buy another one equally good.

(translation from http://www.abettergreece.com)

Apparently discretion is the better part of valour to some people. But how realistic is the quote by Plutarch? Are they Plutarch’s words not the women’s? Is it merely an idealised folksy saying by the has-been Lakadaemonians of the 1st century AD? Does it provide proof that citizen armies are inherently superior in morale to mercenaries? Or does it in fact testify to the fierceness of the ancient Lakadaemonians? Or does it shed light on the fierceness of women compared to the pragmatism/cowardice of men?

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