Prose from Poetry Magazine

Laconic Women

Anecdotes from Ancient Greece. 

by Plutarch

ARGILEONIS 

Argileonis, at the death of her son Brasidas, asked some passing Amphipolitans if her son had met a good end, worthy of Sparta. When they lionized him, declaring that he outshone all the other Spartans in feats of courage, she replied, “Strangers, my son was brave and true, but Sparta has many a better.”

GORGO

Gorgo, the daughter of King Cleomenes—when Aristagoras the Milesian was goading him to go to war against Darius on behalf of the Ionians, promising piles of money and raising the bribe to overcome his scruples—said, “If you don’t throw him out of the house at once, this puny foreigner will be the ruin of you.”

When told by her father to pay a man a measure of grain, she asked what for. “Because he taught me to make our wine drinkable.” To which she retorted, “You mean more wine will be drunk, and the winebibbers turn oenophiles.”

When she saw servants tying Aristagoras’s shoes, she said, “Look Pa! The stranger has no hands.”

When a foreign man dressed in soft robes made a move on her, she scoffed: “You call that a pass? You couldn’t even pass for a woman.”

Asked by a woman from Attica, “Why is it you Spartan women are the only ones who govern men?” she replied, “We’re the only ones who give birth to them.”

When her husband Leonidas set out for Thermopylae, she exhorted him to show himself worthy of Sparta. When she asked him what she should do in turn, he said, “Marry a brave man and bear strapping children.”

GYRTIAS

When her daughter’s son was brought back from the boys’ training skirmishes battered to within an inch of his life, and friends and family alike started keening, she said, “Stop your blubbering: he’s shown what kind of blood’s in his veins,”—adding that brave men didn’t need a hubbub but a doctor.

When a messenger came from Crete to announce the death of Acro-tatus, she said, “When you advance against the enemy, isn’t it kill or be killed? It is sweeter for me to hear that he died worthy of me, his city, and his forebears than if he had lived forever as a coward.”

DEMETRIA

Hearing her son was a coward and unworthy of her, she killed him. This is her epigram:

Demetrius the transgressor was slain by his mother.
He was a Spartan, and she was another.

ANONYMOUS SPARTAN WOMEN

A Spartan woman, whose son deserted, seeing he was unworthy of his country, declared, “No offspring of mine!” and dispatched him. This is her epigram:

Bad seed—off to the darkness where Broad River
Begrudges its flow to timid deer that shiver.
Worthless whelp, short straw, slink off to Hades!
No son of Sparta—nor of one of her ladies.

Another, hearing her son had fallen in the line of duty, said:

Mourning is for cowards. I shed no tear for you,
My child. I am a Spartan; you are too.

Another, hearing her son was safe and sound having deserted the fighting, wrote to him: “A bad rumor besmirches you. Expunge it, or yourself.”

Another, when her sons had slipped away from battle and returned to her, said, “Where do you think you’re fleeing to, you sorry runaways? Trying to slink back here where you came from?” and yanked up her robe and showed them.

Another, seeing her son approaching from battle, asked, “How fares Sparta?” He replied, “All are dead!” Picking up a roof tile, she brained him, saying, “And I suppose they sent you to give us the bad news?”

When a man detailed his brother’s brave death to his mother, she replied, “Isn’t it a shame you failed to join him on such a glorious journey?”

A woman who had sent her five sons to war waited anxiously outside the city and asked a man approaching which way the battle was going. When he replied that her sons had all perished, she retorted, “You sorry slave, that’s not what I asked.” When he said Sparta was winning, she said, “In that case, I gladly accept the death of my sons.”

Another, sending her lame son to the front line, said, “Think valor with every step.”

Another, when her son limped back from battle wounded in the foot and in a world of pain, said, “Remember courage and you’ll forget to hurt.”

A Spartan so badly wounded he had to struggle on all fours was embarrassed to look so ridiculous. His mother told him, “Isn’t it better to exult in your courage than blush at the laughter of fools?”

Another Spartan woman handed her son a shield and encouraged him with: “As a shield or a stretcher.”

Another gave her son a shield as he set out for war, saying, “Your father always saved this for you. Keep it safe, not yourself.”

Another, when her son complained his sword was too short, said, “Step forward: add a foot to it.”

A go-between asked a Spartan matron if she was open to an affair. She replied, “As a girl I learned to obey my father; as a woman, my husband. If this man’s proposal is on the up-and-up, let him ask my husband first.”

A penniless Spartan maiden, when asked what dowry she would bring her bridegroom, replied, “My native...wit.”

When a Spartan girl was asked if she had been free with a man, she said, “No, but he was with me.”

An unmarried girl, who secretly fell pregnant, performed her own abortion and was so disciplined she didn’t make a peep, so neither her father nor her neighbors had any idea: by beautifully confronting her ugly deed, she mastered her agony.

A captive Spartan woman up for auction, when asked what tasks she could be entrusted with, said, “to be trustworthy.”

Another, asked the same question, said, “to be mistress of a house.”

A third, asked by someone if she would be a good girl if he bought her, retorted, “Yes, and if you don’t.”

A fourth, asked what she knew how to do, replied, “Be free.” And when her buyer made her perform tasks unbefitting a free woman, she said, “I’ll give you buyer’s remorse!” and killed herself.


Translated from the Ancient Greek by A.E. Stallings

Originally Published: June 21, 2011

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This prose originally appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

July/August 2011

Biography

Plutarch was born and lived out his life in the little town of Chaeronea, Greece, and became a Roman citizen and celebrity. Polymath, Laconophile, best-selling biographer, and priest of Apollo, he is best known for his Parallel Lives, a work of enduring popularity and influence down the ages.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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