Today’s Word of the Day over on Haggard Hawks needs—well, a little bit more explaining.
So a Spartan boy is, proverbially, someone who keeps a secret and suffers as a result. But how? Or rather, why?
Sparta was one of the smallest but most powerful of Ancient Greek city-states, and much of that success relied on the Spartan population’s utter dedication to the craft of war. Young Spartiates (that is, Spartan soldiers exempt from anything except military service and, ultimately, considered the highest and most powerful caste in Spartan society) would be put through an impossibly gruelling series of tests and challenges in their training, intended to transform them into the greatest of great warriors.
For instance, just to encourage the recruits to use their intelligence, guile, and cunning, young Spartiates were often starved of food, so that they would have to rely on foraging, hunting, or even stealing just to survive. A brutal test, no doubt, but one guarantees to foster exactly the skills that could prove indispensable both on the battlefield, and in the aftermath of war.
Death, moreover, always came before dishonour in this brutal Spartiate system. The bloody public flogging of young military trainees, intended to toughen up the newest recruits, was a common spectacle in Sparta, and these beatings were sometimes so merciless that some of those involved were killed as a result, all in the pursuit of rearing the best soldiers. The understanding was, simply, that it was better to suffer pain in silence, even to the point of death, rather than suffer the indignity of dropping out and turning your back on the Spartiates.
It all sounds impossibly cruel by modern standards, because it is. But to the Spartans, this system was the norm. Even Spartan women were known for their candour in the face of death: on seeing their husbands and sons depart for war, they would often cheerily call out the motto, “Syn tai e epi tai!”, meaning “with it or on it”—in other words, “only come home either holding your shield in victory, or else be carried home dead on top of it.”
So, yeah. Things were brutal. But what does all of this have to do with a Spartan boy keeping a secret?
Well, to discourage dissent and to encourage the right kind of mentality among the Spartiates, propagandizing stories and fables were widely circulated to give the young recruits both a clear template for how to behave, and a decent idea of what was to be expected of them. And at least one of these tales—The Spartan and the Fox—found its way into the Moralia, a collection of speeches and essays by Plutarch, published sometime around AD100.
The story begins with a group of young Spartiate recruits who conspire together to steal a fox. (And when we say “young”, we mean it: the Spartiate system began when Spartan boys were just 7 years old, and only ended when they achieved citizenship at 30.)
When the owners of the fox came looking for it, the boys coerced one of their group to hide the fox under his tunic. But trapped inside his cloak, the panicked fox quickly turned savage, and began digging away at the boy’s flesh in a desperate attempt to free itself. The boy, however, didn’t flinch.
Not wanting to give the game away when he was challenged by his commanding officer and the fox’s owners over the animal’s disappearance, the boy remained silent and steadfast, until the entire affair had calmed down and the fox’s owners departed to continue their search. Only then did he finally drop to the ground, the bloodied fox falling from his tunic and escaping into the undergrowth.
Realising that their fellow recruit was now dying, the boys asked him—why not just tell the truth? Surely it would have been better to let the fox go and face the punishment, rather than let it maul him to death?
“Not so,” replied the boy, according to Plutarch’s account. “Because it is better to die without yielding to the pain, rather than through being detected because of weakness of spirit and gain a life to be lived in disgrace.”
Granted, those might not sound much like the words of a 7-year-old boy, but the moral of Plutarch’s story is nevertheless clear: to the Spartan, it was better to die than to expose your own weakness.
And, thanks to this story, the Spartan boy soon became a go-to allusion for anyone who keeps a secret and ends up suffering, often fatally, as a result.