Battle Hymn of the Spartan Mother

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You are probably as tired of hearing about the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua, as I am. (If you are lucky enough to have already forgotten who she is, click here.) That doesn't mean we can't squeeze yet a few more drops of blood out of her. Don't run away yet, this is different. To my knowledge, nobody has asked the most interesting question about her: what if there were a parent scarier than the Tiger Mother?

Whether you agree or disagree with her choices as a parent, you have to admit that the Tiger Mother is intimidating. I'm fairly confident that if she were your mother you'd work hard to stay on her good side. 

But she's got nothing on the Spartan Mother. 

To appreciate the Spartan Mother, it helps to know a little about Sparta itself. Citizens of the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta are famous for their military prowess, obedience and courage in the face of even the most insurmountable odds. 

The best story about the Spartans is the tale of their last stand against the Persian army in the battle of Thermopylae, where, in 480 B.C., King Leonidas and 299 other Spartans held off over 200,000 Persian soldiers for three days. This allowed the other Greek allies (including those pansies the Athenians) to retreat, regroup and ultimately drive the Persians out of Greece. (There's a recent movie, based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, about this story called 300 .) 

Molon labe

King Leonidas was a man's man. He also, like most Spartans, had a way with words. When the Persian King demanded that the 300 Spartans surrender their weapons Leonidas' only response was "molon labe" (come get them). 

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This phrase is so badass it's become the rallying cry for defenders of freedom everywhere (especially  on the internet ). There's even a rumor that Michelle Bachmann, Minnesota's guardian of liberty, wanted to get a molon labe tattoo. Unfortunately, she messed up the transliteration and now walks around with "moron lobby" on her right shoulder blade. Pays to keep up on your Greek, Representative. 

But I digress. What made the Spartans such disciplined soldiers was their education. As soon as they were out of diapers, Spartan boys were subjected to a continuous and unforgiving regimen of physical and psychological conditioning that would make a Navy Seal whimper like a sick puppy. Above all, these boys learned that a Spartan always keeps a stiff upper lip. 

There's a cute story about this. To teach them to be resourceful, Spartan boys were always underfed; if they wanted to eat, they had to steal food. But if they got caught, they were severely beaten. Needless to say, they got pretty good at stealing. 

Once there was a Spartan boy who got a little peckish and stole a fox (apparently, the Spartans thought foxes made both good pets and good eats). As the little rascal was sneaking away with the fox, however, he spotted a group of adults walking his way. Rather than get caught stealing, he hid the fox under his cloak. The fox, being a fox, began to scratch and gnaw at the boy's stomach. The boy kept his cool. He eventually died from his wounds, but not once did he cry out in pain. 

Now that's a boy any Spartan mother would be proud of. Indeed, behind every half-crazed Spartan 'tween stood a strong Spartan mother urging him towards a noble death at every turn.  

Whereas most ancient Greek women were expected to be meek and subservient, Spartan women kept a firm hand when it came to raising their sons. The ancient Greek historian Plutarch, in his treatise Sayings of Spartan Women, tells a story about how a Greek woman from Attica (where those soft-handed Athenians lived) once asked a Spartan woman why it was that Spartan women were the only ones who could rule men. The Spartan woman replied, "Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men."

No doubt about it, Spartan moms had high expectations for their sons. Just as Tiger Mother was intent on her daughters playing Carnegie Hall, Spartan mothers expected their sons to fight honorably on the battlefield. They were flexible, however, just like Tiger Mother, who gave her daughters a choice between violin and piano. Spartan mothers gave their sons a choice between victory or death. Plutarch records how one Spartan mother, while handing her son his shield before battle, enjoined him to return "either with this or on it." (Dead soldiers were carried on their shields.) Let's make a deal mom, what if I agreed to take both violin and piano lessons? 

But as strict as they were, Spartan mothers were incredibly supportive. They were always ready with solid, practical advice. Once a son came to his mother before battle and complained that his sword was too short (te-hee-hee). Mom, worried about her son's self-esteem, suggested that the best thing to do with a short sword is to "extend it by a stride." "Do your best" is fine advice, but it's not very specific. "Lunge into the guy with the bigger sword?" Now that's a plan kids can put into action. 

Obviously, Spartan mothers could be a little overbearing. That didn't mean they didn't let their little birds out of the nest. On the contrary, Spartan mothers knew that travel could be one of the most enriching experiences in a young man's life. One of my favorite anecdotes from Plutarch is the one about the Spartan who came home from battle and was telling mom how his brother had died honorably in the field when she interrupted him, saying, "While I am happy for him, I am equally sorry for you, since you've missed making the journey with such a valiant companion....And to think I packed you such a nice, healthy bag lunch to take on the trip!" (Ok, that might not be the most accurate translation, but it won't be the first time I've gotten hate mail from the Classics Department.)

Spartan mothers had a dark side as well. As supportive as they were, they had short tempers, especially if they thought their sons hadn't tried their best. A Spartan had just come back from the front lines and his mom asked him how Sparta was doing in the battle. He told her that all the men were dead. She picked up a tile and whizzed it at his head, killing him instantly--just because she was embarrassed that her son hadn't died with the real men. Nothing irks a Spartan mom more than an A-minus in manliness.

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And this guy was one of the lucky ones; a quick death at the hands of your mother was getting off easy. Consider the plight of the two sons who fled from battle and returned home only to be met at the door by their mother, who was less than happy to see them. "Vile slaves, where is it you've come to? Or do you plan to creep back in here whence you emerged?" At this she pulled up her clothes and exposed her nether regions to them. Ouch! That one's gonna leave a mark.

Tiger Mother makes a big deal about the differences between the more demanding Eastern (Chinese) style of parenting and the more indulgent Western (American) style. That's fine, but if she's going to play this as a clash of civilizations, let's open it up. The Spartans were Greek, and the Greeks were the founders of Western Civilization as we know it. Ball's in your court, Tiger Mother. Let's see what you've got to top Spartan Mother.



Copyright 2013 Paul J. Rasmussen