Come Back With Your Shield or on It – Fact or Fiction?!

Have you ever heard the claim that Spartan wives/mothers told their husbands/sons to either „return on their shield or with it“? When we watch movies that feature Sparta then that sentence is often tied to King Leonidas (who eventually fell at the Battle of Thermopylae) and used to prove that Sparta was indeed a highly militarized society.

But is the saying „come back with your shield or on it“ really historically accurate?

It`s a myth that Spartan women told their husbands or sons to return with their shield or on it (meaning they should either return victorious or dead). Fallen Greek (and Spartan) soldiers were not returned home. Instead fallen soldiers were buried in mass graves on the battlefield.

A good example of that tradition can be found at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC, where the largest Hoplite army of all times defeated the Persian army that had invaded Greece.

The Battle of Plataea was mostly won by the Spartan phalanx and the Spartan supreme commander Pausanias. But the Battle of Plataea and the important role that the Spartan phalanx played in it not only ended the Persian invasion of Greece, it was also one of the reasons for the rivalry between Athens and Sparta that would eventually lead to the Peloponnesian war. The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) would last 27 years and is often referred to as a World War of Antiquity. But that is a story for another time.

The bodies of the Greek soldiers who had fallen in the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC were not returned to their home cities. Instead, they were buried on the battlefield in mass graves that were divided along after the city-states the soldiers came from. So the fallen Spartans were buried in the Spartan mass grave while the fallen soldiers from Corinth were buried in the Corinthian mass grave, and so on.

But not only the fallen Greek soldiers were buried on the Battlefield of Plataea. The victorious Greeks also erected an altar for Zeus (their highest god).

So the fact that fallen Greek (including Spartan) warriors were not brought home to their cities of origin but were buried on the battlefield already shows that the phrase „return with your shield or on it“ can`t be true.

By the way. One of the reasons why fallen Greek soldiers were not returned to their city-states was the fact that transporting corpses in the Mediterranean heat for potentially hundreds of miles was not a good idea! Even the body of the famous Spartan king Leonidas was only returned to Sparta 40 years after the Battle of Thermopylae!

Do you want to find out more about how many men were killed in an ancient Greek battle? Then please check out my article on the casualty rate of Greek Hoplite battles.

Ok, so the idea that Spartan women told their husbands or sons to either return with their shield or on it is a myth.

But what about the idea that Spartans never retreated and never surrendered? Is that historically accurate? Well, I wrote articles on that exact topic. So please feel free to check them out.

And here you can find a timeline of ancient Greek history.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


Herodotus: The Histories.*

Karl-Wilhelm Welweit: Sparta. Aufstieg und Niedergang einer antiken Großmacht (Stuttgart 2004).*   

Plutarch: On Sparta.*  

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