Dusty Phrases

Hi! Welcome to “Dusty Phrases.” You will find a phrase below, in one ancient language or another, along with its English translation. You may also find the power to inspire your friends or provoke dread among your enemies.

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Ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς
Ḕ tàn ḕ epì tâs


Either [with] it [your shield], or on it.

This phrase means that one should either come back as the winner of the battle, or dead, and it is commonly thought of as a phrase Spartan women spoke to Spartan men as they leave for war. From LSJ:

Νέµουσι δ’ οἴκους καὶ τὰ ναυστολούµενα ἔσω δόµων σῴζουσιν, οὐδ’ ἐρηµίᾳ γυναικὸς οἶκος εὐπινὴς οὐδ’ ὄλβιος → They manage households, and save what is brought by sea within the home, and no house deprived of a woman can be tidy and prosperousEuripidesMelanippe Captiva, Fragment 6.11

come back victorious or dead / come back with your shield or on it / either with this or on this / either with it, or on it / with it or on it / either with your shield, or upon it / either bring your shield back or I would rather they brought you lying dead on it / return from battle as a victor or as a corpse on your shield, PlutarchMoralia 241. This was the farewell phrase Spartan mothers or wives said to their departing warrior sons or husbands, upon giving them their shield. A warrior returning with his shield meant that he did not flee the battlefield. Had he done so, he must have dropped the large, heavy bronze shield in order to run faster. A warrior returning on his shield was dead, and his corpse would have been carried home thus. Therefore a Spartan warrior’s options were to return either victorious or dead. Returning in shame without a shield was not an option. “Rhipsaspides” (shield droppers) were executed upon return, and their family members took part in the execution lest the shame of their cowardly relative stain the family reputation. The few Spartans who cowered in battle preferred to commit suicide rather than return to Sparta. See also, τάνἐπίτᾶς.

There is also an article at straightdope.com [excerpt below] verifying the historicity of the phrase’s usage, with numerous quotes, though the article also points out that we are reliant on Plutarch as the original and primary source for the phrase. The article also points out the realities of a Spartan shield’s suitability for the task:

Finally, a practical question: Could Spartan shields be used as stretchers, and were they?The shield was a key part of the equipment of the Greek hoplite — in fact, “hoplite” is said to derive from the Greek word for a type of heavy shield, hoplon. We often think of Greek shields as being relatively small and round, but having seen Greek shields in museums in Athens, I can say that their size varied considerably over time. Though small in the early days, Greek shields increased in size in middle to later eras, evolving to a much larger round form, and later still to a rectangular shape, similar to Roman-style shields, like a door. Although shields varied in size and shape among the armies of the various city-states, most military forces did have access to large shields that could carry a body. The shield was made of multiple layers of metal (bronze, copper, or sometimes tin), wood, and tough linen, cloth, or leather, and could weigh as much as 15 to 20 pounds. In the Greek battle formation known as the phalanx, the shield protected not only the warrior holding it (while leaving his right arm free to wield a spear), but also the warrior on his left. A phalanx that stayed in tight formation was well protected by the interlocking shields.Because of its size and sturdiness, a shield did make a good battlefield stretcher — and if the shield used for that purpose belonged to the stretchee, no one else needed to go unprotected.

The film 300 includes a farewell scene wherein the famous phrase is used.

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