Despite the Spartan’s axiomatic toughness, they could be astonishingly gentle when dealing with their fellow Spartiates. In court cases, the punishments doled out were, at times, the sort of thing one might expect a parent to assign to a child. One rich man was condemned to go without dessert with his dinner. Others were sentenced to bring back a reed or a handful of laurel leaves. Even Agesilaus, one of Sparta’s ablest kings and commanders, asked that his friend, even if guilty, be found not guilty, for his sake.
Once, when the people of Smyrna were suffering from a famine, the Spartans agreed to send them grain. All the people of Sparta fasted for an entire day, and the grain thereby saved was sent to Smyrna for the benefit of the people there.
The story of the Persian messengers who demanded earth and water from the Spartans is well known. To the Persians, this request for earth and water was a sign of submission and obedience, a request the Spartans strongly refused. They were thrown into a well by the Spartans, and told that they would find both of each down there. However, the sequel to the story is lesser known.
The Spartans later regretted this incident so greatly, for it was undeniably an immoral act, that they sent two citizens to Persia, who volunteered to be killed by them in order to erase the Spartans’ guilt from their own crime.
Lysander used to say that, “Boys were to be cheated with dice, but an enemy with oaths.” He himself felt no obligation to obey oaths he had sworn, but used the false confidence that his foes gained by his swearing of oaths to get the best of them.
Alcibiades, the nephew of Pericles and student of Socrates, once decided to test his friends, in order to discover which were true. To accomplish this, he had a mannequin constructed, which he then hid in his basement. One by one, he led his friends to the basement and showed them this mannequin, pretending it to be the corpse of someone whom he had slain, and asked them to help him hide the fact. Each of them refused, except Callias, who offered to take and hide the body. After this, Callias became and remained his most trusted and faithful friend.
Polycrates was tyrant of Samos, and probably the first Greek leader to have control of a large navy. He used this navy against both friends and enemies as privateers, seizing the property of merchants. From his foes, he kept the goods, but to his friends, he returned it. He enjoyed being able to give gifts to his friends, which is why he seized the goods in the first place, for if he didn’t, he would have nothing to give to his friends. And through this largesse, he bound the recipients more closely to his own cause.
In a war between Athens and the Dorians of the Peloponnesus, the Delphic Oracle proclaimed that the Athenians would have victory, if their king was slain by the Peloponnesians. Hearing of this prediction, the Peloponnesians gave word to every man in their army not to harm Codrus, King of Athens. Codrus, however, had other plans. He dressed himself as a wood-cutter and made his way towards the enemy army, where he came across some soldiers, and picked a fight with them, wounding some with his axe, until they slew him in annoyance. The Athenians then dispatched a herald to the enemy camp, requesting the body of their slain king. When they realized what they had done, the Peloponneisans retreated, leaving Athens victorious, in fear of the Oracle’s words.