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.
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.
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.
A battle painting was once made, which portrayed the Athenians slaying Spartan soldiers. One man, after seeing the painting, kept repeating how brave the Athenians were. A Spartan, fed up with this, finally replied, “Yes, in the painting!”
Periander was a great doctor in ancient Greece, known far and wide for his talent in medicine. However, he also had literary aspirations, and to this end, wrote verses as well. These verses could not match his medical ability, and were reviled. His friend Archidamus wished him to be happy with one reputation and begged him to stop, asking him, “Why on earth do you wish to be known as a bad poet rather than as a great doctor?”
Areus, when some men praised the wives of other men in his presence, said, “By Heaven, there ought to be no random talk about fair and noble women, and their characters ought to be totally unknown save only to their spouses.”