“Winners are not those who never fail, but those who never quit.” –Anonymous
For a Spartan, losing a battle was not something to be casually shrugged off, but a grave failure that usually resulted in death on the field. If a defeated Spartan soldier managed to return home, he faced execution or banishment.
A Spartan woman typically told a man, as she handed him his shield before he left for battle, “Return with this or upon this” (Cartledge, P., The Spartans: The World of Warrior Heroes of Ancient Greece).
The shield a Spartan carried into battle was his most important piece of equipment. He used it both to protect himself and to protect the other soldiers he fought with in a tight formation called a phalanx. If a soldier returned home without his shield, it was assumed he had lost it while fleeing from his opponent, and he was punished by death or banishment.
If you need an example of the incredible determination and courage of ancient Spartan soldiers, just look at the Battle of Thermopylae, considered one of the greatest last stands in history. In 480 B.C.E. a Spartan-led army of about 7,000 Greek men (sources vary greatly on how big the Greek army was at this point, varying between 3,000 and 9,000) tried to guard the pass of Thermopylae against approximately 100,000 Persian soldiers.
For two days the Greeks succeeded in defending the pass from the Persians–until a local man, Ephialtes, betrayed the Greeks and told the Persians of a small path leading through the pass.
Spartan King Leonidas I, who led the Spartan army, dismissed most of his forces. He kept only 1500 men with him to make a last stand against the 100,000 Persians.
On the third day of battle, the Persians had completely surrounded the Greeks, who were left to fight only with spears. Herodotus, the world’s first historian, reported that after their spears broke, “Here they defended themselves to the last, those who still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth.”
Against such a large number of opposing soldiers, King Leonidas I and all of his soldiers were killed, but they took 20,000 members of the Persian army with them.
Though they were defeated in the Battle of Thermopylae, the Spartan army’s performance is remembered today for its incredible courage and bravery. The Spartan soldiers fought to the last, determined to die on the field rather than escape with their lives and the infamy of defeat.