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Hi Maria!

I'm interested in the phrase regarding shields, Spartans (probably other Greeks/ Hellenistic peoples) and If you know any more information regarding this phrase, which is roughly 'with it or on it' meaning you either leave battle with your shield or on it.

What would this look like in ancient greek and do written dialects change the meaning of this phrase a lot?  I always loved this phrase, unfortunately only studied classics up to the age of 18, so don't know the answer!

Warm Regards


Hi Laura!

actually the phrase translated as  "with it or on it", where the pronoun “it” stands for the noun “shield”, refers to the ancient Greek phrase a Spartan mother told to her son when she gave him the shield before he went to war, as reported by the Greek biographer Plutarch (46-122 AD) who in his "Apophthegmata Laconica" (Sayings of the Ancient Spartans)and precisely in “Sayings of Spartan Women” 241f, says exactly:

"ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς”(Greek letters) transliterated as " He tŕn he epě tăs" [literally meaning ”Either this or upon this”,i.e. "Return with this shield or upon it"].

Spartan mother  in fact  wished her son to return from war either with his shield or upon it after falling in battle, since, if a soldier  returned home alive without his shield, it meant that he had lost it while running for his life, and then he had been a coward.
In short, a brave Spartan warrior had to return victoriously  with his shield or to be brought home, dead, upon it, but by no means after saving himself by throwing away his  shield and fleeing.

So, here’s the full passage we read in Plutarch’s Sayings of Spartan Women, 241 f, where Plutarch wants to point out the laconism of the Spartan women as well as their courage:

Ἄλλη προσαναδιδοῦσα τῷ παιδὶ τὴν ἀσπίδα καὶ παρακελευομένη, "τέκνον," ἔφη, "ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς" [literally, "Another woman, as she handed her son his shield, exhorted him, saying, "O my son, either this or upon this”].
Read more below.

Finally note that in ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς (" He tŕn he epě tăs") the terms τὰν (tŕn) and τᾶς (tăs) are in the Doric dialect, spoken by the Spartans.

Such a dialect which  was simply one of the three main Greek dialects spoken in the Aegean basin had only little differences from the other two Greek dialects (Ionic-Attic and Aeolic) from which Ancient /Classical Greek, also known as Koiné  Greek (Common Greek) is derived.

But such slight differences, i.e. chiefly the preservation of the long  vowel A (alpha)-as in τὰν (tŕn) and τᾶς (tăs)-  instead of the long open E (eta) used by the other dialects, disappeared  at a very early date, as we see in the poems of the Doric poet Tyrtaeus, flourished middle of the 7th century BC.

Hope this is clear enough. Feel free however to ask me again.

Best regards,
Note that:

-ἢ  (he) as a disjunctive conjunction = either

-τὰν (tan) as a Doric feminine accusative  related to the implied accusative ἀσπίδα (aspίda) meaning “shield” depending on the implied verb "Bring back" = this

-ἢ (he) as a disjunctive conjunction  = or

- ἐπὶ (epě) as a  preposition which  takes the genitive case  = upon/ on. Here the implied verb is "Return".

-τᾶς (tăs ) as a Doric genitive  related to the implied genitive ἀσπίδος (aspίdos) = this.
Spartan shields were large enough to serve as stretchers or funeral biers.


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I'll be glad to answer any questions concerning ANCIENT GREEK. So, do not ask me please questions regarding MODERN GREEK as it is different from Ancient Greek either in spelling/meaning or in pronunciation.


Over 25 years teaching experience.

I received my Ph.D in Classics (summa cum laude) from Genova University (Italy) and my thesis was about ancient Greek drama (Aeschylus).

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