Throughout the many writings that deal with Sparta and its leaders, many literary quotes are attributed. There is a very good chance that few or even none of the following quotes were actually spoken by the men to whom they were attributed. They are, nevertheless, worthy of mention here because they convey perhaps more concisely than any other words could the manner in which Sparta was thought of and portrayed by the ancient Greek writers.
Informed by a fellow soldier of his hippeis before the battle of Thermopylae that the Persian arrows could come down in such numbers that it was impossible to see the sun, King Leonidas I is said to have replied, “Won't it be nice, then, if we shall have shade in which to fight them?” (Note: This quote, slightly altered, has also been attributed to Dienekes, another member of the hippeis who fought at Thermopylae.)
Asked by Xerxes to surrender his arms during the lead-up to Thermopylae, Leonidas is said to have replied with the brief response: “Come and take them.”
Upon being asked how far the borders of Sparta stretched, King Agesilaus II is said to have held up a spear and replied “As far as this can reach.”
Asked why he discouraged the practice of letting wars drag on for too long or of starting multiple wars with the same adversary, Lycurgus responded “So that they may not, in becoming accustomed to defending themselves, become skilled in war.”
In reply to a fellow Spartan who advocated for the institution of a democracy instead of an oligarchy, Lycurgus is said to have retorted, “Do you first establish democracy in your own house?”
On a diplomatic mission, the Spartan Polycratidas was asked if he and his Spartan companions were acting in their capacity as public leaders or private citizens. His reply is recorded as: “If we succeed, public. If not, private.”
When Phillip of Macedon sent word to Sparta during his conquests of Greece to inform them that they would be destroyed if his armies invaded Laconia, the Spartans returned a reply of only a single word: “If”
While not a direct quote, a famous anecdote has it that a delegation from the island of Samos appealed to the Spartan assembly for food because the citizens of Samos were starving. This delegation gave a long and intricate speech before the Spartans, which was a normal custom in the rest of Greece. The Spartans, however, being a people taught to speak in as few words as possible, told the representatives of Samos that by the end of their speech, they had forgotten what had been said at the beginning and so did not understand it in full. Later, the same delegation returned and brought an empty bag, simply stating that “The bag wants flour.” They were advised by the Spartans that they could have shortened their appeal by excluding “The bag” from their statement, but were given Spartan aid anyway.
Though it is entirely likely that these quotes are the fabrications of literary historians such as Herodotus and Plutarch, they convey very readily the nature and spirit of Sparta. It is quotes such as these that have caused a brief or curt rebuttal to be deemed a Laconic Phrase, even nearly 2,000 years after the city-state of Sparta and the legacy of the men who may have spoken these words passed into history.