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“Return With your Shield, or on it”

You’ve probably heard this phrase from the popular movie, “300,” or in some gym-bro’s Instagram caption about how he's a warrior. Except, joke's on him: having 18 inch biceps or legs the size of a gorilla's does not make one a warrior.

What many people, like the gym bro above, are not familiar with is the historical seriousness behind this phrase.

See, in Ancient Greece, armies fought in tight, rectangular formations called phalanxes (as much as eight men deep and sixteen across). Back then, battlegrounds would be agreed upon and pitched in the middle of a field so that these massive troop formations could be used effectively.

A shield held in the left hand of a soldier covered not only your body, but the man next to you’s right side. If one person in the phalanx wasn’t properly holding his shield, then a weak link would be exposed and the whole formation could break. Keeping your shield up was everything. But the phrase actually has nothing to do with combat- Do you know how hard it is to run with a brass shield that could weigh up to 40 pounds?

The shield itself was something precious, not just because it was expensive and hard to make in those days, but because it symbolized the bond the soldier had with his brothers-in-arms. Turning away from an enemy in defeat and fleeing is hard to do with armor and weapons, so the natural response for a fleeing soldier would be to ditch what they could in order to survive.

The shield was the first thing to go.

And when a Spartan lost his shield, it symbolized not just loss in combat, but cowardice in battle, and because of the nature of a phalanx, it meant abandoning your brothers. And that was simply not allowed. It was considered better to return dead atop your shield rather than to return alive without it.

And what can we learn from Sparta's social oligarchy?

It’s better to finish with the same poise that you start with. Don’t abandon those depending on you. Keep strong; hold your shield! 🛡

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