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Q: Latin verse "Come home with your shield or on it." ( Answered 4 out of 5 stars,   1 Comment )
Subject: Latin verse "Come home with your shield or on it."
Category: Arts and Entertainment > Books and Literature
Asked by: dejas-ga
List Price: $5.00
Posted: 11 Feb 2003 02:46 PST
Expires: 13 Mar 2003 02:46 PST
Question ID: 159867
I am looking for the original Latin verse that loosely translates to
“Come home with your shield or on it.”  The verse was more of a motto
amongst the Roman legions, supposedly a saying from a soldier’s mother
to her sons implying that you should win a battle (come home with your
shield) or die trying returning on your shield (the manner in which
fallen soldiers were returned home).  The theory being that if you
came home without your shield, you had been a coward and fled the
battle—tossing your heavy shield aside such that you could run faster.
Subject: Re: Latin verse "Come home with your shield or on it."
Answered By: leli-ga on 11 Feb 2003 05:19 PST
Rated:4 out of 5 stars
Hello dejas

Thank-you for a very interesting question.

Everywhere I look this is attributed to a Spartan mother who, as you
say, wished her son to return from war either carrying his shield or
being carried upon it after falling in battle. I did search for a
similar Roman tradition but kept coming back to Sparta.

The motivating words are often given as "Either this, or upon this"
which is a translation of the Greek "E tan, e epi tan".

You'll also find many more English variations like "Return with this
shield or upon it."

Here's a university site outlining the tradition you describe:

"Besides its primary function as a protective device, the shield also
had symbolic meaning.  A Spartan mother had warned her son to "return
either with your shield or on it" (Spartan shields were large enough
to serve as stretchers or funeral biers).  If a hoplite returned home
alive without the shield, it meant that he had thrown it away while
running for his life (its weight made it a formidable obstacle to fast
running), an act of cowardice."

Infantry Warfare


Links to variations on the Spartan mother anecdote

"Definition of: e tan, e epi tan
e tan, e epi tan: (Greek) Either this, or upon this; either bring this
back, or be brought home, dead, upon it. (The words of a Spartan
mother when she gave a shield to her son going on military service.)"

Latin and Greek sayings

By the way, the word 'e' is pronounced as a long 'ee', while the 'e'
in 'epi' is short, as in the English word 'epicentre'.

There are one or two variations of the Greek on the web, with debate
about dialects in different parts of Greece and so forth. I hoped to
get to the bottom of this by looking at academic discussions and/or
university sites.

This is part of a conversation between two profesors confirming "e
tan, e epi tan":

"the old spartan mother's directive <<h tav h eni tav = e tan e epi
tan>> doric dialect for "either this [shield, scil. worn en retour] or
upon this [shield, scil. as a corpse duly borne back from
battlefield]"  --"

discussion of Greek sentences

(When he says "h tav h eni tav" he's trying to recreate the spelling
in the Greek alphabet.)

Unfortunately, not all professors agree. This discussion goes for " e
tan, e epi tas":
"The Spartan worman's words, as reported by Plutarch, are, well,
Laconic: "teknon, h tan h epi tas": "Child, either this or on this." "

With or on your shield: discussion

At least they point us to the book by Plutarch which is apparently the
source of the 'Spartan mother' story:
Plutarch on Sparta, by Richard J.A. Talbert (Translator) Penguin
Classics (1988)

I hope this is helpful, despite the slight disagreement amongst
scholars about exactly how a Spartan mother would have used Greek
Please let me know if I can clarify anything further and I will do my
best to help.

Regards - Leli


sparta spartan mother shield

either this or upon this

e tan e epi tan

e tan e epi tas
dejas-ga rated this answer:4 out of 5 stars

Subject: Re: Latin verse "Come home with your shield or on it."
From: answerfinder-ga on 11 Feb 2003 05:44 PST
The reference is PLUTARCH's Moralia - Sayings of Spartan Women (240c-242d) identifies it as 241.

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