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."
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
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
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
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