Guest Post: “The Spartan Sense of Humor” by Steven Pressfield

Steven Pressfield is the acclaimed author of Gates of Fire and Killing Rommel: A Novel and other works of historical fiction, who recently began blogging at It’s the Tribes, Stupid! . Steve graciously agreed to contribute a guest post here at Zenpundit and I’m very pleased to present the following: 

                                                                     THE SPARTAN SENSE OF HUMOR

                                                                      by Steven Pressfield

[Fair warning: this is NOT a political column.]

In ancient Sparta, there was a law prohibiting all citizens from hewing the roofbeams of their houses with any tool finer than an axe.  The Spartans wanted their homes to be–spartan.  Result: roofbeamsin Sparta were just tree trunks with the limbs lopped off.

Once a Spartan was visiting at Athens, staying in an elegant home with frescoes, marble statuary–and impeccably-squared ceiling beams.  Admiring these, the Spartan asked his host if trees grew square at Athens.  The gentleman laughed.  “Of course not; they grow round, as trees grow everywhere.” 

“And if they grew square,” asked the Spartan, “would you make them round?”

Probably the two most celebrated Spartan sayings come from the battle of Thermopylae.  First is King Leonidas’ admonishment to his comrades onthe final morning, when the defenders knew they were all going to die.”Now eat a good breakfast, men, for we’ll all be sharing dinner in hell.”

The second is from the warriorDienekes, on the afternoon before Xerxes’ million-man army first appeared.  The Spartans had taken possession of the pass but had not yet seen the enemy.  As they were going about their preparations, a local Greek came running in, wild-eyed, having just gotten a glimpse of the Persian multitudes approaching.  The invaders’ archers were so numerous, the man breathlessly told the Spartans, that when they fired their volleys, the mass of arrows blocked out the sun.  “Good,” replied Dienekes, “then we’ll have our battle in the shade.”

Spartans liked their quips terse and lean.  They trained their young men for this.  Youths in the agoge (“the Upbringing”), the notorious eleven-year training regimen that turned Spartan boys into warriors, would from time to time be called out before their elders and grilled with rapid-fire questions.  The boys were judged on the wit and economy of their answers.

The reason for this was fear.  The Spartans developed their style of humor from combat and from the apprehension that precedes combat.  Hoplite warfare was surely among the most terror-inducing for the individual fighter, not only because he knew that all the killing would be done hand-to-hand, but because he often had hours preceding a battle to stare at the enemy phalanx across the field, while his own imagination ran riot.The Spartans prized the type of wit that cut such tension, the kind of humor that could release fear with a laugh and pull each individual out of his own head and his own isolation.

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