The Strange Case of the Unlaconic Laconians

Spartans didn't call themselves Spartans.  Their own name for their nation was Lacedaemon.  (Or Lakedaimon, spelling being variant in these matters.)  A Spartan was a Lacedaemonian.  There were also the short forms Laconia and Laconian.  That's why Spartan shields had the letter lambda (Λ) painted on them.

I prefer to write Spartan rather than Lacedaemonian in my books, and I'm pretty sure you prefer to read Spartan.  But there's an interesting consequence of them being Laconian.

The Laconians had a reputaion for being men of few words.  That's the origin of our word laconic.  When we call someone laconic today, we're saying that they're as short-spoken as a Spartan.

The most famous laconic statement of all occurred at the Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans held for 3 days against an army of 100,000.  (No, I'm not exaggerating the Persian side.)  The Spartans were warned that the enemy was so numerous that their arrows would blot out the sun, to which one soldier named Dienekes replied this was good, because, "Then we will fight in the shade."

A similar situation arose when Philip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander) sent a message to Sparta suggesting they submit to him, because, "If I win a war against you, I will enslave you all."  Sparta sent back a single word reply:  If  

Philip decided to give Sparta a miss.

The Spartan characters who appear in Sacred Games are not laconic.  There are several reasons for this, first being that a book in which half the characters speak in mono-syllables is not exactly a positive.

The second reason is that laconic Laconians must be the exception if they wanted to run any form of society, and then there's the natural variation of personality.  Not all Italians gesticulate when they speak!

Surviving examples of laconic speech aren't everyday speech; they're all pithy statements designed to hammer home a point.    And that, I suspect, is the origin of the laconic Laconian: when they wanted to make a point clearly known, it was just a cultural thing that they did it with a short, powerful statement.

I very much doubt they were as dour as the laconic reputation suggests for this reason too:  that among the Greeks they were known as "crickets" as a nickname, because the Spartans were always ready for a song and a community dance.  That doesn't say laconic to me.


Jane Lebak said...

But you've still nailed some of their laconic-type speech, regardless. Queen Gorgo's response when Diotima remarks about women telling men what to do? Priceless.

Amalia Carosella said...

This makes a lot of sense to me, too. It seems like one of those situations where it's an external idea of what their culture was, which then was popularized. Or maybe Laconic is the verbal reflection of their "Spartan" lifestyle, in the barracks with few personal luxuries or amenities. I could see someone assuming a meanness of word use to match the spareness of accommodation.

Sarah W said...

So the Greeks learned to listen when the crickets fell silent.


Gary Corby said...

Jane, yes, that line's definitely laconic! Also, I stole it. But I figure a crime writer should probably steal things.

(For those who haven't read Sacred Games yet, there's a short conversation that I took from the for-real Queen Gorgo of Sparta. You'll find it mentioned in this post that I wrote ages ago.)

Gary Corby said...

I'm afraid this is the line where historical interpretation meets imagination, Amalia. Maybe we'd all get a surprise if we could bring a few Spartans forward in time. (And the Spartans would get a big surprise for sure.)

Sarah, yes, silent crickets would be kind of scary.

Unknown said...

The Spartan mirage was powerful stuff, and it's hard to let it go since they spent so much time crafting and shaping it so that other Greeks believed it. I think it's good you take a more realistic approach to their everyday lives. I look forward to reading Sacred Games. :)

Gary Corby said...

The idea that the Spartans were doing some PR image work is interesting. I'd never really thought of it as a deliberate thing, but you might well be right, Meg.