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Persian War epigrams have long been a source for scholars investigating the origins of important Classical ideas such as the Persian Wars being a struggle of freedom against tyranny, and Greece representing a coherent entity (Raaflaub 2004; Higbie 2010). While some of these epigrams are preserved on stone, others appear only in literary sources, which scholars tend to judge as genuine or not based on their content, especially whether they fit with themes supposedly appropriate to the time of the Persian Wars (for recent scholarship on epigrams, see Petović 2007; Oswald 2014; Sheppard 2016; Henriksén 2019). No one, however, has recognized that the Persian War epigrams of Sparta differ from the rest, neglecting common themes such as defense, freedom, and Panhellenism. The epigrammatic corpus, inscribed and literary, confirms that the Spartans had very different ideas about the Persian Wars, and war in general, from their fellow Greeks.

Several scholars argue that the most famous accounts of the Spartans in the Persian Wars indicate that many Greeks were critical of the Spartans throwing away their lives in battle and being subservient to the Spartan law of standing one’s ground (Clarke 2002; Millender 2002; Ziogas 2014). Others insist that the Spartan dedication to the beautiful death has been overstated (Loraux 1977) and was concocted in the case of Thermopylae after the fact by Spartans wanting to cover up an embarrassing defeat (van Wees 2018). The Spartan Persian War epigrams, however, indicate that Spartans were concerned primarily with glory and fame, rather than an effort to preserve Greece, fight for freedom, or even fight in strategically sound ways (Sim. VI, VII, IX, XVIIa, XXIIa-b, XXIII, XXXIX, LXXXIII FGE). The epigrams of other states, by contrast, emphasize the fight for freedom and the struggle on behalf of all Greece, even as early as the battle of Marathon (Athens: ML 18; Sim. XVIII, XX, XXI FGE; Sim. 440 CEG; Oswald 2014:114-115; Corinth: ML 24; Sim. X, XI, XII, XIV FGE; Megara: Sim. XVI FGE; Tegea: Sim. LIII, LIV FGE; Greek coalition: Sim. XIV, XVIIb FGE; for Marathon, see: Tentori Montalto 2017). Recently discovered inscribed epigrams from Thebes suggest that the language of rescue, liberation, and selfless service, absent from Spartan commemorations, even preexisted the Persian wars (Oswald 2014; Papazarkadas 2014). The Spartan behavior in the Persian Wars, therefore, need not make sound strategic or tactical sense, so long as it brought glory to those who fought in it.

Based on the evidence from epigrams, and supported by other poems about the Spartans attributed to Simonides (Sim. 531 PMG; "New Simonides" F11 W), the Spartans of the early 5th century thought about fighting and dying in war similarly to Homeric heroes such as Hector, who fought for glory and to avoid shame, even if it made no good military sense (for Hector, see Cairns 1993; de Jong 2012). As a final point, this Spartan attitude seems to have lessened, rather than increased, as we might expect, the likelihood of Spartans going to war.