Lesson #316: If.

Sometimes, the most random things get triggered in my brain. I wrote the title to this post and immediately thought of e.e. cummings, which seemed…odd. But the interwebs tell me there’s a good reason for this and it involves a poem I had never seen before today, though I have clearly, at some point, seen the title and absorbed the information at least enough to recall, at random, both that it’s a poem that exists and the name of its author. 

“If.” is quite possibly my favourite laconic phrase, at which the Spartans were such masters the entire concept — and adjective — is named for them.* In the post-300 world, I’m sure we’re all familiar with Sparta’s most famous laconic phrase, “molon labe” (or at least its translation, “come and take [them]”), and most of us have, at one time, heard “because only Spartan women give birth to men” and/or “with your shield or on it” and/or “my father’s common sense”, but I had somehow never read the “if” response until today. I was amused.

Having brought most of the Greek city-states under his control, sometime in the mid 340s BCE, Philip the II of Macedonia sent a message to Sparta that said either, “If I win this war, you will be slaves forever” or “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city” (depending on what you read). Sparta’s response: “If.”

Since Philip wasn’t an idiot, he steered well clear of Sparta, as did his son, Alexander the Great, who chose instead to literally go halfway to China rather than take a run at Sparta.

The moral of the story: if the greatest conqueror the world has ever known and his vast, vast army want nothing to do with going to war with your city-state based on a one-word response to some trash talk, you’re doing something right.

More here and here. General historical information on Sparta here.

*What we know from our history texts as the city-state Sparta was actually the state of Laconia, of which the city Sparta was its adminitrative capital.

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