The Spartan lambda blazon

Capital Letters as blazon's used on shields

To a Greek hoplite, there may be no more fearful site, than that of the lambda blazon. Called episema (επισημα) by the Greeks, the art of painting a shield with an emblem for identification was already centuries old by the time the Spartans were to have adopted the lambda, or upside down V, as a state symbol around 418 B.C. [1]. Prior to this, individual warriors would have personal symbols, such as a scorpion, gorgon, Heraclean club, painted on their shields. In one such case, a warrior was said to have painted a life size fly upon his aspis. Asked why; the warrior stated that he intended to be so close to his foe, that the fly would appear giant [2].

The Spartan Lambda

The problem with identifying when the Spartans first used the lambda symbol, is the lack of contemporary references that state the veracity of its existence. It is a symbol that is not spoken of by Thucydides, and may be only referenced to by Xenophon. Not until Pausanius do we hear outright, of some form of Lakedaemonian badge upon their shield [3].

Photios the first from Constantinople

It is from 'Photios the first' of Constantinople around 870 A.D. who using works that are now lost wrote in his Myriobiblon [4], quoting from the ancient Athenian poet Eupolis who flourished around the time of the Peloponnesian War. The quotes were:

-Lambda or L: Inscribed by the Lakedaemonians on their shields, as the Messenians wrote Mu upon theirs.
-He took fright, when he saw the Lambda's flash out.

Xenophon's Hellenika

Some scholars believe that an early reference to the Spartan Lamda is in Xenophon's Hellenika.
It is not that he says that the Spartan's used a Lamda on their shield outright, but the way it is written scholars believe that by this time, they were.
The story by this stage of the passage is about a Spartan and Sikyonian force fighting in a battle where one segment of the Sikyonian's had broken; he writes:

But Pasimachus, the Spartan cavalry commander (though his force was a very small one), saw the men of Sikyon being beaten back. He told his men to tie their horses to trees and then, taking their shields from the fugitives (the Spartan cavalry contingent didn't have their own shields), advance against the Argives with a body of volunteers. The Argives, seeing the SIGMAS on the shields from the fugitives, assumed that these were more Sikyonians and felt no apprehension at all (in attacking them). It was then, so the story goes, that Pasimachus, running into battle, said "By the twin gods, Argives, you will find you have made a mistake about these Sigmas." So, fighting with his small party against greatly superior numbers, he was killed as were many of those with him.

On this text some support the hypothesis that the Lamda was being used on the Spartan shield. As the way the passage is written the Argives felt no apprehension in attacking Sikyon Sigma shields and it is therefore inferred that they would have felt apprehension in attacking Spartan Lamda shields. Arguments against this theory say that if Spartan's were using the Lambda, Xenophon would have written it. Sadly, it has been proven that Xenophon was writing to a knowledgeable audience of the time that fully understood what was commonly know, because of this Xenophon falls foul of not writing the plainly obvious. Unfortunately, with time, the obvious is now lost and we reading his work some 2,500 years later are left with gaping holes. There are many references in Xenophon's work were this happens including using military Spartan terms, who men of his time understood, but that mean completely nothing to us while also giving us a tantalising taste of the working of a Spartan army.

The use by other Greek City-States

It seems that by the 4th Century B.C., it become widely used to have the capital letter of the City States as an emblem on the hoplites shield. Once it started to become actively used, the practice spread throughout Greece in a generally quick time. The timing may be linked with a time that the City-States responsibility of arming a hoplite fell on them, and it was no longer the rule that each individual arm themselves. With the City-State taking responsibility to arm their hoplites a general shield was manufactured with the generic emblem to allow for mass production. The City-States first letter deemed fit for the purpose.

Our inferred beginnings of the Spartan Lambda blazon

Indications lead us to believe that the Spartan military commander Brasidas who was issued with orders to go to the north of Greece to harass Athenian attempts to subdue the area during the second half of the Peloponnesian War, took with him a large contingent of Messenians. To be able to keep them in check, the Messenians were issued with shields marked with the letter M on them. As the Spartans needed to arm the Messenians while also allowing the Spartan to be able to quickly identify them when needed, the Messenians were still helots to the Spartans, and their loyalties could not be trusted.
While the Spartan's thought this mass allocation to the Messenians was an insult bestowed to them, as all individuality was lost, as though the Mu on the shield was like a brand a slave wore of his master, however, the opposite took effect.
The Messenians did not view it as an insult, they carried the shield as a 'brand of honour'. The Messenian contingent returned triumphantly to the Peloponnese victorious in the endeavours, having accomplished much better than was even anticipated before they left.
The blazon idea was not lost on the Spartans and the idea to have a Lambda signifying Lacedaemon, the state that Sparta was in was born.

As a side note, Brasida's Messenian men who returned back to the Peloponnese victorious, were ended up giving a hero's festival by the Spartan's that culminated in the Messenians entering a shire to be given honours. The Spartan's butchered them to a man, that was the Spartan way. As was said in those times 'they cried the goats song' (the bleating a goat makes while its throat is being slashed).

An Alternative Version

In his latest work, Spartan Warrior 735-331, Professor Campbell postulates an interesting theory that the line on the "lambda" blazon, is nothing more than a crude joke, the type of which the Athenians were quite fond of. In this theory, Campbell suggests that the "L" can be meant to be the word, laikazein , which translates to a vulgar meaning. If this is in fact the case, it could be seems as a comedic and dismissive message from the unknown actor who originally spoke the line [5].

See Sex in the Ancient World from A - Z - John Younger - Google Books

One other fact that may lend credence to the theory, is a total lack of evidence with the Greek art of the time. Upon Attic and Peloponnesian black-red vases, many forms of episema are shown, but never is there an example of the Spartan Lambda, or even the Messenian Mu.

[1] The Spartan Army, Nicholas Sekunda p28
[2] Plut.,Ap.Lak.,Anon.41=Mor.234C-D
[3] Paus 4.28.5
[4] Fragments of Attic Comedy, Vol 3, J.M. Edwards pg 435
[5] Spartan Warrior 735-331BC, Duncan Campbell pg28-29

The usage of Capital Letters as Shield devices





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