I came across a quote:

“One who risks his life in battle has the best chance of saving it; one who flees to save it is most likely to lose it” (Anthologia Lyrica Graeca, ed. E. Diehl2 1936-42.)

The poet lived in c. 8 century BC. To what extent was this observation true at the time and why? How does this compare to now?

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    "The quote is actually from the lyric poet Tyrtaeus from the 7th cent. BC (look a little bit earlier in the BDAG reference) as recorded in fragment 8 in Diehl's edition of the Lyric Poets - Anthologia Lyrica Graeca, ed. E. Diehl2 1936-42." Bibleworks See Tyrtaeus
    – MCW
    Jan 6, 2021 at 11:55
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    thanks for this i just corrected question
    – user7289
    Jan 6, 2021 at 12:05
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    This reads a lot like a school essay question, designed to elicit discussion on subjective matters so the student can demonstrate their command of the subject. Our format generally requires objectively-answerable questions.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 6, 2021 at 14:32
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    Thanks for the feedback T.E.D. will take it on board for next time :)
    – user7289
    Jan 6, 2021 at 18:06
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    Aside from the "15,000 men who deserted from the Wehrmacht during the Second World War" that were executed, most of the people who have been convicted of desertion in modern history had their sentences commuted.
    – Mazura
    Jan 8, 2021 at 1:04

2 Answers 2


As Mark C. Wallace noted in his comment, this is from the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus whose verse became an integral part of the Spartan military ethos and propaganda. His exhortations to fight bravely were seen by classical authors as one of the keys to maintaining the morale of Spartan soldiers.

To answer your question, "To what extent was this observation true at the time and why?", it was very important due to the hoplite (heavy infantry) tactics of the time and the importance of maintaining an unbroken line in the phalanx (military formation). Further, a soldier who fled deprived his neighbour in the line the protection of his aspis or hoplon (shield). Hence, from Plutarch,

Asked why it was dishonorable to return without a shield and not without a helmet, the Spartan king, Demaratos (510 - 491) is said to have replied: "Because the latter they put on for their own protection, but the shield for the common good of all."

A phalanx that held firm was a formidable force, but one that broke became extremely vulnerable as the soldiers relied on each other for strength and protection. Further, a fleeing soldier may lead to others doing so, further sowing the seeds of panic and, ultimately, almost certain defeat. This was also true for other formations in later periods that used shield wall tactics (e.g. the Anglo-Saxons).

In ancient Greece, individual hoplites, being heavy infantry, were vulnerable to faster, more mobile light infantry and could thus easily be chased down if the formation broke (even more so if the opposition had cavalry). Remaining in formation at least allowed the possibility of an orderly retreat.

However, there is also an element of instruction and propaganda in the sense of impressing upon Spartans that fleeing from battle was not an option as those who fled would be disgraced and would become social outcasts. Hence, Plutarch again:

"Come back with your shield - or on it" (Plutarch, Mor.241) was supposed to be the parting cry of mothers to their sons. Mothers whose sons died in battle openly rejoiced, mothers whose sons survived hung their heads in shame.

Also, from Tyrtaeus himself:

Fear ye not a multitude of men, nor flinch, but let every man hold his shield straight towards the van, making Life his enemy and the black Spirits of Death dear as the rays of the sun.

In the lines following this, Tyrtaeus mentions past experiences where Spartans fled and the consequences (this has been interpreted by some academics as a reference to setbacks during the First Messenian War and against the Argives):

ye have tasted both of the fleeing and the pursuing, lads, and had more than your fill of either....no man could tell in words each and all the ills that befall a man if he once come to dishonour.

Note, though, that Spartans (despite the propaganda and subsequent mythologizing) did sometimes retreat (e.g. the tactical retreat at Plataea in 479 BC), and that not every battle where they fought against the odds was a 'death or glory' Thermopylae. The key point was not to abandon your comrades, an action which would make both you and them more vulnerable.

Tyrtaeus was not, of course, the only one to purvey this message. The Greek philosopher Onasander (1st century AD), in The General (Strategikos), wrote that a general

must show by many reasons that death is certain for those who flee, since the enemy would at once press on freely, as soon as no one is able to hinder the pursuit, and could dispose of the fugitives as might suit them; but for men who stand and defend themselves, death is not certain.

As to your second question, "How does this compare to now?", this depends on circumstances but, generally speaking, abandoning your own side obviously isn't helpful. It's also bad for morale and can lead to a more general panic in the ranks.

Other sources:

Scott M. Rusch, 'Sparta at War: Strategy, Tactics and Campaigns, 950-362 BC' (2014)

Paul Cartledge, 'Sparta and Laconia: A Regional History, 1300-362 B.C.' (2002)

John R. E. Bliese, 'Rhetoric Goes to War: The Doctrine of Ancient and Medieval Military Manuals'. In Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 3/4 (Summer - Autumn, 1994)

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    Very helpful Lars thanks for taking to provide - I am studying the new testament and this will help me with broader context.
    – user7289
    Jan 6, 2021 at 18:11
  • @user7289 You're welcome! I would suggest deleting the 2nd question as 'now' is off topic here. Jan 6, 2021 at 23:08
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    You may have spent more time on stack exchange today than watching the news, but now is very much history.
    – corsiKa
    Jan 7, 2021 at 10:28

This statement is usually true, and has been throughout the millenia. The point is that once an army routs, they are suddenly a lot less dangerous - they are no longer firing back to kill, for example, and they cannot undertake any offensive action.

Although it should be clear that routs are bad, the question asks if routs also makes it less likely for a routing soldier to survive. This is true, because a fleeing force is also ripe for pursuit, which is something that generally causes more casualties than the battle itself. Some examples are:

  • Battle of Issus to quote from that article, "The Hellenic cavalry pursued the fleeing Persians for as long as there was light. As with most ancient battles, significant carnage occurred after the battle as the pursuing Greeks slaughtered their crowded, disorganized foe."
  • Battle of Jena–Auerstedt with most of the casualties suffered by the Prussians after the initial fighting.
  • Battle of Sedan (1940) it's just one battle, but the vigorous pursuit after the battle led to France getting knocked out of the War.
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    Yet in all three battles (Issos, Jena, Sedan) casualty rates of the routed side were lower than at Thermopylae.
    – Jan
    Jan 7, 2021 at 3:16
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    @Jan The finale of Thermopylae wasn't really a battle though, it was a last stand. Battles where the losing side withdraws in orderly manner will usually have fewer casualties, e.g. Battle of Smolensk in 1812 (which was itself uncommonly bloody, but both sides suffered heavily compared to the lopsided casualties in the three battles above).
    – Allure
    Jan 7, 2021 at 23:41
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    Giving examples themselves are not proof 1) generality is debatable, 2) we cannot compare the numbers to the alternatives. Armies often run when standing is hopeless, too. Just because the enemy prefers to hunt down helpless people, it doesn’t mean a last stand wouldn’t have been suicide, too.
    – Greg
    Jan 8, 2021 at 6:39
  • There's a distinction between personal safety and collective safety. It's quite possible that the first guy to flee the Battle of Issus got away just fine, while his braver comrades who held out longer ended up getting slaughtered. Jan 8, 2021 at 13:19
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    @user3153372 If you ignore that once people start running, it tends to start a chain reaction, that is. Don't forget that actual people fighting battles don't see everything from a nice bird's-eye view we get in RTS games :)
    – Luaan
    Jan 8, 2021 at 18:00

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