A story I remember my mom telling me when I was a kid was about a Spartan boy and a fox. I pretty much believed it word for word and could only think how brave (and later how stupid) that boy was.
The story goes like this:
"In the case of another boy, when the time had arrived during which it was the custom for the free boys to steal whatever they could, and it was a disgrace not to escape being found out, when the boys with him had stolen a young fox alive, and given it to him to keep, and those who had lost the fox came in search for it, the boy happened to have slipped the fox under his garment. The beast, however, became savage and ate through his side to the vitals; but the boy did not move or cry out, so as to avoid being exposed, and left, when they had departed, the boys saw what had happened, and blamed him, saying that it would have been better to let the fox be seen than to hide it even unto death; but the boy said, 'Not so, but better to die without yielding to the pain than through being detected because of weakness of spirit to gain a life to be lived in disgrace.'" – Plutarch, Moralia circa 100 AD
"The boys make such a serious matter of their stealing, that one of them, as the story goes, who was carrying concealed under his cloak a young fox which he had stolen, suffered the animal to tear out his bowels with its teeth and claws, and died rather than have his theft detected. And even this story gains credence from what their youths now endure, many of whom I have seen expiring under the lash at the altar of Artemis Orthia." – Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus from The Parallel Lives circa 100 AD
Plutarch was the earliest reference to the story I could find and he lived several centuries after the story originated. I'm sure the tale circulated with other sources and by word of mouth, but to my knowledge none are still extant.
How much of this was myth and is there a kernel of truth in there?
The kernel of truth:
When Spartan boys joined the agōgē at the age of seven, they were kept on short rations and expected to steal what else they might need. At first, this sounds not only harsh but also encourages thievery. But as might be expected of the Spartans, that wasn't what they were trying to teach.
As an army that paid little concern to logistics, preferring to live off the land, Sparta expected the warriors to be able to forage and take what they needed from the conquered peoples. They also wanted first-in scouts to be undetectable so stealth was prized. As with their marriage customs, the expectation that the children would feed themselves through theft encouraged stealth. As did the beatings the boys earned if they were caught at it.
The floggings at the altar of Artemis Orthia are discussed in a previous post. But by Plutarch's time, the rite of passage had become such a popular blood spectacle that an amphitheater was built to accommodate the spectators. Youths (boys and young men) were beaten until they bled and it wasn't uncommon for them to die. The deaths could have been prevented if the youths had chosen disgrace and walked away. But they would have lost their status as Spartiates if they had made that decision. So they were more than capable of accepting death before disgrace. A concept that modern peoples have some difficulty with, but was not unheard of then.
Syn tai e epi tai! With it or on it! The parting words of the Spartan women when their men went to war. In other words, the warrior should return with his shield, showing he hadn't thrown it down to run from the fight. Or on it, as his body was borne home.
With this kind of ingrained training and expectations of honor vs disgrace, what choice did the Spartan boy have?
The myth? You will have to decide that for yourself.
My take on it? Propaganda for sure. But very likely with a basis in fact. The Spartans weren't known for lying or making up stories. Laconic derives from their practice of saying only what needed to be said.
Embellished over the centuries? Undoubtedly, but not by the Spartans.