Mary Renault in her 1956 novel of the Peloponnesian War, The Last of the Wine, has her Athenian hero comment:
Spartans are the best thieves in the world. They keep their boys always half-fed, so that they can never have a belly-full without stealing; this is so that they will learn to live off the country. They get a thrashing if anyone sees them at it. There is a well known story about this, not the least remarkable part of which, to my mind, is that the boy was hungry enough to have intended eating a fox.
Thank you, Mary Renault, for drawing our attention to this absurdity, which other authors pass over as if it needed no elaboration. The first time I came across the tale to which her hero alludes, I wondered, Why on earth would anyone steal a fox? Here’s how Plutarch tells it, in his life of Lycurgus, the lawgiver of the Spartans:
So seriously did the Lacedaemonian children go about their stealing, that a youth, having stolen a young fox and hid it under his coat, suffered it to tear out his very bowels with its teeth and claws and died upon the place, rather than let it be seen.
That’s the 1683 translation of John Dryden, from my big Modern Library edition of The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. The Loeb Classical Library translation of 1914 is also available online, and the (modern) editor has added the skeptical footnote:
Umm, not to rain on anyone’s parade, but who steals foxes, and why? (Come to think of it, who would have one that one might steal it from them? Although there will always be someone to believe that foxes were kept as pets, CJ 44:305.)
…With the link going to a 1947 article in the Classical Journal called “Greek and Roman Household Pets” in which the author, on the authority of Plutarch’s tale, includes foxes among those pets “which appealed to the more eclectic tastes” of the ancients.
So did the boy steal the fox to eat it, or to play with it – or merely from an engrained Lacedaemonian habit of larceny? Plutarch gives a quite different, inferior, and no more enlightening version of the story in his Remarkable Sayings of the Spartans (in the 1878 translation of William Goodwin):
Another boy, at the time when freemen’s sons are allowed to steal what they can and it is a disgrace to be discovered, when some of his companions had stolen a young fox and delivered it to him, and the owners came to search, hid it under his gown; and though the angry little beast bit through his side to his very guts, he endured it quietly, that he might not be discovered. When the searchers were gone and the boys saw what had happened, they chid him roundly, saying, It had been better to produce the fox, than thus to conceal him by losing your own life; No, no! he replied, it is much better to die in torments, than to let my softness betray me and suffer a life that had been scandalous.
Since neither version explains what the boy intended to do with the fox, we must deduce that whatever it was, Plutarch didn’t think it interesting enough to comment on. So perhaps Renault is being anachronistic in having her hero remark on what must have been unremarkable to a Greek of his time.
The story of the Spartan and the fox comes up from time to time as a metaphor for suffering in silence, but the expression is uncommon enough that I can find only a smattering of examples online. I could have sworn I saw it used in Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, which I read recently; but now, using Amazon’s “Search Inside” feature, I’m unable to locate it.
As it happens, one of the few hits on Google Books is in the fourth issue of The Living Age, from June, 1844:
All this Lord Brougham bore as the Spartan boy bore the gnawing of the stolen fox at his breast.
That periodical lasted into the 1940s and is commonly known as Littell’s Living Age, from its founding editor Eliakim Littell. An ancestor of Jonathan, or just a Littell coincidence?