The Spartan education system is believed to have been created by Lycurgus around 669BC, after the Argives defeated the Spartans. At this time Lycurgus recognized the necessity for a stronger Spartan society and therefore created the Agoge, a seven-stage education system that was designed to make the citizens of Sparta courageous, obedient to authority, loyal and patrioticand both physically and psychologically strong so that Sparta could become the most powerful city-state.1
The Agoge was composed of Lycurgus own ideas and elements of Cretan society with the whole education system possessing a state oriented ideology, with both men and women undergoing unique militaristic type training for the majority of their lives so that they would develop skills that would benefit the Spartan polis.
The Education of Spartan Males
The Agoge started ten days after a child was born, when a council of elders known as the Gerousia, would inspect the child. If the child was found to be weak and/or deformed it was taken into the Taygetus mountain range where the child would be left to die in a chasm known as the Apothetae, where the Greek gods would decide on the Childs fate. These people were viewed as weak and as a burden on Spartan society and as people who could be of no benefit to the state, so to keep the city strong they were killed. The children that were judged as being healthy were bathed in wine to make them strong.
“Whenever a child was born, it was taken to a council of elders for examination. If the baby was in any way defective, the elders dropped it into a chasm. Such a child, in the opinion of the Spartans, should not be permitted to live. Newborn children were washed with wine so they would be strong.”2 Until the age of seven the child was permitted to live at home under strict discipline. Here, with the help of a helot nurse, the Spartan parents taught the child basic life skills as well as lessons of obedience and loyalty.3 These lessons of obedience and loyalty were usually taught through the work of the Greek poet Homer, whose works were made essential reading for all Spartan children by Lycurgus because of the tales of statecraft and morality that were found in the great epics. The works of Homer were also taught in Athens, for nearly the same reason.
The parents would also teach the children to tolerate emotions such as fear and disgust, by removing everything from around the child and by leaving it in darkness. 4 This allowed the child to develop the ability to remain objective and focused despite the situation so that they could do their duty later on in all areas of life.
While at home the parents also made sure that the child developed the correct manners, such as respecting your superiors and those older than you, manners for which Spartan youth were renowned. The concept of keeping the child home until the age of seven was one that the Spartans shared with the Athenians, although in Athens the children were taught reading and writing, with less emphasis on obedience and loyalty to the state, as the Athenians were aiming to produce citizens skilled in the arts such as poetry and public speaking, and not warfare.5
At the age of seven the boys left home and moved into military like barracks with a group of boys their own age known as an agelai (Herd of boys), which was similar to an army unit.6 The boys would remain in this agelai until they completed their training, and usually at the completion of the Agoge the agelai would be converted into a military unit due to the camaraderie that would have developed among the young men.
The agelai’s were supervised by an eirene, a boy aged between 18-24 who was still undergoing the Agoge. The agelai’s and the eirenes that supervised them were commanded by the Paidonomos, a state official that was usually a member of the assembly or the Gerousia, with some ephors even having taken on this role.
Within these agelai’s homosexuality was not uncommon amongst the young boys and the eirenes, with Lycurgus even encouraging the action if it was seen that the man truly loved the boy, and was not simply based upon some physical attraction. It was believed that this created a stronger bond amongst the men, so that in combat the men would fight harder than they normally would, as they would have loved ones standing beside them in combat.
“Given that some one, himself being all that a man ought to be, should in admiration of a boy's soul endeavour to discover in him a true friend without reproach, and to consort with him--this was a relationship which Lycurgus commended, and indeed regarded as the noblest type of bringing up. But if, as was evident, it was not an attachment to the soul, but a yearning merely towards the body, he stamped this thing as foul and horrible”7 Until the age of ten the boys were drilled in gymnastics, running, jumping, and spear and discus throwing, primarily to increase their body strength.8 The eirenes ensured obedience by whipping any boy that misbehaved.9
The boys were taught to read and write under strict military discipline, and to speak in a laconic manner, that is speaking straight to the point after observing a long silence so that the words would have a major effect. This was part of Lycurgus belief that being surrounded by luxuries poisoned men, and was developed as Lycurgus counted words as a luxury, so he wished to limit the amount that a man used. This manner of speaking was renowned throughout the Greek world, with the Athenians even collecting “Laconic expressions”, one example being Lycurgus’ response to a man who suggested that a wall should be constructed around Sparta, “A wall of men, instead of bricks, is best”. This manner of speaking was very different from the Athenians, who practiced rhetoric and were known for their long and powerful speeches.
The boys were only allowed to wear one piece of state issued cloth all year round, so that they learned to endure the conditions of all the seasons, so that when on campaign they would be able to endure any weather conditions. The children were made to bath in the cold waters of the Eurotas river, were not permitted to wear shoes so that the soles of their feet would become hard and would be more able to withstand rough terrain, long march’s and climbs and had to sleep on the coarse straws and reed that they plucked from the banks of the Eurotas river with their hands.
“No shoes, no underwear, and no additional clothes were permitted -- even in winter. They slept in their military groups, on reeds they plucked at the river with their own hands. ”10 The only thing that they were issued to eat was Melanos Zomos, a black broth that was issued in small quantities to make the boys learn to go hungry so that on campaign they would be more able to survive if food was in short supply. This was also an attempt to help the boys go without luxuries, as the Spartan attitude was that luxuries were not necessary in society and that the lives of people should be devoted to the state, and not to personal indulgences.
At the age of ten the boys were taught music and dancing and took part in public competitions, with these two items appearing to have been very important in Spartan society.11
This stage of the Spartan education system differed to its Athenian counterpart as in Athens from 6-14 years a boy attended a neighborhood school, similar to today’s primary level, where he was taught drama, public speaking, government, art, reading, writing and math.
At the age of twelve until the age of eighteen a Spartan male began training as an army cadet. The athletic and gymnastics type activities continued but military type activities such as javelin and sparring were practiced more often, with the boys also being taught the theoretical side of warfare such as the phalanx strategy.
During this stage the boys were also encouraged to steal food from nearby farms to supplement their meager diets and if caught were severely whipped, not for stealing, but because they had allowed themselves to be caught.
“What they were given to eat was never enough, so to keep from going hungry they were forced to plan ingenious schemes to steal food. If they got caught, they got a severe whipping -- not for the moral wrong of stealing, but for the military sin of not being careful enough to avoid capture.”12 This stealing taught the boys to be self sufficient and to move stealthily, so that in a battle they would be more difficult to capture and so that the boys would be more prepared for infiltration assignments.13 Most historians now agree that stealing did not occur throughout the entire training of young boys, but was specifically encouraged during this stage to develop the skills necessary for survival and combat behind enemy lines.14
Every year the skill and agility of the boys would be assessed in the Artemis Orthia festival, where the boys had to snatch cheese from an altar without being caught; those that were caught were severely whipped and chastised by their peers.15 Boys from this stage of the Agoge were sometimes enlisted in the Krypteia. These boys were armed with a dagger and wandered the countryside murdering any helot that the Spartans suspected might start a revolt. Plato believed that this was part of their military training and was designed to assess their ability to move stealthily, while also performing a duty for the state at the same time, as it kept the helots under control by reminding them that the Spartiates were in control and were their superiors. 16
At eighteen some of the boys would enroll as an eirene, the overseer of an agelai. These men were, according to Plutarch the boy’s leaders in battle, and absolute master at home.17 The Paidonomos and a small group of men oversaw those men in the more mature agelai’s that had become eirenes of the new agelai’s of boys. These older men rebuked the eirenes for being too harsh or too lenient in their punishments in an endeavor to make the young men learn to discipline their subordinates effectively so that they could learn how to command.18 At this stage the boys that were eighteen and over could serve in the military as adjutants, clerks, supply carriers and officers and message runners but they were not yet eligible for frontline service. Those boys that were not on military detachment were drilled in a huge school modeled on the army to prepare them for the time when they would be on frontline duty.19
At this stage the Athenian male would only have just begun his military training, which lasted only two years after the completion of the secondary education level, while their Spartan counterparts had been training for nearly six years, giving the Spartan hoplites an advantage in battle as they possessed more training.20
At the age of twenty the men became eligible to marry, but they still had to live in the barracks. Any trips that a man made to see his wife were made in secret, with the boy being taught that it was socially unacceptable for a man to be seen entering or leaving a room that his wife was in. This helped to refine a mans stealth skills and served to limit the number of visits made to the wife, ensuring that any children were born from an act of ‘marital bliss’.21
At twenty-four a man became eligible for frontline combat. Three hundred men were picked annually from each group of young men that had become eligible for frontline combat, and the ranks of the Spartan army, to become part of an elite corps of knights. This gave the men a reason to excel in the Agoge so that the honor of selection would be theirs. To gain access to this elite group each mans military ability and leadership skills were assessed by three men who each picked one hundred people for the corps, with those from the agelai’s who failed the tests not receiving citizenship and becoming a Perioikoi.22
At this stage the men also joined a dining mess, or syssitia. Each syssitia was composed of fifteen men that ate and slept together, with each man making a monthly contribution of food and wine from his kleros.
“The most effective measure against the love of money was Lycurgus' law that all meals had to be eaten together at public mess-halls. Everyone ate the same thing, so money could not buy dainty food… The public mess halls were divided into tables of fifteen men. Each man was required to bring a quota of food and wine every month.” 23 The syssitia helped the men to refine their social skills, and to practice the correct use of manners that had been taught to them from a young age, manners that had made the Spartan boys admired by not only the Greeks, but the rest of the ancient world.
“The manners of Spartan youth were universally admired in the ancient world and comparisons were often drawn to the rude, impudent youth of other cities. One anecdote describes an old man looking for a seat at the Olympic games. As he stumbled about from one section to the other, the spectators laughed him at. But when he came to the Spartan section, all the Spartans stood to offer him their places - and there was universal applause. The moral drawn by the commentator was: you see, all Greeks know how we ought to behave, but only the Spartans act on it.” 24 The syssitia put a restraint on indecent actions such as bad language, conduct or drunkenness. The messes also ensured that the men learnt that money was not everything, as in the messes all men, both rich and poor, were equal and ate the same food.
Access was gained through a democratic process, where members of the syssitia voted by secret ballot. Balls of dough would be placed in a jar, with disapproval being signified by a squashed ball, one flat ball prevented admittance.25
Upon reaching the age of thirty a Spartan male received full citizenship. Many males who had surpassed their thirtieth year withdrew from military service, but all male citizens of Sparta could be called up for service until they reached the age of sixty.26 These men were only called up for service if it was believed that they could withstand the fatigues of campaigning like a young man. At this age Spartan men would establish a household, and would begin to live with their wives.
While not on campaign the men engaged in activities hunting to keep their skills sharp, with Lycurgus believing that hunting was the “most noble occupation” for a man that was not fighting. 27 This kept the men ready, should they ever be called up for service.
Upon achieving full citizenship most men that were still not on campaign entered the political realm and entered the assembly, or the Gerousia once they passed sixty.
From the assembly a man could stand for a position as Ephor, an office that slowly grew to hold more power than the kings.
The education of Spartan women aimed to ensure that they develop strong and healthy bodies so that their offspring would be strong and healthy. The program that Spartan girls underwent was rigorous and physically taxing like the male system, but differed in the respect that the stages to it were not as rigid and identifiable.28
Up until the age of seven Spartan women, like the males, lived at home where they were taught basic literacy skills along with obedience and loyalty to the Spartan state. They were taught that the state was all-important and that their interests should be curbed to serve Sparta.29 The Athenian system of educating women was very different to the Spartan system as their education took place at home, with the women rarely being allowed out doors. Here their father, mother or a male slave taught them weaving, household chores, dancing, music, physical education, grammar, rhetoric and dialectic.30
At the age of seven the girls were assigned to sisterhood barracks where they were organized into bands. Up until the age of twelve the women were drilled in discus, running, wrestling, javelin and other ball games.31 At times the women were known to exercise with the men, particularly in wrestling, with some historians speculating that this was designed to produce a rivalry between the two sexes so that both men and women would train their hardest in order to emerge victorious the next time that they met.32
“ At times they exercised with the boys, and they participated in most sports running, wrestling, throwing the javelin and discus and ball games” 33
From the age of 12-18 the women’s basic literacy skills that had been taught to them by their parents were expanded upon. All Spartan women were literate, even more so than the Spartan men, resulting in the Spartan literacy rate exceeding that of any other Greek city-state of the time.34 During this period women were also taught to sing and dance, with these songs and dances being performed in the city’s choral contests. The women had to perform naked in front of the men so that they would become brave and so that they would not become weak or fat as this would dishonor them in the public eye. The songs that they were taught and that they sang were fiercely patriotic and sharpened the men’s love of glory and fear of shame.35 The women were still drilled in discus, running, wrestling, javelin and ball games, but at this stage their main form of exercise was bibasis, or ‘rump jumps’, where a women would jump and attempt to touch her buttocks with the heel of her foot.36
“Girls were required to run and exercise so that their babies would grow in strong and healthy mothers. To make them brave, Lycurgus ordered that occasionally the girls had to dance and sing naked in front of all the young men. Therefore the girls were ashamed to be fat or weak, and they were happy to display their beauty to such an appreciative audience. In their songs, the girls praised the men who were brave and strong, and they made fun of those who were weak and cowardly, so they sharpened the men's love of glory and fear of shame. Thus the women of Sparta got a taste of higher feelings, being in this way admitted to the field of action.”37 At 18 years of age a Spartan women would undergo her skills and fitness test. If she passed she would have completed her education and had one not already been found, she would be assigned a husband if one and permitted to return home to her parents, as until the couple had been married for ten years, they could not live together.38 Unlike Athenian women of the period, Spartan women enjoyed a large degree of freedom and were permitted to leave the house and go to places such as the agora.39 If the Spartan woman failed her test, or failed later on in her duties as a wife, she would lose her rights as a citizen and would become a Perioikoi.40
Plutarch; Lycurgus, the Father of Sparta; http://www.e-classics.com/lycurgus.htm