Girls and boys of Sparta during the ‘agoge’ in a Western European artwork.
The Spartan or Laconian ‘agoge’ (socio-military education and training) had been formed at the end of the Archaic period (7th cent – 479 BC). The Spartan/Lacedaemonian tradition claims that this system of civic and military education was contrived by the famous Spartan statesman Lycurgos. In fact, Lycurgos established in the 8th century an early form of the agoge, which went through various phases of development and improvement to get its final classic form. The Spartan education had much in common with that of several Doric/Dorian city-states of Crete. Apart from their common Doric origins, some Cretan cities were Spartan colonies and it is generally considered that there was regular interaction between the two regions, Laconia and Crete.
For a predominantly militaristic state as it was the Spartan state, military training was particularly important. If the young Spartan did not manage to go through its stages, he could not enter the social class of the ‘omoioi’ (meaning ‘akin’, and in the case of Sparta meaning the ‘equals’) who were the Spartan full citizens, and he could not participate in the ‘Apella’, the Spartan House of Citizens (parliament). Additionally, later in his life, he could not be a member of the ‘Gerousia’ (Spartan Senate) and could not be elected as one of the five ‘Ephoroi’ (Curators). This extremely hard training that reached the limits of human endurance since the childhood of a Spartan, has been the subject of criticism, positive and negative, already from the ancient times.
Aristotle in his “Politics” criticizes the Spartans for their educational system, believing that they treat their children like animals because of the brutal and hard training in which they put them to. But we should not forget that Aristotle was an Athenian citizen (and born in the Ionian colonies of the Northern Aegean). On the contrary Xenophon, an Athenian by birth, pointed out the virtues that the laws and the educational system of Lycurgos ensured for the Spartans. The admiration of Xenophon to the Spartans/Lacedaemonians brought about his rejection by many of his fellow countrymen.
Every healthy son of Spartan parents had to go through the phases/stages of the ‘agoge’. The agoge effectively began since the pregnancy of his mother. The Spartan women (also since their childhood) lived a hard life of physical exercises, deprivation and continuing education, comparable to the life of the male Spartans. This fact, in addition to the benefits it had for the women themselves, ensured the birth of healthy and robust children who would become either the fearless warriors of the city, or the dynamic Spartan women who “ruled over their men” as the other Greeks were mentioning. The education and training was mandatory for boys and girls alike. The unmarried Spartan women had to run in races, fight in the palaestra, take part in the chariot races and compete in throwing the disc and the javelin. Aristophanes in his comedy ‘Lysistrata’, exhibited a Spartan woman so physically strong that Lysistrata (the central character) amazed by her muscles, said to her: “What a strong and iron body, what a beauty! You could strangle a bull!”
Returning to the education of men, the parents raised the little boy in order not to be afraid of the dark and loneliness, and to get used in cold and in poor and rough food. At the age of five or six years old, the boy left his home and installed himself in the barracks in order to begin his military training. Since this moment, the boy no longer belonged to his family, but to the state. His father was not considered to be only the physical one, but all the citizens who bore the responsibility for his training.
Xenophon mentions the basics of Spartan education/training: hardship, drill, discipline, modesty, loyalty and bravery. The Spartan ‘agoge’ also provided to the students/trainees, the virtues of circumspection, prudence, moderation and stability of character. The ‘paidonomos’ was responsible for the course of the education of the boys and the adolescents. The paidonomos was a Spartan citizen with great experience in these matters. If one of the students did not respect the rules of the agoge, he was captured by the watchful eye of the paidonomos and suffered severe punishment. This cruel punishment was executed by teen flagellators receiving commands from the paidonomos. The punishment was carried out with relentless and disciplined manner. If the paidonomos could not perform his duties for any reason, his role was assumed by any citizen who was present in the barracks or wherever the ‘agoge’ was taking place. If no man was present, the ablest student was considered as the leader of the group of trainees.
An exact reconstruction of a Boeotian bronze helmet, typical for ancient Greek and Italian cavalrymen (British Historical Society Comitatus). Since the Classical period, Sparta had a significant cavalry corps.
The first stage of the ‘agoge’ lasted six years. At this stage the boys learned the “pyrrhiche” a special dance during which they danced bearing their arms and armor, in order to train to be nimble carrying their military equipment. They memorized the patriotic poems of the Spartan poets Tyrtaeos and Alkman (which they would sing later in their campaigns as hoplites) and they were enlisted in the ‘agelae’ or ‘vouae’ i.e. training groups of peers. The leader of each group was called ‘vouagos’. The purpose of these training groups was to promote team spirit and simultaneously stir the rivalry and competition among the students/trainees. The group became their new family, in which they were taught discipline and camaraderie. Simultaneously they were taught reading and writing while taking part in competitions of music, dance as well as sports.
The educational element of hardship was particularly important because it made the Spartan hoplite unfightable in war. This hardship gave Sparta more victories other than her military ones: victories in sport events. In the Greek sacred games (Olympic Games, Isthmian Games etc.), the Spartans were most successful because of their ‘agoge’.
The boys were permanently shoeless, wearing only a thin cloth in all seasons. Thus they learned to resist and defy the bad weather conditions. Their food was poor and never enough, in order to be reduced to stealing the necessary food from the state garners, allocated informally as “targets”. If they were caught stealing food they were severely punished, not because they stole it but because they were perceived. Their offense was not theft but their failure of the proper use of everything that they were taught about their survival, especially when in the future they would have to campaign in the territory of the enemy. According to Xenophon, every group of young Spartans who had to steal food (in fact all of them), had to use tricks that they would invent themselves and carry out the attempt very carefully. In overall, the purpose of the poor food was to get the boys used to hunger if they failed in stealing more food from the state garners.
The special body and hair care was forbidden, especially the baths with hot water which were allowed only on special occasions and holidays, for example in the celebration of the ‘gymnopaidiae’. The reeds from the banks of the Eurotas (the main Laconian river) were used as material for the manufacture of hard mats by the boys, on which they were sleeping. They broke the tops of these reeds using their bare hands rather than using knives. The purpose of this job was the strengthening of their hands. The hard reed mat was suitable for the indurationof the torso.
Spartan hoplites c.600 BC
In the age of 11 to 12 years old, the boy began the second stage of his education. The boy was now a ‘meirakion’ (teenager). He cut his hair short and started his main military education/training. The physical exercises were increased. The teens were taught how to use various weapons and took part in marches, patrols, ambushes and mock battles. They were trained in wrestling and other exercises relating to warfare. Special attention was given in some details, e.g. to climb with ease on hill slopes and descend safely from them. The induration of their feet due to the fact that they were permanently shoeless, really helped them in this hard exercise. Such special exercises gave them incomparable advantage on the battlefield against other Greek or non-Greek warriors.
Each teenager was under the supervision of an adult who was responsible for his development and progress. The aforementioned ‘paidonomos’ was also responsible for the physical and martial exercises of the teens. In Sparta there were no institution offices such as the ‘gymnastes’ and the ‘paidotrives’ which applied to the public gyms of Athens, but the gym was also public. Plutarch mentions that private gyms were prohibited at Sparta as well as the assumption of the training of young Spartans by private trainers. This restriction ensured the uniformity of training and above all its proper implementation.
CONTINUE READING IN PART II