The Role of the Spartan Education System Essay

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The Role of the Spartan Education System

The Spartiate was considered a fierce and brutal warrior, excellent in physique, un-yielding in dedication, unmatched in combat, and constantly wiling to die for Sparta. This ideal warrior was created almost forcefully through the “physical, social and moral education” system, the agoge.

Spartan education began soon after birth, where babies were inspected by Ephors and cast onto the slopes of Mt Taygetus if the Spartan health standards were not met. Boys were raised by their mothers until the age of seven, at which point they entered the agoge.

Within the barracks they immediately joined an agelai, or herd of boys. Here they learnt military and basic reading and writing skills. They were taught obedience and how to fend for themselves, share responsibilities and bond with each other. At ten they were taught music, dancing and athletics . These were integral in establishing agility and response and obedience to orders in battle, which were dictated using musical instruments. Spartans would have sung lyrics like “it is fine to die in the front line” . Along with laconic phrases like “Chilly willy!” or “True manly qualities” these formed an almost propaganda-like method of education that forced Spartan ideas like the nobility of death or the masculinity of rejecting delicacies into the subject’s mind.

From twelve to eighteen they learnt games of endurance and skill. They were further disciplined by “cutting their hair short . . . walking barefoot and . . . playing naked” . Their tunics were replaced with a single cloak, which they received each year, and their rations limited. This encouraged theft, which was a display of speed, skill, and stealth. Capture, however, was seen as failure, and severe beatings ensued. We recall the famous tale of a young boy who had stolen a fox cub and hidden it under his cloak. Rather than reveal the cub and admit to thievery, he kept it hidden while it clawed at his stomach until death. This would have been seen as perfect example of Spartan dedication and obedience, but also shows the fear and brutality felt during the agoge.

Boys also had to make their own beds from thae “tips of reeds growing along the river Eurotus, broken off by hand without . . . any iron blade” . This taught Spartan boys that pain and hardship must be endured if comfort or leisure were to be enjoyed. They also took part in violent ball games, with the only objective to hold the ball at the game’s conclusion; “this could be achieved by any method.” Common technique included “kicking, biting and eye-gouging”.

Spartan boys also loosened their bonds with their biological parents, and were encouraged to “consider all Spartans of their father’s age to be in loco parentis” , (i.e. in the role of a parent. Cartledge speaks of the “institution of ritualised pederasty” in which twelve year olds are given a “young adult . . . lover”. He acknowledges however that this relationship was not strictly sexual, and notes the story of a youth who cries out in a “regular brutally physical” contest. The punishment then falls on the boy’s lover, “for having failed to educate his beloved properly.” This indicates that in addition to drilling, athletics and other exercises, boys received private education by older males, and that this was a rather significant role.

Some rituals and festivals were also linked clearly with Spartan education. A particular ritual took place at the festival of the goddess Artemis Ortheia. Here, older boys had to “snatch as many cheeses as possible” from the steps of the goddess’ altar while running a “gauntlet of guards with whips, who were instructed to use them as hard as they could. Some youths died as a result” . Although mostly ritualistic, Plutarch says that this demonstrated that the joys of high status justified short amounts of pain. The agoge was also closely related with The Gymnopaediae and The Karneia, festivals that involved dancing, gymnastics, and athletics.

The agoge was watched over by the Paidonomos or warden, who was appointed by the Ephorate. This man assigned those youths who were to reprimand younger boys and selected exemplary eirenes as members of the krypteia .

At eighteen the young men began training as eirens or cadets. They probably could not fight as front-line soldiers, but might have been able to serve in
the army. Eirenes acted as role models and prefects, carrying whips and administering punishments when necessary. This continued the legacy what Plato called education “not by persuasion but by violence” . The training of the young men moved to a large school, where they were drilled by older youths in a martial style. They were also expected to marry soon, but contact with wives was restricted to secret meetings.

This could be seen as the turning point of the young man’s life, as their amount of dedication to harsh military training could dictate whether they gained membership in a particular syssitia or even the krypteia.

Education was not limited to boys, and although girls did not have to endure the agoge, they did join ‘herds’ and receive rigorous physical training. The ‘bibasis’ exercise, which saw girls jumping up and down and touching their heels to their buttocks, was particularly arduous. The girls were also involved in sports like “running, wrestling, throwing the javelin and discus, and ball games.” The entire premise of the education of girls was to create physically and emotionally mature women who would act as fine mothers and child bearers for a generation of strong warriors. It was, in essence, eugenics.

THE SYSSITIAIn order to progress through the agoge, Spartan boys had to endure and pass certain stages. If these were not passed, one could not be considered a full Spartiate Citizen. Admission into the syssitia or common mess was one of the latter stages and took place during training as eirenes. Members would eat meals with and train alongside their fellow members, of which they were around fifteen. Cartledge tells us that some messes were more elite and restricted than others, with the most exclusive being the royal syssitia, which housed the two kings.

When applying for a syssitia, each member had to approve of the applicant. If but one disapproved, “the suitor was rejected, so desirous were they that all the members should be agreeable to each other” . This suggests that all relationships within the close-knit syssitia were expected to be strong. Herodotus shows that close relationship within the syssitia incited “bravery and a keener sense of shame” during battle. After all, it was expected that your shield defended not only yourself in battle, but also your closest friends.

Seeing as the syssitia was made up of members of varying ages and wealth, younger men were able to learn from the elders, and age barriers were removed. Due to the communal spirit of the syssitia, indecency or drunkenness were discouraged.

Training and education did not stop when a Spartiate entered a syssitia. If anything, their physical training became all the more rigorous. Men trained together and perfected their bodies and were expected to watch over and teach boys and younger men. Between the ages twenty-three and thirty, men were full-time soldiers and so focused their lives almost entirely on reaching the ideal.

Even leisure was a form of training, with hunting developing “ancillary military skills” and stealth, and chariot races encouraging strong competition and athletic prowess. Education was also still drilled into soldiers almost sub-consciously. For example, “No torches were permitted when passing to and from the mess to dine” , which was meant to adjust Spartans to moving with stealth in darkness. We can see that education was involved with every facet of Spartan life, and strove to maintain ‘Eunomia’ and perfection.

THE KRYPTEIAThe krypteia were the secret police of Sparta. It is widely held that their main role was the subjugation of helots, specifically by removing those who showed signs of charisma, strength, intelligence or any other qualities considered to be unfitting for their social standing. Some sources, such as Plato, suggest that the krypteia was actually a part of training , the final rite of passage for those Spartans who met the ideal image of the warrior.

It is thought that the chosen Spartans, armed with nothing but a dagger, were sent into the wilderness during the night, where they would fend for themselves and find their own food and shelter. They would then murder any helot they could find, or at least those who showed ‘excessive’ qualities.

Although our information on the krypteia is limited, both theories are plausible, and do not necessarily contradict each other.

ADVANTAGES OF THE AGOGE•Established and encourage strong relationships within and between age groups.

•Created strong senses of obedience, dedication, courage, and loyalty.

•Created warriors of the utmost physical health and ferocity who could respond easily to orders.

•Maintained a good sense of order and stability.

•Education for all Spartans, regardless of wealth, was ensured.

DISADVANTAGES OF THE AGOGE•Emphasised previously effective fighting methods and narrow focus rather than tactical innovation and forward thinking. This produced an inability to cope with change, a vital flaw that led to major defeats such as Leuktra in 371 BC and ultimately the downfall of Spartan society•Brutal punishments, games and rituals often resulted in serious injury and death.

•Created an extremely violent way of life and encouraged patriotism to the point of what we would call aggressive nationalism.

•Discouraged independence and individuality.

•Placed most emphasis on physical perfection and relatively ignored other realms such as the arts or philosophy, creating a culturally stagnant nation. Alcman’s poetry may argue against this though.


HSC Online Ancient History Ancient Sparta
Notes: source was effective as it gave a range of information, particularly about life in the agoge and training of girls. It also had many useful references to ancient sources such as Plutarch. The only drawback is that it seems to gain most of its information from Plutarch, meaning that a wider range of sources may have made it more reliable.

•Spartan Society, P.MedcarfThis was very useful as it contains extensive information on the details of the agoge, syssitia, krypteia, and laconic phrases, with strong references to Plutarch and Xenophon. The table “The life and training of Spartan boys” was very useful as it gave a brief overview of the education system in a clear manner.

•Wikipedia: not too reliable due to the editing nature of Wikipedia, I did find a few useful quotes from Plutarch and Herodotus. This is good to read just to get a firmer grip on the topic.

•Unit 6: Creating the Citizens of Sparta, Spartan Society, Kathryn WelchInformation provided here was solid, but didn’t seem as extensive or specific as Medcarf’s analysis. It did give information on the paidonomos and the relation between the boy in training, the surrounding community and his family.

•Chapter One, The Spartans, Paul CartledgeThis offered some new information on the syssitia and “ritualised pederasty”. It must be noted however that Cartledge virtually speaks of encouragement towards homosexuality, whereas Xenophon refers to an “affection” for youth and the relationship with and teaching of a boy by man as an “excellent kind of education”.

•Sparta, BradleyThis provided some clear information on the syssitia and the central disadvantage of the agoge and helped to back up information on the education of girls, eirenes and competitive games.

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