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The Spartan education system
What was Sparta?
Sparta was an austere, military driven society based in Greece that rose reached the height of its power after defeating rival city-state Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). In antiquity the city-state was known as Lacedaemon, while the name Sparta referred to its main settlement on the banks of the Eurotas River in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnese.
Territory of ancient Sparta
What was the agoge?
The agoge was the state driven education system within Spartan society, which required mandatory participation from males. The agoge taught Spartan males to steal, hunt, dance, sing, military training, how to communicate, stealth and embedded loyalty to the state.
Lambda was used by the Spartan army as a symbol of Lacedaemon
What was the aim of Sparta's education system? (known as the agoge)
The agoge was directed to raising socially etiquette men into becoming the ideal military soldier. For instance, the idea of an older man being the lover of a younger boy allowed the younger male to learn and develop into the ideal fighter, preparing for the initiation taken place when the child turns sixteen. This strengthens the bond males have with other male comrades giving the ‘strong’ higher survival rates within the military. This was designed to create fierce warriors as well as embed social ideals of patriotism, loyalty, obedience and comradeship.
Ruins of ancient Sparta, Greece.
An outline of the Agoge's class systems
- ten days after birth, male children were examined by a council of elders to determine whether they would live or be exposed
Up to seven years old:
- under the supervision of their mother
Eight to eleven years (the ‘little boy’): In the care of the state:
- 8 yrs - robidas (meaning not known)
- 9 yrs promikizomenos (very little boy)
- 10 yrs - mikichizomenos (little boy):
- they learnt music, dancing, athletics
- 11 yrs - propais (on the way to adolescent):
- enrolled in an age group and went to live in a military barracks where they learnt military skills as well as reading and writing
- they learnt to fend for themselves, obey orders, share responsibilities and get on with others
Portrayal of a Spartan boy being taken into the agoge
Twelve to fifteen years old (the ‘adolescent’ ‘pampais’): continued to live in barracks and undergo military training:
- 12 yrs - protopapas (adolescent, first year)
- 13 yrs - atropampais (adolescent, second year)
- 14 yrs - milliren (almost eiren)
- 15 yrs - milliren (almost eiren)
- they learnt games of endurance and skill and were taught how to steal
- discipline included going barefoot, exercising naked, having short hair, sleeping on beds of rushes
- Their clothing was limited to one garment and they were given minimum rations
Sixteen to twenty years (‘eiren’):
- 16 yrs - eiren
- 17 yrs - eiren
Eighteen to twenty-three years old:
- Enrolled as an eiren, or prefect/overseer - this was a stage similar to the cadet corps
- Able to serve in the army but not in the front line
- able to marry
Twenty-three to thirty years old:
- full-time soldiers
Thirty years Spheeris (ballplayers) - transition to adulthood & the beginning of army service:
- able to live at home although had meals in the barracks
- allowed to grow their hair
The organisation of the agoge
There are three stages that make up the structural system of the agoge are subdivided into age groups. This system begins ten days after birth where males children were examined by the council of elders in order to determine the child’s survival rate and whether to leave the child exposed.
If they are accepted the children until the age of seven would be under the supervision of their parents, taking basic education and motor skills relevant for survival.
From there the child would be taken into the care of the state until the age of twelve, developing military skills, reading, and writing. The child would essentially learn to fend for themselves through, for instance, sleeping on beds of rushes and steal for survival as they were given limited rations.
Kopis, a Spartans' secondary weapon
If caught the child would be punished by enduring lashes, the same punishment applied to disobedience. Games taught to the child would consist of the child becoming barefoot and exercising nude. The child would be forced to keep their hair short and clothing was limited to the garment.
At the age of eighteen to twenty-three, the child would become classed as an eronomoi and be assigned an eiren to form a homosexual relationship. From this point, the eronomoi would be able to serve in the army but however not in the front line and would be able to marry one another.
Young Spartans exercising
At the age of twenty-three to thirty, the young man would be initiated to become a full-time soldier. At the age of thirty, they would become a citizen and soldier, giving them the privileges of full citizenship. This allowed them to live at home, although they would have their meals in barracks and they are allowed to grow their hair.
Essentially, the Spartan boys were organised into agelai (units) which were supervised by 20-year-old youths called proteirai. The agele unit was subdivided into bouai (‘packs’ of six) each one being led by the bouagos (most capable boy, ‘cattle leader’) and each one was led by the most capable boy as its bouagos or ‘cattle leader’.
Actaeon attacked by his hounds
The pederasty and its role
The pederasty was essentially the encouragement of homosexual relationships from a man and an underage male.
For instance, the idea of an older man (erastes) being the lover of a younger boy allowed the younger male (eronomoi) to learn and develop into the ideal fighter, preparing for the initiation taken place when the child turns eighteen.
As introduced by Lycurgus this begins when the eronomous would turn twelve so the adolescent would become encouraged the excel at sports or become courageous and endurant. As if they were family members the eronomoi would associate publicly with erastes in social gatherings.
This strengthened the bond males have with other male comrades encouraging higher survival rates within the military. This was designed to create fierce warriors as well as embed ideals of patriotism, loyalty, obedience and comradeship.
Leonidas at Thermopylae
Academic, social and physical education
Academic education was starkly different to that of other Greek city-states. The Spartans valued music and more essential skills over the philosophy, mathematics, and geometry was not taught as they were viewed as non-essential. Critics of the Spartan time were biased against this education, stating that they were illiterate, having received a ‘lower’ education.
However, there are several pieces of evidence to suggest that Sparta was a literate society, although it was, again, to the level of necessity it needed to be. The Spartans did value musical education, undertaking a practical application more so than music theory. They valued music as they believed that it built a ‘good man’, as in they would become masculine and adopt the true characteristics needed to brave and a strong soldier.
Statue of Leonidas
Physical education was focused on building a boys strength, agility, stamina, and self-reliance. This was done in several ways, such as young men being taught athletic skills in boxing, wrestling, discus throwing and javelin hurling, the last of which would be quite advantageous in battle.
These were taught for the obvious and previously stated reasons, with some more focused on building skills for battle, as in the instance of javelin throwing. At some times, the boys would be left in the wilderness with bare necessities, with the goal of surviving and strengthening stamina and self-reliance.
Do you think you could have survived the agoge?
Youth were also taught dancing, as again, it was believed to build a soldier-like an attitude and stance. For example, the most common and popular dance, the Pyrrhic dance, benefited in two ways as it built athleticism and taught footwork that would aid in being a soldier. Therefore, the physical education was focused heavily on the building of an ideal body for a soldier.
The social education of the Spartan males in the agoge centred on the building of social values. In the agoge, competition, aggression, and obedience are ingrained into students. Students were also encouraged into groups or circles, these ‘cliques’ often engaging in fist fights and living in an atmosphere of competition, similar to ‘survival of the fittest.’
Last stand of the 300 documentary
Not only this, but youth were also given barely enough food to get by, done so as it was urged for the boys to steal and find food for themselves. This was not viewed as necessarily a crime, as when a boy was caught stealing he was not punished for the thievery, rather the fact he was caught.
These sorts of behaviours were encouraged as they were seen to improve cunning, endurance and daring, all of which fed the soldier and military spirit that the Spartan education was centred on.