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Ancient Greek Society: Exploring Sparta's Brutal Education System, 'The Agoge'

Updated on December 9, 2017
Asteriaa profile image

Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Asteriaa writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

Portrayal of a Spartan Boy Being Taken into the Agoge

The picture is from the film 300 directed by Zack Snyder
The picture is from the film 300 directed by Zack Snyder

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.

The Aim of Sparta's Education System

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 strengthened 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.

Leonidas statue

Source

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 male children were under the supervision of their mother.

The time between eight to eleven years old classed young males as the 'little boy' and was in the care of the state. At the age of eight years old they were classed as robidas (meaning not known). At nine years old they were known as promikizomenos (very little boy). At ten years old they were mikichizomenos (little boy) and learnt music, dancing, athletics.

At the age of eleven, they were known as propais (on the way to adolescent). They were 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

Spartan shield

The soldier was expected to return to Sparta either victorious with his shield in hand, or be carried home dead upon his shield. The shield could also be used as a killing weapon outright, its weight and thin edge making it a superb blunt weapon.
The soldier was expected to return to Sparta either victorious with his shield in hand, or be carried home dead upon his shield. The shield could also be used as a killing weapon outright, its weight and thin edge making it a superb blunt weapon. | Source

From twelve to fifteen years old (the ‘adolescent’ ‘pampais’), young Spartan males continued to live in barracks and undergo military training. At twelve they were considered rotopapas (adolescent, first year), atropampais (adolescent, second year) at thirteen, and milliren (almost eiren) at fourteen.

At fifteen years of age they were called milliren (almost eiren). At this age, 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.

From sixteen to twenty years they were considered an eiren.

Sparta's ampitheatre

Conservators working under the auspices of Greece’s Central Archaeological Council are studying how to rehabilitate the ruins of Sparta’s ancient theater
Conservators working under the auspices of Greece’s Central Archaeological Council are studying how to rehabilitate the ruins of Sparta’s ancient theater | Source

Spartan helmet

Spartan soldiers were outfitted in bronze helmets that covered the face and neck. This helmet is on display at the British Museum. The damage at the top of the helmet was probably sustained in an ancient battle.
Spartan soldiers were outfitted in bronze helmets that covered the face and neck. This helmet is on display at the British Museum. The damage at the top of the helmet was probably sustained in an ancient battle. | Source

From eighteen to twenty-three years old, Spartan males are enrolled as an eiren, or prefect/overseer. This was a stage similar to the cadet corps. They were able to serve in the army, but not on the front lines. They were also able to marry.

From twenty-three to thirty-years-old, they were full-time soldiers.

As Spheeris (ballplayers) at thirty years, they were transitioning to adulthood and the beginning of army service. Priveledges they received was the ability to live at home, but they had to have meals in the barracks. They were now also allowed to grow their hair.

Spartan spearhead

The spear was held one handed, either over or underhand, perhaps depending on the situation, while the other arm was used to hold up the shield. At the business end there was a bronze or iron curved leaf shaped spearhead with a long, cylindrical sock
The spear was held one handed, either over or underhand, perhaps depending on the situation, while the other arm was used to hold up the shield. At the business end there was a bronze or iron curved leaf shaped spearhead with a long, cylindrical sock | Source

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.

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

After Plutarch, who tells about the ancient Spartan legislator Lycurgus. Lycurgus urged the Spartan girls to engage in wrestling. Here they urge the boys to fight. circa 1860. By Edgar Degas
After Plutarch, who tells about the ancient Spartan legislator Lycurgus. Lycurgus urged the Spartan girls to engage in wrestling. Here they urge the boys to fight. circa 1860. By Edgar Degas

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

Actaeon holds a traditional Spartan weapon, the xiphos. Detail from a Lucanian red-figure nestoris, ca. 390-380 BC. From the Basilicata.
Actaeon holds a traditional Spartan weapon, the xiphos. Detail from a Lucanian red-figure nestoris, ca. 390-380 BC. From the Basilicata.

The Pederasty and Its Role

The pederasty was essentially the encouragement of homosexual relationships between 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

Leonidas at Thermopylae 1814 by Jacques-Louis David
Leonidas at Thermopylae 1814 by Jacques-Louis David

Academic, Social and Physical Education

Academic education was starkly different to that of other Greek city-states. The Spartans valued music and essential skills. Philosophy, mathematics, and geometry were 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

Source

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.

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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. This was to urged boys to find and steal 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.

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    • Asteriaa profile image
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      Simran Singh 18 months ago from Australia

      Thankyou!

    • Readmikenow profile image

      Readmikenow 18 months ago

      Fascinating article. So much information I didn't know. Good Work!

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