Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Saturday, March 16, 2019

A Mothake Makes his Point - An Excerpt from "A Boy of the Agoge"



The fact that the boys of the agoge could be flogged for misbehaving is legendary — particularly the fact that they would be flogged if they were caught stealing. So, I felt compelled to include an incident of this kind in the first book of my three-part biographical novel of Leonidas, “A Boy of the Agoge.” 

Leonidas and his friend Alkander have been caught trying to steal food while on a training exercise that required them to live “by their wits” for ten days. Leonidas’ friend Alkander at this point has been orphaned and his widowed mother was unable to afford his agoge fees, so Leonidas has “adopted” him — i.e has taken over the costs of his education making Alkander a “mothake.”  Furthermore, as a little boy, Alkander stuttered and was very weak, attracting widespread contempt.

 
By the time Leonidas was taken down to the sandpits by the banks of the Eurotas where the public floggings took place, he was at the end of his twelve-year-old strength in more ways than one. First, he was half-starved from six days in the wilderness without one proper meal. Second, he was miserably disappointed that he had failed to feed himself by legitimate means. Third, he was frustrated that he had been so inept at thieving. And fourth, he felt guilty for dragging poor Alkander into the whole mess with him. He was famished, exhausted, and feeling worthless when they made him strip off his chiton and, naked in the chill of an autumn morning, he turned to face the Eurotas. He stood barefoot in the dew-cooled sand and gripped a bar of poplar, which was laid at right angles to two six-foot high stakes as if for high jumping. Alkander was beside him, facing the same punishment.

The mastigophoroi, the young men who were to carry out the punishment, took up their positions with their canes.  An unbearable stillness fell over the crowd. Leonidas could hear the cane whistle through the air, and then it cracked on his naked back, and the sting of it made his whole body leap in outrage.  He clung grimly to the wooden bar, biting down to keep from emitting any sort of cry. The next blow followed. And the next. And the next. Gradually, Leonidas’ body lost the strength to leap and start each time the cane struck at him. Soon he only wanted to sink down into the soft sand, just down and away. Escape. Surrender.

He could stop the ordeal at any moment just by letting go of the bar and sinking into the sand. It would be so simple, but it would be a disgrace. His mother wasn’t even here, and yet he felt her ice-cold eyes boring into his raw back and making it cold, even as the welts turned red and hot. She hated him just for wanting to quit. But she hated him anyway. She had always said he was a useless whelp. He should have been killed at birth. He was no use to anyone. Completely superfluous.

“Leonidas!” Alkander hissed his name through his gritted teeth. “Leonidas!”

“What?” Leonidas hissed back.

“Stand up!”

“Why?”

“You’re an Agiad.”

“So what!” Leonidas replied, but he had stiffened his knees again already.

“You have to let me go down first!” Alkander insisted next.

“Why?”

“It’s what they expect. I’m a worthless mothake.” Alkander referred to himself by the somewhat derogatory term reserved for youths who, like himself, were too poor to pay their fees and were sponsored by someone wealthier. “If you go down first, you will never live it down.”

Leonidas wanted to scream at Alkander to drop, to surrender, to spare them both any further agony, but Alkander was (as Leonidas was learning) incredibly tenacious. There were many skills he simply did not have, but enduring pain was not a function of physical strength, dexterity or skill — it was sheer willpower.  Alkander had more than enough of that when he wanted.

By now Leonidas could feel moisture running off his back. He did not know if it was sweat or blood, but the sense of simply not being able to endure any more was mounting. “Alkander! I can’t take any more.”

“Of course you can. I can.”

“Why?”

“To prove them all wrong.”

“I have to suffer so you can prove them wrong?” Leonidas demanded.

“Just a little longer.”

“I can’t!”

“Please!”

Leonidas was unconsciously writhing, his body desperately trying to evade further abuse, while his mind kept his hands clasped to the bar and his feet in place. Someone called for him to “stand firm or surrender.”

“I’m going down!” Leonidas hissed at Alkander.
“No! Just a few more!”

“Why?”

“To prove them wrong!”

Again Leonidas forced himself to endure a little longer, but it really was getting unbearable. For Alkander too. Later they would fight over who finally gasped out. “Now!”

They dropped face first into the cool, soft sand, the ordeal ove



Based primarily on Nigel Kennel's comprehensive study of the Spartan agoge, the first novel of my Leonidas Trilogy depicts the Spartan "upbringing" one year at a time through the eyes of young Leonidas and his (fictional) friends. Experience the Spartan agoge in the age of Leonidas in:


Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Spartan Upbringing: Universal and Compulsory

Thanks to films like "300," the Spartan Agoge is commonly viewed today as a brutal -- not to say savage -- training in which boys and youths were taught nothing but survival skills by sadistic instructors. In my last entries, I pointed out that this image is an illusion created in part by the artificial agoge of the Roman era and in part by poor historiography on the part of scholars copying from each other carelessly. 
Yet even after removing the grotesque mask created by later generations, the Spartan educational system was characterized by unique elements which attracted the praise of many ancient observers -- including Plato.
Today I look more closely at the universal and compulsory aspect of the Spartan Upbringing.
 
WARNING: THE SPARTA OF THIS AND FOLLOWING ESSAYS IS A HISTORICAL CITY INHABITED BY HUMAN BEINGS NOT SUPERMEN



Unlike the rest of Greece, where education was viewed as a strictly private and optional affair, the children of all Spartan citizens were required to enroll in the agoge. Furthermore, successful completion of the agoge was a prerequisite for citizenship. Indeed, a citizen risked losing his own citizenship if he failed to pay the agoge fees associated with each of his children -- a set amount of produce owed in kind to the agoge administration.

Citizenship in other cities was more like citizenship in most countries today: the only criteria for citizenship was to be born of married citizen parents (i.e. only the legitimate children of citizens were entitled to citizenship.) Education was not part of the formula. Thus, in Classical Athens, for example, parents were not legally compelled to educate their children at all, much less up to a specific standard. 
 
As we will examine in greater depth next month, the famed schools and symposiums of Athens, which honed human intellect as never recorded before and fostered a spirit of scientific inquiry fostered, existed only for the sons of the rich. Working and middle-class Athenians were too busy making a living to stay up all night talking, and their children learned a trade early rather than going to any kind of school. Futhermore, girls were viewed as only quasi-human with brains too small for any kind of abstract thought.

In the absence of compulsion, many Athenian citizens opted not to send their sons to school with the consequence that many Athenian citizens could not read or write at all -- something that politicians exploited shamelessly. For example, there are anecdotes of illiterate citizens being bamboozled into voting the opposite of their declared intentions. This, in turn, led "all classical Greek political philosophers, apart from the near-anarchist Cynics," to agree that comprehensive and compulsory education was essential for the creation of "good citizens" and so "good governance." (1)


It was precisely Sparta's insistence on education for all citizens that struck a chord with many of the Athenian intellectual elite. The Athenian political philosophers admired Sparta for requiring citizens' children to go to school. Even Aristotle, otherwise a severe critic of Sparta, admired the obligatory nature of the Spartan agoge. 

This would hardly have been the case if the Spartan agoge had failed to deliver a standard of education better than what was the norm (not for the elite but for the average citizen) in Athens.  In other words, while the Spartan agoge might not have taught youth up to the same standards as the rich could obtain with their tutors and coaches, it did deliver a standard equal or better -- yet more broadly and consistently -- to the basic Athenian education.

That "basic education" included "basic literacy (and possibly numeracy), music, and physical education." (2)  Musical education included both singing, dancing and playing the lyre and bagpipes. Physical education included running, long-jumping, javelin, boxing, and wrestling.  All these skills are patently evident in Sparta based on the records we have both of the festivals in which the children participated and based on Sparta's performance at the pan-Hellenic games. 

To repeat then, what was exceptional about the Spartan education, was not what it taught, but the fact that it was a prerequisite for citizenship. Even the legitimate sons of citizens could not obtain citizenship if they had not passed through the agoge. This is what made the agoge "universal" (as it applied to all future citizens) and "compulsory" as no citizen had the option of not sending his sons to school if he wanted them to become citizens.  Ducat, however, makes the important point that there were no penal sanctions for non-compliance.(3)  There was no punishment beyond the loss of citizenship for failure to send sons to the agoge. It is telling that this alone was compulsion enough; we know of no cases where Spartan citizens opted not to enroll their sons.

The motives for making the agoge a prerequisite of citizenship are exactly the same as the reason Athenian philosophers praising the practice: education made better citizens. Education, particularly literacy and numeracy, improved the overall quality of government by ensuring that every citizen could read the laws, the inscriptions, the judgment of the courts etc. Education made citizens better able to debate and deliberate, and citizens less likely to be bamboozled by their "betters." Compulsory, universal education remains to this days one of the most important means of securing and defending democracy around the world.
 
(1) Cartledge, Paul. Spartan Reflections, Duckworth, 2001, p. 83.
(2) Ibid. 
(3) Ducat, Jean. Hodkinson, Stephen and Anton Powell (eds). Sparta: New Perspectives. Duckworth, 1999, p. 85.


Next month I look more closely at the public quality of the Spartan educational system.  Meanwhile, Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels:



    

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Saturday, February 16, 2019

Erollment in the Agoge - An Excerpt from "A Boy of the Agoge"

At the start of the month I discussed the the unique features of the agoge. One of them was that enrollment was universal and compulsory. In fact, there was one exception: the heirs apparent to each of the Spartan thrones were exempt. Yet younger princes were not. This explains why Leonidas I, the hero of Thermopylae, was one of the few Spartan kings to have ever gone through the agoge.
In the attached excerpt I depict Leonidas' enrollment by his father, the aging King Anaxandridas.


At the age of seven, Cleombrotus and Leonidas were enrolled in the agoge. Dido had warned him this would happen, and she had always looked sad when she told him, but she hadn't been able to tell him very much about it. She was a helot, after all, and no one in her family had ever been allowed to go to the agoge. Nor could Leonidas' father tell him much -- if he had dared ask him -- because the heir apparent to the throne was exempt from attending the agoge and so King Anaxandridas had never gone. As for Dorieus, he didn't waste time talking to his youngest brothers, so neither of the twins had any idea what to expect except that it meant leaving home and living in the agoge barracks with other boys their age.

One day just after the winter solstice, their father came for them dressed in his armor and scarlet cloak. He was already a great age by then, much more than three score. He had white hair that he wore braided in the Spartan fashion, but it was so thin that his plaits were tiny little strings, and his scalp was almost completely bare. The skin of his scalp was flecked with brown. He could no longer stand upright; the weight of his breast plate appeared to be too great for his shoulders and dragged him forward. He kept himself partially upright by using a T-shaped walking stick that he propped under his right armpit.

Without a word he signaled his twin sons, who had been told to be ready for him, and with one on either side of him he walked out of the palace. At once they were caught in the cold wind that blew down off the Taygetos.  Leonidas clutched his himation tighter around him, but his father shook his head. "Better get used to the cold, boy. You'll not be allowed to keep such a thick himation in the agoge."

Leonidas gazed up at the old man, who he knew was his father but who was still a stranger to him, and started to become alarmed.

The king led his sons to an imposing building standing directly on the Agora, opposite the dancing floor and at right angles to the Council House and the Ephorate. Although given the same prominence as these buildings, it lacked the lovely colonnade and elegant portico of the government buildings. Instead, the entrance was supported by three ancient Kouroi. All had once been painted but were now naked stone, except for some remnants of color in the curls of their hair. Boys of various ages with shaved heads and rough, black himations came and went in groups. Leonidas noticed that despite the snow lying in the shadows, the boys were all barefoot. This is going to be terrible, he registered.

They entered an office. An elderly man in Spartan scarlet sat behind a desk.  Several middle-aged men stood about discussing things earnestly. At the sight of King Anaxandridas, the others fell silent, and the elderly man behind the desk got to his feet respectfully.

"Here they are," the king announced simply. "My youngest boys."

All eyes were drawn to the two boys, whom Anaxandridas now pushed forward.

"You'd never know they were twins!" one of the men exclaimed.

Hardly a brilliant observation, Leonidas thought. Brotus was dark-haired and dark-eyed, with a stubborn set to his aw and a compact body that -- as one of the men immediately observed -- made him look a year older than his twin.  Leonidas was not blond, just brown, but he was much lighter in color than his brother and his eyes were hazel. He was also ten pounds lighter and two inches shorter than Cleombrotus.

"Who's this fine fellow here?" They all focused on Brotus.

"Cleombrotus," the king said. 

"Then this is Leonidas." The oldest of the men walked around his desk and stepped closer to look intently at Leonidas. Leonidas wanted to step back, but he felt his father's hand on his shoulder. In a vice-like grip it held him in place. Leonidas stared rather terrified up into the headmaster's face, but Leonidas decided that whatever the man thought of him (and he did not say), he did not seem hostile.

The king took his leave. It was the last time Leonidas ever saw him up close. A little more than a year later he was dead.

The two boys were left in the cold room, surrounded by strangers.

"I think we best separate them, sir, at least at first," one of the younger men suggested. "Twins have a tendency to be dependent on one another."

The Paidonomos, or headmaster, nodded.  He looked from one boy to the other, evidently considering something, and then nodded. "Put Cleombrotus in Herripidas' and Leonidas in Gitiades' unit."

Leonidas was taken out of the administrative building and down the street to an even less assuming building. Here he was taken along a long corridor to a simple room furnished with what looked like shelves running around the perimeter at knee and shoulder height -- except there were ladders leading up to the upper shelves. There were wicker bins and baskets under the lower shelves. Already there were a half dozen other boys his own age in the room. All looked as bewildered and uncertain as he felt. There was also a young man there. He was tall and well formed, but not a citizen yet because he wore a black rather than a scarlet cloak. Also, his face and head were shaven. Leonidas knew enough about the agoge to know this young man must be one of the so-called eirenes. The eirenes were 20-year-olds who had just graduated from the agoge themselves. They were required to spend one year as a unit leader of younger boys before being enrolled in the ranks of the citizens and army at age 21.

The man escorting Leonidas addressed this eirene; "Gitiades, here's another one for you: Leonidas, son of Anaxandridas."

"King Anaxandridas?"

"That's right."

That made the other boys look over and stare. The older man was gone, and Gitiades addressed Leonidas. "You're nothing special here. Remember that. Just one of the herd."

Based primarily on Nigel Kennel's comprehensive study of the Spartan agoge, the first novel of my Leonidas Trilogy depicts the Spartan "upbringing" one year at a time through the eyes of young Leonidas and his (fictional) friends. Experience the Spartan agoge in the age of Leonidas in:


 

Saturday, February 2, 2019

A Unique Institution - The Spartan Agoge

Thanks to films like "300," the Spartan Agoge is commonly viewed today as a brutal -- not to say savage -- training regime in which boys and youths were taught nothing but survival skills by sadistic instructors. In earlier entries, I pointed out that this image is an illusion created in part by the artificial agoge of the Roman era and in part by poor historiography on the part of scholars copying from each other carelessly. 
Yet even after removing the grotesque mask created by later generations, the Spartan educational system was characterized by unique elements which attracted the praise of many ancient observers -- including Plato. A summary follows.


WARNING: THE SPARTA OF THIS AND FOLLOWING ESSAYS IS A HISTORICAL CITY INHABITED BY HUMAN BEINGS NOT SUPERMEN

 

The one feature of the Spartan agoge most admired by Athenian political philosophers was the fact that it was compulsory and universal, i.e. all future citizens of the city-state had to have completed their education before they could be admitted to the ranks of the citizens. The Athenians thinkers recognized that poorly educated citizens undermined the very basis of democracy. Yet in no other city -- not even in the city that prided itself most on its democracy, Athens -- were citizens required to obtain an education at all, much less meet specific standards. Sparta was alone in making education a criteria of citizenship.

The second key distinguishing feature of the Spartan "upbringing" or "agoge" was the fact that it was it was public. In other cities, notably Athens, each citizen was responsible for his son's education. Although the sons of the wealthy benefited from private tutors drawn from the impressive intellectual pool of the city, the sons of the poor might get none at all. In between were the vast majority of boys who got a spotty education by attending private schools irregularly for indefinite periods. In short, the quality of education varied from outstanding to non-existent. On average it was haphazard, individual and inadequate. Indeed, the fact that Athenian education system as a whole was worthless is one of the few things on which Athenian philosophers agreed! (They disagreed on how to fix it.)

In Sparta in contrast, the state ran the educational system, which was supervised by officials of the Spartan state. The curriculum and standards were set by the state. There were age-cohorts and public rituals in which the pupils had to participate in front of the entire city. Furthermore, responsibility for the education of youth was collective. By this I mean that any citizen had the right, and was expected to, take an active part in education the all children -- not just their own.

In addition, the Spartan educational system contained exceptionally draconian discipline combined with democratic elements. Particularly shocking to the ancient world was the employment of flogging as a means of discipline. In the rest of the Greek world, flogging was a punishment for slaves. The idea that the sons of citizens, even the (younger) sons of kings could be flogged for transgressions was viewed with voyeuristic horror that eventually mutated into the grotesque whipping contests of the Roman period. Yet in their shock over this tool, many commentators lose sight of the fact that Spartan youth elected some of their leaders, and the agoge itself enabled the sons of non-citizens to obtain citizenship - strikingly democratic features.

Last, yet arguably the most radical aspect, the Spartan agoge was that it was co-educational. To the horror and disgust of other Greeks -- much less barbarians, the daughters of Spartan citizens also attended the agoge, albeit for a shorter period of time. This meant they too shared in the common experience of living in barracks, eating institutional food at the common messes, wearing identical clothes, competing in sports, and participating in festivals.

Over the next four months, I will be looking at the above unique features of the Spartan agoge, examining what we know about them and speculating on its purpose -- i.e. why Sparta might have chosen to include these particular elements into their public educational system.


Next month I will look more closely at the "Compulsory and universal" aspects of the Spartan upbringing.

Meanwhile, the Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels:


    

       Buy Now!                                         Buy Now!                                     Buy Now!