Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

An Amok Chorus - An Excerpt from "A Boy of the Agoge"

The agoge, as I have argued repeatedly, was designed to produce self-confident, thinking citizens capable of independent action. The agoge did not aim to break, humiliate or cow the boys. This required maintaining discipline among spirited youth and teaching obedience and endurance — but all without robbing them of their pride.
In this excerpt from “A Boy of the Agoge,” I try to expose how subtle and complex the relations between the youth and their elders really were. The circumstances are a performance by a youth chorus at the Hellanikos, a festival in which Spartan choruses performed works composed by foreign composers selected in competitions for this very honor. I have chosen an event recorded in the sources in which the youth perform a fable (i.e. imitate animals) to song.

Now, with the entire city collected and the composer trying to talk the boys into cutting certain stanzas that had been agreed on earlier, some demon got into them. Even as Hellanikos gave his final instructions to perform exactly as practiced, the boys exchanged a look, and Leonidas knew they were going to do it. They went out on to the dancing floor, and an expectant hush fell across the entire crowd.  The musicians started to play the music, and Leonidas minced his way into the center of the agora like a market cat in the early morning. In the center, he sat down and proceeded to lick his right “paw” and use it to wash his face and behind his ears. The audience was delighted. Cats rarely appeared in fables. The “dog” appeared next….

Hellanikos knew something was wrong almost at once, but it was too late to stop them. All he could do was hold his breath in anticipation. He knew and his dancers knew they would be in serious trouble if they offended their elders. If they were willing to take the risk, then he could only hope and pray that they would do so for the sake of something worth seeing. By the time they started singing the corrupted text, he was far too amused by the audacity and wit of his charges to be angry with them.

The Theban poet, however, had not noticed the subtle changes in the pantomimes, and so it was only after they started to sing his text in a garbled and willfully misshapen form that he gasped in horror. “What’s happened? What is going on?” he demanded “What have you done to me? They are butchering my text! They are making a mockery of it! How could you do this to me?”

Hellanikos threw up his hands. “I had no idea they were going to do this.”

“What do you mean you had no idea? Who gave them those insulting lines? Everyone knows Spartan youths always follow orders! You gave them orders to commit this outrage!”

“Nonsense! You heard me give them orders to the contrary. Besides, I’ve never even heard this text before. They must have written it themselves. They are doing this on their own initiative and at their own risk.”

“They are turning the entire performance into a farce!”

They were indeed — and the audience loved it, none more than the Athenian guests of King Cleomenes. As the dance ended, these men leaped to their feet applauding vigorously. “Magnificent! Brilliant! Bravo! Bravo!” they called out to the performers, before turning to Cleomenes and remarking in obvious wonder and delight, “We had no idea you had comedy in Sparta! What a pity none of our comic playwrights could be here to see this. They would recruit your youths for one of our comic choruses on the spot! And these youths! Where do they get their training? I had no idea you had a drama school here. I thought all your youth just drilled and let themselves get flogged,” Isagoras exclaimed in rapturous enthusiasm.

Then a new thought occurred to Kleisthenes: “They aren’t really Spartiate, are they? Perioikoi? Surely not helots?”

“Of course they’re Spartiate,” Cleomenes countered indignantly. “Why, the youth who played the lion is my own brother.”

“Your brother?”

“Well, half-brother. Shall I call him over?”

“Of course! At once! Such a talented youth! And a magnificent voice! Does he have a lover?” Isogoras asked anxiously.

“Leonidas?” Cleomenes couldn’t imagine such a thing. “I shouldn’t think so,” he answered dryly, and then attracted the attention of one of his helot attendants and told him to fetch Leonidas.

The performers were toweling the sweat away and gulping water lacked with a thimbleful of wine to recover. They were euphoric, mostly for having got away with their mutiny, but also because the applause had gone to their heads. They were cracking jokes and exchanging good-natured insults, and their laughter came in volleys that echoed in the lofty ceiling of the bathhouse that they used as their changing room.

The arrival of the helot with the message for Leonidas that he was to report to his brother was unwelcome. “Do I have to go?” Leonidas asked rhetorically. The others tossed unwanted advice after him as he pulled his chiton over his head and belted it. Someone threw a himation after him as he left, and he just managed to catch it.

Leonidas was famished and thirsty. He wanted to find Prokles and Alkander and spend what free time he had left with them. He wanted to know what they had thought of the parody his troop of dancers had performed — or rather, wanted to collect the praise he expected from them. He wanted to have dinner with Prokles’ family and drink some stronger wine. Instead, he found himself reporting to his elder brother. “You sent for me, sir?”
“Your own brother has to call you ‘sir’?” Kleisthenes remarked with raised eyebrows, while Isagoras exclaimed in shocked amazement that Leonidas, shaved and barefoot, was evidently really a youth of the agoge. (His costume had covered his head, hands, and feet.)

“He doesn’t have to; it’s just a habit,” Cleomenes answered the first question with a touch of irritation. “Leonidas, these gentlemen from Athens wanted to meet you. May I present my little brother Leonidas, gentlemen. Leonidas, these are Kleisthenes of the Alcmaeonid family, and Isagoras, son of Tisander, of Athens. They were impressed by your little performance today.” From Cleomenes’ mouth, it sounded very patronizing.

Leonidas ignored his brother’s barb and addressed himself to the guests. “Thank you, sirs.”

“Tell us, have you had much training as an actor? We thought Spartan youth spent all their time drilling and what not?” Kleisthenes asked with apparent interest.

“No, sir. We rehearsed almost six months, every day except holidays.”

“Just how old are you?” Isagoras asked, leaning forward to get a better look at him at close quarters.

“Seventeen, sir.”

“That was our first performance? Remarkable. Then again, talent usually shows itself young. What will be your next role?”

“I hope there won’t be one, sir.”

“What? You can’t be serious. Why should you not want to act again?”

“It takes too much time, sir. I still have drill and the other classes. Rehearsals robbed me of almost all my free time.”

“Seriously?” The Athenians looked over at Cleomenes for confirmation. “You don’t excuse even your best choristers and dancers from drill?”

Cleomenes shrugged. “Of course not. My brother and the others are still in the agoge. They have to learn how to be good hoplites. As Spartiates they must learn the profession of arms.”

“But why to the exclusion of all else?” Isagoras leaned intimately close to Leonidas again, and Leonidas drew back instinctively. “Why not give up all that mindless drill and let me adopt you?” the Athenian asked him directly. “You never need to worry about marching or sleeping out in the rain or eating your horrid black broth again. I know a dozen comic playwrights who would be delighted to employ you!”
Leonidas shook his head sharply.

“Why not?” The Athenian pressed in a cloying voice. “You can mean you like being flogged and running around in rags?”

“No, sir, but I like what I will be,” Leonidas answered far too sharply. It was humiliating to stand here before these wealthy Athenians and know that to them, he was a pitiable creature.

“You mean a Spartan hoplite? A cog in a military machine? An interchangeable part of the Spartan line? Is that really such an enticing prospect? Think of the alternative; you could be a great actor, a man who brings audiences applauding to their feet. You would be wined and dined and entertained at the best addresses, adored by men and women! I fear you simply cannot imagine the joys of life in Athenian society.”

Leonidas glanced at his brother, offended that the Athenians felt free to talk like this in front of a Spartan king. Cleomenes, however, looked highly amused, as if he was enjoying the exchange. So Leonidas replied simply, “Nor do you know the joys of mine, sir.”

“Joys? What joys do you have in  your miserable clothes and barren messes?”

Leonidas glanced again at Cleomenes, resentful for being subjected to this shame. How was a youth of 17 supposed to explain to these Athenians what it meant to be Spartiate if the ruling king had failed to do so? Cleomenes, however, simply raised his eyebrows, evidently looking forward to Leonidas’ answer. Leonidas had no choice but to reply, and he decided on a single word: “Freedom.”

“Freedom? But you are chased from one exercise to the next. You said yourself you have no free time. You are the least free of all free Greeks. Indeed, I think you are less free than many slaves.”

“No, sir!” Leonidas snapped back. “We are the freest of all Greeks because we are free of fear. We are not afraid of hunger or cold or pain because we have known them all, and we know we can endure them all. We fear no man because we know we are dependent on no man’s favor and no man’s pay, but are the absolute masters of ourselves.”

“Fine words, young man,” Kleisthenes agreed in a rather sour tone, “but empty too. You live in constant fear of your instructors, your elders, your own leaders. Why, any citizen can call you to account, report you for the slightest infringement of rules, cause you to be flogged like a common slave.”

“Not so, sir.” Leonidas insisted hotly, aware that there was enough truth in the man’s words to make it all the more important to protest. It was the very fact that there was some truth to what he said that made Leonidas so agitated. He hated to think of his society in the way this Athenian was portraying it, and he wanted it to be better. He argued: “We obey our elders only as long as we respect them or what they stand for. Take tonight’s performance: the text was now what our chorus master had prepared and rehearsed with us. It was our own work.”

Cleomenes burst out laughing and slapped himself on the thigh in delight. “I should have known it! I’m beginning to like you, little brother. I thought that pompous Thebean looked like he swallowed a porcupine!”

 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:

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Spartan Agoge: The Delicate Balance between Democracy and Discipline

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 discipline and democracy in the Spartan Upbringing.

It will no doubt shock many readers used to thinking of Sparta and its educational system as a particularly brutal and repulsive form of totalitarianism that many ancient Greek commentators considered the Agoge a "democratic feature" of the Spartan state.(1) The reason they viewed the Agoge as "democratic" was two-fold. First, because it was compulsory for all except the heirs to the two thrones, and second, it opened up the ranks of citizens to those not born of citizen parents.

Before focusing on the first point, it is important to consider the revolutionary nature of the second. Whereas birth to citizen parents was the sole basis to obtain citizenship in the rest of the Greek world, Sparta had created (as we saw earlier) an additional requirement of successfully completing the educational system. Yet while this ensured that all citizens attained a least a minimal level of education, it also opened the doors to citizenship for the sons of non-citizens. Suddenly, there was a way to become a Spartan without having been born to the privilege. (2)

The way in which this was applied is vague (to say the least) and it would appear to have been applied most commonly to the sons of former citizens, boys whose parents had been citizens, but through poverty had slipped from the ranks. Yet another very likely possibility in later years was that sons of freed helots, particularly those that fought with Brasidas or other Spartan commanders, were given the chance to send their sons to the Agoge. Possibly even the sons of run-away Athenian slaves were allowed this opportunity. 

The point is extremely significant and has been too often overlooked. It shows that the Spartan state found the common experience of the agoge more important than bloodlines. Or, put another way, the Spartan state trusted the agoge to "create Spartans" in the sense of men with the right values and ethos. This is unquestionably a democratic idea, as it removes the hereditary feature of privilege altogether. 

The more obvious democratic feature of the agoge was that it treated all boys exactly the same. All participants went barefoot, all wore identical himations all year long, all ate the institutional food in common messes, all had to undergo the same training, learn the same skills, and partake in the same ceremonies and festivals. Whether the (younger) son of a king or a "mothake" (non-citizen's child) "adopted" by a more wealthy citizen,  the treatment and routine were the same. They were all under the authority of the Head Master and his assistants, and all subject to the criticism and oversight of all adult citizens.  No boy could claim he was "better" than his colleagues or withdraw from the collective games, sport, training or learning without risking his future as a citizen. 

There may also be a third democratic element in the Agoge. In the Roman agoge, the boys elected their group leaders.  That is to say, in addition to being under the oversight of the Head Master and his assistants at all times everywhere, and in addition to being constantly watched over by an Eirene, each age cohort was divided up into units or teams or groups called "herds" in the Roman-era nomenclature. These herds elected from their own number a "herd leader." It was these groups within each age cohort that competed with one another at sport, play and music. 

Since Xenophon makes no mention of the herds or their leaders, this may be yet another Roman invention, yet I wanted to mention it because it is not totally at odds with a city-state that invented democracy. Encouraging school children to annually elect their leaders is an excellent way to prepare them for living in a democracy by learning the consequences of elections and so how to select good leaders. 

Yet, to the horror of the ancient no less than the modern world, the boys in the Spartan agoge were also subject to draconian discipline. Namely, they could be flogged. It is important to keep in mind that in the rest of the Greek world flogging was a punishment reserved for slaves. So the notion that a citizen's son might be flogged was particularly debasing and offensive; it put the free man's son on the same level as a slave. Were it not for the fact that Xenophon explicitly mentions it, it would be easy to believe that flogging itself -- like the whipping contest -- was a mere Roman-era invention.

But Xenophon does mention flogging -- three times in three short paragraphs. First, he mentions that the Head Master was authorized "to punish [his charges] severely whenever they misbehaved while in his charge." And also that Lycurgus gave the Head Master "a squad of young adults equipped with whips to administer punishment when necessary."(3) Second, he notes, "Someone might ask then, why on earth did he inflict many lashes on the boy who was caught [stealing]?" in order to answer: "After making it a matter of honor for them to snatch just as many cheeses as possible from Orthia, he commanded others to whip them...." (4)

What this tells us is that whipping was used both as punishment as part of the ritual at Artemis Orthia, the same ritual that later became the whipping contest of the Roman-era agoge. It is easier to answer the question of why the whipping at Artemis Orthia -- as practiced during the Archaic and Classical era -- than why flogging was a general means of discipline.

The festival of Artemis Orthia initially replicated an incident in which the Dorians were attacked by barbarians while celebrating a festival to Artemis. The Dorians beat off the barbarians armed with just canes from the river. The Archaic and Classic ritual entailed one class of boys from the agoge trying to steal cheese from the altar of Artemis Orthia (see above: " honor for them to snatch as many cheeses....") while another age cohort defended the altar armed with canes. 

But why would the Spartans alone of all Greeks institute flogging as a means of punishing their own youth? Xenophon is silent, and we have no Spartan voice that explains it. Was it just a means of making their youth particularly tough? Was it a means of impressing upon the youth that they were like slaves until they attained citizenship? After all, if citizenship was not a privilege of birth, then in effect the children of the agoge were not necessarily going to be citizens; by being treated like slaves they were reminded of the value of completing the agoge successfully.

Or were Spartan youth so unruly and so impudent that only the threat of a whipping could get them to behave? We know that Xenophon praised the "respect and obedience" and appearance of modesty among Spartan youth, yet he praised these qualities in all Spartans. It was the Spartan obedience to their laws that impressed him most, along with their self-discipline and self-restraint. In short, the draconian nature of the ultimate discipline may have been a means to induce self-discipline because there would be few things worth risking the humiliation of a flogging. Unfortunately, we will probably never know.

(1) Cartledge, Paul. Spartan Reflections. Duckworth, 2001, p. 85.
(2) Ducat, Jean. "Perspectives on Spartan Education." Hodkinson, Stephen and Anton Powell (eds). Sparta: New Perspectives. Duckworth, 1999, p. 53. 
(3) Xenophon, 2.1.
(4) Xenophon, 2.3. 

Next month I will look at the co-educational nature of the Spartan agoge. Meanwhile,

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


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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Serving at the Syssitia - An Excerpt from "A Boy of the Agoge

At the start of the month I noted that the boys of the agoge were required to serve as mess boys in the citizen messes, the syssitia. Here they were expected to learn their manners — and answer all manner of questions put to them. The purpose was to socialize the young boys in the laws, customs and ethos of Sparta.

There were always two boys assigned to a mess at any one time. Whether by chance or design, Leonidas and Alkander were assigned to serve together. Alkander was very nervous, so much so that he started dropping and knocking things over while they were still in the kitchen getting the tables set up. At first Leonidas was annoyed because he had to clean up after Alkander, but he felt sorry for him too.

“Th-th-they’re g-g-going to make f-f-fun of me,” Alkander predicted miserably. As this seemed more than likely, Leonidas didn’t answer. In fact, part of him was rather glad that Alkander would probably act as a lightning rode deflecting any unkind ridicule away from him.

They made their appearance in the mess, dutifully reporting to the eldest member, or chairman, first. This was a venerable old man who had lost an eye in the battle against Tegea ten Olympiads earlier. Alkander got his name out without stuttering, and attention turned to Leonidas.

“Ah ha. The youngest Agiad,” the old man declared, his one eye focusing hard on Leonidas. “Well, all right. You know what to do?” They nodded. “Then get on with it.”

They brought water and towels to all the members as they arrived, and were introduced to each by the chairman. They also got the first course of black broth out to everyone without incident, but during the second course someone decided to ask Leonidas what he thought the qualities of a good Spartan king were.

“Courage, father,” Leonidas replied without hesitation. It was a safe bet; no one in Sparta would ever suggest there was ever a time when courage wasn’t a virtue.

“That is a quality required of every citizen,” the man scoffed. “We are talking about our kings. What do they need besides what every citizen must have?”

Leonidas thought for a moment and decided: “Good judgement, father.”

“Certainly. And what more?”

Lacking further inspiration, Leonidas tried to remember all the things his mother said Cleomenes lacked. “Prowess at sports and arms, father.”

“Well enough. What more?”
“Dignity, father.”

“I suppose, yes. And?”

“Ah, self-discipline, father.”

“Not bad. What else?”

“Piety, father.”

“Oh, very good. I’ll bet you heard that one from your mother, didn’t you, boy?”

“Ah, yes, father,” Leonidas admitted.

For some reason, everyone in the room burst out laughing. Although Leonidas didn’t get the joke, he was relieved to note that the atmosphere was far from hostile.

Another man took up the interrogation in a distinctly friendly, even paternal, tone. “Tell us then, son of the Heraklid: why are Spartan men the only Hellenes who wear their hair long?”

Leonidas didn’t have clue. He thought for a second and then tried, “Ah, so the boys of the agoge will know who to address as father rather than just ‘sir,’ father.”

To Leonidas’ amazement and relief they all burst out laughing again, this time more heartily than before; and when the guffaws had faded into chuckles, they turned their attention to Alkander.

“Tell us, Alkander, son of Demarmenus, what is Sparta’s worst enemy?”

“Argos, sir,” Alkander got out without stuttering. (He rarely had trouble with vowels.”

“Argos? Argos? That ridiculous mud-heap filled with braggarts and ass-lickers? Argo is not an enemy, boy; it is a training field. The only reason we haven’t razed Argos to the ground is so you boys will still have someone to practice your weapons on before you face a real enemy. Try again: What is Sparta’s worse enemy?”

Leonidas was very glad he was not on the spot. He hadn’t any idea what the man wanted.

Alkander tried again, “Athens, sir.”

“Athens? A bunch of shopkeepers and whoremongers! They’re more interested in a good play than a good fight. Not worth the mention. Come on; use your brains, boy. What is our worst enemy?”

Alkander swallowed hard, and Leonidas could see he was sweating miserably. His throat was working, too, as he tried to suppress his stutter. “Persia, sir?”

“He’s got a point there,” one of the younger members of the syssitia suggested; but the questioner was not satisfied.

He frowned and retorted to his peer rather than to Alkander, “What do we care who rules Asia? As long as they don’t try to set foot in the Peloponnese, they can carry on painting themselves like women and castrating little boys. It only denies them men they may one day need.” He turned again to Alkander. “You are barking up the wrong tree, boy. Let me ask the question in a different way: Is there any army in the world that Sparta needs to fear?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s better. So what should we fear?”

“I d-d-don’t know, sir.” Alkander was forced to admit, and Leonidas wanted to groan in sympathy. The stutter had come.

“What was that?” the Peer asked sharply, cocking his ear toward Alkander.

“I d-d-don’t know, sir.”

“You don’t know.”

“No, sir.”

“Do you know, son of Anaxandridas?” The man turned on Leonidas.

“No, sir.”

“I see. Two equally ignorant whelps.”

“Why don’t you enlighten them, Phormion, so we can get on with the meal? Some of us are hungry.”

“Hungry? You’re not hungry. You’re in a hurry to get home to your wife.”

“If you had my wife, you’d be in a hurry to get home to her too.”

“Don’t tempt me.”

“Get the next course, boys,” the syssitia elder ordered, and Leonidas and Alkander dashed gratefully back to the kitchen. From the dinning room waves of laughter came in quick succession. The boys filled up the next tables an dutifully rolled these out. The conversation around them faded, and again the attention focused on them. “Leonidas, where does Lacedaemon end?”

“In which direction, sir?”

“In any direction.”

“Well, to the south it end at the Gulf of Laconia, and—“\

“Really? What about Kyther?”


“Come now. Think harder. Where would we be if the Sons of Herakles had accepted that all they owned was the plot of earth they were born on?”

Leonidas considered that for a second, and then asked cautiously, “You mean, sir, that our borders are what we make them?”

“Well done! Or as we prefer to word it: as far as the reach of our spears.”

Leonidas liked that.

“Now, let’s try the other question again, you two. What does Sparta most have to fear?”

Leonidas and Alkander looked at one another. Leonidas still didn’t know what the man was looking for, but Alkander had evidently been thinking about it and very cautiously suggested: “D-d-disobedience to our l-l-laws.”

There was a moment of tense silence. There was no question that the boy suttered and that was not to be applauded, but the answer had been good. One of the men started rapping his knuckles on his table and declared, “Well said, Alkander.” The others joined in nodding and saying this was good answer. In relief the boys fled to the kitchen, their ordeal over for this night.

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: