There is general consensus among both ancient and modern commentators that the Spartan agoge was a state-run institution intended to produce ideal soldiers for the Spartan army. Thus Spartan youth were taught only as much literacy as “was necessary,” and great emphasis was placed on physical strength, endurance and discipline. Most modern writers have taken this to mean that Spartan youth were essentially illiterate brutes, who allowed themselves to be whipped to unconsciousness while growing up and after gaining the citizenship dumbly accepted the decisions of the Gerousia and/or kings with no particular self-will while obeying orders like automatons in the army.
Without even addressing the issue of literacy which has been handled elsewhere (see Ellen Millender’s excellent articled “Spartan Literacy Revisited” in Classical Antiquity, Vol. 20/No.1/April 2001 and/or Jean Ducat’s essay “Perspectives on Spartan Education in the Classical Period,” in Sparta: New Perspectives, ed. Stephen Hodkinson and Anton Powell, 1999), I have a number of problems with this interpretation of Spartan society. First, as any officer can tell you, the best soldiers are not automatons who wait for orders but thinking, self-confident soldiers who can take initiative and act without – or even against – orders if necessary. The famous case of Amompharetus refusing to obey Pausanias’ orders on the eve of the Battle of Plataea is a dramatic case in point demonstrating that Spartans not only didn’t always obey orders – not even on the battlefield, much less in other circumstances. Furthermore, it highlights the fact that superiors in the Spartan army did not feel that they could command obedience. Amompharetus was not, after all, summarily executed or even relieved of his command. Instead, Pausanias tried to reason with him and finally ordered the rest of the army to move out. Likewise, Sparta had sufficient confidence in the judgment of its individual commanders to repeatedly send men of “ordinary” status out act as advisors to foreign powers, such as Gylippus in Syracus.
Second, the Spartan Assembly, in which all products of the agoge exercised their rights as citizens, was by no means powerless or docile. The Assembly had real powers, indeed more than the kings. The Assembly elected the ephors every year and members of the Gerousia whenever vacancies occurred due to death. Hence men with political ambitions had to lobby and ensure a majority of votes against rivals. Also, according to most interpretations of the Great Rhetra, the Assembly had “the final say” on legislation. The Assembly forced more than one king into exile (e.g. Cleomenes I, Leotychidas, Pleistoanax) and could condemn commanders who exceeded instructions from Pausanius to Phoebidas.
Most important, however, the Spartan assembly was made up of her soldiers and her soldiers knew that they represented the might and power of Sparta. A body in which a large minority was composed of virile young men, in peak physical condition, who have been raised to think of themselves as the elite of their profession is unlikely to have been docile. The men who were to be officers and admirals, magistrates, governors, ambassadors and military advisors around the world rose through the ranks of the army – and all had a voice (and probably a following) in the Assembly. Even if some citizens were indifferent to politics and willing to do what others advised, in every generation there were ambitious young men willing to challenge existing authority. Certainly the Assembly as a whole could be quite rowdy as the example of the Assembly (“the Spartans” – not the ephors or Gerousia) throwing the Persian emissaries of Darius down a well demonstrates.
What the above suggests is that Spartan citizens were anything but mindless automatons manipulated by their officers and political leaders, but self-confident citizens with a highly developed sense of their own power and confidence in their own capabilities and judgment. Furthermore, these were the characteristics - not blind-obedience, senseless acceptance of suffering, or mute endurance of hardship - that the agoge was intended to foster. The agoge was neither intended nor designed to produce just soldiers but citizens, who would serve Sparta long after they went off active service in a variety of political and diplomatic capacities. Sparta did not want or need docile political pawns or mindless slaves but rather thinking and responsible citizens capable of assuming responsibility and command. Only if one recognizes these broader objectives of the agoge is it possible to understand how it worked – something I will discuss in a later blog entry.