The image of the Spartan educational system (the "agoge") in most literature is a catalogue of horrors no loving parent would inflict upon his/her children. Paul Cartledge even makes a great fuss about the word agoge being used for cattle as well as children – although the English word “to raise” is also used for both children and cattle without, to my knowledge, all American, British and Australian children being denigrated to the status of livestock. (Paul Cartledge, Spartan Reflections, Duckworth, London, 2001.)
The assumption in literature and film is that boys (and possibly the girls) were taken from their homes at age seven and never again had anything to do with their parents. Instead they were under the tutelage of the Paidonomos and his assistants, elected herd leaders, “lovers” and eirenes (whatever these were). The boys are described as learning virtually nothing, running around virtually naked, stealing to eat, fighting constantly with their peers, but intimidated and abjectly obedient to their elders.
Yet what we know of Spartan society as whole is not consistent with such an educational system.
First, there is strong evidence that family ties were as strong in Sparta as elsewhere. No society, in fact, has ever succeeded at destroying the institution of the family -- even when they tried to as in Soviet Union and Communist China. We know from modern experience that attendance at even a distant boarding school does not inherently indicate a lack of parental interest in a child’s development. Thus, it is ridiculous to think Spartan parents lost interest in their children just because they were enrolled in the agoge. The agoge, after all, was located in the heart of Sparta. Far from never seeing their families ever again, the children of the agoge would probably have seen their fathers (who had to take part in civic activities and eat at their syssitia) and school- and army-aged siblings daily.
In addition to the comfort of daily contact with fathers and brothers as desired, we can assume that the agoge was not opened 365 days a year. Just like every other school in history, the agoge will have had “holidays.” We know of at least 12 festivals each year. (See Nikolaos Kouloumpis, “The Worship and the role of Religion in the formation of the Spartan state,” Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 6, # 1.) The Spartans, furthermore, were notorious for taking their religious festivals extremely seriously. Soldiers on campaign could return home for festivals particularly important to their specific clan, and the entire army was prohibited from marching out during others. (It was because of religious holidays that the Spartan army was late for Marathon and only sent an advance guard to Thermopylae.) It is not reasonable to assume that what applied to the Spartan army did not apply to the public school. Far more probable is that the agoge closed down for every holiday and like school children everywhere, they gleefully went “home for the holidays” along with their eirenes, herd-leaders, instructors and all other citizens.
The equally common presumption based on fragmentary ancient sources that the boys never got enough to eat and routinely took to stealing to supplement their diet is inconsistent with a functioning economy. No society can function if theft is not the isolated act of criminal individuals but rather a necessity for all youth between the ages of 6 and 21. If all the youth were stealing all the time, the rest of society would have been forced to expend exorbitant amounts of time and resources on protecting their goods. Every Spartan farm ("kleros") would have been turned into an armed camp, and there would have been nightly battles between hungry youth and helots desperate to save their crops and stores. Nothing of the kind was going on in Sparta, a state known for its internal harmony and low levels of common crime.
Nigel Kennel argues persuasively that theft was only allowed during a limited period of time at a single stage in a boy’s upbringing (Nigel Kennel, The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 1995). As for only being punished for being caught, that is very nature of all punishment seen from the thief’s perspective. No undiscovered crime is ever punished. Nothing about that has changed in 2,500 years.
The notion that the boys constantly fought among themselves and were encouraged to do so is equally untenable. Boys of the same age cohort would inevitably serve together in the army. The Spartan army was famous for the exceptional cohesion of its ranks. You don’t attain such cohesion by fostering competition and rivalry to an excessive degree. A strong emphasis on competition was prevalent throughout ancient Greece. Spartan youths engaged in team sports, and there would have been natural team spirit and team rivalry. There can be no question that now and again such competition and rivalry turned bitter and could degenerate into fights. But Sparta more than other Greek city state needed to ensure that such rivalries did not get out of hand because all citizens had to work together harmoniously in the phalanx.
As for the youth of the agoge being abjectly respectful and obedient to their elders, such behavior is incompatible with high-spirited, self-confident youth – yet this is what the agoge set out to produce. Spartan discipline appears to have produced exceptionally polite young men by ancient standards. Since observations about Spartan youth at, say, the pan-Hellenic games or on visits to Sparta does not require inside knowledge of Spartan society, we can assume that these reports have a certain validity. But there is a vast difference between being polite and respectful on the surface and being cowed, intimidated and obedient to an exceptional extent. English school-boys of the 19th and early 20th Century also had a reputation for politeness that had nothing to do with being beaten down or docile.
The thesis that Spartan youth learned almost nothing (except endurance, theft, competition and manners) is untenable for a society that for hundreds of years dominated Greek politics and whose school was admired by many Athenian intellectuals and philosophers. Starting with the circumstantial evidence, Spartans could not have commanded the respect of the ancient world, engaged in complicated diplomatic manoeuvring, and attracted the sons of intellectuals like Xenophon to their agoge if they had been as illiterate and uneducated as some modern writers like to portray them. Ancient sources stress the Spartan emphasis on musical education and on dance, and Spartans certainly knew their laws by heart. They could -- and effectively -- did debate in international forums, and their sayings were considered so witty that they were collected by their contemporaries.
Indeed, some sources claim that “devotion to the intellect is more characteristic of Spartans than love of physical exercise.” (Plutarch, Lycurgus:20) Furthermore, Sparta is known to have entertained leading philosophers and to have had a high appreciation of poetry, as evidenced by the many contests and festivals for poetry, particularly in the form of lyrics. The abundance of inscriptions and dedications found in Sparta are clear testimony to a literate society; one does not brag about one’s achievements in stone if no one in your society can read!
Last but not least, while everyone agrees that Spartan education was designed to turn the graduates of the agoge into good soldiers, the skills needed by a good soldier included far more than skill with weapons, physical fitness, endurance, and obedience. A good soldier also had to be able to track, to read the weather from the clouds, to navigate by the stars, to recognise poisonous plants, to apply first aid, to build fortifications and trenches, and much, much more. All this knowledge was probably transmitted to Spartan youth in the agoge.
Finally, let me turn to the most offensive aspect of this common picture: institutionalized pederasty. Without getting into a fight about the dating and nationality of the sources alleging institutionalized pederasty to Spartan society, one indisputable fact is that modern psychology shows that abused boys grow up to despise women. Whatever else one can accuse the Spartans of doing, despising women was not one of them. Athenians, notably Aristophanes and Hesiod, on the contrary, very clearly did despise women and it was in Athens and Corinth that the archeological evidence likewise suggests widespread pederasty. In Sparta the situation was so different that Aristotle fumed against the power of women and attributed it to militaristic society in which homosexual love was not common. Sparta stands out as the exception, which is probably why it was so profoundly misunderstood.
Stripped of common misperceptions about the nature of the Spartan agoge, the institution starts to look not only tolerable but even admirable – something that would be consistent with the historical record. We know that many men we admire for their intellect, including Socrates himself, were admirers of the Spartan agoge. It is time that modern observers of Spartan society stopped relying on familiar but illogical commentary and used common sense to assess the Spartan agoge.
My novel Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge hypothesizes and portrays an agoge consistent with the above insights.