Sparta sought to inculcate its citizens with common values and attitudes by requiring the sons and daughters of citizens to attend a public school for 14 years. In a society as small as Sparta’s, this state school was not larger than in a small town in the U.S. and the results were much the same: close identification with the institution and widespread familiarity with the character strengths and weaknesses of classmates. Furthermore, the headmaster of the school was an elected official, who could be dismissed by the Assembly if he lost the confidence and respect of his fellow citizens.
In the following excerpt from “A Heroic King” a foreigner interested in enrolling his son in the Spartan agoge is given a lesson about Spartan culture from a Deputy Headmaster.
Alkander excused himself to [the visiting Corinthian] Lychos and went to stand in front of the boys. While the eirene stood very straight and still, the miscreants were eight-year-olds, and they had not yet absorbed the agoge discipline to the same degree. They kept squirming and sneaking glances at Alkander. “Do you know why you are here?” Alkander opened the interrogation.
“Alpheus says it is just for throwing stones at some stupid helots,” one of the boys announced in a defiant tone, with an angry look at his eirene.
“And you do not think that is reason enough to have to face me?” Alkander answered the boy’s tone rather than his words.
The boys continued to look sullen, and one of them asked, “What’s wrong with throwing rocks at helots?”
“Well, tell me this: Can the Spartan army fight without food?” Alkander asked.
The boys shook their heads vigorously.
“Do you produce food for the Spartan army?”
They shook their heads even more vigorously.
“Does your father produce food for the army?”
“Of course not! He’s Spartiate,” the bolder boy countered indignantly, and then dropped his eyes before his eirene could cuff him.
“But Spartiates have to eat,” Alkander told him reasonably. “If you don’t produce food and your father doesn’t produce food, who does? Does your mother plow and plant the grain?”
“Of course not!” The talkative boy sounded very angry.
“Who does?” Alkander insisted.
“Helots!” he spat out.
“Exactly. So you, your father, and the Spartan army all depend on helots to survive, don’t you?”
Sullen silence answered him. “Don’t you?” Alkander insisted.
“But farming is slave work, helot work! It’s for stupid beasts!” the other boy insisted.
“Do you know a beast that can plow and plant and harvest?”
“The character of your actions was fundamentally hostile to the Spartan state, because no matter how small or minor your actions may seem, they were directed against a pillar of our society: the freedom of Spartiates to focus on their duties as citizens.” Alkander looked from one boy to the other. They were both frowning, but he hoped it was now more from puzzlement than from resentment. “Without helots to work our estates and grow our food, we would be like the other Greeks, who have to earn a living first and are soldiers second.” Again he paused to let this sink in before asking, “For sabotaging the Spartan state, your punishment has been very mild, hasn’t it?”
The boys started squirming in anticipation of the cane.
“Eirene.” Alkander turned to Alpheus. “I think these boys should go without bread, cheese, sausage, honey, or any other farm produce until they learn to appreciate the importance of agricultural labor. They are to be allowed to eat only those things they can gather, trap, or hunt from the wild.”
“Yes, sir,” the eirene answered dutifully, looking uneasy. At eight, the boys could not yet hunt, had barely learned the fundamentals of trapping, and had not yet learned how to distinguish edible from poisonous plants.
“I want to see these boys again in a week.”
“Yes, sir,” the eirene swallowed nervously, recognizing that his obedience to these orders would be assessed by the state of the boys in the next interview.
“Dismissed,” Alkander ordered, and the eirene shooed the boys back out into the hall.
Alkander turned to Lychos and opened his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “You see the limits of our discipline.”
“I see that you demand understanding as well as obedience.”
“That is the objective, but those boys learned contempt for helots from their parents―evidence that my predecessors failed to impress upon earlier generations our interdependence and respect for each man, free or unfree.”
Lychos raised his eyebrows at that. “Would you teach the boys respect for slaves?”
Alkander tilted his head. “Why not? A man’s status has little to do with his character. After all, a slave can be set free, or a freeman can be captured. There is a young man here, a Chian, who was born free but taken captive by the Persians when he was still a boy. The Persians cut off his genitals so brutally that he was lamed. Yet he freed himself by running away. Didn’t he show his greatest courage when―as a slave―he ran away?”
Lychos bowed his head in concession. Alkander continued, “I try to teach the boys that a man’s character―not his status, his clothes, or his looks―is what makes him valuable. I try to point out that a helot who is hard-working and honest is better than even a king who is deceitful, corrupt, or profligate.”
“Using, I presume, Leotychidas and not Leonidas as your example of a profligate king,” Lychos quipped.
Alkander laughed briefly, but then grew serious. “The Spartan agoge teaches paradigms for living rather than facts.”
“And what is the most important paradigm of all?” Lychos asked.
“Consciousness of our mortality.”
Lychos started, but then nodded knowingly, “Yes, of course. You want to prepare the boys to die for Sparta.”
“No, not at all!” Alkander countered emphatically. “We make our sons confront death when trapping, hunting, and sacrificing so that they learn to appreciate the sheer beauty of life.” He paused and then tried to explain. “Look at it this way: A Spartan youth does not need a fancy new himation to make him feel good; just being warm will satisfy him. Nor does he need exotic fish rushed into the city on ice and doused in spicy sauces in order to feel well fed; just filling his belly will do that. Just as deprivation makes a man satisfied with very little, consciousness of his mortality makes a man treasure each and every day. At its best, consciousness of the shortness of life makes a man use each day the way a miser spends gold. Does this make sense
to you?” Alkander stopped himself to ask the Corinthian.
Lychos nodded slowly. “I think for the first time I am beginning to understand Leonidas.”