Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Spartan Agoge: Scandalously Co-Educational

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 after removing the grotesque mask created by the Roman agoge, the Spartan educational system was characterized by unique elements which attracted the praise of many ancient observers -- including Plato. However, one feature of the agoge that provoked contemporary outrage is, on the other hand, widely approved today: namely, the fact that Spartan girls were allowed an education no less than their brothers.
Today I look more closely at the co-educational aspect of the Spartan Upbringing.

Sparta differed from most other Greek city-states most dramatically with respect to the legal status, social standing, and economic importance of women. Sparta was not actually alone in this, evidence from Gortyn on Crete suggests that Doric cities generally granted women higher status and greater rights, but in comparison with the other cities of the Greek mainland, most especially Athens, the status of women was arguably the most dramatic point of differentiation. 

The status of women in most of the Greek world, and particularly in Athens, was similar to the status of women under the Taliban.  First, girl infants were more likely to be "exposed" -- that is murdered -- than males. The Greek comic poet Posidippus put it this way: “Everybody raises a son even if he is poor, but exposes a daughter even if he is rich.” 

Even if allowed to live, a female child would be given less food than her brothers, certainly denied all wine and meat. Girls were also denied exercise and kept in the dark, poorly aired "women's quarters" at the back of the house, because girls were not supposed to be seen in public, and Athenian girls were not educated. On the contrary, they were considered mentally deficient by nature. Aristotle, for example, compared them to children incapable of growing up. Any training they received was thus informal and domestic, designed solely to ensure they could preform household tasks.

On reaching puberty, they were "given away" in marriage. Note, women were not parties to a marriage, they were the objects of contracts between their guardian and a man interested in acquiring a wife. Wives were acquired strictly for the purpose of the production of legitimate heirs, and sexual pleasure was sought from boys, slaves, and prostitutes (who were also unfree).  Wives, meanwhile, were confined to the same cramped and dark "women's quarters" (now in their husband's rather than their father's house), and were excluded from the intellectual life of their husbands because they were not allowed to attend symposiums -- not even those hosted by their husband under their own roof.

Furthermore, women in Athens could not inherit or own property. At no time could a woman in Athens own anything whose value was greater than a bushel of wheat. If an unmarried Athenian girl's father owned property and died without male heirs, she was bequeathed to the next male relative, who had to marry her in order to obtain the inheritance. The heir then divorced the wife he already had (although she was utterly blameless) in order to obtain the inheritance with the female appendage he now had to marry. Meanwhile in the famed theaters of Athens women were called (to great applause) "a curse to mankind" and "a plague worse than fire or any viper" (Euripides). 

In light of the above, it is hardly surprising that, as Nigel Kennel put it, "...the most shocking aspect of Classical Sparta's educational system, to contemporaries at least, was that girls trained and competed in contests similar to those of their brothers and cousins."(1) Furthermore, based on a fragment of Plato, Ducat concludes that the girls had no choice about the matter but were compelled to attend the agoge.(2) In short, the universal and compulsory nature of the agoge applied to girls no less than boys.

As to what they learned, Kennel hypothesizes that girls training "mirrored" that of the boys, while Cartledge believes that Spartan girl's intellectual education "resembled the 'primary' education given to Athenian boys, but in other ways, especially the physical exertions, it was a carbon copy of the Spartan boys' curriculum, and that is presumably an important clue to its meaning and function."(3) Xenophon speaks only of girls competitions in "running and strength" although Euripides suggests that wrestling was taught as well and Plutarch (speaking of the Roman-era agoge) mentions wrestling, discus and javelin as well. Yet, significantly,  Plato points out in his Protagoras (342d), education in Sparta was not purely physical for the girls either.   On the contrary, in Sparta "not only men but also women pride themselves on their intellectual culture."  This suggests much more than mere literacy: it implies a systematic education in rhetoric and philosophical thought.

Why would Sparta break so radically with the rest of the Greek world with respect to female education?

The obvious answer is that this was part of the far wider issue of women's status in Sparta as a whole. Spartan women could inherit and own property. They ran their husband's kleros. They were active participants in their marriage. They are recorded voicing their opinions in public. They are known to have been disciples of Pythagoras. They drove chariots. They quite simply could not have done all that if they had not had a basic education and developed a degree of physical fitness as children. 

Thus, from being a purely eugenic exercise to produce strong warriors, as most commentators (including, in this case, Xenophon) imply, the education of Spartan girls was part of a holistic system of integrating women into the society and state. Like their brothers, the shared experiences of common messes, identical clothes, and participation in the same events, festivals and competition helped to build their identity as Spartiates and to develop solidarity among the girls themselves.

Yet it had another, almost completely overlooked, function as well: it encouraged heterosexuality. The very fact that the girls and maidens shared the race-tracks and changing rooms, the dancing floors and theaters with the boys and youths made them less alien and more accessible than their sisters in other cities. Modern psychology indicates that homosexuality and particularly pedophilia is more common in misogynous societies in which women are segregated and denigrated (as in Athens) -- not in societies where they are integrated and empowered.  Everything we know about Sparta in the Archaic and Classical period contradicts the widespread assumption that Sparta was dominated by homosexuality and lesbianism. The co-educational agoge is another piece of evidence that in Sparta homosexuality was less common and less accepted than in other city-states of the ancient Greek world.

(1) Kennel, Nigel. The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta. Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1995, p. 45.
(2) Ducat, Jean. "Perspectives on Spartan Education in the Classical Period." Hodkinson, Stephen and Anton Powell (eds). Sparta: New Perspectives. Duckworth, 1999, p.58.
(3) Cartledge, Paul.  Spartan Reflections. Duckworth, 2001, p. 83-24.

This ends my series on the Spartan agoge.

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


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  1. "The license of the Lacedaemonian women defeats the intention of the Spartan constitution, and is adverse to the happiness of the state. For, a husband and wife being each a part of every family, the state may be considered as about equally divided into men and women; and, therefore, in those states in which the condition of the women is bad, half the city may be regarded as having no laws. And this is what has actually happened at Sparta; the legislator wanted to make the whole state hardy and temperate, and he has carried out his intention in the case of the men, but he has neglected the women, who live in every sort of intemperance and luxury. The consequence is that in such a state wealth is too highly valued, especially if the citizens fall under the dominion of their wives, after the manner of most warlike races, except the Celts and a few others who openly approve of male loves. The old mythologer would seem to have been right in uniting Ares and Aphrodite, for all warlike races are prone to the love either of men or of women. This was exemplified among the Spartans in the days of their greatness; many things were managed by their women. But what difference does it make whether women rule, or the rulers are ruled by women? The result is the same. Even in regard to courage, which is of no use in daily life, and is needed only in war, the influence of the Lacedaemonian women has been most mischievous. The evil showed itself in the Theban invasion, when, unlike the women of other cities, they were utterly useless and caused more confusion than the enemy. This license of the Lacedaemonian women existed from the earliest times, and was only what might be expected.
    For, during the wars of the Lacedaemonians, first against the Argives, and afterwards against the Arcadians and Messenians, the men were long away from home, and, on the return of peace, they gave themselves into the legislator's hand, already prepared by the discipline of a soldier's life (in which there are many elements of virtue), to receive his enactments. But, when Lycurgus, as tradition says, wanted to bring the women under his laws, they resisted, and he gave up the attempt. These then are the causes of what then happened, and this defect in the constitution is clearly to be attributed to them. We are not, however, considering what is or is not to be excused, but what is right or wrong, and the disorder of the women, as I have already said, not only gives an air of indecorum to the constitution considered in itself, but tends in a measure to foster avarice.
    The mention of avarice naturally suggests a criticism on the inequality of property. While some of the Spartan citizens have quite small properties, others have very large ones; hence the land has passed into the hands of a few. And this is due also to faulty laws; for, although the legislator rightly holds up to shame the sale or purchase of an inheritance, he allows anybody who likes to give or bequeath it. Yet both practices lead to the same result. And nearly two-fifths of the whole country are held by women; this is owing to the number of heiresses and to the large dowries which are customary."

    -Aristotle on the Lacedaemonians

    note: personally, however, I wouldnt consider Aristotle to be a very credible source on the Lacedaemonians (personal opinion).