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Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Spartan Childhood

Anyone who has had the privilege to grow-up – or at least holiday on – a family farm will appreciate just how glorious a Spartan childhood might have been. The happiness of any childhood depends on many factors – parents, siblings and a child’s own inclinations – but life on a farm has unique charms for children too young to fully appreciate all the work and worries of their elders. I have rarely met anyone, who spent time on a farm as a child, who did not remember it with nostalgia.

Spartan children, boys and girls alike, would have spent a great deal of their first seven years and many holidays thereafter on their parent’s – and possibly their grandparent’s – kleros. Because the kleros represented the essential economic foundation of public education and citizenship, it was, except among the very rich with multiple estates, the center of family life. No man or his wife (again with the exception of the very rich) could afford to neglect the kleros, and this meant that it could not be fully entrusted to paid (perioikoi) or unpaid (helot) overseers all of the time.

By my calculations, many kleros were located too far outside of Sparta to be within easy reach on foot or horseback. This is the reason that, as anyone who has read one or more of my novels knows, I hypothesize that many Spartans maintained small townhouses or apartments in the city of Sparta close to barracks and syssitia. Yet the very fact that kleros could only be visited during longer holidays (many Spartan holidays lasted from five to ten days), increases the likelihood that they were indeed visited during these holidays.

For the parents, the visit to the kleros would have been a busy time of taking inventories, checking on the health of livestock, making (or ordering) repairs to house, barns and the all-important pasture and property walls. There would have been inspections, discussions or sometimes altercations with helot tenants, and complaints or excuses to hear. The parents would have been faced with decisions and would have needed to leave behind instructions. Undoubtedly, for many parents these visits were associated with worries about whether the estate was yielding enough to pay syssitia and agoge fees. Any set back – a drought, a livestock illness, an insect plague, a fire – could threaten the status of the Spartiate or his sons.

But for the children, the holidays on the kleros would have been relatively care-free, a welcome break from the group-living, organized instruction and hardships of the agoge. It was a time without eirenes or mastigophoroi. The more a boy suffered in the agoge, the greater would have been his longing and affection for the days and weeks spent on the family farm, where he was free of institutional discipline and peer pressure.

Ultimately, whether a boy enjoyed the agoge or not, it was still school, and most would have looked forward to the holidays. These were opportunities to idly soak up the sunshine of southern Greece, or run barefoot not in competition on the race-courses of the city but purposelessly through pastures littered with scores of different sorts of wild flowers. It was a time when little boys could climb upon the motherly arms of the patient olive trees and older boys could scale the heights of the mightiest plane trees. It was a time to tend the many farm animals, to play with the puppies and cuddle with the cats of the kleros. It was a time to help herd the goats through the craggy upper pastures where gorse and thistle bloom bright, or wade in crystal clear creeks stumbling over rocks at the foot of narrow gorges. It was a time for rock-climbing and cave-exploring, and, for those near the coast, for sailing and fishing. Boys returning from an adventure dusty and sweaty could stop at one of the many fountains where chilly water bubbles out of the mountainside to wash away the sweat and dust before enjoying a home-cooked meal.

Whatever “Sparta” might have been, the Lacedaemonian countryside is one of the most beautiful and restorative places anywhere on earth. Spartan children would have learned early to appreciate it, treasure it and remember it with the fondness we all save for our favorite childhood memories. These memories would have contributed to the Spartan love of Lacedaemon and made the Spartan army stronger by reinforcing intellectual patriotism for Sparta’s laws and society with emotional attachment to the land itself.

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