Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

In Search of the Spartan Agoge

It has been argued by leading classical scholars that the importance of the "agoge" -- Sparta's educational system - "in determining the character of the Spartan state cannot be over-estimated." (1)  
Yet the sad truth is we do not have a single authentic Spartan source that describes this vital institution. Everything that we know about the "agoge" comes from foreigners -- many of whom never visited Sparta -- and most of whom wrote 200 to 800 years after the period of Sparta's glory -- the Archaic and Classical Ages.
In a seven-part series starting today, I intend to re-examine the evidence we have about the agoge, to identify the elements common in the popular picture of the agoge for which there is NO evidence, and then reconstruct a plausible theory of what the Spartan agoge might have looked like based on evidence, common sense and an understanding of human nature.


When attempting to understand the Spartan educational system commonly referred to as the "agoge," it is important to understand that this unique word -- about which Professor Cartledge makes a great fuss because it is also used for raising cattle -- is in fact an invention of the 3rd Century BC. It is not used in any earlier source about Sparta -- an alarm signal that ought to warn scholars that the entire "agoge" itself is largely a fiction, an artificial creation of a post-classical Sparta. 

Nigel Kennel is his comprehensive and seminal work The Gymnasium of Virtue notes: "The story of the Spartan education system is far more complex than has hitherto been appreciated. Its single constant was change, as the system adapted to meet different historical situations."(2)

What we think we know is based on a large number of works by foreign writers purporting to describe the Spartan state and its institutions, most of which were written as much as 800 years after Thermopylae and Sparta's days of glory. Only one source, Xenophon, actually wrote in the classical era, lived in Sparta and sent his sons to the agoge. Yet even Xenophon's account, as Kennel notes,  already "has a palpably nostalgic, utopian air about it."(3) By the time he was writing in the 4th century, Sparta was already in decline, and its institutions were no longer what they had been in the Early Classical and Archaic periods.

All other surviving sources were written by authors with no direct experience of Sparta and living at a much later date. The bulk of these were theoretical tracts attempting to compare and contrast systems of government. They were tools for political debate, not records of observed facts. The most famous of the later writers, because his writings are particularly detailed and vivid, is Plutarch, who lived between 46 and 120 AD. Please note: that is roughly 600 years after the death of Leonidas at Thermopylae. In other words, he was as far removed from Classical and Archaic Sparta as we are from the 13th and 14th centuries. Pausanias, another "ancient" source full of colorful details, lived even later, between 110 and 180 AD.

But the situation is made even more complex and deceptive by the fact that these later commentators thought they knew Sparta and its agoge very well. Indeed, they had personally visited and studied in a place called Sparta, a city on the same location of the ancient city of Sparta, yet arguably only marginally related to the Sparta of Leonidas because by this time Sparta had been governed by different laws for generations. Fatefully for us and our understanding of Sparta, they saw a "Spartan agoge" in practice, but it was not the same "agoge" that had operated in the Archaic and Classical periods.

At the very latest, that ancient agoge had ceased to exist by 244 BC, but it had been in decline long before that. Already in the fourth century BC, Sparta's famed military was humiliated, and the loss of Messenia had destroyed the Spartan economy. In short, Sparta had already become moribund, and it is inconceivable that the agoge was not impacted by these changes. 

Certainly, the public system of education had collapsed by the time King Cleomenes III came to power in 235 BC with a powerful "reform agenda" that included "restoration" of the agoge. However, as Kennel puts it,  "under the guise of revival," he invited an Athenian stoic philosopher to develop a system of education for Sparta.(4) This man, Sphaerus, consciously introduced his own ideas of what made a good education into Cleomenes' new school-system. While Sphaerus pretended that his innovations were nothing but a "restoration" of the ancient agoge, in fact his philosophy of education was not based Sparta's past or the intentions of Sparta's archaic lawgivers.

Thus, while the outward dressing or facade was "Archaic and Laconian," the content was Athenian stoicism. This was consistent with Cleomenes other reforms that he styled as a "return to the ways of Lucurgus," while butchering the Lycurgian constitution.  Thus, for example, he blithely abolished both the dual kingship and the ephorate, and radically altered the the nature of the Gerousia by reducing the term of members to a single year. 

Nor did the distortions end with Cleomenes and his Athenian stoic philosopher. Cleomenes agoge was suppressed after just 39 years. Sparta (after a series of poor alliances, rebellions and much intrigue) was eventually defeated by and submitted to the Achaean League, losing its very independence. It was forced in this period to give up its constitution altogether and adopt Achaean laws and customs. That included eliminating the agoge.

Thus the agoge that Plutarch and Pausanias visited and described was yet another "revival."  This agoge had been created under Roman hegemony in or about 146 BC -- or more than 200 years since the Battle of Leuctra had shaken Sparta to its foundations and more than 340 years since Thermopylae. The "agoge" that was now established, however, could not function -- even if it had wanted to -- as the agoge of the classical period because it no longer had a Spartan society, or a Spartan army, to support it. The Spartan culture and laws that had created and fostered the agoge in the age of Chilon and Leonidas had been obliterated. In their place was a Roman provincial city without any unique laws or ethos. The agoge created in this state, Kennel argues, was nothing more that "a sort of tableau vivant of Spartan culture in the midst of a society little different from those of its neighbors."(5)  

The Roman agoge included the infamous spectacle of youth lining up at the altar of Artemis Orthia to be whipped until they collapsed -- or died. Although we have no documented cases of youths actually dying under the lashes, most ancient commentators claimed to have "heard" that youths "sometimes" died. One can see that for a society that thought it was fun watching men kill each other or get devoured by beasts and saw burning humans alive as suitable entertainment for an imperial party, watching youths passively submit to flogging until they collapsed was a huge tourist attraction. The city dignitaries of Sparta apparently did very well in the department of tourist revenues. The connection to ancient Sparta, the Sparta of Leonidas, Chilon and Lycurgus, however, is exactly ZERO -- NOTHING. 

The same is true of almost everything Plutarch and other Roman and Byzantine sources tell us about "the agoge." They are describing an Roman invention, a Roman theater dressed up in Laconian costumes, or, perhaps we should call it, one of Rome's famous and elaborate spectacles. In the next six entries, I will remove the Roman mask in search of the real Spartan agoge.

(1) Chrimes, K.M.T. Ancient Sparta: A Re-Examination of the Evidence. Manchester University Press, 1952, p. 117.
(2) Kennel, Nigel, The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta. University of North Carolina Press, 1995, p. 143.
(3) Ibid, 135. 
(4) Ibid, 147.
(5) Ibid, 116

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


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