Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Monday, January 14, 2019

Why Would Anyone Want to Win a Whipping Contest? - An Excerpt from "A Boy of the Agoge"

 One feature of the agoge that has received inordinate attention since at least Roman times was the fact that Spartan boys were expected to endure floggings. In fact, by Roman times one of Sparta's most sacred festivals had degenerated into a whipping contest. But why would anyone want to win a whipping contest? There were almost certainly quite a few Spartan youth who asked themselves that very question: Why would anyone want to win a whipping contest?

An Excerpt from "A Boy of the Agoge"

Sixteen was the age at which the boys of the agoge underwent another ritual, the floggings at the Feast of Artemis Orthia.  This ancient sanctuary on the banks of the Eurotas had, according to legend, once been the site of an uneven battle between the early Dorians and the native peoples.  The sons of Herakles were worshiping at the shrine and had brought offerings to the goddess when they were attacked by the barbarians.  Unarmed as they were, they had only been able to defend themselves with the reeds that they tore up from the riverbank. Armed with these canes alone, they had beaten off the attack.

To commemorate this distant victory, it had become tradition for a ritualized battle to take place between the 16-year-olds and the 17-year-olds. The 17-year-olds represented Sparta's ancestors by "defending" the temple with canes against an assault by the 16-year-olds. The assault of the 16-year-olds had been transformed at some unknown date in the past into an act of theft, symbolizing the sacrilege of the ancient attackers. The matrons of Sparta made hundreds of small, round cheeses that they laid on the altar of Artemis as an offering. The 16-year-olds, representing the impious barbarians, tried to steal as many of these cheeses from the goddess as possible in the face of the defenders.

The 16-year-olds were allowed no weapons and no armor. Naked, they had to run a gauntlet of 17-year-olds armed with the vicious canes used for all Spartan floggings. The youths were safe from blows only while inside the temple or outside the perimeter at the tables where they delivered their cheeses. The eirenes kept count of how many cheeses each member of their particular unit retrieved from the temple, and the honor of the day went to the 16-year-old who managed to bring out the largest number of cheeses. The honor was considered great, and for the rest of his life the winner was referred to as a Victor of Artemis Orthia. Between Olympiads, the Spartans kept track of the years by the names of the victors at Artemis Orthia.

Dorieus, of course, had been the victor in his class eleven years ago. He was inordinately proud of the fact, and frequently referred to it when trying to drum up support for his latest adventure: a colony on Sicily. Leonidas knew that many people would expect him or Brotus to follow their brother's example, so it did not surprise him when, on the eve of the festival, Brotus sought Leonidas out.

The twins' paths crossed regularly. They were on the drill fields at the same time, and often worked out in the palaestra or visited the baths simultaneously. They sang together in chorus. They even competed against one another in some sports, particularly in ball games or broad-jumping, discus, and archery. For the most part they treated each other as they would any other member of the age-cohort. Only rarely did they talk as brothers -- usually when there was news about Dorieus or Cleomenes.

Now, on the eve of Artemis Orthia, Brotus turned up at Leonidas' barracks and insisted the he come outside. Once they were alone in the dark alley, Brotus announced, "Leo, I intend to win the honors tomorrow."

"Fine," Leonidas agreed readily. Prokles, Alkander, and he had long ago agreed that three to four cheeses -- which meant running the gauntlet in and out a corresponding number of times -- was enough to satisfy honor. Prokles felt that anyone who would want to get himself "beaten bloody" for the sake of being able to boast about such a ridiculous achievement for the rest of his life was "an idiot." Prokles claimed that his grandfather said the rest of the Greek world laughed at Spartan youth for being so "stupid." Throughout the rest of the world, the whole ritual was seen as an example of the "blind obedience" of Spartan youths.  Foreigners snickered at the stupidity of youths willing to endure such a ridiculous amount of abuse just for the entertainment of the whole city, and they made even more unkind comments about what sort of city would find amusement in watching their sons get thrashed by canes -- although the number of foreigners who came to watch the ritual was increasing every year.

Leonidas had to admit to himself that he had rather enjoyed watching the spectacle in other years, and he presumed he'd find it entertaining in the future. It wasn't really about watching boys get beaten -- it was a fast-paced, exciting, rough-and-tumble contest where the winner was always one of the underdogs -- one of the naked boys taking the punishment. But Prokles had been so adamant about how stupid the whole thing was that Leonidas had not dared voice his own opinion. In Prokles words, "Oxen are more intelligent than to want to win a whipping contest!"

The phrase ran in his ears as Brotus made his announcement, and Leonidas decided that Prokles was right after all. Brotus was a bonehead.


Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Removing the Roman Mask

In my last entry, I explained that with the sole exception of Xenophon, all surviving ancient sources describing the Spartan educational system or agoge depict the Roman -- not the Spartan -- institution.  This Roman-age school used Archaic nomenclature and paraded itself as "authentic" archaic Spartan tradition, but it was actually the creation of a society which no longer had a unique constitution or culture.  Furthermore, to the extent that it was based on something older, it was the reconstruction of an institution created (consciously) by an Athenian stoic philosopher.

When searching for the Spartan agoge, the educational system that produced Chilon the Wise, Leonidas, Brasidas and the other great Spartan leaders of the Archaic and Classical periods, we must first remove the Roman mask and consider only those features that were recorded in classical sources such as Xenophon, Thucydides, and Herodotus, or can be deduced based on common sense and human nature.

Today, I focus on those familiar features of "the agoge" for which we have no evidence from the Classical and Archaic periods, in short the aspects that were NOT part of the agoge.


The most authoritative source we have for the Spartan (as opposed to the Roman) agoge is a work known as The Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, widely attributed to the Athenian general, historian and philosopher Xenophon. Xenophon was born in Athens in the 420s BC, and he was a follower of Socrates -- something that got him banned from Athens as a young man. He served as mercenary in the service of the Persian prince Cyrus and became friends with the Spartan King Agesilias. Eventually, he was given an estate in Lacedaemon and his two sons attended the Spartan agoge. He wrote a number of books including an account of his campaign in Persia (the Anabasis), a book on education for Prince Cyrus, a biography of Agesilias as well as his study of the Spartan constitution, a book on horsemanship and, in his old age his memoirs, titled A History of My Times

In his tract on the Spartan constitution, Xenophon does not provide us a comprehensive picture of the agoge, but what he does say is the closest thing to facts that we have.  Furthermore, if he says something that is at odds with reports by ANY other source, particularly later sources, then we can assume that Xenophon is describing the Spartan agoge and the other sources are describing the Roman agoge. In short, Xenophon is our most important "litmus" test for any feature of the agoge.

Xenophon is extremely explicit on a three points that continue to be widely misrepresented in the popular -- and sadly even many academic -- portrayals of the agoge.

First, Xenophon states categorically that institutionalized pederasty was prohibited in the agoge. Xenophon writes: "It strikes me that a word should also be said about men's love for boys, since this too has some connection with their education. Now what happens elsewhere in Greece may be be illustrated from Boeotia, where man and boy form a union and live together, or Elis where beautiful youths are won by favours;...[Lycurgus on contrast] laid it down that at Sparta lovers should refrain from molesting boys just as parents avoid having intercourse with their children or brothers with their sisters. It does not surprise me, however, that some people do not believe this, since in many cities the laws do not oppose lusting after boys."(1)

Xenophon could hardly have been more explicit, and the evidence of pederasty in  Hellenistic and Roman Sparta does nothing to weaken or undermine his statement. The fact that homosexual relationships became common in Sparta after it had lost its constitution, independence and unique way of life, only demonstrates the degree to which Spartan society had become corrupted. Widespread pederasty in later Sparta is testimony to the fact that Sparta had become like other Greek states. It had lost its unique character -- not least with regard to its previously exceptional and uncompromising attitude to pederasty. (For more on the evidence that Archaic Sparta was characterized by a near complete absence of homosexuality see: 

Second, Xenophon's description of the deprivations of the agoge fall far short of the extremes found in later descriptions. Xenophon notes that Spartan boys had only one himation, but not that they had no other clothes. His point is not that they were naked and freezing most of the time, but rather that they were not spoiled like their Athenian counterparts with new and different garments the year through.  

Regarding diet, Xenophon puts it like this: "[Lycurgus] instructed the Eiren to furnish for the common meal just the right amount for them never to become sluggish through being too full, while also giving them a taste of what it is not to have enough. His view was that the boys under this regime would be better able, when required, to work hard without eating, as well as to make the same rations last longer, when so ordered; they would be satisfied with a plain diet, would adapt better to accepting any type of food, and would be in a healthier condition. He also considered that a diet that produced sim bodies would do more to make them grow tall than one in which the food filled them out."(3) Note, the emphasis is avoiding too much food that leads to "sluggishness" and fat -- not a diet that is deficient in any way!

This leads us to Xenophon's paragraph on theft, the third point, albeit one of the most confusing in his entire essay.  At first he appears to say that Spartan youth was encouraged to steal in order to ward off starvation. Yet this is a clear contradiction of the paragraph before in which he said they received sufficient rations. It is only two thirds of the way through the paragraph that becomes clear he is talking only about a specific period in a youth's education that ends with the ritual of stealing cheeses from the alter of Artemis Orthia. Kennel, drawing on other sources as well, concludes: "on a specific occasion (kairos), it was the custom (nenomisto) for ephebes to steal whatever they could without getting caught...Spartan boys only stole at particular times established by custom."(5)

Kennel goes on to point out that had all the boys from seven to twenty been stealing all the time "either the city would have degenerated into anarchy or the act of stealing would have become a counterfeit, with food set aside especially for the boys to filch."(6)
(For more on this see:

Another common feature of popular depictions of the agoge for which we find no evidence in Xenophon is the notion that the boys grew up cut off from their families in the wild and so more like beasts than children. Xenophon, on the contrary, notes that Lycurgus ensured that the boys were never without someone "in charge" of them. This was done by 1) the creation of a magistrate with complete authority over the boys, 2) by providing the magistrate (head-master) with whip-wielding assistants, 3) by authorizing any citizen to give the boys instructions or punish them, and 4) "to ensure that someone was in control of the boys even when no adult happened to be on the spot, he deputed the smartest of the Eirenes to take command of every squadron." (7)

In short, far from running wild, the boys of the agoge were under constant supervision: first by the eirene (20-year-old) assigned to their unit, next by any adult Spartiate who happened to be present, and third by the agoge authorities themselves, including head-master, his assistants, teachers and coaches and chorus masters, etc. etc. etc.

Likewise, the myth that Spartan children were separated from their families at the age of seven and never had anything to do with them ever again is completely unsustainable based on the available archaic and classical evidence. There is, in fact, no evidence that they lived in barracks before they were roughly fourteen years old, and, even if they did, these were located in the heart of Sparta, where they would have encountered their siblings and parents on an almost daily basis -- and gone home for the frequent religious holidays.

Last but not least, the evidence is overwhelming that Spartans obtained in the public agoge a standard of literacy and numeracy equivalent or better to that enjoyed by citizens of other Greek city-states. The Spartans conducted diplomacy; they sent written instructions and orders to distant commanders; they wrote dispatches; they made countless dedications to the Gods (even as school-children!); they built monuments with inscriptions. Paul Cartledge concludes that: "Between the ages of seven and twelve a Spartan boy 'studied' pretty much the same subjects as his Athenian counterpart: read and writing, music and dancing, and physical exercise."(8)

What we don't know is how they learned these "class-room" skills, but the logical explanation is that they learned them exactly as children have in every other society known to man: by someone teaching them. The very fact that Xenophon says nothing about how they learned to read suggests that the method of learning was so similar to the methods used elsewhere that it was completely unworthy of comment.

(1) Xenophon, 2.4, Richard J.A. Talbert (trans), Plutarch on Sparta. Penguine Classics, 1988, p.170.
(2) Xenophon, 2.2, p. 168
(3) Ibid, p.168-169.
(5) Kennel, Nigel. Gymnasium of Virtue:Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta. Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1995, p. 122.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Xenophon, 2.3, p. 169.
(8) Cartledge, Paul. Spartan Reflections. Duckworth, 2001, p. 85

Next month I look at what made the Spartan agoge unique. Meanwhile, Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels:


       Buy Now!                                         Buy Now!                                     Buy Now!