Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Saturday, February 2, 2019

A Unique Institution - The Spartan Agoge

Thanks to films like "300," the Spartan Agoge is commonly viewed today as a brutal -- not to say savage -- training regime in which boys and youths were taught nothing but survival skills by sadistic instructors. In earlier entries, I pointed out that this image is an illusion created in part by the artificial agoge of the Roman era and in part by poor historiography on the part of scholars copying from each other carelessly. 
Yet even after removing the grotesque mask created by later generations, the Spartan educational system was characterized by unique elements which attracted the praise of many ancient observers -- including Plato. A summary follows.



The one feature of the Spartan agoge most admired by Athenian political philosophers was the fact that it was compulsory and universal, i.e. all future citizens of the city-state had to have completed their education before they could be admitted to the ranks of the citizens. The Athenians thinkers recognized that poorly educated citizens undermined the very basis of democracy. Yet in no other city -- not even in the city that prided itself most on its democracy, Athens -- were citizens required to obtain an education at all, much less meet specific standards. Sparta was alone in making education a criteria of citizenship.

The second key distinguishing feature of the Spartan "upbringing" or "agoge" was the fact that it was it was public. In other cities, notably Athens, each citizen was responsible for his son's education. Although the sons of the wealthy benefited from private tutors drawn from the impressive intellectual pool of the city, the sons of the poor might get none at all. In between were the vast majority of boys who got a spotty education by attending private schools irregularly for indefinite periods. In short, the quality of education varied from outstanding to non-existent. On average it was haphazard, individual and inadequate. Indeed, the fact that Athenian education system as a whole was worthless is one of the few things on which Athenian philosophers agreed! (They disagreed on how to fix it.)

In Sparta in contrast, the state ran the educational system, which was supervised by officials of the Spartan state. The curriculum and standards were set by the state. There were age-cohorts and public rituals in which the pupils had to participate in front of the entire city. Furthermore, responsibility for the education of youth was collective. By this I mean that any citizen had the right, and was expected to, take an active part in education the all children -- not just their own.

In addition, the Spartan educational system contained exceptionally draconian discipline combined with democratic elements. Particularly shocking to the ancient world was the employment of flogging as a means of discipline. In the rest of the Greek world, flogging was a punishment for slaves. The idea that the sons of citizens, even the (younger) sons of kings could be flogged for transgressions was viewed with voyeuristic horror that eventually mutated into the grotesque whipping contests of the Roman period. Yet in their shock over this tool, many commentators lose sight of the fact that Spartan youth elected some of their leaders, and the agoge itself enabled the sons of non-citizens to obtain citizenship - strikingly democratic features.

Last, yet arguably the most radical aspect, the Spartan agoge was that it was co-educational. To the horror and disgust of other Greeks -- much less barbarians, the daughters of Spartan citizens also attended the agoge, albeit for a shorter period of time. This meant they too shared in the common experience of living in barracks, eating institutional food at the common messes, wearing identical clothes, competing in sports, and participating in festivals.

Over the next four months, I will be looking at the above unique features of the Spartan agoge, examining what we know about them and speculating on its purpose -- i.e. why Sparta might have chosen to include these particular elements into their public educational system.

Next month I will look more closely at the "Compulsory and universal" aspects of the Spartan upbringing.

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


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