Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Saturday, March 16, 2019

A Mothake Makes his Point - An Excerpt from "A Boy of the Agoge"

The fact that the boys of the agoge could be flogged for misbehaving is legendary — particularly the fact that they would be flogged if they were caught stealing. So, I felt compelled to include an incident of this kind in the first book of my three-part biographical novel of Leonidas, “A Boy of the Agoge.” 

Leonidas and his friend Alkander have been caught trying to steal food while on a training exercise that required them to live “by their wits” for ten days. Leonidas’ friend Alkander at this point has been orphaned and his widowed mother was unable to afford his agoge fees, so Leonidas has “adopted” him — i.e has taken over the costs of his education making Alkander a “mothake.”  Furthermore, as a little boy, Alkander stuttered and was very weak, attracting widespread contempt.

By the time Leonidas was taken down to the sandpits by the banks of the Eurotas where the public floggings took place, he was at the end of his twelve-year-old strength in more ways than one. First, he was half-starved from six days in the wilderness without one proper meal. Second, he was miserably disappointed that he had failed to feed himself by legitimate means. Third, he was frustrated that he had been so inept at thieving. And fourth, he felt guilty for dragging poor Alkander into the whole mess with him. He was famished, exhausted, and feeling worthless when they made him strip off his chiton and, naked in the chill of an autumn morning, he turned to face the Eurotas. He stood barefoot in the dew-cooled sand and gripped a bar of poplar, which was laid at right angles to two six-foot high stakes as if for high jumping. Alkander was beside him, facing the same punishment.

The mastigophoroi, the young men who were to carry out the punishment, took up their positions with their canes.  An unbearable stillness fell over the crowd. Leonidas could hear the cane whistle through the air, and then it cracked on his naked back, and the sting of it made his whole body leap in outrage.  He clung grimly to the wooden bar, biting down to keep from emitting any sort of cry. The next blow followed. And the next. And the next. Gradually, Leonidas’ body lost the strength to leap and start each time the cane struck at him. Soon he only wanted to sink down into the soft sand, just down and away. Escape. Surrender.

He could stop the ordeal at any moment just by letting go of the bar and sinking into the sand. It would be so simple, but it would be a disgrace. His mother wasn’t even here, and yet he felt her ice-cold eyes boring into his raw back and making it cold, even as the welts turned red and hot. She hated him just for wanting to quit. But she hated him anyway. She had always said he was a useless whelp. He should have been killed at birth. He was no use to anyone. Completely superfluous.

“Leonidas!” Alkander hissed his name through his gritted teeth. “Leonidas!”

“What?” Leonidas hissed back.

“Stand up!”


“You’re an Agiad.”

“So what!” Leonidas replied, but he had stiffened his knees again already.

“You have to let me go down first!” Alkander insisted next.


“It’s what they expect. I’m a worthless mothake.” Alkander referred to himself by the somewhat derogatory term reserved for youths who, like himself, were too poor to pay their fees and were sponsored by someone wealthier. “If you go down first, you will never live it down.”

Leonidas wanted to scream at Alkander to drop, to surrender, to spare them both any further agony, but Alkander was (as Leonidas was learning) incredibly tenacious. There were many skills he simply did not have, but enduring pain was not a function of physical strength, dexterity or skill — it was sheer willpower.  Alkander had more than enough of that when he wanted.

By now Leonidas could feel moisture running off his back. He did not know if it was sweat or blood, but the sense of simply not being able to endure any more was mounting. “Alkander! I can’t take any more.”

“Of course you can. I can.”


“To prove them all wrong.”

“I have to suffer so you can prove them wrong?” Leonidas demanded.

“Just a little longer.”

“I can’t!”


Leonidas was unconsciously writhing, his body desperately trying to evade further abuse, while his mind kept his hands clasped to the bar and his feet in place. Someone called for him to “stand firm or surrender.”

“I’m going down!” Leonidas hissed at Alkander.
“No! Just a few more!”


“To prove them wrong!”

Again Leonidas forced himself to endure a little longer, but it really was getting unbearable. For Alkander too. Later they would fight over who finally gasped out. “Now!”

They dropped face first into the cool, soft sand, the ordeal ove

Based primarily on Nigel Kennel's comprehensive study of the Spartan agoge, the first novel of my Leonidas Trilogy depicts the Spartan "upbringing" one year at a time through the eyes of young Leonidas and his (fictional) friends. Experience the Spartan agoge in the age of Leonidas in:

Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Spartan Upbringing: Universal and Compulsory

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 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.
Today I look more closely at the universal and compulsory aspect of the Spartan Upbringing.

Unlike the rest of Greece, where education was viewed as a strictly private and optional affair, the children of all Spartan citizens were required to enroll in the agoge. Furthermore, successful completion of the agoge was a prerequisite for citizenship. Indeed, a citizen risked losing his own citizenship if he failed to pay the agoge fees associated with each of his children -- a set amount of produce owed in kind to the agoge administration.

Citizenship in other cities was more like citizenship in most countries today: the only criteria for citizenship was to be born of married citizen parents (i.e. only the legitimate children of citizens were entitled to citizenship.) Education was not part of the formula. Thus, in Classical Athens, for example, parents were not legally compelled to educate their children at all, much less up to a specific standard. 
As we will examine in greater depth next month, the famed schools and symposiums of Athens, which honed human intellect as never recorded before and fostered a spirit of scientific inquiry fostered, existed only for the sons of the rich. Working and middle-class Athenians were too busy making a living to stay up all night talking, and their children learned a trade early rather than going to any kind of school. Futhermore, girls were viewed as only quasi-human with brains too small for any kind of abstract thought.

In the absence of compulsion, many Athenian citizens opted not to send their sons to school with the consequence that many Athenian citizens could not read or write at all -- something that politicians exploited shamelessly. For example, there are anecdotes of illiterate citizens being bamboozled into voting the opposite of their declared intentions. This, in turn, led "all classical Greek political philosophers, apart from the near-anarchist Cynics," to agree that comprehensive and compulsory education was essential for the creation of "good citizens" and so "good governance." (1)

It was precisely Sparta's insistence on education for all citizens that struck a chord with many of the Athenian intellectual elite. The Athenian political philosophers admired Sparta for requiring citizens' children to go to school. Even Aristotle, otherwise a severe critic of Sparta, admired the obligatory nature of the Spartan agoge. 

This would hardly have been the case if the Spartan agoge had failed to deliver a standard of education better than what was the norm (not for the elite but for the average citizen) in Athens.  In other words, while the Spartan agoge might not have taught youth up to the same standards as the rich could obtain with their tutors and coaches, it did deliver a standard equal or better -- yet more broadly and consistently -- to the basic Athenian education.

That "basic education" included "basic literacy (and possibly numeracy), music, and physical education." (2)  Musical education included both singing, dancing and playing the lyre and bagpipes. Physical education included running, long-jumping, javelin, boxing, and wrestling.  All these skills are patently evident in Sparta based on the records we have both of the festivals in which the children participated and based on Sparta's performance at the pan-Hellenic games. 

To repeat then, what was exceptional about the Spartan education, was not what it taught, but the fact that it was a prerequisite for citizenship. Even the legitimate sons of citizens could not obtain citizenship if they had not passed through the agoge. This is what made the agoge "universal" (as it applied to all future citizens) and "compulsory" as no citizen had the option of not sending his sons to school if he wanted them to become citizens.  Ducat, however, makes the important point that there were no penal sanctions for non-compliance.(3)  There was no punishment beyond the loss of citizenship for failure to send sons to the agoge. It is telling that this alone was compulsion enough; we know of no cases where Spartan citizens opted not to enroll their sons.

The motives for making the agoge a prerequisite of citizenship are exactly the same as the reason Athenian philosophers praising the practice: education made better citizens. Education, particularly literacy and numeracy, improved the overall quality of government by ensuring that every citizen could read the laws, the inscriptions, the judgment of the courts etc. Education made citizens better able to debate and deliberate, and citizens less likely to be bamboozled by their "betters." Compulsory, universal education remains to this days one of the most important means of securing and defending democracy around the world.
(1) Cartledge, Paul. Spartan Reflections, Duckworth, 2001, p. 83.
(2) Ibid. 
(3) Ducat, Jean. Hodkinson, Stephen and Anton Powell (eds). Sparta: New Perspectives. Duckworth, 1999, p. 85.

Next month I look more closely at the public quality of the Spartan educational system.  Meanwhile, Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels:


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