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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:

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