Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

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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