Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Serving at the Syssitia - An Excerpt from "A Boy of the Agoge

At the start of the month I noted that the boys of the agoge were required to serve as mess boys in the citizen messes, the syssitia. Here they were expected to learn their manners — and answer all manner of questions put to them. The purpose was to socialize the young boys in the laws, customs and ethos of Sparta.

There were always two boys assigned to a mess at any one time. Whether by chance or design, Leonidas and Alkander were assigned to serve together. Alkander was very nervous, so much so that he started dropping and knocking things over while they were still in the kitchen getting the tables set up. At first Leonidas was annoyed because he had to clean up after Alkander, but he felt sorry for him too.

“Th-th-they’re g-g-going to make f-f-fun of me,” Alkander predicted miserably. As this seemed more than likely, Leonidas didn’t answer. In fact, part of him was rather glad that Alkander would probably act as a lightning rode deflecting any unkind ridicule away from him.

They made their appearance in the mess, dutifully reporting to the eldest member, or chairman, first. This was a venerable old man who had lost an eye in the battle against Tegea ten Olympiads earlier. Alkander got his name out without stuttering, and attention turned to Leonidas.

“Ah ha. The youngest Agiad,” the old man declared, his one eye focusing hard on Leonidas. “Well, all right. You know what to do?” They nodded. “Then get on with it.”

They brought water and towels to all the members as they arrived, and were introduced to each by the chairman. They also got the first course of black broth out to everyone without incident, but during the second course someone decided to ask Leonidas what he thought the qualities of a good Spartan king were.

“Courage, father,” Leonidas replied without hesitation. It was a safe bet; no one in Sparta would ever suggest there was ever a time when courage wasn’t a virtue.

“That is a quality required of every citizen,” the man scoffed. “We are talking about our kings. What do they need besides what every citizen must have?”

Leonidas thought for a moment and decided: “Good judgement, father.”

“Certainly. And what more?”

Lacking further inspiration, Leonidas tried to remember all the things his mother said Cleomenes lacked. “Prowess at sports and arms, father.”

“Well enough. What more?”
“Dignity, father.”

“I suppose, yes. And?”

“Ah, self-discipline, father.”

“Not bad. What else?”

“Piety, father.”

“Oh, very good. I’ll bet you heard that one from your mother, didn’t you, boy?”

“Ah, yes, father,” Leonidas admitted.

For some reason, everyone in the room burst out laughing. Although Leonidas didn’t get the joke, he was relieved to note that the atmosphere was far from hostile.

Another man took up the interrogation in a distinctly friendly, even paternal, tone. “Tell us then, son of the Heraklid: why are Spartan men the only Hellenes who wear their hair long?”

Leonidas didn’t have clue. He thought for a second and then tried, “Ah, so the boys of the agoge will know who to address as father rather than just ‘sir,’ father.”

To Leonidas’ amazement and relief they all burst out laughing again, this time more heartily than before; and when the guffaws had faded into chuckles, they turned their attention to Alkander.

“Tell us, Alkander, son of Demarmenus, what is Sparta’s worst enemy?”

“Argos, sir,” Alkander got out without stuttering. (He rarely had trouble with vowels.”

“Argos? Argos? That ridiculous mud-heap filled with braggarts and ass-lickers? Argo is not an enemy, boy; it is a training field. The only reason we haven’t razed Argos to the ground is so you boys will still have someone to practice your weapons on before you face a real enemy. Try again: What is Sparta’s worse enemy?”

Leonidas was very glad he was not on the spot. He hadn’t any idea what the man wanted.

Alkander tried again, “Athens, sir.”

“Athens? A bunch of shopkeepers and whoremongers! They’re more interested in a good play than a good fight. Not worth the mention. Come on; use your brains, boy. What is our worst enemy?”

Alkander swallowed hard, and Leonidas could see he was sweating miserably. His throat was working, too, as he tried to suppress his stutter. “Persia, sir?”

“He’s got a point there,” one of the younger members of the syssitia suggested; but the questioner was not satisfied.

He frowned and retorted to his peer rather than to Alkander, “What do we care who rules Asia? As long as they don’t try to set foot in the Peloponnese, they can carry on painting themselves like women and castrating little boys. It only denies them men they may one day need.” He turned again to Alkander. “You are barking up the wrong tree, boy. Let me ask the question in a different way: Is there any army in the world that Sparta needs to fear?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s better. So what should we fear?”

“I d-d-don’t know, sir.” Alkander was forced to admit, and Leonidas wanted to groan in sympathy. The stutter had come.

“What was that?” the Peer asked sharply, cocking his ear toward Alkander.

“I d-d-don’t know, sir.”

“You don’t know.”

“No, sir.”

“Do you know, son of Anaxandridas?” The man turned on Leonidas.

“No, sir.”

“I see. Two equally ignorant whelps.”

“Why don’t you enlighten them, Phormion, so we can get on with the meal? Some of us are hungry.”

“Hungry? You’re not hungry. You’re in a hurry to get home to your wife.”

“If you had my wife, you’d be in a hurry to get home to her too.”

“Don’t tempt me.”

“Get the next course, boys,” the syssitia elder ordered, and Leonidas and Alkander dashed gratefully back to the kitchen. From the dinning room waves of laughter came in quick succession. The boys filled up the next tables an dutifully rolled these out. The conversation around them faded, and again the attention focused on them. “Leonidas, where does Lacedaemon end?”

“In which direction, sir?”

“In any direction.”

“Well, to the south it end at the Gulf of Laconia, and—“\

“Really? What about Kyther?”


“Come now. Think harder. Where would we be if the Sons of Herakles had accepted that all they owned was the plot of earth they were born on?”

Leonidas considered that for a second, and then asked cautiously, “You mean, sir, that our borders are what we make them?”

“Well done! Or as we prefer to word it: as far as the reach of our spears.”

Leonidas liked that.

“Now, let’s try the other question again, you two. What does Sparta most have to fear?”

Leonidas and Alkander looked at one another. Leonidas still didn’t know what the man was looking for, but Alkander had evidently been thinking about it and very cautiously suggested: “D-d-disobedience to our l-l-laws.”

There was a moment of tense silence. There was no question that the boy suttered and that was not to be applauded, but the answer had been good. One of the men started rapping his knuckles on his table and declared, “Well said, Alkander.” The others joined in nodding and saying this was good answer. In relief the boys fled to the kitchen, their ordeal over for this night.

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:

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Spartan Agoge: A Public Institution, a Collective Responsibility

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 "public" aspect of the Spartan Upbringing.

In an age when private schools and colleges enjoy a reputation for quality that generally exceeds that of public institutions, it is hard to understand why the public nature of Sparta's education attracted the admiration and praise of some of ancient Greece's most famed philosophers -- including Aristotle, otherwise a critic of Sparta. To understand the attraction of Sparta's public school it is essential to understand that the alternative was often no education at all.

True, in cities like Athens that attracted great philosophers and scientists from around the world, the opportunities were seemingly limitless.  An Athenian could theoretically indulge his own intellectual curiosity by attending talks by the greatest minds of his age at the famous gymnasiums and lyceums or by meeting and discussing with these men in a more intimate setting at the various symposiums hosted by leading citizens. An Athenian could even engage such men, or their more humble disciples, to act as teachers for his sons.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Athens citizens had neither the time nor the means to indulge in this kind of intellectual pursuit because the vast majority of Athens' citizens had to earn a living. That meant they could not stay up all night drinking at symposiums, nor spend the afternoons listening to lectures at the gymnasiums either because most Athenians were too busy earning a living. As for their children, as soon as they had grown out of infancy they had chores to do and errands to run. Soon they began to assist their father in his business and craft, and at the earliest opportunity learned a trade. Time for education was limited and competed with being useful to their family or learning skills necessary for gainful employment.  Furthermore, education was expensive, because teachers had to make a living too and so charged for their services. 

What this meant was that while the rich could hire private tutors and personal trainers for their sons, for the poor education was simply an expensive luxury that their children didn't have. Everybody in between sent their sons to one or another of the plethora of schools run by anyone who wanted to set one up, and the boys went whenever they could squeeze it between their chores and their skills-training for as long as their father could (or would) afford it. The result was that there was no overall standard of education in most Greek cities, and large numbers of citizens were both illiterate and innumerate.

Sparta, in contrast, education was deemed too important to be left to the whims and preferences of fathers. Instead, the state assumed responsibility for the education of all citizens' children. As Xenophon worded it, "Lycurgus, in place of the private assignment of slave tutors to each boy, stipulated that a man from the group, out of which came the highest office-holders are appointed, should take charge of [the children]."(1) 

Xenophon goes on to stress that this Head Master was given absolute authority over the boys and youths of the city at all times and in all places. Furthermore, the city provided him with an (unnamed) number of assistants to help him enforce his regime.  "The result," Xenophon claims, "has been that respect and obedience in combination are found to a high degree at Sparta."(2)

To the modern ear it is striking that a man, himself a student of Socrates, was more interested in "respect and obedience" than in intellectual development. This is particularly bewildering when one remembers that Xenophon sent his own sons to the agoge. Would a philosopher and intellectual, a man who developed his own theories on education for a prince, really have sent his children to a school where their minds were not trained, sharpened and broadened? The most likely answer is 'no."  The solution to the apparent contradiction is that Xenophon's focus in his short essay was on what made Sparta different. Xenophon expects schools to deliver intellectual content, and because Sparta's education does, it is not worthy of mention. On the other, it also taught youth respect and obedience. In short, "respect and obedience" were not achieved at the expense of intellectual development but rather in addition to it

Unmentioned but obvious is the fact that a single public school ensured a common curriculum and common standards. All attendees of the Spartan agoge learned the same things for the same amount of time and had to pass the same tests. Thus, the Spartan public school ensured at a minimum that all citizens were literate and numerate. 

The latter was assured not only by the school officials but by the fact that the entire community, notably all adult citizens, were held responsible for the education of the youth. Xenophon puts it like this: " other cities each man is master of his children, slaves and property. But Lycurgus...caused each man to be master of other people's children just as much as his own."(3) 

Jean Ducat notes that this collective responsibility for all youth is frequently encountered in tribal institutions, and draws attention to the fact that the boys and youth of the agoge were required to perform publicly at the many and varied religious festivals throughout the year. Ducat posits that this was another means of collective control over their education. (4) Throughout the year, as the various festivals came and went with their many youth events, the entire city could watch and see how well the boys were doing; They could judge if individuals boys were excelling or falling short of the mark by how well they behaved in the public fora.

Notably, however, the collective responsibility for the behavior and progress did not exclude or replace the role of parents. Ducat argues "it was indeed the father who was considered to have principle responsibility for the education of his son," noting that a boy's father "followed the boy's performance in the agoge with a passionate interest...." (5)

Furthermore, the costs of education also remained a private responsibility. The father of each child in the agoge was required to make a fixed contribution to the agoge to cover the costs of his child's upkeep. Thus while all the boys attending the agoge received the same clothes and rations, these were financed from the collective contributions of their fathers.

In short, the public nature of the Spartan agoge did not constitute an abrogation of responsibility on the part of Spartan parents, nor did it result in a complete loss of influence. Rather, like sending children to public schools today, parents retained primary responsibility for the overall performance of their children, but availed themselves of an institution that was organized by the city and run by a highly-respected (and most probably elected) public official from the city's elite. They shared the responsibility for the education of their children with their neighbors, and took an active interest in the education of their neighbor's children as well. 

The reasons the Spartan state (characterized or represented by the legendary Lycurgus) would have chosen this radical innovation of introducing public education can only be speculated upon. We have no written record explaining the rationale. Several advantages of the system, however, are immediately apparent. For a start, the public schooling ensured that all men entering the ranks of the army had at least the same minimal standard of education. Every officer knew that his men could read, write, add, etc. He knew they had also received physical educational training, and music training (important for an army that sang as it marched). 

Yet despite the obsession of foreigners with the military aspects of Spartan education, the Spartans themselves probably valued the fact that the agoge, with its uniform clothes and food, curricula and routine, reinforced the Spartan notion of equality

Equally important to the Spartans, was probably the fact that the agoge was a common bond between citizens. The shared experience of common schooling reinforced identity and strengthened fraternity among the citizens long, long after they had left school.

(1) Xenophon, 2.1.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ducat, Jean. "Perspectives on Spartan Education in the Classical Period." Hodkinson, Stephen and Anton Powell (eds). Sparta: New Perspectives. Duckworth, 1990, p. 51.
(5) Ibid, p. 46.
Next month I will examine the universal and compulsory aspects of the agoge. 

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


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