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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: