Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

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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