Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Spartan Agoge: The Delicate Balance between Democracy and Discipline

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 discipline and democracy in the Spartan Upbringing.

It will no doubt shock many readers used to thinking of Sparta and its educational system as a particularly brutal and repulsive form of totalitarianism that many ancient Greek commentators considered the Agoge a "democratic feature" of the Spartan state.(1) The reason they viewed the Agoge as "democratic" was two-fold. First, because it was compulsory for all except the heirs to the two thrones, and second, it opened up the ranks of citizens to those not born of citizen parents.

Before focusing on the first point, it is important to consider the revolutionary nature of the second. Whereas birth to citizen parents was the sole basis to obtain citizenship in the rest of the Greek world, Sparta had created (as we saw earlier) an additional requirement of successfully completing the educational system. Yet while this ensured that all citizens attained a least a minimal level of education, it also opened the doors to citizenship for the sons of non-citizens. Suddenly, there was a way to become a Spartan without having been born to the privilege. (2)

The way in which this was applied is vague (to say the least) and it would appear to have been applied most commonly to the sons of former citizens, boys whose parents had been citizens, but through poverty had slipped from the ranks. Yet another very likely possibility in later years was that sons of freed helots, particularly those that fought with Brasidas or other Spartan commanders, were given the chance to send their sons to the Agoge. Possibly even the sons of run-away Athenian slaves were allowed this opportunity. 

The point is extremely significant and has been too often overlooked. It shows that the Spartan state found the common experience of the agoge more important than bloodlines. Or, put another way, the Spartan state trusted the agoge to "create Spartans" in the sense of men with the right values and ethos. This is unquestionably a democratic idea, as it removes the hereditary feature of privilege altogether. 

The more obvious democratic feature of the agoge was that it treated all boys exactly the same. All participants went barefoot, all wore identical himations all year long, all ate the institutional food in common messes, all had to undergo the same training, learn the same skills, and partake in the same ceremonies and festivals. Whether the (younger) son of a king or a "mothake" (non-citizen's child) "adopted" by a more wealthy citizen,  the treatment and routine were the same. They were all under the authority of the Head Master and his assistants, and all subject to the criticism and oversight of all adult citizens.  No boy could claim he was "better" than his colleagues or withdraw from the collective games, sport, training or learning without risking his future as a citizen. 

There may also be a third democratic element in the Agoge. In the Roman agoge, the boys elected their group leaders.  That is to say, in addition to being under the oversight of the Head Master and his assistants at all times everywhere, and in addition to being constantly watched over by an Eirene, each age cohort was divided up into units or teams or groups called "herds" in the Roman-era nomenclature. These herds elected from their own number a "herd leader." It was these groups within each age cohort that competed with one another at sport, play and music. 

Since Xenophon makes no mention of the herds or their leaders, this may be yet another Roman invention, yet I wanted to mention it because it is not totally at odds with a city-state that invented democracy. Encouraging school children to annually elect their leaders is an excellent way to prepare them for living in a democracy by learning the consequences of elections and so how to select good leaders. 

Yet, to the horror of the ancient no less than the modern world, the boys in the Spartan agoge were also subject to draconian discipline. Namely, they could be flogged. It is important to keep in mind that in the rest of the Greek world flogging was a punishment reserved for slaves. So the notion that a citizen's son might be flogged was particularly debasing and offensive; it put the free man's son on the same level as a slave. Were it not for the fact that Xenophon explicitly mentions it, it would be easy to believe that flogging itself -- like the whipping contest -- was a mere Roman-era invention.

But Xenophon does mention flogging -- three times in three short paragraphs. First, he mentions that the Head Master was authorized "to punish [his charges] severely whenever they misbehaved while in his charge." And also that Lycurgus gave the Head Master "a squad of young adults equipped with whips to administer punishment when necessary."(3) Second, he notes, "Someone might ask then, why on earth did he inflict many lashes on the boy who was caught [stealing]?" in order to answer: "After making it a matter of honor for them to snatch just as many cheeses as possible from Orthia, he commanded others to whip them...." (4)

What this tells us is that whipping was used both as punishment as part of the ritual at Artemis Orthia, the same ritual that later became the whipping contest of the Roman-era agoge. It is easier to answer the question of why the whipping at Artemis Orthia -- as practiced during the Archaic and Classical era -- than why flogging was a general means of discipline.

The festival of Artemis Orthia initially replicated an incident in which the Dorians were attacked by barbarians while celebrating a festival to Artemis. The Dorians beat off the barbarians armed with just canes from the river. The Archaic and Classic ritual entailed one class of boys from the agoge trying to steal cheese from the altar of Artemis Orthia (see above: " honor for them to snatch as many cheeses....") while another age cohort defended the altar armed with canes. 

But why would the Spartans alone of all Greeks institute flogging as a means of punishing their own youth? Xenophon is silent, and we have no Spartan voice that explains it. Was it just a means of making their youth particularly tough? Was it a means of impressing upon the youth that they were like slaves until they attained citizenship? After all, if citizenship was not a privilege of birth, then in effect the children of the agoge were not necessarily going to be citizens; by being treated like slaves they were reminded of the value of completing the agoge successfully.

Or were Spartan youth so unruly and so impudent that only the threat of a whipping could get them to behave? We know that Xenophon praised the "respect and obedience" and appearance of modesty among Spartan youth, yet he praised these qualities in all Spartans. It was the Spartan obedience to their laws that impressed him most, along with their self-discipline and self-restraint. In short, the draconian nature of the ultimate discipline may have been a means to induce self-discipline because there would be few things worth risking the humiliation of a flogging. Unfortunately, we will probably never know.

(1) Cartledge, Paul. Spartan Reflections. Duckworth, 2001, p. 85.
(2) Ducat, Jean. "Perspectives on Spartan Education." Hodkinson, Stephen and Anton Powell (eds). Sparta: New Perspectives. Duckworth, 1999, p. 53. 
(3) Xenophon, 2.1.
(4) Xenophon, 2.3. 

Next month I will look at the co-educational nature of the Spartan agoge. Meanwhile,

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


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