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Saturday, June 15, 2019

A Girl's Education - An Excerpt from "A Boy of the Agoge"

The co-educational nature of education in Sparta was the scandal of the ancient world, and particularly the physical education component of that education drew the voyeuristic attention of the many visitors that flocked to Sparta's religious festivals. 

In this excerpt from "A Boy of the Agoge," Leonidas and his friends have gone to see Alkander's sister participate in a girls' race and find themselves surrounded by "strangers" (i.e. Greeks from outside of Sparta.)

 "Does Hilaira have any chance of winning?" Prokles asked skeptically.

"She certainly does," his mother told him firmly.

"Why are there so many strangers here?" Leonidas asked because he noted that almost everyone around them, although Greek, was speaking a different dialect -- most Ionic.

"Oh, that's because they don't have maiden races in other cities," Prokles grandmother explained. "In fact, they don't let their maidens out of their houses at all." Leonis knew what she was talking about because she had lived in Tegea for a time when Lysandridas was in exile there.  

"So how do they go to school?" Prokles wanted to know.

"They don't."

"They don't go to school?"


"And that is the proper way of things!" one of the men standing near them insisted, butting into the conversation firmly. He addressed himself to the boys rather than the women. "Everything a girl needs to know in life, she can learn at her mother's knee in the safety and seclusion of her own home. By letting girls run around in public view, you only encourage licentiousness and disobedience! The less a girl sees and hears, the better she is."

The three Spartan boys stared at the stranger in open bafflement. Because he looked at least 40 and by his rich clothes and carefully coifed hair appeared to be a man of wealth, they dared not contradict him.

It was Prokles' grandmother who answered him sharply. "IF it is such a scandal, why are you here?"
"See! That's just what I mean!" the man declared, still addressing the boys. "Silence. SILENCE is a woman's greatest virtue." Then, turning on Leonis, he sneered at her. "Flaunting your bodies is not half so bad as the way you chatter and interfere in men's affairs!"

"If you are afraid of women's words, go back where you came from!" Leonis retorted.

"I intend to do just that!" the man said indignantly and would have turned away, but Leonidas stopped. 

"Excuse me, sir."

The older man looked back. "Yes?"

"May I ask where you are from, sir?"

"I am from the great city of Athens!" the man proclaimed loudly enough to make others take notice.


Leonidas looked so surprised that the man's curiosity was aroused. "Does that surprise you?"

"It does, sir."

"Why?" the man asked, perplexed. He evidently felt that his nationality should have been obvious by his clothes and accent.

Leonidas hesitated. He glanced a little uncertainly at Prokles' grandmother. She could not know what he was going to say, but she awaited it expectantly. "It's only that I was taught Athens was a great and powerful city, sir."

"As indeed it is, boy --  nothing like this provincial pig-sty you call a city! Why, your whole acropolis wouldn't qualify as more than a collection of third-rate district temples in Athens, and your agora could fit inside ours three time over!"

"I accept your word for it, sir, but it surprises me nevertheless -- although I knew you had walls..." Leonidas trailed off enticingly. 

"What surprises you, boy?" The man asked impatiently, frowning, sensing something behind Leonidas' words that he could not identify yet.

"It surprises me that you are so easily frightened."

"Frightened?" the Athenian demanded, flabbergasted and uncomprehending.

"I mean," Leonidas still sounded baffled and respectful because it was a guise he had long since honed to perfection in the syssitia. "If you fear even the words of women, how you must tremble before the spears of men."

The man's jaw dropped in shocked outrage, and there was no knowing what he would have said if around him other spectators, both domestic and foreign, hadn't hooted with laughter. Angrily the Athenian pushed away into the crowd, with a loud sneer of "Whores and their whelps!" tossed over his shoulder.

Prokles leaped after him, apparently intent on making him retract this insult, but his mother caught him by the neck of his chiton. "Leave it! Leonidas won the round, and he knows it. Here's your sister now."

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:

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