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Spartan Agoge

The Spartan agoge was the object of great admiration in the ancient world and has been the subject of endless debate, speculation, and misinformation ever since. In his meticulously researched study, Gymnasium of Virtue, Nigel Kennell demonstrates that the overwhelming bulk of information we have today describes the agoge in the Roman period.  This agoge was a “reinvention” of the Hellenistic agoge almost 40 years after the latter had been disbanded.  Furthermore, the Hellenistic agoge was itself a new institution founded in the reign of Cleomenes III (235-222 BC). Cleomenes III styled his reforms as a “restoration of the ancient customs,” but there is very little evidence that they were, in fact, a return to old customs. Indeed, others of his reforms, such as the abolition of the ephorate, were clearly in contradiction to Spartan law as it had been exercised in the archaic and classical periods.  Furthermore, as Kennell demonstrates convincingly, Cleomenes’ agoge was consciously designed and structured by the Stoic philosopher Sphaerus of Borysthenes.

Sphaerus had his own theories on education that he set about implementing when given the opportunity by Cleomenes.  For example, the emphasis on endurance at the expense of aggressiveness and initiative is clearly evidenced by the transformation in this period of the Feast of Artemis Orthia from a lively battle between youths of different age cohorts into a pure “whipping contest,” in which youths passively allowed themselves to be flogged until they collapsed.

Thus, as is so often the case, the only authentic source for the agoge in the 5th century BC is Xenophon and, to a lesser degree, Plutarch, because he is known to have relied on lost classical works on Sparta.  But even these sources describe the agoge roughly 100 to 130 years after the period described in this novel.  There is no source whatsoever that describes the Spartan agoge of the archaic period.  Yet it must be assumed that, like any institution, the agoge changed over time and had distinctly different characteristics at different periods – or even simply under different influential headmasters.

Nevertheless, there are some features of the agoge that can be inferred from Herodotus, Xenophon, and archaeological evidence, and that appear to have been consistent over time. First and foremost, it is clear that even in the archaic period, Sparta alone of all the Greek city-states had public education for its youth, both male and female.  It appears that parents paid fees (in kind) to support the public schools.  This public education apparently started at age 7 and ended at age 21, when a youth became a “young man,” or Hebontes.  Thus Spartan education differed from the education of youth in other cities not only by being public, but also by its unusual length. Second, Spartan education, apparently alone in the ancient world, stressed austerity and discipline over intellectual content.  It appears most likely that the youths were given uniforms and fed too little rather than too much.  The ancient sources do not, however, support the claim put forward by so many modern commentators that the youth of the agoge were fed so little that they had to steal to survive, that they had only one garment in all weathers, or that they had no kind of education beyond physical sports and drill.

Kennell’s study demonstrates convincingly that Spartan youths at one stage in their training were expected to live outside society, and that during this period they had to live by their wits and skills – these meant primarily hunting and trapping, but theft was tolerated if they could get away with it.  This period was known as the “fox time,” or Phouxir.  There is no source that tells how long or at what age this “survival training” occurred.  I have placed it at the critical transition from “little boy” to “youth,” because anthropology suggests that a period of exclusion from society is often an important rite of passage to adulthood, and in primitive societies this often occurs at 13 or 14 – that is, at the onset of puberty.

I have also assumed that the duration of the Phouxir was long enough to represent a hardship for the boys, but not long enough for widespread theft to be disruptive in a very ordered society.  It is simply not reasonable to imagine that every Spartan wife on her kleros and every craftsman and merchant vital to the survival of the city had to live in constant fear of theft by the hordes of youth in the agoge.  This is why I do not accept the interpretation of other historians that suggest the youths of the agoge had to live outside society for an entire year.  If that were the case, one age cohort would always be in the Phouxir, and society would be dealing constantly with thieving youth rather than getting on with making a living.  Instead, I have chosen to limit the Phouxir to 40 days and 40 nights, at that time of the year when the harvest would already be safely in and the slaughter taking place, thus minimizing the potential for desperate youth to disrupt society by their theft.

The tradition for set classes with distinctive names dates from the Hellenistic agoge.  However, schools all over the world are organized into “grades” by age.  It is the exception – and almost always seen as a serious disadvantage – when children of different ages are mixed together. There can be no doubt that although children develop at different rates individually, on the whole the differences between children belonging to one age cohort are less than the differences between age cohorts.  Furthermore, it is generally unfair to pit young children against older children in sports.  Precisely because Sparta put greater emphasis on sports and physical exercise than other Greeks, it is reasonable to suppose the Spartans always segregated the boys of the agoge by age-cohort – whether or not they gave them discrete designations. 

The unique status and role of eirenes is one of the few features of the agoge that can be found in Xenophon.  Unfortunately he does not define the term, and so we cannot be sure what age his “eirenes” were.  However, we do know that throughout the Greek world, youths on the brink of citizenship went through intense military training and performed key military functions such as guard and garrison duty.  While in a sense the entire agoge was a form of military training, it is nevertheless reasonable to suppose that the eldest classes were gradually given greater and greater responsibility.  Xenophon himself stresses that at the very age when “youths become very self-willed and are particularly liable to cockiness,” Lycurgus decreed that Spartan youth, “be loaded with the greatest amount of work and contrived that they be occupied for the maximum time.”  This description fits perfectly for 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds.  I certainly cannot accept Kennell’s argument that all young men on active service (ages 21 to 30) were “eirenes,” because once Spartan men were on active service their duties – and the possibility of being called up on campaign and so away from the city for months on end—would have made it impossible for them to act as instructors and drill masters in the agoge.  Lastly, there is no reason to believe that nothing in the agoge of the Hellenistic period came from an earlier tradition so I have projected the Hellenistic tradition, in which the eirenes were 20-year-olds and meleireines 19-year-olds, backwards to the period of this book.

The evidence for elected leaders and “herds” of boys is also quite ancient.  In addition to Plutarch’s description of the boys being organized into troops with elected leaders at age 7, many inscriptions at sacred sites in Sparta suggest the importance of various kinds of groups, possibly teams, and their leaders.  The terms used mean nothing to us today, and it seems most probable that there were a variety of different teams or groups that might well have intersected in various ways.  Given the confusion, I have chosen to keep it simple, in this case following Plutarch.

Many readers may be surprised to see no description of institutionalized pederasty in this book.  This is not an oversight, nor ignorance of the fact that many noted historians stress its importance, nor coyness with a theme thought distasteful.   Rather, it is my considered opinion that there is absolutely no evidence of pederasty in the agoge – or in Spartan society generally – at this period or in the centuries before.   Like many other of the most offensive aspects of the agoge, I believe it is a later development.  As noted above, Xenophon, the only historian with firsthand experience of the agoge, states explicitly: “…[Lycurgus] …laid down that at Sparta lovers should refrain from molesting boys just as much as parents avoid having intercourse with their children or brothers with their sisters.”  It is hard to find a more definitive statement than this, and from the most authorative of sources.   To dismiss this evidence simply because it does not suit preconceived ideas is arrogant.  Xenophon even goes on to add: “It does not surprise me, however, that some people do not believe this, since in many cities the laws do not oppose lusting after boys.”  And this is the crux of the matter.  All of our written sources on Sparta come from these other cities, where pederasty was rampant: in short, from men who could not imagine a world without it.  But then, they could not imagine women who were educated, physically fit, and economically powerful who were not also licentious and lewd, either.

Modern readers know better, that pederasty is not inherent in society – particularly not in a society where women are well integrated.   My thesis is supported by another ancient authority, Aristotle, who blamed all of Sparta’s woes on the fact that the women were in control of things, a fact that he in turn attributed to the lack of homosexuality in Spartan society generally.  Finally, I would like to call on the archaeological evidence.   To date – in sharp contrast to other Greek cities – no Spartan homoerotic artwork has been found.   Since the Spartan legacy of artifacts is scanty compared to Athens, Corinth, or other cities, maybe something will still turn up.  But until that happens, the evidence is very strongly against institutionalized pederasty in the agoge of the archaic and early classical periods.

There has also been endless scholarly debate about what clothing the boys of the agoge were allowed.  Xenophon stressed only that in contrast to the spoiled boys of other cities (who had vast wardrobes of himations), the Spartan boys were given only one per year.  At no time did he imply they wore no undergarments, although this is the interpretation of many later scholars.   Again, I follow closely the research of Nigel Kennell.

Of greater significance is the fact that Spartan education did include literacy and music, the primary subjects of ancient education.  Starting with the circumstantial evidence, Spartans could not have commanded the respect of the ancient world, engaged in complicated diplomatic maneuvering, and attracted the sons of intellectuals like Xenophon to their agoge if they had been as illiterate and uneducated as some modern writers like to portray them.  Clearly Spartans knew their laws very well, they could debate in international forums, and their sayings were considered so witty that they were collected by their contemporaries.  Furthermore, Sparta is known to have entertained leading philosophers and to have had a high appreciation of poetry, as evidenced by their many contests and festivals for poetry, particularly in the form of lyrics.  The abundance of inscriptions and dedications found in Sparta is clear testimony to a literate society; one does not brag about one’s achievements in stone if no one in your society can read!  Likewise, Sparta sent written orders to its commanders, and anecdotal evidence suggests that mothers and sons exchanged letters.

Certainly, ancient sources stress the Spartan emphasis on musical education and on dance. Most importantly, ancient sources not only concede that Spartan youth learned to read and write, but claim that “devotion to the intellect is more characteristic of Spartans than love of physical exercise.” (Plutarch, Lycurgus:20)

Last but not least, while everyone agrees that Spartan education was designed to turn the graduates of the agoge into good soldiers, I have tried to point out that the skills needed by a good soldier included far more than skill with weapons, physical fitness, endurance, and obedience.  A good soldier also had to be able to track, to read the weather from the clouds, to navigate by the stars, to recognize poisonous plants, to apply first aid, to build fortifications and trenches, and much, much more.  Far too little attention is paid by most commentators to this simple fact.  I am confident that while the ages at which certain things were taught are fictional, the total picture provided here is closer to reality than the one-sided and one-dimensional depiction of most modern writers. 

These notes were first published in Helena P. Schrader's Book One of the Leonidas Trilogy: Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge  
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