Spartan education of children

“Spartan policy was always mainly governed by the necessity of taking precautions against the helots.” (Thucydides; History of the Peloponnesian War). Since birth, Spartan men and women were inculcated with a mentality developed from the necessity to comply with a militaristic way of life. This society indeed grew out of a symbiotic tension with the vast population of Spartan helots.

Men were taught, through the agoge (education system) harsh training and self reliance that would later be necessary when they began their lives as an adult Spartiate. The purpose of training for women was to produce virile and healthy offspring for the defence of the state both against internal and external threats.

Since the conquest of neighbouring Messenia in 640BC, and the enslavement of the entire population, the Spartans found themselves outnumbered 10 to 1 by a hostile population. As a result, they developed a society revolving around the military as a necessity to keep these helots under control. Although widely held, this view is disputed by P. Cartledge who points to the emergence of hoplite warfare as [“the cause”? of] this social and political change. Nevertheless, the freedom from labour allowed the Spartans to pursue this way of life.

Plutarch attributes these institutions to the great (if not mythical) lawgiver Lycurgus. The resulting agoge indoctrinated both boys and girls with this militaristic mentality from birth. Spartan babies were (10 days after birth) inspected by the ephors for any defects and even washed the babies in wine in the belief that any sick or weak child would die. If found unsatisfactory, the baby would be abandoned in a jar by Mt Taygetus to die of exposure. There was no place in Spartan society for a child who would not grow up to be a fierce, ascetic warrior. Young children were supervised at home by their mothers and taught traditional answers to questions rather than from their own opinion. They grew accustomed to being left alone or in the dark and discouraged from sulking.

At age 7, Spartan boys entered the agoge and lived in communal barracks. They were trained in physical sports and emphasis was placed on excellence, with the most able boy made captain over his herd. Boys were almost never unsupervised with the paidonomos aided by older boys called eirens armed with whips constantly enforcing punishment. Indeed, Spartan boys were looked on as property of the state with any man invested with the power to punish not only his own but other children. Old men stirred up “disputes and quarrels” (Xenophon) to encourage fighting.

A Spartan boy’s training intensified at age 12. At 10, he would learn music and dance which was highly patriotic and even martial. An example is the Pyrrhic Dance (learnt at age 15) a mock fight commemorating a victory against Argos. The poet Tyrtaeus praises heroism and militaristic life, “this is the greatest prize when a man stands in the front line unyielding, putting shameful flight from his mind”. (Tyrtaeus). Boys were fed minimum rations and stealing was necessary to encourage self reliance and prepare boys for the privations of war. “Indeed, the boys take being caught stealing so seriously that one boy who had a live fox under his tunic let the animal claw him to death rather than be found out.” (Plutarch). Adolescent boys would accompany homoioi (prime men) in their pursuits of hunting to learn such skills and observe others. They attended the syssition (public mess) to hear of noble battle deeds and enculturated with this mentality.

Music and religious festivals were particularly useful in educating young boys with this mentality. The cheese stealing ritual at the temple of Artemis Orthia (patron goddess) was a test of endurance through older boys armed with whips and commonplace drawing of blood. This was a rite of initiation for boys to encourage physical endurance and prowess. The gymnopaedia and the “festival of unarmed boys” was another such test of endurance and would take place on long hot summer hours. Games were played where kicking, biting and eye-gouging were commonplace. These tests and activities were vital in training boys to become fierce warriors and to live within the highly militaristic society of Sparta.

17 and 18 year old boys entered the Krypteia of the Spartan “secret police”.Here they would hide themselves during the day and at night they would seek and murder any helots they could find. This not only kept the helot population under control, but also enculturated the boys in killing and absolved blood guilt. At 18 he became an eiren and could apply for membership to the syssition. Voting must be unanimous (never drop to present tense) and only the most distinguished and capable young men were allowed (although in reality every eiren had to join a syssition to maintain citizen numbers). They also accompanied the paidonomos in inflicting punishment and whipped younger boys at the cheese stealing ritual at Artemis Orthia. He would be tested in physical endurance and bravery, necessary later in life in battle, and would have to live up to the ideal of the Spartans embodied in soldiers such as Leonidas. He would be taught submission of self to the state and to execute orders without question.

The purpose of training Spartan women was different however. Girls would train naked with the boys up until the age of 18 when they were expected to enter motherhood. Women were vital in Spartan society to increase the population and produce Spartans for the defence of the state. All training geared towards being able to endure the pains of childbirth and the labour of pregnancy. One exercise they practised was the bibasis where they would jump up and down “each time touching their buttocks with their heels”. (Bradley 1988). They would be encouraged to eat and drink freely and exercise regularly in the early months of pregnancy. Marriage would occur early in life [maybe today but late for ancient times!] and men would marry at 20 (to 24) under the belief that the most virile and healthy offspring would be produced “in the prime of bodily vigour”. (Xenophon). Indeed, this training prepared them to exist as adults in an austere society where childbirth was essential.

“Indeed, Spartans value motherhood so highly that there were only two ways a Spartan would receive their name on a gravestone: death in battle or death in childbirth”. (Xenophon).

Artemis Orthia was the patron goddess of Sparta and indeed demonstrated how highly the Spartans valued the need to produce healthy offspring for thedefence of the state. Artemis was a goddess of fertility and women would pray to her for fertility and aid in pregnancy. They wore broaches of her image and in fact the

cheese stolen at her altar was believed to be the preserved milk of the goddess and so therefore highly valuable.

The Spartan Agoge (education system) inculcated men and women with both the mentality needed to comply with a militaristic life and the skills by which to carry this out in their society. The need to control the vast numbers of hostile helots and guard against their possible revolt (as occurred in 464BC in conjunction with an earthquake) compelled the polis of Sparta to gradually adopt this totally militaristic society and way of life. Men were trained in physical endurance and bravery to prepare them for the privations of war and were taught the complete submission of oneself to the state and forfeit of individuality to allow them to execute orders. Women trained in physical exercise for the purpose of motherhood and providing as many healthy and virile offspring as possible for the defence of the state. This training for Spartan men and women would allow them to function within the mindset of their society.