Successful completion of the public
system of upbringing, the agoge, was a prerequisite for Spartan
Spartan education stressed love of
intellect and knowledge as much as physical exercise.
education was provided for girls as well as boys.
Although Spartan education was famed
for its exceptional harshness and emphasis on physical skills and
endurance, it was also characterized by an unusual degree of
self-government, freedom, and responsibility.
Self-discipline, not kadavergehorsam
(mindless obedience) was the goal of Spartan education.
Literacy was higher in Sparta
than in other Greek city-states, because only in Sparta was there a
high degree of literacy among women as well as men.
Spartan (laconic) rhetorical
style was admired throughout the ancient world, attesting to its high
quality — a product of the agoge.
public education was the subject of extensive – and
controversial – discussion even in the ancient world. No
other contemporary state provided for, and in fact required, its
citizens to attend public school. Unfortunately, because we must rely
on descriptions of the system provided by outsiders, we have a kind of
mirror image of the Spartan agoge. Observers reported
whatever struck them as unique or different from education in their own
cities, rather than reporting systematically about Sparta's system of
education. Equally distorting for the modern historian
interested in archaic Sparta is the fact that all our existing ancient
sources except Xenophon describe the Spartan educational system as it
was reinstituted in the Hellenistic period, after what may have been
nearly a century in abeyance. It is often very difficult to
distinguish traditional from innovative features of the described
schooling. (The best account of the agoge and its different
stages of development is provided by Nigel Kennell in The Gymnasium of Virtue
(University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1995).
Nevertheless, a number of characteristics of this education can be
First, collective education was considered so important that not only
was the agoge a compulsory prerequisite for citizenship, but all adult
males bore an equal responsibility for rearing good citizens.
This was manifest in the laws that required boys in school to
address all older men as "father" and gave any citizen the right to
reprimand – but not punish – a boy or youth under
age. As best as historians can piece together from ambiguous
evidence, all citizens were directly involved in the education of the
next generation in another respect as well: at the age of 20,
before being awarded citizenship at 21 and serving in the army,
young Spartans acted as instructors in the agoge for their younger
Despite the emphasis on public education, it is absurd to think that
parents did not take a very personal and intense interest in the
education of their own offspring. Numerous quotes demonstrate
the pride and sense of personal accomplishment that Spartan mothers
felt with regard to their sons. Human nature, which has
changed very little in 3000 years, suggests that fathers
would not have been less proud. (On this point, the article
by Jean Ducat, "Perspectives on Spartan Education in the Classical
Period," in Sparta: New
Perspectives (edited by Stephen Hodkinson and Anton
Powell, Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd, London, 1999), is particularly
Second, all sources agree that the principal goal of public education
was to raise good future citizens. One aspect of this goal is
obvious: future citizens were by definition professional soldiers, and
so the educational system very clearly sought to create physically
hardened men, capable of enduring hardship, pain, and deprivation.
This was exceptional in Greece, and hence attracted
particular attention. Many anecdotes are told about the
hardships the boys endured, and that they were allowed to steal.
Despite a common misconception found even in ancient
commentary, careful research indicates that the boys in the agoge were
not encouraged to steal throughout their training – only
during a specified segment. (Again, see Kennell on this point.)
Most likely, this was a form of survival training intended to
teach the youths how to survive on their own so that they would be
able, for example, to operate behind enemy lines. Throughout
their public education, they were also apparently subjected to harsh
discipline, which may have included flogging – a punishment
reserved almost exclusively for slaves in other Greek cities.
But it was not until the Roman period that whipping contests
were introduced, in which boys were brutally flogged just to see how
long they could endure.
Less obvious, and often overlooked by modern observers, is the fact
that being a good soldier required much more than just an ability to
endure hardship and obey orders. Good soldiers have
to be able to track, hunt, and fish, to navigate by the stars, to
provide first aid, to recognize poisonous and medicinal plants, to
build fortifications and to undermine them, and much more.
Furthermore, good soldiers can think and act independently; they can
recognize opportunities and seize the initiative. It is
reasonable to assume, therefore, that the agoge taught fundamental
first aid, botany, astronomy, and so on. Certainly it raised
youth who were capable of independent thought and action, as the
evidence of Sparta's successful independent commanders (such as
Gylippus, Mindarus, and Lysander) amply proves.
Furthermore, the goal of producing good future citizens was not
fulfilled by producing good soldiers alone. Future citizens
had to be able to deliberate wisely in the Assembly, to serve as
magistrates and judges, and to conduct negotiations with foreign
powers. Thus, despite the harsh discipline, Sparta did not
seek to break her youth or make them subservient. Instead,
they were taught not only their laws but also the functioning of
democracy from the very start of their schooling – not in
theory, but in practice. On starting school at the age of
7, the boys were organized into units, teams, or herds –
and elected their own leaders. Some sources suggest that they
also elected their instructors from among the eligible
Even more noteworthy is the fact that Socrates himself considered the
Spartans the greatest philosophers in mainland Greece. It has
been argued that Sparta not only welcomed and entertained philosophers
such as Pythagoras for years on end, but actually provided the
foundation for Milesian, Pythagorean, Socratic, Platonic, and
Aristotelian philosophy. Certainly Socrates, Xenophon, and
Plato were admirers of Sparta; it hardly seems reasonable to
hypothesize that these leading Athenian intellectuals admired a
city-state that – as many modern writers portray it
– was anti-intellectual and inhabited by illiterate
brutes. (An excellent article on this topic is provided by W.
Lindsay Wheeler, in Sparta:
Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 3,
Issue 2, 2007.)
Furthermore, although there may have been more emphasis on physical
fitness in a Spartan education than elsewhere, numerous sources testify
to the fact that Sparta also placed great emphasis on training the
intellect. The fact that no contemporary source
mentions that the boys learned to read and write has been taken
mistakenly to mean that they did not. This is
absurd. There is abundant evidence that the Spartans were
every bit as literate as other Greeks. Anything less would
have put Sparta at a disadvantage in foreign affairs, and would have
made it inconceivable that Spartans were repeatedly requested to assume
positions of leadership. Furthermore, the percentage of
Spartans who were literate clearly exceeded that of any other
city-state because – in contrast to the other cities
– Spartan women were literate. The fact that
learning to read and write is not mentioned in the descriptions of
the Spartan agoge is a function of the fact that all Greeks learned
these skills while in school, and so this was not deemed worthy of
Worthy of comment, however, was the excellence of Spartan education in
music, poetry, and dance. The boys and youths of the agoge
were famed for their proficiency at all three skills. Such
skills require practice and are further evidence that modern depictions
of the Spartan youth living like wild beasts in the wilderness is pure
Another area in which Spartans excelled was in brevity and clarity of
expression. Rhetoric in ancient Greece was highly valued.
Men paid large sums to improve their speaking skills, and in
democratic Athens power rested with those men who could sway the
Assembly with their rhetoric. This skill with words largely
accounts for Pericles' and Alcibiades' power in their time.
If Athenians collected Spartan sayings and laconic forms of
expression were admired, this is clear testimony of the quality of
Spartan education in this regard.
Lastly, the manners of Spartan youth were admired in the
ancient world, and comparisons were often drawn to the rude, impudent
youth of other cities. One anecdote describes an old man
looking for a seat at the Olympic Games. As he stumbled about
from one section to the other, the spectators laughed at him.
But when he came to the Spartan section, all the Spartans
stood to offer him their places – and there was universal
applause. The moral drawn by the commentator was: You see,
all Greeks know how we ought to behave, but only the Spartans act on
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