Spartan Education

When examining any society, one of the most important aspects of its civilization to identify is the education of the youth. Children yearn to please their instructors. Therefore, when all children throughout a society are taught a certain way to live and think, when they grow up, the society itself models these values instilled upon the children. Naturally, when using this ideal to study the history of the Ancient Greeks, focus falls upon its two major city-states, Athens and Sparta.

As in almost every aspect of comparison, the difference between the education of the warlike Spartans compared to the education of the philosophical Athenians is like comparing black to white. The main focus of a Spartan education was not to focus on literacy. Instead, as a result of the system of helotry practiced in Sparta, fitness, obedience, and courage had to be taught in order for the Spartans to retain the militaristic supremacy that they had over the rest of the Peloponnesus.

In contrast, an Athenian education was devoted to the three basic categories of literacy, music, and physical education in hopes of creating intelligent, well-rounded citizens who could responsibly participate in the Assembly. For purposes of comparison, the education of both societies can be broken down into three distinct periods of age in which certain traits were taught and which certain schools were attended. When education was complete, the society had successfully refined another child into its strict system of beliefs and principles.

In the eighth century B. C. , Sparta was in need of more fertile land to support an ever-growing population that demanded food. Consequently, Sparta was forced to do what any ancient civilization did when in need of resources: They invaded their neighbors, the Messenians, and after a twenty year war, enslaved them as their agricultural laborers, henceforth known as Helots. After many years, the Helots grew to outnumber the Spartans by a ratio as a large as ten to one.

However, the Spartans still wanted the Helots to remain under their control, so they were forced to create a system that would keep them in check. What ensued was a militaristic state that focused only on the education of warfare and the ability to survive hardships, thereby allowing them to dominate the Helots. The education was implemented by the State on the belief that it was every citizen’s duty to provide for the continuity of its way of life.

At the age of seven, the education of the young Spartan male was taken over directly by the State when he was placed in his agoge, or living group, where he lived communally with all the other boys of his age. To quote Plutarch on the education of the boys, their study of letters was restricted to the bare minimum; for the rest, their education consisted exclusively in learning unquestioning obedience, superhuman endurance, and how to win at wrestling. The obedience Plutarch speaks of is further established in Xenophons Constitution of Lacedemonians when he writes,

In order that the boys never lack a ruler even when the Warden was away, he gave authority to any citizen who chanced to be present to require them to do anything he thought right, and to punish them for any misconduct. This had the effect of making the boys more respectful; in fact boys and men respect their rulers above anything. The purpose of demanding such rigid obedience is obviously for military purposes considering the standard fighting unit of the time was the hoplite-phalynx.

The hoplite-phalynx consisted of rows of men, each equipped with a large shield that covered half of his body and half of his neighbors, and when instructed, would charge the enemy and destroy everything in front of it. The success of the hoplite-phalynx depended on each man holding his position in the line, so his neighbor was protected, and the whole group could continue to function. Discipline was a necessity to keep the group working together and obeying their commanders in the heat of battle.

The success of this educational process can be noted in Herodotus Historia, when the reputation of the Spartans battlefield superiority reaches Xerxes, king of Persia, by word of mouth from Demaratos, The conversation is as follows, The same goes for the Spartans. One-against-one, they are as good as anyone in the world. But when they fight in a body, they are the best of all. For though they are free men, they are not entirely free. They accept Law as their master.

And they respect this master more than your subjects respect you. Whatever he commands, they do. And his command never changes. It forbids them to flee in battle, whatever the number of foes. He requires them to stand firm-to conquer or die. Another tactic that prepared the boys for battle was depriving them of many common amenities such as food, clothing, and shelter so that they were not unaccustomed to hardships. On the topic of providing food, Xenophon reports in his Constitution of the Lacedemonians:

As to the food, he required the prefect to bring with him such a moderate amount of it that the boys would never suffer from repletion, and would know what it was to go with their hunger unsatisfied; for he believed that those who underwent this training would be better able to continue working on an empty stomach, if necessary, and would be capable of carrying on longer without extra food, if the word of command were given to do so: they would want fewer delicacies and would accommodate themselves more readily to anything put before them, and at the same time would enjoy better health.

As a result, the young Spartans were already prepared for the misery that accompanied battle when resources were scarce, and therefore, when actual conflict did occur, they had the advantage over a society whom had never been forced to experience this before. The society that did not focus the education of their children on warfare was the Athenians. Rather than forcing young boys to learn the skills that would make them great warriors and benefit the state, an Athenian education was mainly set up to benefit the individual citizen.

Like Sparta, education started at the age of seven when parents would send their children to school in hopes of attaining character, taste, temperance, moderation, and good-behavior in word, thought, and deed. Education was not established to teach children vocations or proficiency in making money. Rather it was training for living and achieving a healthy body and mind. However, not much is known about Athenian education other than the subjects taught and the manner in which they were learned. The first and most important subjects learned were reading, writing, and arithmetic.

To start, the boys learned the letters of the Greek alphabet, memorized and recited various poets such as Homer, and solved simple arithmetic problems using an abacus and pebbles. According to Plato, the poems of Homer were studied because a boy finds plenty of good advice, and many stories and much praisewhich encourage him to admireand to model himself on them (Plato Protagoras 326. A). One interesting fact about the Athenians was that they never read silently to themselves. Instead, to teach proper enunciation of sound and clearness of words, all reading was done out loud.

Almost all classes were taught and information learned entirely from spoken word. Also, another division of the education was teaching the children to play the lyre early in life because it not only helped them to better understand the lyric poets, but also served useful in Athenian society as well. Plato believed that, the life of man in every part has need of harmony and rhythm (Protagoras 326. B). Knowledge of music was not just helpful in understanding poetry, but also at festivals where competitions were held for musical ability. Interestingly enough, if a boy could not play the lyre well, it was thought to be a sign of bad breeding.

Although the Athenians did not stress physical prowess as much as the Spartans, they did not disregard it all together. Young children were trained at the palaestrae, gyms for children, by paidotribes, in activities such as running, jumping, wrestling, and swimming. Plato believed that children are trained physically so that they may not be compelled through bodily weakness to play the coward in war or on any other occasion (Protagoras 326. C). However, it seems that the training the children received would be much more useful in athletic competitions held at religious festivals than in actual combat.

When comparing the hardships the young Athenians went through to that of the Spartans, they are almost nonexistent. While the Spartans were denied food and comfort, the young Athenians still lived at home and went to school. They were never forced to endure any physical pain that would make them stronger for battle. However, the Athenians were far more educated by todays standards in terms of reading and writing than their counterparts, thus highlighting the goal of their educational process; creating an educated citizen that could actively participate in government. At the age of eleven, the next level of a Spartan education began.

The main portion of this time period in a boys life was highlighted by harsh living conditions in which he strengthened himself for battle. To start, the boy no longer wore a tunic. In its place was a single cloak that he was forced to wear for the entire year. Next, all the boys slept in dormitories together on hard pallet beds in hopes of creating a strong sense of unity among the boys. To fight in the hoplite-phalynx, one must trust and have faith in his neighbor. Therefore, by living among the men that one will fight and die with, strong bonds of loyalty are formed that will carry over into battle.

Xenophon can best describe the reason for this stern treatment of the young men. When a boy ceases to be a child, and begins to be a lad, others release him from his moral tutor and his schoolmaster: he is no longer under a ruler and is allowed to go his own way. Here again, Lycurgus introduced a wholly different system. For he observed that at this time of life self-will makes strong root in a boys mind, a tendency to insolence manifests itself, and a keen appetite for pleasure in a different form takes possession of him. At this stage, therefore, he imposed a ceaseless round of work, and contrived a constant round of occupation.

The Spartans believed that a boy of this age could not do as he pleased because it would not benefit the state. Therefore, the lives of the boys were controlled for them so they would not stray from the rigid discipline that would turn them into homoioi, or equals. One more element of the maturing process that demanded modesty from the boys occurred in a common everyday activity, walking. While the boys were walking, they were expected to, keep their hands under their cloaks, to walk in silence, not to look about them, but to fix their eyes on the ground. xenophon). However, not all young men were able to survive under the extreme pressures that the educational system brought them. In a society that only offered respect and glory from martial valor, those who were not able to finish the training, lived a life of shame. After being identified as cowards, they received the nickname of tremblers, and lost many societal privileges. For example, a trembler could not hold public office, and it was not likely that any women would be given to them in marriage or that anyone would marry their sisters. Pomeroy -Page 141). Secondary education for an Athenian boy usually lasted from the ages of fourteen to eighteen and only if the boys family was wealthy enough for him to not be working. The curriculum consisted of more advanced literature, language, and mathematics, though the individual courses of study depended on the interests of their parents. To obtain deeper thought, Plato believed that interpreting the meaning of poetry could increase the intellectuality of the boys rather than just memorizing line after line. Protagoras 325-326). Another subject that was taught, drawing, received praise from Aristotle because it is supposed to be useful in enabling us to judge the work of craftsmen better. (Politics VIII. 3). As one can see, the education of an Athenian was far less demanding and physically stressful than that of a Spartan. The focus of this time period in a young mans life revolved around teaching him certain social skills, such as language and appraising craftsmanship, rather than teaching him how to survive.

In comparison with a Spartan boy, who was not allowed to look up, nonetheless talk, while walking, the skills an Athenian knew were obviously for different purposes. The agoge taught a Spartan to be a warrior. His body was hardened and conditioned for battle at a very early age, yet he lacked what modern society would call an education. On the other hand, a well-off Athenian was in the process of becoming a thoughtful, intellectual leader who would eventually participate in government. Observably, the education provided emphasizes exactly what each society represents. For Sparta, war was the way of life.

Yet for Athens, civic duty was the responsibility of each citizen. As we will see, in the next period of the young mans education, he will be initiated into society to serve the purpose that is required of every male. Between the ages of fourteen to twenty, the young Spartans officially became men. New responsibilities, such as military training, participation in the krypteia, and acceptance into a syssition, awaited them upon reaching this age. In Sparta, competition was considered valuable in the martial training of the boys. However, these competitions were not done singularly.

Cooperation was considered essential. Therefore, groups of boys were placed together to create rivalries among each other. During these competitions, the most talented youths proved themselves as leaders, thereby solidifying their place among their peers, so that when the time came, they would also become leaders in the army. These competitions served as a form of preliminary military training for the young men up until the age of twenty. When they reached that age, each one grew their hair long, shaved their face in traditional Spartan style-a long beard and no moustache, and was now an official member of the army.

One extraordinary ordeal the young men endured before passing into manhood was that of the krypteia. During his period of concealment, the young man hid out by himself in the countryside and was required to hunt and kill helots at night (Daily Life in Greece p-87). This strange and brutal test of the boys manhood served two purposes for Spartan society. One, it directly controlled the population of the helots, and two, it gave the boy valuable experience in the unnatural field of killing. As always, every event mandated by the state was for the sole purpose of creating a warrior that would die for his homeland.


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