Collections: This. Isn’t. Sparta. Part I: Spartan School

This is Part I of a seven part series (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, Gloss., Retrospective) comparing the popular legacy of Sparta (embodied in films like 300) with the historical ancient state. Today, we’re going to start by looking at the sources of our information on Sparta, and then begin at the beginning: the Spartan rearing and training system, the agoge.

I knew we’d go here eventually (a critique of 300 in particular has been a fairly common request), but I decided to move this up in the calendar after reading the dueling articles in the New Republic about the value of Sparta. I don’t think either article was really as comprehensive as it could have been, and I felt one of them was deeply mistaken – it will soon be very obvious which one.

Sparta’s legacy in American popular culture has always been prominent, but it seems particularly so now. You see the Spartan lambda (the Λ for Lacedaemon, the name of the territory of Sparta) on t-shirts. Sparta is invoked in fitness motivational posters. Famous Spartan witticisms (like molon labe – “come and get them”) are turned into modern political slogans. There’s an entire, popular series of obstacle course runs called ‘Spartan race’ (an unfortunate phrasing if ever I’ve heard one).

The logo for “Spartan Race” obstacle races. It seems relevant to note that the helmet here is a Corinthian helmet. Historically, Sparta is more strongly associated with the pilos helmet, a simple conical helmet in bronze which kept the face and ears clear, but probably Spartans wore whatever helmet they liked.

It extends into broader use in popular culture. Naturally, the main protagonist of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey had to be a Spartan. Spartans are an elite military force even in Total War: Rome II (which takes place a century after Sparta ceased to be a meaningful military power). The name for the super-soldiers of the Halo universe, including the protagonist, Master Chief, are Spartans. The battle of Thermopylae and its three hundred Spartiates (why am I not saying ‘Spartans?’ we’ll get there next week) gets a friendly name-check in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and a full, loving reenactment in Cartoon Network’s Samurai Jack.

Heroic Spartans as they appear in Cartoon Network’s Samurai Jack, “Jack and the Spartans,” season 2, episode 25. Themopylae is recreated here, but with the evil Aku’s robotic monsters replacing the Persian army, which is dehumanization taken very literally.

Covering the whole sweep of Sparta’s presence in politics and popular culture would be a post series of its own, and that’s not what I’m here to do. I want to talk about the actual Greek polis of Sparta, not the city-state of our imagination (to get a sense of just how far off the popular conception is, let me note now that Sparta was not a city-state for the simple reason that it didn’t have a city – it had five villages instead). So we’re going to simplify: our model for the pop-cultural presence of Sparta is going to be just one film: 300, directed by Zach Snyder.

As you might imagine, that means 300 is going to get more than a little beat up here. I’ll be honest, 300 has been a guilty pleasure of mine. I think I find myself in a similar position as Dan Olsen: it is a profoundly irresponsible film (and not just because the soundtrack was plagiarized), but in isolation, it is still a very effective film at conveying the power and emotions it aims to.

Getting into useful details on Sparta is going to require me to introduce some uncommon terminology – don’t worry, I’ll define everything when it first shows up. But as a reference, I am pairing this post with a terminology list, linked here. We won’t get to all of those terms today, but we’ll get to them over the next several weeks.

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Alright. Let’s begin.

A Word From Our Sources

But first, a word about our sources.

300 opens – before we see any characters at all – with the grizzled voice of the narrator, who we learn to be Dilios, a hardened Spartan warrior (the historical figure here was actually named Aristodemus and we’ll come back to his sad story later). This is, in its own way, the first fib of the film – we get our story from a regular guy, a warrior and a Spartan at that.

Dilios: What 300 wants you to think our sources are like.
Sidenote: Dilios in the film is treated with honor and apparently the leader of Spartans after Thermopylae. The historical figure – Aristodemus – was intensely shamed, so much so that he deliberately committed suicide-by-Persian at the Battle of Plataea.

In fact, our sources for Sparta are essentially nothing of the kind. With one relatively minor (but interesting!) exception, the Spartans do not write to us. Sparta produced little art and almost no great literature (there are only two minor exceptions) – this will become less and less surprising as we explore Spartan society. Instead, we hear about Sparta through the eyes of other Greek writers, most crucially Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Aristotle and Plutarch (in chronological order rather than order of importance).

We’ll get to Herodotus and his take on Sparta a little later when we talk about Sparta’s battlefield record. But I want to turn on the other four now, because they share a set of preconceptions and opinions we should be aware of.

To put it bluntly, these guys are all snobs. Thucydides and Xenophon were both aristocratic Athenians (they got to be generals, rather than common soldiers), frustrated that democracy – in their view – let the fickle, uneducated and poor ‘masses’ make decisions that ought to have been left to their ‘betters.’ In some respects in both the Nicomachean Ethics and his Politics, Aristotle codifies this in his understanding of the nature of virtue – this is most visible in his discussion at the end of the first book of the politics on the (lesser) virtue available to women, children and slaves. For these authors, Sparta is a mirror to hold up to the politics of Athens – speaking well of Sparta is a way of criticizing what they dislike about Athens (which is the democracy).

Pictured: The School of Athens, by Raphael. Actually what our sources for Sparta are like.
Indeed, several of our sources – Plato, Aristotle and possibly Xenophon and even maybe Strabo are included here. Not grim Spartan warriors, but rather pampered Athenian philosophers (and Xenophon, who was both a pampered Athenian philosopher and a grim Athenian soldier).

By contrast Plutarch – our last source – writes about the Spartans (in his Life of Lycurgus and Lysander as well as in the Moralia) at around 470 years after the height of Spartan power and 300 years since the last time Sparta had been even remotely militarily relevant (he is also a wealthy, well-connected Greek). By Plutarch’s day, Sparta had been reduced to little more than a tourist attraction under Roman rule.

In short, these are all free, aristocratic fellows and they identify with the concerns and opinions of other free, aristocratic fellows. Xenophon was even buddies with one of the Spartan kings. How this society works for the poor Spartan, or the slave, or the non-citizen is simply not something any of these authors care about. They are partisans of the Spartan upper-class (some more than others).

Does that mean we can’t use the information they give us? Of course not. We can – with some reservations – trust their facts, but we do not need to trust their judgments. These men conclude that Sparta is fantastic because Sparta seems fantastic for men like them – rich, educated, adult citizen men. They also judge Sparta by the values and concerns of that narrow class of people, which – as we’ll see – is hardly the only way to judge Sparta. We can use the facts they give us – the details about Spartan culture, government, and so on – but we ought to form our own opinion of the society they sketch, informed by our own values.

(A note on citations followed – I am going to provide a bunch of references to ancient sources as I go, in the traditional ancient format – if you want to track a citation and have no idea what Hdt. or Xen. Lac. means, @me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) and I can point you the right way. This is not meant as an exhaustive list of everything, but enough that we may all content ourselves that yes, this is actually what the sources say and yes, I have actually read them. Yes, even the ones you haven’t heard about, like Tyrtaeus and Alcman.)

The picture, it turns out, is fairly bleak.

Schooling the Spartans

Our grizzled Spartan veteran begins by detailing Leonidas’ progression through the Spartan education system, the agoge (ἀγωγή, for the curious, pronounce ah-go-GAY – naturally the film botches the pronunciation). The film certainly knows what it thinks of the agoge and Spartan education in general: this is a badass school for badasses, ending with an initiation in which he hunts a giant wolf and proves himself to be a mighty warrior and a king besides. We’re shown all of this in just two minutes and not encouraged to think too hard about it. Because the more you think about it, the more horrifying you realize it is. It’s time to drop my normal jokey-joke manner, this is going to get dark.

(Sidenote: 300 is actually correct on one count: Leonidas probably did go through the agoge. While the heirs of Sparta’s two hereditary kings were exempt from the agoge (Plut. Agesilaus 1.1) – perhaps because the state couldn’t afford to risk their lives so callously – Leonidas was a younger brother and thus was not exempt (since the exemption covered only the eldest son and not his younger brothers). It is wrong that he returns a king – Leonidas was well into his adulthood before his brothers died, leaving him the throne.)

Content warning ahead: we’re going to describe the agoge, which means describing violence, including sexual violence (as we’d define it) against children. If you want to skip that, no one will blame you – if you still want to be on the same page next week, just skip down to the conclusion.

The details here are actually not entirely off-base. Spartan boys were, at age seven, removed from their families and instead grouped into herds (agelai) under the supervision of a single adult male Spartan – except for the heirs to the two hereditary kings, who were exempt. Order was kept by allowing the older boys to beat and whip the younger boys (Xen. Lac. 2.2). The boys were intentionally underfed (Plut. Lyc. 17.4; Xen. Lac 2.5-6). They were thus encouraged to steal in order to make up the difference, but severely beaten if caught (Plut. Lyc. 17.3-4; Xen. Lac. 2.6-9).

Not even the exemplary boys escaped the violence, since the Spartan youths were annually whipped at the Altar of Artemis Orthia (Plut. Arist. 17.8; Lyc. 18.1; Paus. 3.16.10-11). Plutarch is clear that this was no light ritual but that he himself had witnessed boys die as a result of the beatings (Plut. Lyc. 18.1; Plutarch, we should remember, is a relatively late writer, so it is possible that the fatalities he witnessed were the product of the later reinvention of this ritual, but a ritual of this sort seems to have been in existence even in the Classical period, note Xen. Lac. 2.9. Cf. also Cic. Tusc. 2.34).

It seems safe to assume that these weren’t the only deaths in the agoge. We are not told, but it seems unavoidable that in a system that intentionally under-feeds groups of boys to force them to steal, that the weakest and smallest boys will end up in a failure spiral where the lack of food leads to further weakness and further victimization at the hands of other boys. Given Sparta’s strong tradition of eugenicist infanticide, it seems safe to conclude this was allowed to happen.1

300 gives us this scene of young Leonidas fighting another boy in what we are to assume is a Pankration. But it should be stressed that most of the violence ancient sources relate in the agoge were not boxing matches between boys of equal ages, but brutal punishments meted out to younger boys by older boys.

I should note that while ancient parenting and schooling was certainly more violent than what we do now – the Spartan system was recognized as abnormally violent towards these boys, even by the standards of the time.

Then there is the issue of relationships. At age twelve (Plut. Lyc. 17.1) boys in the agoge would enter a relationship with an older man – Plutarch’s language is quite clear that this is a sexual relationship (note also Aelian VH. 3.10, similarly blunt). We should be clear also in Plutarch’s language – the men here are the neoi (νέοι), young men in their twenties who in Sparta cannot yet marry, which may in part explain the nature of these relationships.

Xenophon (Xen. Lac. 2.12-14) disagrees and argues that these relationships were not sexual. Xenophon has the benefit of proximity (writing 500 years before Plutarch), but at the same time openly admits that it was widely believed that these relationships were sexual, and Xenophon is expressly writing in defense of Spartan customs. Even if Xenophon is correct about the ideal nature of these relationships, we have to assume he wouldn’t tell us about occasions where that ideal was broken.

300 embraces Xenophon’s rationale for the relationship between Spartan men and boys in the agoge – even to the point of having Leonidas gay-shame Athenian “boy lovers” but we know from our sources – including Xenophon! – that it was Sparta and not Athens that had this reputation in antiquity.

We are told these relationships were voluntary, but we should question this assertion much the same way we generally put quotes around reports of ‘voluntary’ arranged marriages in societies where it is clear the women have no real ability to refuse, whatever the rules say. These Spartan boys will have to apply to be part of a mess-group (syssitia – a concept we’ll return to later) when they are twenty – acceptance requires a unanimous vote of the existing members. Failure to get into any of these mess groups resulted in the loss of citizen status – essentially complete social death and a permanent black stain on your entire family. Under those conditions, how able is a twelve year old boy going to be to refuse a relationship with an older Spartan who promises to sponsor him into his syssitia? Or who demands sex in exchange for that?

And just so we are perfectly clear: no twelve-year-old boy is able to consent to that, not now, not ever, not under any circumstances.

A rite of passage for the older boys in the agoge was membership in the krypteia (κρυπτεία). It isn’t clear if all of the young men would have gone through this rite of passage or just the most promising (Plut. Lyc. 28.2 implies it was just the best, Plato, Laws 633 seems to imply it was a fairly common rite of passage; of modern scholars, Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia (1979) follows Jeanmaire (1913) in seeing it as a general institution and I concur). Plutarch tries to date this institution to the 460s rather than seeing it as part of the original Spartan constitution, but that can’t hold as Herodotus seems to know of it (Hdt. 4.146.2) and considers it to be already an old custom.

Leonidas, hiding out in the wilderness as part of his initiation into the Krypteia. I feel it is necessary to point out: it does not matter how ‘badass’ or trained you are, spending the night in freezing conditions in nothing but a loincloth will kill you. Hypothermia does not care how many reps you can do.

What does the krypteia do? They would fan out into the countryside (worked by the helots, a slave underclass we will discuss in more detail in the next post), hiding by day and at night come out and murder any helots they found out, or who they thought showed independence of spirit (Plut Lyc 28), essentially functioning as a secret police to keep the helots in line through exemplary murder. We’ll return in a later post to view this institution through helot eyes.

This is perhaps the most glaring way that 300 sugar-coats the agoge. In the film, Leonidas graduates by slaying a wolf that was hunting him. But it is almost certain that the real Leonidas graduated his Spartan training by stalking and murdering an unarmed, untrained man at night. Some mother’s son, some sister’s brother, some child’s father. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.

Just imagine this scene, but instead of a fearsome wolf, it is a frightened and confused, unarmed and untrained man, minding his own business walking home at night.

But wait – slaying a fearsome and dangerous wolf, we can imagine how that might prepare a man for battle or prove his courage. But why does Leonidas – who has by this point been through a decade of combat training and is armed have to kill an unarmed, untrained, and unwarned enslaved man to become a full Spartiate?2

What does a simple murder prove?

Indoctrination and Child Soldiers

So far, we’ve been discussing this ‘education’ system in a fairly straight-forward way, just describing its elements. Bringing in modern parallels can help us understand what the agoge is doing, what it is, why it functions the way it does and what we might think about it.

The nearest modern institutions to the Spartan agoge are systems for indoctrinating and conditioning child soldiers and terrorists. Indeed, the parallels are not just near, but nearly exact.

(There is a truly depressing variety of groups in the world that still make use of child soldiers, often at appallingly young ages. I have tried, in order to root this comparison as deeply in fact as I could, to read as widely as I had time for about them. The following is based chiefly, but not exclusively, on A. Honwana, Child Soldiers in Africa (2006); M. Bloom and J. Horgan, Small Arms: Children and Terrorism (2019); Depuy and Peters, War and Children (2010); Beber and Blattman, “The Logic of Child soldiering and Coercion” IO 67.1 (2013): 65-104; Woodward and Galvin, “Halfway to Nowhere: Liberian Former Child Soldiers in a Ghanaian Refugee Camp” AAAG 99.5 (2009): 1003-1011. I struggle to communicate how deeply heartbreaking this research has been.)

At functionally all of its stages, the Spartan agoge strongly resembles modern systems for indoctrinating and conditioning children to perform violence as child soldiers or terrorists. Like functionally all such systems, it begins by separating the child from their parents; the agoge is only unusual in that it effects this separation at a younger age than average. While the agoge starts at age 7, Beber and Blattman (2013) note that the average age of abduction for children in the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda is closer to 15 (though partly this has to do with the odd age-distribution patterns in Uganda as a whole due to the conflict).

Pictured: Abduction makes conditioning and indoctrinating child soldiers easier. I am profoundly unconvinced that the social sanction for this activity somehow rendered it less traumatic.

Abduction and separation are important because the removal of the family structure unmoors the child, making them much more open to suggestion and indoctrination. Often, these groups will take steps to make sure that it is effectively impossible for abducted children to reunite with their families. In most cases these means using violence or the threat of violence against the families, although in some cases (including Sparta) intense social shame is instead used. For instance, Maoist militants in Nepal used the combination of threats of violence against families with shame on the children to effect a similar system to separation as practiced in the agoge (Bloom and Horgan (2019), Ch. 6 – alas I have the kindle version and cannot give page numbers).

Violence, often including sexual violence – and in particular the alternation of violence with ‘rewards’ such as recognition or frequently food – is a key component in these systems. It is especially common that older recruits are forced to be the ones to use violence against the newer recruits – Beber and Blattman (2013) note that among child soldiers in the LRA, 54% reported being severely beaten themselves and 55% reported that abductees were forced to beat or even kill new ‘recruits.’ Violent punishments – especially inflicted by fellow (but more senior) abductees serves to reinforce group membership and solidarity as well as condition loyalty to the (adult) group leader.

Bloom and Horgan (2019) note the use of food and sleep deprivation – both aspects of the Spartan agoge (Xen. Lac. 2.5-7 mentions both) – are frequently used to render children physically and emotionally drained, which makes them more pliant for conditioning. The agoge merges these, by using artificial food scarcity to compel transgressions which can then be punished by violence before reintegrating the offender with the troop, compressing the entire cycle of emotional and mental manipulation into a single event.

And – in line with the paragraph above – the punishments were often delivered by the senior boys (Plut. Lyc. 18.2-3), just as in groups like the LRA. This increases the feelings of complicity and belonging in abductees, slowly transforming them from victims to victimizers (though we should note that – these all being children, they all remain victims) and at the same time giving them a ‘reward’ in the form of perceived power over their fellows.

This comparison answers our previous question: why does Leonidas need to murder a helot? Because – as nearly all of the literature on child soldiers notes – the final act of conditioning, the ‘graduation’ into full membership in the group, is very frequently an act of transgressive, irreversible (read: fatal) violence, typically a murder. In that act, the child is forced to join themselves fully into the machinery of violence, to burn a bridge behind then which can never be fully walked back. It cements their place in the group because only within the group does this action make them a man – to turn their back on the group is to convert this event from a rite of passage to a depraved murder, from a proud achievement into an irredeemable shame. Very few people anywhere, at any time, have the moral wherewithal to accept such a truth and so the final act of violence compels them to live the lie.

This is Leonidas’ reward for murder: public acclaim and respect from his entire society, with all his family and friends looking on. Think about this moment, think about the swell of pride he must be feeling right here about the cold-blooded murder he recently committed and it is suddenly very possible to understand why so many child soldiers find reintegrating back into normal society so hard.

But wait, I hear someone saying – this system is run by its graduates. Surely if it was so horrible, they would stop it, right? No. As Bloom and Horgan (2019) note, “even after their release, many children may retain positive associations with and memories of their experiences in the training camps, even though objectively they endured terrible conditions and exposure to traumatic events.” The very nature of the conditioning and indoctrination created by the repeated trauma of these systems is such that they instill strong loyalty to the system – which goes a long way to explaining Spartan social conservatism. It also means that when someone like Xenophon shows up and asks about it, of course he’s going to be told it was fantastic, not because it was, but because the nature of the trauma itself creates a deep, emotional need for the victims of that trauma to believe it was.

I want to add that we’re also dealing with survivor bias. The boys who died from undernourishment, or who were killed by the ritual beatings were not there to tell Xenophon about it. Men who failed in some way, who were broken by this system, were not in the very elite circles (remember, Xenophon is best-buds with one of the Spartan kings) to tell Xenophon how this system ruined their lives. The men who were there for Xenophon to talk to were the winners of this system – it should be no surprise that they defended it as valid. No one is more convinced of the fairness of a game than the man who won.

These children down here, never got the chance to tell Xenophon what they thought of Lycurgus’s laws and Spartan Society.3

That isn’t to say that that the products of these systems – including the agoge – emerged unharmed. The documented experiences of modern child soldier’s struggles to re-integrate back into society and cope with their trauma suggests that we ought to find products of the agoge to be emotionally stunted, prone to violence and social isolation – as well as conformist and inflexible (traits Bloom and Horgan (2019) notes particularly of ISIS child soldiers) – traits which I will argue subsequently we can see quite clearly in Spartan strategic culture.


To sum up: far from being some ideal system of child-rearing, as Xenophon might have it, the Spartan agoge appears functionally identical to modern systems which use trauma to condition child soldiers. I’ve suggested a pattern of dysfunction and violence which I expect to illustrate the rest of our talk about Sparta. This is why – despite how grim this discussion has been – I chose to begin with the agoge. Sparta wasn’t just broken at the top or on the sides. This society was broken up from the foundations in ways that cannot help but spread through the rest of the society.

I know there is a certain sort of person who will still regard all of this as somehow worth it because it made the Spartans super-badass warriors. I hope that reader sticks around, because as we’re going to find over the next several weeks, it did no such thing. Spartan soldiers were not supermen and Spartan armies were far from unbeatable. If anything, the finger-prints of the agoge and its trauma are visible in the causes for Sparta’s failure, not its success.

I also want to answer one more supposed ‘virtue’ of the agoge which I often hear bandied about – although in light of what we’ve discussed above, it may now seem fundamentally absurd – which is that the agoge, for all its flaws at least represented the first real universal education system. Setting aside for the moment just how awful the agoge was, I want to address this point.

The agoge was a rearing system, a training system perhaps, but not an education system in our understanding of the term. This was not a school. It does seem that most of the Spartiates – full Spartan citizens – could read and write at least a little, but given that (as we’ll discuss next week) the Spartiates were essentially a tiny aristocracy in a much larger society, this was no great achievement (to talk of ‘common’ Spartiates is like talking of ‘common’ knights – it’s an oxymoron). But we’re told (Plut Lyc. 16.6) that Spartan literacy was intentionally minimal – as a point of pride. Cartledge’s observation (“Literacy in the Spartan Oligarchy” JHS 98 (1978)), that literacy in Sparta was ‘very thinly spread’ remains consistent with the evidence until the Roman period, a point we will return to when we discuss Spartan government. Certainly the relative lack of Spartan literature (Sparta produced a sum total of two notable authors, both very early lyric poets from perhaps before the system was fully engaged) attests to the limits of Spartan ‘education.’ Likewise, Sparta’s production of inscribed documents, when compared to other Greek communities is, as Cartledge puts it, “a poor harvest indeed.” This does not appear to be – even by the meager standards of ancient Greece – a very literate or learned society.

As we’ll see, the significance of this supposed achievement is also undermined by the fact that the majority of people living under the Spartan state did not take part in it. Heck, the majority of males living in the Spartan state didn’t take part in it. Hell, even the majority of free, non-foreign men weren’t eligible. That’s because the agoge was restricted to the Spartan citizen class – the spartiates – who in turn comprised only a tiny minority of the people actually living in Sparta.

Look at all of these lovely fields. I wonder who farms them?
Also: Sparta did not look like this. It was a few villages on a river – Thucydides even notes how unimpressive it looked and how spread out it was (Thuc. 1.10).

The citizen spartiates were not the whole of a society, but rather a closed tiny aristocracy ruling over a much larger society. Next week, we’ll look at the broader Spartan society, it’s many different under-classes and actually meet the Spartans – this time, all of them.

  1. Post-publication edit: I am less convinced of this point now than I was when I wrote this. Spartan infanticide would have been a practice, if as widespread as Plutarch implies, that we ought to see archaeologically and we don’t. See on this and on Greek practices of infanticide more generally, D. Sneed, “Disability and Infanticide in Ancient GreeceHesperia 90.4 (2021). I think in turn that re-opens the question of if boys in this system died with significant frequency. On the one hand our sources seem to think so, but on the other hand those sources are generally very late and so their view may be colored by later, exaggerated versions of the system. On the other hand we cannot retreat to the normal argument here which is to point out that steady population growth in high mortality societies is a good indicator they weren’t throwing away babies because of course the spartiate population collapses over this period (though we generally assume the ‘missing spartiates’ are becoming hypomeiones, not ending up dead in boyhood). On the balance my instinct is to assume that deaths in the agoge were rare, but perhaos not unheard of in the classical period.
  2. Post-Publication note: This bit is terribly unclear and needs clarification. My aim here was to speak with the voice of someone who more or less believed the popular image of the agoge as a sort of boot camp. As we discuss in part VI, it wasn’t; there was no combat training in the agoge that we can tell. But this paragraph is written badly and doesn’t make that at all clear. I’m not going to change the paragraph itself because it has been critiqued elsewhere and I’m not fond of ‘stealth edits’ for that sort of thing, so I am instead adding this clarifying note. Leonidas, if he participated in the krypteia (it seems likely, but not certain) would have been armed, but it is not clear what if any training he would have had. At the same time, of course, an armed agent of the state striking by surprise against an unarmed and unwarned (and equally untrained) victim is still hardly doing something that we might regard as proving his valor.
  3. Can I put a footnote in a caption? Let’s find out! As noted above, the mass infanticide of disabled children probably was not happening in Sparta; our sources for it are very late. That said the point above, that our sources primarily interact with the successful ‘winners’ of this system remains clearly true. Xenophon isn’t hanging around with the mothakes or the hypomeiones.

55 thoughts on “Collections: This. Isn’t. Sparta. Part I: Spartan School

  1. The description of the agoge and child soldiering also brings to mind descriptions of gang initiation and gang violence.

    1. I don’t feel like I know enough about that to say for sure, but based on what little I do know, the comparison occurred to me too. I just didn’t have the background knowledge to feel I could pursue it without spreading more misinformation than truth.

      1. I am also reminded of the British public/boarding school system. Traditionally, boys were sent away to school at the age of 7 or 8 and a lot of the discipline was carried out by older boys. Of course, British public schools have had a heavy and continuing influence on schools around the world, whether fee-paying or not. It is extremely fortunate then that the current political heads of the UK and the US absoluetly in no ways whatsoever suffered any forms of harm at their boarding schools that they might then have spent decades trying and failing to work through in public. So that’s a relief. Just imagine if they had suffered harm there. What a mess we might all be in then.

  2. From the books listed it seems like you had an analogy in mind even before you started your research, so no surprise all of this is a bit tendentious. I admire the pathos though.

    The agoge was state-run, highly prestigious, kids weren’t abducted and did not take part in warfare. Hazings, sexual violence, harsh discipline are common in such institutions even nowadays. Military schools.

    1. The agoge was prestigious in that its graduates were part of the warrior elite; being a child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army *also* makes you part of the warrior elite of the society the LRA rules.

      The children in the agoge are not ‘abducted,’ they’re just taken whether they like it or not at an age when they cannot possibly give consent, and regardless of what their parents think.

      The boys beating younger, underfed boys to death is… fine, I guess… because hazing is a thing in modern military schools? The part where they are effectively prostituted out to older men is fine because sexual violence happens likewise? I suppose there are modern military schools where it’s considered just normal and part of the cost of doing business to publicly flog little boys to death in front of the others, sometimes for literally no reason? To intentionally starve them, expect that they will steal food, and whip them if they get caught? To have the graduation requirement be “go take a spear and kill an unarmed civilian who knows that twelve-year-old boys like you hunt people like him for sport and ceremony?”

      There’s a clear implication that an accusation of authorial bias is going on here… but what’s the reasoning to support it, and what’s the desired conclusion of the criticism? That the agoge was ‘not so bad?’

      1. The idea that there is a desired conclusion of the criticism reflects a world view in which authorial bias is assumed and blameless. So don’t also try to deny it. The bias in this essay is omnipresent, one could start with the routine use of emphasis attached to moral judgment (in re anti-democratic aspects, age of adulthood etc).

        But it’s quite evident in your reply that you don’t know enough about British boarding schools to include them. You did not know enough about the LRA when you began, so you read more.

        You live in a society and benefit from a hegemony in which the third best funded military in the world routinely murders helots for sport and often as initiation. I don’t mention that to excuse either, but rather to inquire if such things are less exceptional than you pretend.

        The British boarding school included many of the features you noted, but then it was in some cases intentionally modeled on the agoge.

        There’s no need for the tendentious recounting. Let your facts speak for themselves.

        1. I only just now saw this reply to my comment from some time ago. I’m honestly a bit confused about it, because it doesn’t seem to be a reply to me. Or rather, it looks like a reply to me and a reply to Dr. Devereaux (the author of this blog) sort of got… melted together. Dr. Devereaux replies to things in this blog under his own name; I am not a sockpuppet for him.

          The idea that there is a desired conclusion of the criticism reflects a world view in which authorial bias is assumed and blameless.See, this is the only sentence here that looks it’s replying to me, as this comment appears to have been intended to do.

          And it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

          Yes the author of this essay about ancient Sparta has a moral perspective on ancient Sparta. Surprise, surprise, so did Herodotus and Xenophon and Aristotle and so on.

          This is not a shocking, outrageous revelation. Everyone’s got an identity, everyone’s got an opinion. If you meet someone who thinks they don’t have an identity or an opinion, they’re fooling themselves.

          The only difference is… I guess… that Dr. Devereaux is openly stating moral opinions like “democracy is good” and “twelve year old boys cannot meaningfully consent to sexual relationships with adults?”

          Wow. Such controversial opinions.

          It is unreasonable to demand that all modern authors, whenever they write about Sparta, pretend to cast aside any moral opinions commonplace in modern society, simply because those opinions might lead them to make unfavorable comparisons or criticisms of the Spartan system. Doing so is actively undesirable. It might blind us to important facts about Sparta, or to bad consequences of imitating Sparta.

          And even aside from the consequences, it is still unreasonable to demand that modern authors set aside their moral code before describing Sparta.

          Certainly, no such demand was ever made in ancient times!

          And indeed, such a demand is itself grossly biased, because it is a clear attempt to enforce a state of affairs where we can only express approving perspectives on Sparta. By making a strident attempt to shut down people who criticize the Spartan system as being “biased,” we shut down the possibility that anything unfavorable about Sparta might come to light.

          Which is why I loop back to the question: what is this criticism trying to accomplish?

          A man does find himself outraged over the existence of “bias” in an essay on a an ancient polis from 2500 years ago without a reason. And it would be most irrational to be highly upset if the only perceived grounds for criticism was “the author doesn’t deliberately conceal their own moral views on subjects that mostly agree with modern audiences but would disagree with Spartan views.”

          So what’s the desired end-state here? I don’t think this is really about just ‘eliminating bias’ or what have you. The level of flack being lobbed at Dr. Devereaux’s description of the agoge would seem to indicate a perception that the agoge system, or the Spartan polity as a whole, has some kind of “honor” that needs to be “defended” here, perhaps.

          As to the rest of your post, it goes a bit far astray and I’m genuinely unclear on what you’re trying to get at, or even whether you intended to be talking to me at all.

          1. This gets into the debate over whether any society and culture- any whatsoever- that can be internally self-consistent enough to perpetuate itself is, by its own lights at least, as valid as any other. And that therefore such other cultures cannot be criticized as wrong or evil, only “different” from our own.

            I will cite the anecdote about Sir Charles Napier who in response to the Indian custom of suttee remarked “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And we will follow ours”.

        2. So basically your argument is like the line from “True Detective” … “the world needs bad men, to keep the other bad men from the door?”

    2. “highly prestigious”
      This implies that the agoge was something people struggled to gain entry into. I think it would be more accurate to describe it as ‘prestigious’ because, as Devereaux points out, only a tiny minority of the people living in Sparta were permitted entry into it (aka exclusionary) rather than ‘prestigious’ as in a place that was given or deserving of respect or admiration. This is like calling a social club that only accepts white, rich men ‘prestigious’; an accurate descriptor that should be considered a condemnation not a positive.

      “kids weren’t abducted”
      In a literal sense? No. But as Devereaux points out these kids could not consent. Further, a refusal by the parents to permit their children being taken into the agoge would invariably result in intense, potentially lethal, social rejection which further muddies the concept of parental consent.

      “kids… did not take part in warfare”
      No they did not. But they were beaten, abused and forced to kill unarmed slaves in preparation for and indoctrination to accept warfare. I’m not sure why you are arguing a point that Devereaux never made.

      “Hazings, sexual violence, harsh discipline are common in such institutions even nowadays. Military schools.”
      Yes and? While at the very least Spartan society would not view what they did as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ due to different frameworks of morality we can at least acknowledge that these practices in contemporary times are disgusting and the fact they occur now shouldn’t change any of the comments Devereaux made about them.

      Spartan society was disgusting. Devereaux makes very passionate and historical points arguing this. However, i believe Devereaux’s pathos comes not from seeking to pass contemporary moral judgements on ancient civilisations (as they were all barbaric in their own way) but rather because, as he notes, much of contemporary popular culture views Spartan culture as something positive with aspects that should be emulated or would in some way make people or society ‘stronger’ if they were re-adopted. That this was not the case is the argument Devereaux makes as he is too professional a historian to fall in the pitfall of pointless moral judgements of dead cultures.

  3. Considering the framing device of the Spartan narrator allows one to imagine it as a work of Spartite propaganda.
    300 is fairly awful history, but as an adaption of the graphic novel it sticks to its source.
    Most of the pages of the novel can be compared shot for shot with the movie scenes.

  4. 300 isn’t a work of history.
    It’s a adaption of a graphic novel. Seriously, some of the cinematography is shot-for-shot identical to panels in the novel.
    The framing story suggests too that this isn’t meant to be a serious thing, but is battlefield propaganda by the Spartans.

    But, yes it’s super important to interrogate the depictions of the Spartans we get onscreen and how they influence the ways we think our society should be organized.

  5. Great short essay on the little known historical facts about Sparta. I look forward to read the rest of the series.

    I also find intringuing that it seems to be the case that Spartan society evolved – or devolved? – during the classic period. Is there much known about that process? Certainly it seems the Spartans reverted to pre classic, tribal (? not sure if that is the right term in English) ways.

    By the way, I would love to see a series discussing the Greek and Hellenistic warfighting, with a look at how it evolved over the centuries.

    Thanks very much for your writing!

  6. Even today, I see justifications for child abuse and violence on modern social media. “I was spanked when I was a kid and I turned out ok” and equivalent, from people I know, even from family members. This fits in so well with your comments about the agoge system.

  7. I am reading through all your blog posts, initially because I was interested in the critiques comparing Peter Jackson’s film presentation with Tolkien’s descriptions of battles. I really remembered nothing about Sparta beyond vague recollections of what I was told—probably in elementary school—about differences between Athens and Sparta. In any case, I had no clue, not even misconceptions about what is shown in the movie 300, which I never saw, until I came here. Suffice it to say, I was horrified. And if the little bits about the horrors of child soldiering you discuss here were almost too much for me, I cannot begin to think of reading all the material you did in order to provide reliable sources for this post. You have both my admiration and my sympathy.

    A few proofreading corrections for this older post:
    Caption for Samurai Jack: Themopylae is recreated here -> Thermopylae is recreated here
    Caption for Dilios: honor and apparently the leader -> honor and is apparently the leader
    intentionally under-feeds groups -> intentionally underfeeds groups
    able is a twelve year old boy going -> able is a twelve-year-old boy going
    fairly straight-forward way -> fairly straightforward way
    “The Logic of Child soldiering and Coercion” -> “The Logic of Child Soldiering and Coercion”
    these means using violence -> these mean using violence
    modern child soldier’s struggles -> modern child soldiers’ struggles
    the finger-prints of the agoge -> the fingerprints of the agoge

  8. “Abduction makes conditioning and indoctrinating child soldiers easier. I am profoundly unconvinced that the social sanction for this activity somehow rendered it less traumatic.”
    To be pedantic, I should note that there is evidence that the severity and frequency of trauma varies considerably depending on how the victim and their culture think about the traumatic event (see, for instance, Berntsen & Rubin (2005), “The centrality of event scale: A measure of integrating a trauma into one’s identity and its relation to post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms”, Behavior Research & Therapy 44 p. 219-231, or Duckers, Alisic, & Brewin (2016), “A Vulnerability Paradox in the Cross-National Prevalence of PTSD”, British Journal of Psychiatry). Such an abduction would still have been traumatic for a Spartiate boy, but since such a child would have expected it and been conditioned by his culture to think of it as normal and good, the trauma may not have been as severe as it would have been for a similarly abducted child from modern America or Europe. Nevertheless, this doesn’t really change the validity of your overall point.

  9. I had taken Prof. Thomas Figueira’s class on Ancient Greece as a undergraduate (purely out of curiosity, my field is not Classics).

    One thing I remember from his class is that, when discussing why our sources of Sparta are mostly pro-Sparta, he pointed out that figures like Thucydides, Xenophon, and Aristotle were not only pro-Sparta but also very anti-democracy, partly due to their political affiliations (and Sparta was known for its pro-oligarchy political position), partly due to Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War.

    He speculated that losing a war as a democracy might contributed to these Laconophilia trends in Late Classical Era, as wining a war would make people – our Athenians snobs, in this case – assume that the winner has better institutions or even merits than the losers.

  10. Personally I am somewhat dubious of the Xenophon’s description of the Above given that he ascribes a similar institution to the Person’s and that certainly wasn’t true. However judging by the result the Spartiate system of rearing children was profoundly dysfunctional whatever it was.

  11. Your potted description of the agoge is startlingly close to George Orwell’s account of his school years before and during the First World War, especially the point about the food. A lot of institutions like his seem to have had a shockingly high mortality rate into the modern era even without actually having the kids fight with swords.

    1. I have long held a grim suspicion that this is in part because such institutions are extremely attractive to the kind of person who enjoys inflicting abuses upon children. The nature of the institution and the customary rules of how to operate it become such that a certain background level of child abuse is practically a job requirement… so why wouldn’t you expect people with that tendency to show up in greater numbers?

      The fact that a disproportionate number of the children ultimately die of such treatment* then becomes “the cost of doing business” from the official viewpoint of the institution, and “good riddance” from the point of view of the child abusers running the place.


      *(sometimes long after; George Orwell had chronic lifelong lung problems that may well go back to an infection in boarding school that he was too weak to fight off properly)

  12. This is a response to this whole collection of posts (not this specific post), which i think have a number of problems.

    You seem to (somewhat strangely, given the very critical attitude towards Sparta) take too seriously the view of Plutarch that there was a great deal of state ownership and equality in Sparta. The view of most modern historians is that helots and kleroi were simply private property, but that buying and selling of helots and kleroi was prohibited, so that they could only change hands through inheritance or as gifts.

    Slaves being a larger proportion of the population in Sparta than in other polis is simply guesswork. The fact of the matter is that we simply do not have such detailed demographic information about the ancient polis.

    It is also not clear that slaves in Sparta were treated much worse than in other polis. Many of the sources for the bad treatment of helots seem to have been written after the liberation of Messenia as anti-Spartan propaganda. The fact that helots were not chattel slaves would imply a greater ability to form families and communities, and thus also greater ability to resist unreasonable treatment by masters.

    It is not clear (as you claim) that the perioikoi would necessarily have been poor or economically marginal. Because spartan citizens were prohibited from engaging in crafts or trade, perioikoi could become quite wealthy by specializing in those activities.

    Your claim that low fertility among Spartan citizens had nothing to do with the decline in the Spartan citizen population is not very likely. Sparta eventually introduced a policy that meant that male Spartans who had 4 or more children did not have to pay taxes. That such a measure was implemented would imply quite low fertility rates among Spartan citizens, fertility rates generally being significantly above 4 in most pre-industrial societies. It is also generally the case that when the social status of women is increased, the fertility rate tends to decline. Sparta also had a number of customs that would imply low fertility, for example allowing brothers to be married to the same woman.

    1. Further to this, Sparta also eventually lightened the restrictions on how you could qualify to become a Spartiate (ie, to ultimately join the army), even going so far as allowing you “eligibility” if you could only trace your ancestry to ONE Spartiate in the previous generation (previously something like 2-3 generations on both parents’ sides). This was more to do with high casualties in battles like Leuctra in 371, but either way, low male citizen count is low male citizen count, whatever causes it.

  13. I’d just like to point out that, as a Halo fan, calling the UNSC’s super soldiers as Spartans is aptly accurate! They are covertly kidnapped from their families at a young age by a military dictatorship to be trained in a brutal upbringing (many of them die, but on account of dangerous medical procedures instead of corporal punishments and malnourishment, but no less vile), and become emotionally stunted soldiers brought into the spotlight by copious amount of propaganda.

  14. Greatly information article, my only qualm would be a bit of it’s premise.

    The 300 never aspired to be a historical movie of any kind. It’s based on a comics. It’s akin to comparing Captain America to the real events of WW2. Other than that, I see nothing wrong with dispelling the myth of Sparta.

    As with everything in history, applying contemporary values to historical situations is highly problematic but since the author seems to be aware of that I don’t see an issue with it using it as an interesting comparison.

    1. A few people have made the “it’s a comic book” point, but I’m not so sure.

      Firstly, I’m not sure that Captain America is the right comparison. Captain America is about a very-clearly-fictional superhero on a very-clearly-fictional story arc that is set during a particular historical period. With 300, things are much less clear – we’re following actual historic figures and the whole film is an (admittedly heavily stylized) representation of an actual historical event.

      As for the comic book point more generally, my understanding is that comics and graphic novels are taken pretty seriously as literature in their own right (or at least some are), so I personally wouldn’t have assumed that something was total silly fantasy just because it came from a comic. Maus, for example, seems like a pretty serious bit of historical commentary.

      With all that said, 300 is clearly heavily stylized and has obviously fantastical elements, and I’m sure nobody would come out of it thinking they’d watched an accurate historical representation of the battle at Thermopylae. But I do think an intelligent viewer, especially one who didn’t know much about Sparta in the first place, might reasonably struggle to disentangle the fantastic fictional elements from the actual history, and might come out feeling like they’d learned a few things about Sparta (that was certainly my experience when watching it as a (semi-intelligent) teenager). And I definitely think that, whether consciously or subconsciously, the film has been influential in shaping our current popular understanding of Sparta.

      There’s obviously a debate to be had about how much any of that is the responsibility of the filmmakers and/or graphic novelists. But I do think it makes it fair game for this kind of debunking exercise.

      1. You actually DID learn “a few things about Sparta” watching ‘300,’ but because you’re not a Spartan scholar, you’re just not sure what – as you admit.

        People like the author of this article like bagging out this movie as historically inaccurate, but they usually do not focus on where it is historically comparable, and – more importantly – completely skip over an extremely important & integral part of the study of Spartan culture: the so-called “Spartan Mirage.” While generally viewed critically by most historians, it was so ingrained into what everyone thought of as “Sparta” even in their own time, that it cannot be ignored.

        Almost every mainstream commentator does exactly that.

  15. One thing that constantly and regularly throws me off in reading this article – and the comments on it – is the constant use of the word “abducted” when referring to the boys’ enrollment into the agoge. Where do you all think they were taken? There was no secret military base on an island in the Gulf of Laconia where the boys were sequestered away like monks for the next 23 years.

    The agoge took place IN SPARTA ITSELF – several of the sources mention things like the girls watching (& “encouraging”) the boys when they were “working out.” The main square in the Spartan villages was called the Agoge – implying that much (not all, obviously) of the “education” took place publicly, in the open, in front of everyone. No primary source indicates in any way that the boys were ever cut off from their family, friends, and/or society at large in any way during the agoge.

    One of the most egregious errors this article makes is its self-described intention to form an opinion of the facts “informed by our own values.” The is literally the VERY ANTITHESIS of historical study. Filtering ancient history through our own values doesn’t just run the risk of overlooking vitally important elements of the source material & the people involved – it practically guarantees it.

    Case in point: the constant & lengthy comparison between the agoge & modern examples of “indoctrinating child soldiers.” Aside from the fact that NO CHILD IN THE WESTERN WORLD technically has a “choice” about entering into their society’s education system, it seems that the is enforced enrollment is only being focused on here because it chief aim – and main tool – was the perfection & perpetuation of sytematised violence. So, because American schools only teach the “3 Rs,” the brainwashing can be overlooked, right? It’s not the same thing?

    One of the fundamental mistakes made in this article – and by many scholars throughout time who have not served in the military – is the failure to take into account what could be called the “military mindset.” Soldiers, particularly “career soldiers,” think differently than civilians. That’s just a fact. Okay, maybe they need to or they’ll die – but that doesn’t change the fact. This article treats the younger Spartans (& by implication, all Spartiates) like they’re traumatised by what they go thru, & carry the scars of that trauma all thru life. Do you think the U.S. Marines turn out like this when they “graduate”? Of course not. Do some of them break? Sure. In the same way that some “normal civilians” break – in some cases, with no apparent duress at all.

    But the ones who “make it” (and the number is far higher than naysayers will have you believe – keep in mind here, the only primary source for Sparta mentioning deaths in the agoge was Plutarch, and he wrote 500 years later, with his only “empirical experience” what pretty much EVERYONE, than and now, admits was a carnival/sideshow/freakshow mockery of one element of the original system, and THAT was for tourism purposes) always turn out stronger specimens, better warriors, & hardier individuals. The arguments that they “had to accept it, & keep quiet about the trauma” is spurious – in a society in which it is codified into the very civil code that it is an honour to enter the agoge, excel, then graduate a full citizen, at what point is on of these potential-then-actual citizens going to be traumatised by the process? That’s like saying an Olympic athlete is traumatised by all the long hours, harsh diet, punishing physical exercise (wait, is this sounding familiar?), but won’t say anything cos they want that gold medal.

    And the collapse of Spartan society is far more complicated than “the agoge gave them all PTSD”; have a look at the course of events from the “rise” or the popular image of Sparta in the 700s to their decline after the Battle of Leuctra in 376, to their “disappearance” after the outcome of the First Macedonian War, it is clear that all the major blows against Sparta & her supremacy were related to a decline in manpower (ie, deaths in battle “thinning the herd” & leaving too few to hold power) – all of Sparta’s major defeats came at the hands of someone captilising on recent Spartan losses in battle).

    The one thing almost every mainstream commentator fails to take into account when talking about Sparta is one of the most important elements of the study of Sparta – what François Ollie called the “Spartan Mirage.” A good scholar (like Paul Cartledge) will mention it, because it is so entwined into the very image of Sparta – even back in their own day – that it cannot be ignored in a comprehensive study. The relevance here? Frank Miller, and in turn Zack Snyder, were not working within the framework of “Spartan History” – but BOY were they working with and in the “Spartan Mirage” – and THAT has as long and illustrious a pedigree as the history itself.

  16. Interesting to see that no one mentioned a, to me, clear parallel with the Janissaries. Abduction at a young age, indoctrination, and used as military men. Only difference, and a telling one, is that the Janissaries were all thought to read and write, and WERE given military training.

  17. Reading about the Spartan indoctrination into their system via participation reminds me of this comic I read recently about the hellish Elan school/prison camp that existed for decades in Maine. There students were made to beat up new inductees and punish wrongdoers for even minor or imagined infractions. Despite those and numerous other tortures, many who made it out of the school afterwards spoke glowingly about it.

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