Spartan Soldier From Birth: Growing Up In A City of Warriors
The Greek city-state of Sparta is famous for being a city of soldiers. Its entire society was oriented towards warfare. The Spartan phalanxes were unstoppable on land and known for their professionalism and discipline. Both contemporary and ancient historians have marveled at how the Spartans were so well trained. Part of this of course was their education system where young boys would be raised almost from birth to be warriors and girls would be raised almost from birth to be mothers of warriors.
Origin of the Spartan Education System
Originally Sparta was not that different from other Greek city states. Sparta as it would become known during the Classical Age had its beginnings in the 9th century BC. Sparta was not as known for philosophers and artists as other Greek city-states, though it did have a strong tradition of poetry.
Beginning around 700 BC, however, Sparta began to go through a transformation. Around that time, the Spartans conquered the region of Messenia and incorporated the Messenians into the Spartan population as slaves or helots. The helots were largely composed of the same people-group which gave them solidarity. This led to the helots uniting in revolt multiple times against Spartan subjugation.
Messenian war, Spartan Solider. (Niko978 / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Because of this, over time, Spartan society began to focus increasingly on military preparedness to prevent further slave revolts and other threats to their people. A large population of slaves to do manual labor also incidentally allowed for the creation of a standing army. This was reinforced with the formation of the Spartan education system known as the agoge.
Education in Boys and Men
The agoge consisted of a strict training program which would prepare boys to become warriors. This education system was designed to create hardened citizen-soldiers who would be loyal to the Spartan state.
Boys were raised by their mothers until the age of 7. At this age, they would be taken and placed in in the agoge, or school. Spartan boys would be taught reading, writing, singing, dancing, morality, and history, but they would also be taught physical endurance. The boys would be underfed, not to the point where they were starving, but still enough that they would always be training on an empty stomach.
If the boys wanted more food, they were told to steal but severely punished if caught. This was likely to teach the boys to develop stealth skills which would be important as soldiers. They were also only given one garment and they were not given any shoes so that the soles of their feet would become tough. It was said that bare-footed Spartan warriors could outrun any shoe-clad Greek citizen of another city-state.
Spartan exercise was part of the agoge for young Spartan males training to be Spartan soldiers. Females, however, were encouraged to exercise with the males. (Paroll / Public Domain )
By the age of 20, after several years of additional training after finishing the agoge at about age 16, a Spartan man was deemed ready to become part of the standing army of Spartan citizen soldiers. He would live in the barracks with his fellow soldiers and could be called to war at any time by the Spartan state. This period of service would last until the age of 30. At the age of 30, Spartan men, after ten years of military service , would become full citizens and be expected to marry. All men between the ages of 20 and 60 were considered potential soldiers if Sparta were to go to war.
Education in Girls and Women
Unlike in other Greek city-states, women were not as confined to the house and were allowed to participate in athletic events. Women participated in athletic activities including running, wrestling, and discus and javelin throwing. It was considered important for women to stay fit and healthy as much as the men because they needed to be strong mothers who could give birth to warriors. In addition to athletics, girls also practiced choral music and dancing. Certain domestic activities, such as producing wool, were considered too menial for Spartan women and were left for slave women.
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Bronze statuette of Spartan running girl. (Putinovac / Public Domain )
Non-Spartan Participants in the Agoge
Spartan education was admired across Greece, even in Athens which, during the golden age of Sparta, was a bitter rival of the soldier city. It was not entirely uncommon for non-Spartans from other city-states to participate in the agoge. Xenophon, an Athenian historian, in fact, sent his two sons to train in the agoge. All non-Spartans had to do to be accepted into the agoge was to be adopted or sponsored by a member of the Spartan citizen class . If he could find a Spartan to sponsor him, then he could be educated the Spartan way.
Spartan warriors participating in the games. ( Daylight Photo / Adobe)
The Spartan education system is unique in being entirely focused on preparing a city for war. The Spartan education system was very narrow compared to the education systems of other city-states, but its uniqueness and focus was successful, at least for a while, in creating an austere soldier city which could stand against almost any opponent, even the mighty Achaemenid Persian Empire in 480 BC.
Top image: Spartan warrior. Source: Zsolnai Gergely / Adobe.
By Caleb Strom
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