History

Spartan Education: Part I

Written by Jason Rheins on July 28, 2021

Sparta's education system was unlike that of any other city in Ancient Greece: it was public, organized around military virtue, and totalitarian.

Though Spartan education was singular, its influence was widespread. It served as a flashpoint, drawing both disapproval and praise—sometimes from the same thinkers, as they worked to tease apart the elements and patterns in what was a truly systematic education.

This exposition of texts is the first in a series on Sparta, and primarily focuses on passages from from Tyrtaeus and Xenophon.

Tyrtaeus Fr. 10 West 1-18

“For 'tis a fair thing for a good man to fall and die fighting in the van for his native land, whereas to leave his city and his rich fields and go a-begging is of all things the most miserable, wandering with mother dear and aged father, with little children and wedded wife. For hateful shall such an one be among all those to whom he shall come in bondage to Want and loathsome Penury, and doth shame his lineage and belie his noble beauty, followed by all evil and dishonour. Now if so little thought be taken of a wanderer, and so little honour, respect, or pity, let us fight with a will for this land, and die for our children and never spare our lives. Abide then, O young men, shoulder to shoulder and fight; begin not foul flight nor yet be afraid, but make the heart in your breasts both great and stout, and never shrink when you fight the foe."

Tyrtaeus was a 7th c. BCE elegiac poet, closely associated with Sparta. (He either was Spartan or relocated there from Athens or Miletus.) His Eunomia collected and celebrated the laws and customs of the Spartan system, and his other poems were considered essential (oral) literature in the education of Spartans. Poems such as this one were thought to best embody the moral code that Spartans were meant to emulate. Some were even recited to Spartan soldiers going into battle.

In this fragment the value espoused is androsunē — courage or, more literally, ‘manliness’. The “argument” is essentially a two-pronged alternative posed to a young man: stand and fight and be glorious, or flee and become an exile, with all the shame and suffering that that implies.

The ethos of a hoplite being willing to face death and to stand together with his comrades in defense of his city is not unique to Sparta. Most other Greek city states at this time would endorse similar ideals. What is perhaps more distinctive of Spartan values is the idea that a single at of cowardice suffices for exile and complete social shunning of one’s entire family.

Such profound forms of social control and shaming at Sparta are testified elsewhere. It is worth remembering, though, that this was a message repeatedly posed to young Spartans—be willing to risk your life in battle, or suffer a fate worse than death including pariah status and the social displacement of your family.

Xenophon Constitution of the Lacedaimonians 2.1-2; Plutarch Life of Lycurgus 16.4

Xenophon:

In the other Greek states parents who profess to give their sons the best education place their boys under the care and control of a tutor [paidagōgos] as soon as they can understand what is said to them, and send them to a school to learn letters, music and the exercises of the wrestling-ground... Lycurgus, on the contrary, instead of leaving each father to appoint a slave to act as tutor, gave the duty of controlling the boys to a member of the class from which the highest offices are filled, in fact to the “Child Warden” (paidonomos) as he is called. He gave this person authority to gather the boys together, to take charge of them and to punish them severely in case of misconduct. He also assigned to him a staff of youths provided with whips to chastise them when necessary; and the result is that modesty and obedience are inseparable companions at Sparta.”

Plutarch:

“But Lycurgus would not put the sons of Spartans in charge of purchased or hired tutors, nor was it lawful for every father to rear or train his son as he pleased, but as soon as they were seven years old, Lycurgus ordered them all to be taken by the state and enrolled in companies, where they were put under the same discipline and nurture, and so became accustomed to share one another's sports and studies.”

Xenophon was a fiercely pro-Spartan (or Lacedaimonian, as they were known in Greece) Athenian, a military commander, and a student of Socrates. So important was it to their state and their character, the first topic he dealt with In his Constitution of the Lacedaimonianswas the nature of reproduction, childrearing and education in Sparta. After describing how the Spartan state varied markedly in family arrangements and the role of women (and avoiding mention of the state’s eugenic decisions over infanticide), he turned to child-rearing. The first major difference between Spartans and other Greeks was that Spartans had public education and public regulation of child behavior, whereas these were entirely private matters among other Greeks. This fact is also attested to by Plutarch, a first c. CE Platonist who also is very pro-Spartan.

Elsewhere in Greece, a child of 6 or 7 would be assigned to a private nanny or guide, usually a slave, called a paidagōgos. The pedagogue would guide the child and perhaps take him to a school or teacher, also privately funded for and operated. It was the decision of the child’s father or legal guardian what education he would receive and what discipline would be administered for any misbehavior. In Sparta, all boys were turned over to the authority of the paidonomos, garrisoned in barracks, and made subject to discipline from all older boys and men. This discipline involved frequent corporal punishment, and Xenophon credits this harsh, militaristic keeping for the obedient character of Spartans.

Xenophon Constitution of the Lacedaimonians 2.1, 3-4

“In the other Greek states...they soften the children's feet by giving them sandals, and pamper their bodies with changes of clothing; and it is customary to allow them as much food as they can eat. Instead of softening the boys' feet with sandals he required them to harden their feet by going without shoes. He believed that if this habit were cultivated it would enable them to climb hills more easily and descend steep inclines with less danger, and that a youth who had accustomed himself to go barefoot would leap and jump and run more nimbly than a boy in sandals. And instead of letting them be pampered in the matter of clothing, he introduced the custom of wearing one garment throughout the year, believing that they would thus be better prepared to face changes of heat and cold.”

The second key difference Xenophon notes between education in other Greek states and in Sparta is the role of physical discomfort in the training of Spartan youth. Once their formal education begins, Spartan children are physically exposed in ways intended to harden their bodies and spirits. They go barefoot to develop hard, calloused feet and to become accustomed to negotiating difficult terrain. They also wear only a single garment year-round, regardless of weather and despite the fact that it grows quite cold in their region in the winter. All of this is designed to make these boys tough and resilient or else presumably to weed out those who are not. An additional level of physical stress was the limited food rations given to the children, discussed in 2.1, 5-9 below.

Xenophon Constitution of the Lacedaimonians 1.3-4

“First, to begin at the beginning, I will take the begetting of children.1 In other states the girls who are destined to become mothers and are brought up in the approved fashion, live on the very plainest fare, with a most meagre allowance of delicacies. Wine is either withheld altogether, or, if allowed them, is diluted with water. The rest of the Greeks expect their girls to imitate the sedentary life that is typical of handicraftsmen—to keep quiet and do wool-work. How, then, is it to be expected that women so brought up will bear fine children? But Lycurgus thought the labour of slave women sufficient to supply clothing. He believed motherhood to be the most important function of freeborn woman. Therefore, in the first place, he insisted on physical training for the female no less than for the male sex: moreover, he instituted races and trials of strength for women competitors as for men, believing that if both parents are strong they produce more vigorous offspring.”

One of the most interesting differences between Spartan society and other ancient Greek city states was the role and lifestyle of women. Marriages among the Spartans did not operate as in other Greek states, with reported wife-swapping and men commonly living outside of the home. Many of these differences seemed designed to undermine the traditional family unit and to solidify loyalty to the state/military. However, because men lived lives of constant military service, women took on a larger role in the management of the home and of property.

In this context one notes the exceptional fact that Spartan women physically trained and competed athletically. This means that they were out of doors and out of the home with their bodies exposed—all things frowned upon in the rest of Greece. Most importantly, as Gymnastics were the central part of the Spartan education, this means that Spartan girls received their own sort of education that shared some element with those of boys.

Xenophon Constitution of the Lacedaimonians 2.1, 5-9

“In the other Greek states...it is customary to allow them as much food as they can eat... 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. He also thought that a diet which made their bodies slim would do more to increase their height than one that consisted of flesh-forming food. On the other hand, lest they should feel too much the pinch of hunger, while not giving them the opportunity of taking what they wanted without trouble he allowed them to alleviate their hunger by stealing something. It was not on account of a difficulty in providing for them that he encouraged them to get their food by their own cunning. No one, I suppose, can fail to see that. Obviously a man who intends to take to thieving must spend sleepless nights and play the deceiver and lie in ambush by day, and moreover, if he means to make a capture, he must have spies ready. There can be no doubt then, that all this education was planned by him in order to make the boys more resourceful in getting supplies, and better fighting men. Someone may ask: But why, if he believed stealing to be a fine thing, did he have the boy who was caught beaten with many stripes? I reply: Because in all cases men punish a learner for not carrying out properly whatever he is taught to do. So the Spartans chastise those who get caught for stealing badly. He made it a point of honor to steal as many cheeses as possible [from the altar of Artemis Orthia], but appointed others to scourge the thieves, meaning to show thereby that by enduring pain for a short time one may win lasting fame and felicity. It is shown herein that where there is need of swiftness, the slothful, as usual, gets little profit and many troubles.”

This text highlights the educational practice of limiting the amount of food available to the young boys who are now Spartan cadets. They receive too little food to ever be completely full, and often feel hungry. It is argued that this will make them leaner and so taller and that in this way they will learn to cope with deprivation. This, like enduring changes in weather (see 2.1, 3-4 above) is pursued as a trait of endurance, desirable in future soldiers. However, it is questionable whether this caloric deprivation was actually desirable at such a key stage in their physical and mental development.

Often, owing to the lack of food, the boys were forced to steal. Xenophon claims that this practice was not ill-designed, and that theft was an intentional result; the fact that stealing was a punishable offense is not an indication that it was frowned upon and so unintentional. But if it was punished, how could stealing be intended? Xenophon denies any contradiction, holding that the goal was to train the young Cadets to be adept thieves capable of escaping detection, but his explanation rings at least somewhat hollow. It seems just as likely that these boys were under-provisioned but that the resultant theft became so common and endemic as to become tolerated, at least so long as it was not flagrant.

In general, however, this state of affairs did create a tension between what the cadets were technically permitted to do and what they needed and indeed were expected to do. It is a system that favors obedience but also demands certain types of disobedience or at least stepping out of line. Often such violations will result in punishment, and severe corporal punishment at that. So, the only thing absolutely guaranteed by the system is that Cadets will suffer pain, and the festival of Artemis Orthia that is mentioned points to this fact as well, since it is a nearly sadomasochistic celebration of punishment and near-escape from punishment. As we see in other texts, younger Cadets would eventually take on the role of doling out beatings, further binding them to the system of obedience and punishment. In a word, the Spartan educational system was addicted to pain.

Tyrtaeus Fr. 12 West 1-19

“I would neither call a man to mind nor put him in my tale for prowess in the race or the wrestling, not even had he the stature and strength of a Cyclops and surpassed in swiftness the Thracian Northwind, nor were he a comelier man than Tithonus and a richer than Midas or Cinyras, nor though he were a greater king than Pelops son of Tantalus, and had Adrastus' suasiveness of tongue, nor yet though all fame were his save of warlike strength; for a man is not good in war if he have not endured the sight of bloody slaughter and stood nigh and reached forth to strike the foe. This is prowess, this is the noblest prize and the fairest for a lad to win in the world; a common good this both for the city and all her people, when a man standeth firm in the forefront without ceasing, and making heart and soul to abide, forgetteth foul flight altogether and hearteneth by his words him that he standeth by.”

As in the first passage above, this is a poem of Tyrtaeus celebrating martial values, specifically the courage of a man to risk death by keeping his place in the front lines of combat rather than fleeing. This text goes even further, claiming that courage in war exceeds all other possible kinds of excellence or distinction that a man might pursue.

Even in the Homeric epics a man can win distinction by combat or by persuasive and wise council, but here it is combat alone that is worthy of note, and not fighting prowess per se, but the courage to stand and fight (in formation). This matches the monistic, even monomaniacal focus on warfare in Spartan education.

Jason Rheins

Dr. Jason G. Rheins is a scholar of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. In 2003 he received his BA with honors in Philosophy and Classical Studies from Stanford University. In 2010 he earned his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught or held professorships at the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College, UNC Chapel Hill, St. John’s University, and Loyola University Chicago. He has published articles and book chapters on the history of philosophy, the philosophy of science, and metaphysics. He is currently completing a monograph on Plato’s theology.