Spartan Education: Part II

Written by Dr. Jason Rheins on November 9, 2021

In these texts and commentaries, we continue our exploration of Spartan education, this time looking at the evidence from Plutarch and the concerns and arguments of Sparta’s critics including the excesses that even its defenders could not approve of or ignore completely. Criticism tended to focus on a few points: Spartan education was myopic and brutal; Sparta trained its youth to kill, endure, and obey and not much else.

Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus 16.1-2

“Offspring was not reared at the will of the father, but was taken and carried by him to a place called Lesche, where the elders of the tribes officially examined the infant, and if it was well-built and sturdy, they ordered the father to rear it, and assigned it one of the nine thousand lots of land; but if it was ill-born and deformed, they sent it to the so-called Apothetae, a chasm-like place at the foot of Mount Taÿgetus, [2] in the conviction that the life of that which nature had not well equipped at the very beginning for health and strength, was of no advantage either to itself or the state. On the same principle, the women used to bathe their new-born babes not with water, but with wine, thus making a sort of test of their constitutions. For it is said that epileptic and sickly infants are thrown into convulsions by the strong wine and lose their senses, while the healthy ones are rather tempered by it, like steel, and given a firm habit of body.”

Plutarch is the only source that reports this practice of Spartan infanticide, and some scholars have doubted the veracity of this claim. Xenophon omits mention of this practice, but that may be because he avoids mention of the worst Spartan practices. [See Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus 16.4-5 below.]. Infanticide was not unknown in Greece, but it was seldom if ever undertaken in such a systematic way and for eugenic reasons. For our purposes, it is enough to note two things. First, in the subsequent reception of the idea of Spartan education, eugenic infanticide was a frequently included feature, and it featured in contemporary and subsequent utopian schemes. Second, what is important is the way this practice—real, exaggerated, or imagined—is seen to fit into the general pattern of Spartan laws, where every part of child-rearing and education is crafted for the sake of raising ideal soldiers. Just as the Spartan state regulated and oversaw education when in other Greek states this was a private matter, so too the very decision to keep or eliminate a newborn child also was (or was imagined to be) the prerogative of the Spartan state or community, carried out by tribal elders.

Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus 16.4-5

“[A]s 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. The boy who excelled in judgement and was most courageous in fighting, was made captain of his company; on him the rest all kept their eyes, obeying his orders, and submitting to his punishments, so that their boyish training was a practice of obedience. Besides, the elderly men used to watch their sports, and by frequently pushing them to fight and be competitive, learned accurately how each one of them was naturally disposed when it was a question of boldness and aggressiveness in their struggles.”

Plutarch elaborates on the claim made by Xenophon in Constitution of the Lacedaimonians 2.1-2 that “[Lycurgus] gave this person [the paidonomos] authority to gather the boys together. When the child warden “gathers” children together, he is assigning them to troops or companies, like a company of soldiers. They learn and exercise together, as a cohort, and their most promising member was made their captain. This captain was given authority to punish the other boys as were older adolescents.

Several points are important to make, here. First, even at this early age, boys are being prepared for a life in the military, with their life organized along the lines of a troop of soldiers. Second, one of the goals of Spartan education besides obedience and toughness is presented: collectivity or solidarity. The boys are taught to act and live together, rather than individually. At the same time, they begin to build camaraderie that will last throughout their lives and that will make them more loyal to their fellow soldiers in battle. Third, peer leadership here includes discipline, including the use of corporal punishment. Thus, even the youngest children, particularly those to be groomed for leadership, are inured to violence and inflicting pain.

Even though collectivity of a kind is sought, fierce—even violent—competition is also encouraged, with older men egging the young on to victory and fighting in order to judge them for their boldness and aggression. This raises several points: First, Spartan education, like other aspects of Greek culture generally, had a competitive, “agonistic” quality where individuals were encouraged to prove themselves the best in any given domain through contest. This competitive, individualistic feature of individual distinction was fully intertwined with the more collective ethos of serving the polis.

Second, it shows that Spartan education was used to select and even prepare future leaders, especially military ones. Promising candidates were not only singled out, and were often given command and authority over other boys, younger or their own age. While other boys were expected to be obedient to a leaders’ orders, they were also encouraged to try to outshine him if they could. This inevitably would lead to conflict.

Third, this points once more to the fact that violence was commonplace in Spartan education, something encouraged among the boys even in non-disciplinary contexts.

Plutarch Life of Lycurgus 19.1

“The boys were also taught to use a discourse which combined pungency with grace, and condensed much observation into a few words. His iron money, indeed, Lycurgus made of large weight and small value, as I have observed, but the current coin of discourse he adapted to the expression of deep and abundant meaning with simple and brief diction, by contriving that the general habit of silence should make the boys sententious and correct in their answers. For as sexual incontinence generally produces unfruitfulness and sterility, so intemperance in talking makes discourse empty and vapid”

The Spartans were famous for being of few words and for their short, pithy sayings. Even today the word “laconic” memorializes this reputation, and some of the most famous Spartan quips, such as King Leonidas’ “molōn labe” (come and take them), are still recited. Plutarch claims that this style of speech was cultivated by teaching boys the habit of keeping silent. For the purposes of education, the important point is that children’s silence is strongly encouraged. It is arguable that this practice does not prepare children to have ‘expressions of deep and abundant meaning’ even if they will have ‘simple and brief diction’. The Athenians, by contrast, had the reputation for garrulity, but then, Athens produced many extraordinary poets, orators, and philosophers, while Sparta produced none after the early 7th c. BCE, but only a number of quips and sayings, many of dubious authenticity.

Plutarch Life of Lycurgus 21.1-2

“Nor was their training in music and poetry any less serious a concern than the emulous purity of their speech, nay, their very songs had a stimulus that roused the spirit and awoke enthusiastic and effectual effort; the style of them was simple and unaffected, and their themes were serious and edifying. They were for the most part praises of men who had died for Sparta, calling them blessed and happy; censure of men who had played the coward, picturing their grievous and ill-starred life; and such promises and boasts of valour as befitted the different ages. Of the last, it may not be amiss to cite one, by way of illustration. They had three choirs at their festivals, corresponding to the three ages, and the choir of old men would sing first:

‘We once did deeds of prowess and were strong young men.’

“Then the choir of young men would respond:

‘We are so now, and if you wish, behold and see.’

“And then the third choir, that of the boys, would sing:

‘We shall be sometime mightier men by far than both’."

Gymnastikē (physical exercise), grammata (literacy), and musikēʼ (music and poetry/literature) were the core of early and classical Greek education. The Spartans were known for giving their students an extraordinary amount of physical training and only a bare minimum of training in letters. Plutarch suggests here that Spartan education and society were serious about musikē, introducing music and poetry to inspire their boys and men at home and on campaign. However, Plutarch also indicates what other sources maintain: that the subject matter of this musikē was highly constrained, restricted primarily to rousing and/or morally edifying messages, especially regarding courage in battle. Victory or death in combat was central aim of the Spartan way of life and therefore of its education. This is suggested in the choruses who stress their past military prowess and deeds, their current strength, or their future might.

Plutarch Ancient Customs of the Spartans 237a, iv;

“They learned letters for the sake of necessity; but all other forms of education they expelled from their borders, words (logoi) no less than men. All their education was directed toward taking orders well, enduring hardships, and winning or dying in battle.”

Plutarch Life of Lycurgus 16.6

“Of reading and writing, they learned only enough to serve their turn; all the rest of their training was calculated to make them obey commands well, endure hardships, and conquer in battle.”

Among the various customs or laws of “ancient” Sparta (Plutarch is writing about Spartans from almost half a millennium earlier) is the fact that the Spartans banned foreign teachers and foreign literature. They only taught “letters”, i.e. basic literacy for the sake of doing needful things, i.e. basic day-to-day business, and not literature such as poetry or philosophy. These were not part of their education, he explains because their education aimed at only three things: making the student “fine at being ruled”, i.e. obedient to command, capable of enduring hardships such as pain and toil, and “winning or dying in battle”, that is having the courage and training to either win or die fighting but not to retreat. Although Plutarch is writing centuries later, this report accords well with our other extant sources such as Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle, perhaps partly because Plutarch is drawing on them as well. In any case, he is surely right that Spartan education aimed at creating infantrymen who were thoroughly obedient and who had minimal regard for their own lives or comfort. To do this, any foreign ideas or the exploration of ideas in general had been purged from their education, rendering an “educated” Spartan culturally illiterate compared to an educated Greek from most other cities.

Isocrates Panathenaecus 208-209

“The things which have been overlooked, whether in ways of living or in the arts or in all other activities, are not discovered by any and every one, but by men who have superior endowments and are both able to learn the most of what has been discovered before their time and willing more than all others to give their minds to the search for what is new. But in these respects the Lacedaemonians are more backward than the barbarians. For you will find that the latter have been both pupils and teachers of many discoveries, while the Lacedaemonians have fallen so far behind our common culture and learning that they do not even try to instruct themselves in letters—a science which has so much power that those who understand and use it become apprized not only of the things which have been accomplished in their own time but also of the things which have come to pass in any age whatsoever.”

Here, in his speech in praise of Athens, the orator Isocrates is attacking the claim that the Spartans have discovered and live by the best way of life. Isocrates’ first argument against this is that the Spartans are not the sort of people who would discover anything useful, as they neither study the past nor engage actively in inquiry. Isocrates goes so far as to suggest that the Spartans are not even literate. Other sources suggest that they are literate, but only barely so, learning enough letters for the most basic practicalities but with no real study of writings or music/literature. The greatest power of writing, as Isocrates points out, is the ability to learn of contemporary and past discoveries. The Spartans, however, have cut themselves off from this. In these respects, the Spartans fall behind not only other Greeks but also non-Greeks, i.e. ‘barbarians’, as they have been both ‘pupils and teachers of many discoveries’, that is they have both originated many discoveries themselves and adapted others from elsewhere. The Spartans, then, in virtue of their approach to knowledge, are both uncreative and not adaptive.

Isocrates Panathenaecus 210-214

“Nevertheless, you have made bold to assert even of those who are ignorant of such matters that they have been the discoverers of the best ways of life, and that too when you know that they train their own boys in habits and practices by which they hope that, so far from becoming the benefactors of others, they will become most adept in doing injury to the Hellenes. Were I to go through all of these practices, I should greatly fatigue both myself and my hearers, but if I mention only a single one—one which they cherish most and by which they set most store—I think that I can put before you their whole manner of life. For every day they send out their boys, from the very cradle, as it were, with such companions as each may prefer, ostensibly to hunt, but in reality to steal the property of the people who live in the country. In this practice, those who are caught are punished with fines and blows, while those who have accomplished the greatest number of thefts and have been able to escape detection enjoy a higher esteem among their fellow-youths than the others, and when they attain to manhood, provided they remain true to the ways which they practiced in youth, they are in line for the most important offices. If anyone can point out an education which is more cherished by them or by which they set greater store than this, I am willing to grant that there is not a word of truth in what I have said about anything whatsoever. And yet what is there in such conduct that is good or admirable and not, on the contrary, shameful? How can we fail to condemn the folly of those who extol men who have so far departed from our common laws and are in no respect of the same way of thinking as either the Hellenes or the barbarians? For the rest of the world looks upon malefactors and thieves as more depraved than slaves, whereas the Lacedaemonians regard those who stand first in such crimes as the best among their youths and honor them the most. And yet who that is in his right mind would not prefer to die many times rather than be known as seeking through such practices to school himself in virtue?”

Continuing from the previous text, Isocrates makes his second argument against the claim that the Spartans discovered and live by the best way of life. Isocrates argues that this cannot be the case since the Spartans train their youth in such a way as to be harmful to other Greeks. The evidence that the Spartans do train their youth to be injurious is the fact that their most cherished educational practice teaches their young people to steal and, whenever possible, to get away with it. Text 2.03, a Spartan-sympathetic source, tells us that the Spartans did encourage their boys and young men from people (probably serfs) in the countryside and to go undetected or face punishment. Their excursions are nominally ‘to hunt’, but it is known that they will steal (or worse). Isocrates points out just how morally scandalous it is that the Spartans teach their children to steal and to become accomplished thieves, when theft is universally shunned by Greeks and non-Greeks as wrong.

Plutarch Life of Lyc. 28.1-3

“Now in all this there is no trace of injustice or arrogance, which some attribute to the laws of Lycurgus, declaring them efficacious in producing courage, but defective in producing justice. The so-called ‘krypteia,’ [or secret service], of the Spartans, if this be really one of the institutions of Lycurgus, as Aristotle says it was, may have given Plato also this opinion of the man and his constitution. It was of the following nature: The magistrates from time to time sent out into the country at large the most intelligent seeming of the youths, equipped only with daggers and necessary rations. In the day time they scattered into obscure and out of the way places, where they hid themselves and lay quiet; but in the night they came down into the highways and killed every Helot whom they caught. Oftentimes, too, they actually traversed the fields where Helots were working and slew the sturdiest and best of them.”

As in the case of Spartan infanticide (see Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus 16.1-2) Plutarch is our primary source regarding the infamous krypteia, and Xenophon makes no mention of either. However, in this case, there is some other evidence of Spartan youths being sent into the countryside to steal and otherwise harass the populace, so the reality of the krypteia is plausible. As an educational practice it is striking. Like other Spartan education practices, it gives the youth few resources and expects resourcefulness, secrecy, and daring. It trains military skills, e.g. infiltration, concealment, and close combat. It is profoundly violent, as it involves deliberate mass murder.

The purpose of these killing sprees is unclear, as is their frequency and scope. However, it is reasonable to think that they could be used to terrorize the brutally oppressed helots (Sparta’s serf class of enslaved Messenians). However, this could more easily have been done by fully-grown and heavily-armed Spartiate soldiers. By practicing the krypteia in the way described, it became a practice for inculcating and inducting the participating youths into the system of violence and oppression, making them complicit in it and adapted to it. 

It is significant that the smartest seeming youths were chosen for this practice. To some extent, this must be due to the difficulty and danger of the assignment. But it also meant that to be chosen for it was a mark of distinction, probably signaling future suitability for leadership. If that is true, then in all likelihood, it might have been a much-sought honor.

In short, the krypteia was an educational tool that trained the next generation of future Spartan leaders in brutality and dehumanization.

Dr. 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.