The agoge was the public education system for Spartan boys. Similar in fashion to a military boarding school, the purpose of the agoge was to mould the boys into elite hoplites as well as to prepare them for their lives as Spartiates, the citizen-soldiers and ruling caste members of classical Sparta.
The classical agoge of the fifth and fourth centuries, was perhaps not even known as the agoge. A lot of what many have attributed to the agoge of that period may have been mistakenly derived from its successors, the Hellenistic and, later, Roman agoges which were attempts to revive the public education system which had been admired by many. However, as Nigel M. Kennel has shown in his work “The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta”, quite a lot was altered in the later agoges. What follows then is but a rough sketch of the main outline of the classical agoge along with some speculation on what it may have been like.
Admittance for Members Only
The agoge was reserved for the sons of Spartiates, the ruling class of citizen-soldiers. For the sons of the tradesmen, merchants and artisans of Laconia, there was no admittance, and it was completely out of the question for the helots. The offspring of prominent foreigners did gain entry from time to time, and there are examples of other Greeks, notably the Athenian Xenophon (who was bested by Brasidas) who sought a Spartan agoge education for their boys. Graduation from the agoge was an all-important ticket of entrance to the Spartiate class for a young Spartan; failure meant being barred from this privileged status for life. Daughters of Spartiates would follow a separate public education system tailored to their future roles as mothers of warriors; their training, like the men’s, had a strong component of gymnastic exercise and athletics.
Being born of Spartiate parents was not enough to guarantee access to the agoge. Presumably, certain fees or contributions were demanded of the families whose sons would now live under the care of the state. For poorer Spartiate families, perhaps with multiple sons, economic hardship may have prevented their sons from attending the agoge and thus eventually becoming Spartiates themselves. For this reason, the number of boys in each age group attending the agoge would have begun to dwindle over generations (all other things being equal). In addition, the deselection of some boys during their agoge training would contribute even further to this negative spiral, as they and the future offspring were henceforth excluded from the Spartiate class. In simple terms, it was much harder to gain Spartiate status than to lose or be denied it. Thus for these reasons and many others, agoge training became an increasingly exclusive education over the centuries in classical Sparta. It is doubtful that this negative dynamic was foreseen by the Lycurgan reforms.
Agoge training probably began around age seven. Until that age, the children would have been raised by their mothers and the household helots. But entry into the agoge signalled an abrupt change in circumstances for the boys. Now they would sleep in barracks, wear simple clothes and eat food of no great quantity nor quality. The boys would be arranged in groups or companies with those of a similar age; as in most male collectives, a natural pecking order can be assumed to have developed. At this early age, a young Spartiate-in-the-making was already put in a position of constant activity and participation in a group. Naturally, this process would be key in forming his identity – an identity in which his role as part of a collective would be heavily emphasized.
Those in charge of the younger boys and youths were the eldest – the young men of the agoge – known as Eirenes, who were about nineteen to twenty years old. They would run the day-to-day activities of each group. Above them in the hierarchy was the Paidomonos, or headmaster, and his magistrates who gave directions and enforced discipline; they were grown men and Spartiate veterans. Discipline was encouraged through the whip and rigorous physical exercise. The Paidomonos even exercised authority over those young men who had recently graduated the agoge and begun their active service in the army. Known as Hebontes, these new, probationary soldiers could be arrested by the Paidomonos if their behaviour was found lacking. Their sentencing and punishment however lay, as it did with the rest of the adult Spartiate class, with the five ephors.
Athletic and outdoor activities were central to the agoge training. The boys and youths played a ballgame known as episkyros which developed their agility, speed, coordination, and teamwork skills. Two teams would line up opposite one another, and attempt to throw a ball over the heads of the other team and then give chase with the aim of making the other team withdraw behind their back line. There was lots of physical contact in the game. Running, long walks, and in later years marching were pursued to develop the hallmark endurance of the Spartiate hoplites. The boys of the agoge went barefoot in all weather and terrain to strengthen their feet and accustom them to the elements. Xenophon relates how gymnastic training in Sparta developed the soldier-athletes from head to toe, by strengthening the legs, arms and neck, and how they were some of the healthiest and completely developed (physically) human beings in his reckoning. Boys of the agoge would compete against one another in wrestling, races, sports and hunting. Competition in athletic endeavours would have been fierce amongst those of the same age-group, as status, and prestige would have been closely associated with physical prowess.
While the boys may have known rudimentary reading and writing before age seven, they would perforce have needed to develop these skills further in the agoge. In parallel, arithmetic skills would presumably have been taught to them. Lessons in history and civics would have conveyed to them their Spartan heritage, and the laws of Lycurgus; religious instruction, perhaps with a focus on Apollo, the god most favored by Sparta, would have complemented those lessons and helped to instill the piety for which the Spartans were renowned. The boys would have learned the poems of Tyrtaeus and Alcman which celebrated the very qualities that Sparta hoped to foster in its future hoplites. Communal singing and dancing were popular cultural practices in classical Sparta, and were likely part of the agoge curriculum.
Rites of Passage
As the boys became teenagers, a number of rites of passage awaited them. The Phouxir or ‘fox time’ was a sojourn in the wilds meant to test their self-reliance and their ability to forage, hunt and steal food. While the length of the ‘fox time’ is unknown, it was probably long enough that it encouraged the theft of food. Punishment for being caught would have been harsh and probably corporeal, but the incentive to steal was strong, and probably purposefully so. While cunning and deceit for theft could not be publicly rewarded, these traits were important for warriors to possess; indeed, examples abound of the Spartan use of deception in politics and war. Plutarch recounts the legend about the agoge boy who had stolen a fox and hidden it under his cloak. Wary of being discovered, the boy suffered the fox to bite and gnaw at him without giving himself away until he died. Besides being a testimony to Spartan toughness, the story captures the great lengths the boys might have gone to in order to escape detection.
Another ritual which was also related to the taking of food, but which was more brutal and simplistic, was the ‘battle’ for Artemis Orthia. Situated on the edge of Sparta and close to the wilderness the temple to Artemis Orthia symbolized the still marginal status of the boys. The ritual was an annual contest between two groups with one defending the temple of Artemis from the other who had come to steal the cheese from the altar (according to legend, Artemis, the protectoress of children, had made cheese from the milk of lionesses on Mt. Taygetus). One group raced to get inside the temple while the other would whip them mercilessly with rods. Here was public spectacle where Spartan youths proved their mettle and capacity to withstand pain for all to see. Gaining the most cheeses or being the last one standing might have been status symbols for the agoge youth.
Hoplites in the Making
Once old enough and strong enough, the youths would begin military training. As future hoplites they would have had to familiarize themselves with the use of armor, shield, spear and sword. Frequent and incessant drilling of the phalanx, its movements, repositioning and reformation would likely have been the case under the watchful supervision of the Eirenes and veteran Spartiates. The youth would have to learn how to maintain their kit, and kit inspections were probably regular occurrences. Armed dancing, alone or in groups, developed their coordination, agility and strength, and it was a hallmark of hoplite training. Mock battles were perhaps an element of the training at later stages.
The Historical Argument over Pederasty
Some scholars have speculated that institutionalized pederasty was part of the classical agoge; adult males are thought to have mentored and coupled with the adolescent youths as an initiation of sorts into the adult world. The mentors, it is thought, would have taken upon themselves the responsibility of educating the minor in the niceties of Spartan adulthood. Indeed, homosexual relations were commonplace in classical Greece, though much more so in some cities than others, and perhaps that is why some scholars of ancient Greece are skeptical that classical Sparta was an exception. The hard evidence for institutionalized pederasty in that period is absent however and other scholars are strongly disinclined to believe it was the case. Archaeological evidence (painted pottery shards etc.) of the pederasty has not been found, and the only contemporary written source of merit – Xenophon’s “The Polity of the Athenians and the Lacedaemonians” – flatly denies the sexual aspect of the mentor-minor relationship. To be sure, Xenophon had two sons in the agoge, and it is not clear why he would lie, or even think he could get away with lying:
Lycurgus adopted a system opposed to all of these alike. Given that some one, himself being all that a man ought to be, should in admiration of a boy’s soul endeavour to discover in him a true friend without reproach, and to consort with him — this was a relationship which Lycurgus commended, and indeed regarded as the noblest type of bringing up. But if, as was evident, it was not an attachment to the soul, but a yearning merely towards the body, he stamped this thing as foul and horrible; and with this result, to the credit of Lycurgus be it said, that in Lacedaemon the relationship of lover and beloved is like that of parent and child or brother and brother where carnal appetite is in abeyance. That this, however, which is the fact, should be scarcely credited in some quarters does not surprise me, seeing that in many states the laws do not oppose the desires in question.
Final Years and Graduation
The last years of the agoge were spent by the youths as Eirenes and Meleirenes (deputies to the Erienes). Being responsible for a group of boys nearly 24/7 was no small task, and an excellent preparation for commanding men in the army. The role would have encompassed logistics, personnel matters, command and control, teaching, mentoring and above all leadership. Doing so successfully under the watchful eyes of the Paidomonos, the other magistrates and in view of the population of Sparta was no small feat. It was probably the best test of whether the agoge-leaver was prepared and worthy of Spartiate status. To be deselected at this stage would have been a crushing blow to the future of these young men, but performing well as an Eirene was not the only hurdle to becoming a Spartiate.
Critical to becoming a Spartiate was being accepted into one of the mess-groups. Mess groups were the social skeleton of Spartiate society. Those who fought together, dined together, trained together and slept together in barracks (at least those on active service). Becoming a member of a mess group required unanimous acceptance by all the existing members. An Eirenes reputation, built up over many years in the agoge, as well as his familial connections and background were doubtless important factors in determining the success of his application to a mess group, but so was his financial situation. Becoming a mess member involved making contributions to the common larder, and the Spartiate-to-be would receive a lot of land upon graduation to support himself. Those unable to produce sufficient foods from their lot or other inherited lands would not be able to maintain their mess group membership, so their financial status was a potential further hurdle for those from the poorest families. It was quite possible therefore that an Eirene who had completed the agoge successfully might yet fail to achieve Spartiate status by not being accepted to a mess group for reasons of reputation or finance.
After graduating the agoge and being accepted to a mess-group, the new young Spartiates achieved Hebontes status. Hebontes served in the active service units of the army and lived in barracks. They held a probationary level for a number of years, and were still monitored by the Paidomonos (not to mention the appraising eyes of the veteran Spartiates which they served with). Hebontes served in the regular hoplite formations, but the best were selected for duties in select units such as the Crypteia and the Hippeis.
The Hebontes, the Crypteia and the Hippeis
Not much is known of the Crypteia which was a secret unit tasked with monitoring the helot population and eliminating troublemakers. It is thought that their operational style was very different from what most Spartans practiced. Stealth, camouflage, surveillance, deception and assassination would perhaps best describe their methods. Presumably, they were active in Messenia were the helot populations were more rebellious and further away from the oversight of Sparta (since most Spartiates had to live within proximity of their village and mess-group). Being entrusted with this type of work showed a high confidence in the selected candidate by the magistrates, and it has been said that those who went on to army command roles in later years were frequently veterans of the Crypteia.
The Hippeis was the elite 300, the royal bodyguard which accompanied a king in the field. New candidates were selected every year from those on active service. Selection was a highly competitive affair as service in the Hippeis (who were hoplites and not horsemen as the name otherwise implies) was undoubtedly a prestige marker. The Ephors selected the three best candidates, known as Hippagretai, who would each select and command one hundred hoplites. It is doubtful that all were selected at once; instead there was probably an annual round of new draftees. The selection was public and each Hippagretai had to justify his choices before the magistrates. A very public rivalry was encouraged between those Hebontes who were selected and those who were not; the rivalry went to the point of physical altercations and the reporting of inappropriate conduct to the magistrates.
- Xenophon. The Polity of the Athenians and the Lacedaemonians.
- Plutarch. The Parallel Lives.
- Nigel M. Kennel. The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta
- Cartledge, Paul. The Spartans.
- Rahe, Paul A. The Spartan Regime.