Spartan Public Education

Agoge, The Competitive Spartan Socialization or Upbringing

Statue of Lycurgus, lawgiver of Sparta, at the Law Courts of Brussels

Matt Popovich / Wikimedia / CC BY 3.0

According to Xenophon's "Polity of Lacedaemon" and "Hellenica" and Plutarch's "Lycurgus" in Sparta, a child deemed worth raising was given to their mother to be cared for until the age of 7. During the day, though, the child accompanied the father to the syssitia ("dining clubs") to sit on the floor picking up Spartan customs by osmosis. Lycurgus instituted the practice of appointing a state officer, the paidonomos, to put children in school, supervise, and punish. Children were barefoot to encourage them to move swiftly, and they were encouraged to learn to withstand the elements by having only one outfit. Children were never satiated with food or fed fancy dishes.

Schooling of 7-Year-Old Boys

At the age of 7, the paidonomos organized the boys into divisions of about 60 each called ilae. These were groups of peers of the same age. Most of their time was spent in this company. The ilae were under the supervision of an eiren (iren) aged about 20, at whose house the ilae ate. If the boys wanted more food, they went on hunts or raids.

So seriously did the Lacedaemonian children go about their stealing, that a youth, having stolen a young fox and hid it under his coat, suffered it to tear out his very bowels with its teeth and claws, and died upon the place, rather than let it be seen.
(Plutarch, "Life of Lycurgus")

After dinner, the boys sang songs of war, history, and morality or the eiren quizzes them, training their memory, logic, and ability to speak laconically. It is not clear whether they learned to read.

The Iren, or under-master, used to stay a little with them after supper, and one of them he bade to sing a song, to another he put a question which required an advised and deliberate answer; for example, Who was the best man in the city? What he thought of such an action of such a man? They used them thus early to pass a right judgment upon persons and things, and to inform themselves of the abilities or defects of their countrymen. If they had not an answer ready to the question Who was a good or who an ill-reputed citizen, they were looked upon as of a dull and careless disposition, and to have little or no sense of virtue and honor; besides this, they were to give a good reason for what they said, and in as few words and as comprehensive as might be; he that failed of this, or answered not to the purpose, had his thumb bit by his master. Sometimes the Iren did this in the presence of the old men and magistrates, that they might see whether he punished them justly and in due measure or not; and when he did amiss, they would not reprove him before the boys, but, when they were gone, he was called to an account and underwent correction, if he had run far into either of the extremes of indulgence or severity.
(Plutarch, "Life of Lycurgus")

Foster Sons in Attendance

Not only were the schools for the sons of the Spartiate, but also foster sons. Xenophon, for instance, sent his two sons to Sparta for their education. Such students were called trophimoi. Even the sons of helots and perioikoi could be admitted, as syntrophoi or mothakes, but only if a Spartiate adopted them and paid their dues. If these did exceptionally well, they might later be enfranchised as Spartiates. Guilt may have been a factor because the helots and perioikoi often took in the children that the Spartiates had rejected at birth as unworthy of rearing.

Physical Training

The boys played ball games, rode horses, and swam. They slept on reeds and suffered floggings—silently, or they suffered again. Spartans studied dance as a kind of gymnastic training for war dances and wrestling. This practice was so significant that Sparta was known as a dancing place from Homeric times.

From Agoge to Syssitia and Krypteia

At 16 the young men leave the agoge and join the syssitia, although they continue training so they can join the youth who become members of the Krypteia (Cryptia).

Hitherto I, for my part, see no sign of injustice or want of equity in the laws of Lycurgus, though some who admit them to be well contrived to make good soldiers, pronounce them defective in point of justice. The Cryptia, perhaps (if it were one of Lycurgus's ordinances, as Aristotle says it was), Gave both him and Plato, too, this opinion alike of the lawgiver and his government. By this ordinance, the magistrates dispatched privately some of the ablest of the young men into the country, from time to time, armed only with their daggers, and taking a little necessary provision with them; in the daytime, they hid themselves in out-of-the-way places, and there lay close, but, in the night, issued out into the highways, and killed all the Helots they could light upon; sometimes they set upon them by day, as they were at work in the fields, and murdered them. As, also, Thucydides, in his history of the Peloponnesian war, tells us, that a good number of them, after being singled out for their bravery by the Spartans, garlanded, as enfranchised persons, and led about to all the temples in token of honors, shortly after disappeared all of a sudden, being about the number of two thousand; and no man either then or since could give an account how they came by their deaths. And Aristotle, in particular, adds, that the ephori, so soon as they were entered into their office, used to declare war against them, that they might be massacred without a breach of religion.
(Plutarch, "Life of Lycurgus")

Resources and Further Reading