Historically, Sparta has been known as a utopia of Militaristic Society. The Spartans becoming such a military juggernaut didn’t just start when a youth enrolled in the military. A child was groomed his entire life to grow into a warrior hero; the kind of hero that would become legend in the world’s histories. They concentrated on both physical fitness and mental fitness and from the age seven till eighteen, they were in a specialized secluded educational system. It was a process that began at birth and ruled the lives of children till after they married.
To understand how the Spartans raised their children, you first have to understand why they raised them that way and what kind of culture Sparta was. First of all, in a world where the Golden Age of Democracy out of Athens was starting to take hold, Sparta was totalitarian with shades of Oligarchy and Democracy sprinkled throughout (Cartledge, 2003). They were ruled by a dual king system. These rulers had to act in harmony and could not overrule a veto from the other king. These Kings were in charge of the Military and religious and judicial affairs. At home publicly elected Ephors controlled both Domestic and foreign policy. Sparta was a highly controlled city-state. Everything was strictly controlled by the Oligarchic segment of the government (Cartledge, 2003). The government of Sparta made sure you married, had children, had you’re hair the correct length and even when you were allowed to have a tombstone (Cartledge, 2001).
This control of your life started immediately at birth. From the moment a Spartan child was born, they were tested to make sure they embodied the image of a Spartan warrior. Immediately after birth, a Spartan child was dipped into a bath of wine to test its strength and fortitude. The Spartans believed that a weak child bathed in wine would convulse and die (Fant and Lefkowitz, 2005). If the child passed this particular test they were then taken by the father before a group of elders. If the Elders found the child deficient in any way (Frail looking, Deformed etc…) then the child was left on the sides of Mount Taygetos to die (Harley, 1934).
From birth till the age of seven a child lived with their parents (Harley, 1934). The child was raised by the family nurse to overcome its fears as a child. During the day the child accompanied their father to the dining halls or “syssitia” as a way to learn Spartan culture (Harley, 1934). The Syssitia was equivalent to a military mess today, but differed in that at the age of 20 you had to apply for and be accepted to one, and that you were required to attend it daily unless there was a good excuse (performing a sacrifice, being on a hunt, etc…). Children didn’t wear any shoes as a way to harden their feet and make them move faster. They only owned one garment per year as a way to toughen them to the elements and were never fed extravagant meals (Harley, 1934).
After the home schooling stage, the boys joined the “Agoge”. The Agoge was the educational system that the Spartan boys were enrolled. The boy never lived with his birth parents again. This started when a state sponsored official or “paidonomos” assigned the child to a group of 60 other boys called an “ilea”. The “ilea” was run by another Spartan youth, an “eiren” of around 20 who helps them develop into warriors (Harley, 1934). The boys eat at the older Spartan’s home and at night the “eiren” quizzes them or teaches and has them sing songs of war and history. During the day the children play ball games, ride and swim and study dancing and wrestling. The boys slept on beds of reeds as to further strengthen them and desensitize them to pain and were regularly whipped. If they cried out during these whippings they were punished again till they could suffer in silence the whipping (Harley, 1934). This lasted until the age of 16.
At the age of 16 the boys begin further training for war in something called the Krypteia, translates as “secret thing”. The Krypteia was basically a war waged against the “Helots” or slaves of Sparta (Forest, 1968). The boys would hide in the woods during the day and come out at night and kill any Helots they found. This was done as a way to teach the boys survivability, stealth and adaptability in the wild. It also desensitized the boys to killing and helped keep the overwhelming slave population in check (Forest, 1968).
Also at 16 a male child was expected to find an older male and begin a “relationship” (Forest, 1968). The word relationship is used because even though there is much evidence to support even though this wasn’t a homosexual relationship, it was bordering on it. Cicero (Roman philosopher and author) himself is very clear on this stating, “The [Spartans], while they permit all things except [sexual contact] in the love of youths, certainly distinguish the forbidden by a thin wall of partition from the sanctioned, for they allow embraces and a common couch to lovers.(Scanlon, 2005)” This relationship was formed as a way to help educate the boy growing up and as a way to reinforce the boys’ masculinity.
At the age of 20 the boy, now a man, finally joined the military and applied to join a syssitia. The syssitia was made up of 15 others and the soldier would eat and sleep with his syssitia until the age of 30 (Forest, 1968). If a man married a woman before the age of 30, they were not permitted to live together until he reached 30, when Spartan men were permitted to live on their own. The only way he was able to see his wife was to sneak out at night. When a man and woman were married, on her wedding night the bride was shaved bald and dressed as a man. The groom then took his wife back to his barracks that he shared with his syssitia for the evening. At the age of 30 a man was finally allowed his own home (Forest, 1968).
As is evident, the childhood development of a Spartan boy may have been one of the most unique this world has ever seen. The entire purpose of its development was for the concept of war and to help further the Spartan way of life. No thought was ever given to the child’s comfort or enjoyment. These things didn’t help make a warrior stronger or better in their mind so they were ignored. The whole of Spartan culture can be summed up with this one quote from a Spartan wife to her husband regarding him returning from war with his shield, “[Return] with this or upon this” (Cartledge, 2003). A Spartan expected either victory or death at all times.
Cartledge, P. (2001). Spartan Reflections. London: Duckworth.
Cartledge, P. (2003). The Spartans: The World of Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece. New York: Overlook Press.
Fant, M & Lefkowitz, M. (2005). Women’s life in Greece & Rome. Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press.
Forest, W.G. (1968). A History of Sparta, 950-192 B.C. New York: W. W. Norton & Co
Harley, T. Rutherford (1934). The Public School of Sparta. [Electronic Version]. Greece and Rome, Vol. 3, No. 9, 129-139.
Scanlon, T. (2005). The Dispersion of Pederasty and the Athletic Revolution in Sixth-Century BC Greece in Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West. Verstraete and V. Provencal, Harrington Park Press, pp.64-70.