Episode Fifteen: The Agoge: The Education Of A Spartan Boy
Spartan boys were taken from their mothers at age seven and enrolled in “the Upbringing.”
They remained in this School of Hard Knocks till age eighteen, when they officially became warriors and took their place in the phalanx.
Herodotus tells us that Spartans breathed a sigh of relief and gratitude when they went off to war … it was so much easier than the training.
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“What is that you’re hiding beneath your cloak, boy?”
A Spartan boy hiding a fox from his elders
At age seven, Spartan boys were taken from their families and enrolled in the Agoge, “the Upbringing.” They remained in this training regimen until they were eighteen when they officially became adults and warriors.
They stayed in the army till age sixty. Many served even longer.
The ancient Spartans were so secretive about their training that, even today with all the research and all the scholarship that has been done, we only know the sketchiest outlines of what the actual training consisted of.
Here’s what we do know:
The boys were fed starvation rations. This was done to make them grow lean and tall. But it also served the purpose of keeping the boys hungry at all times.
They were encouraged to steal. The idea was that in war a man might need to forage in order to survive. If the boy got caught, he was beaten severely. The crime under the laws of Lycurgus was not stealing. The crime was getting caught.
There was a foot race that the boys ran in the agoge. We don’t know its length, except that it was barefoot and cross-country. At the start, the boys took a mouthful of water. At the finish they were required to deliver the water, to spit it out, untouched. If you swallowed the water, you were disqualified.
Boys in the agoge were given one coarse-cloth cloak that they wore all year. They slept outdoors, often on the porches of the public buildings, guarding them. Their beds were of reeds, which they were required to pluck each evening, by hand, from the Eurotas River.
The boys raced, they fought each other, they competed in games. And they trained militarily, in the use of the shield, the spear, and the short xiphos sword. They drilled. They learned to march and hold formation, a critical skill in phalanx warfare.
Any boy could be stopped and interrogated on any subject at any time by a grown citizen. The youth must stand with his hands beneath his cloak, eyes downcast. His answers must be as brief as possible. If he was caught in a lie, he was beaten.
There are many stories in the ancient texts of Spartan boys who endured whippings, without crying out or making a sound, to the point of death.
Here’s a related story from Plutarch:
A Spartan boy had stolen a fox. He had the animal hidden under his cloak when two of his elders stopped him. They had no idea the boy was hiding the animal. ( By the way, I have no clue why a boy would steal a fox or what he intended to do with it.) The men began putting questions to the boy as grown citizens would typically do … about honor, virtue, etc. Meanwhile, the fox began gnawing at the boy’s belly. The boy said nothing. The men kept interrogating him. The fox kept biting and gnawing. The boy showed no pain, till he fell and died, having bled out beneath his cloak.
The boy was embodying the supreme Spartan virtue: contempt for death.
Like other great warrior cultures, Spartan society bred its young men to be prepared (and indeed grateful and honored) for the chance to give their lives for their country.
It is said that on the morning when the Three Hundred were chosen for the certain-death defense of the pass at Thermopylae, many at Sparta went about, downcast, and in despair. Who were these? They were the warriors who had NOT be chosen.
Let’s talk a minute about our contemporary “Spartans.”
There are many, many, many of them. All elite military units, male and female: Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Recon Marines, Special Forces … in civilian life, police and first responders, paramedics, SWAT teams. I’d include nurses and doctors, teachers. How about fitness? Athletes and extreme sports enthusiasts, marathoners, ultra-runners, CrossFit, Spartan Racers, Tough Mudders, on and on.
Why do these men and women do it? (I count myself among this group, by the way.) Why, when the ease and convenience of modern life would let them sleep in each morning, lie on the couch watching TV, lead the easy life … why do they reject this and choose the opposite?
I think it’s something deeper than “fitness” or “service.”
I think it’s something more profound, more innate, even more spiritual. Remember that, unlike the ancient Spartans (who had no choice) these contemporary men and women enter this world of extreme commitment 1) VOLUNTARILY, and 2) AS INDIVIDUALS.
Again, on a completely different basis than the ancient Spartans id.
For our contemporary Spartans, the arduous life is a deliberate choice, made person by person, for private and sometimes unknowable reasons, even to the individual herself or himself. Why?
I think that this choice consciously or unconsciously, is a rejection of the easy modern life and I think it is made ON A MORAL BASIS. I think many people come to it after some kind of life-crash.
I have a friend from boot camp many years ago who was a big-time Hollywood producer. If I told you a couple of his hits you would recognize them. At the peak of his career, his life fell apart. Divorce. Failure. He lost everything. He was camping on friends’ couches, one inch away from the real abyss.
He turned it around.
Later, I asked him how.
He said, “Steve, I went back to the Marine Corps. I went back to Parris Island.” He didn’t mean literally. What he meant was he re-embraced the hard life.
He starting getting up at four in the morning. He ran. He swam. He created a disciplined plan of the day and he followed it. It wasn’t easy. It took him almost two years. But he got back to work and he turned catastrophe into success.
His new life wasn’t like his old one. It was harder. It was leaner.
But it put his feet on the ground again. It saved him.
We could put what he did another way:
He went back to Sparta.
He went back to the agoge.
I think that’s what our contemporary “Spartans” are doing and they think they’re doing it because modern life, as it is sold to us on TV and the internet, is a bust. It doesn’t work. The easy life sucks.
So we go back to some form of the Warrior Archetype.
That’s what this series is about.
We’ll dig into this more deeply in the coming weeks.