Spartan Education Essay

This essay has a total of 2668 words and 11 pages.

Spartan Education




When examining any society, one of the most important aspects of its civilization to
identify is the education of the youth. Children yearn to please their instructors.
Therefore, when all children throughout a society are taught a certain way to live and
think, when they grow up, the society itself models these values instilled upon the
children. Naturally, when using this ideal to study the history of the Ancient Greeks,
focus falls upon its two major city-states, Athens and Sparta. As in almost every aspect
of comparison, the difference between the education of the warlike Spartans compared to
the education of the philosophical Athenians is like comparing black to white. The main
focus of a Spartan education was not to focus on literacy. Instead, as a result of the
system of helotry practiced in Sparta, fitness, obedience, and courage had to be taught in
order for the Spartans to retain the militaristic supremacy that they had over the rest of
the Peloponnesus. In contrast, an Athenian education was devoted to the three basic
categories of literacy, music, and physical education in hopes of creating intelligent,
well-rounded citizens who could responsibly participate in the Assembly. For purposes of
comparison, the education of both societies can be broken down into three distinct periods
of age in which certain traits were taught and which certain schools were attended. When
education was complete, the society had successfully refined another child into its strict
system of beliefs and principles.

In the eighth century B.C., Sparta was in need of more fertile land to support an
ever-growing population that demanded food. Consequently, Sparta was forced to do what any
ancient civilization did when in need of resources: They invaded their neighbors, the
Messenians, and after a twenty year war, enslaved them as their agricultural laborers,
henceforth known as Helots. After many years, the Helots grew to outnumber the Spartans by
a ratio as a large as ten to one. However, the Spartans still wanted the Helots to remain
under their control, so they were forced to create a system that would keep them in check.
What ensued was a militaristic state that focused only on the education of warfare and the
ability to survive hardships, thereby allowing them to dominate the Helots. The education
was implemented by the State on the belief that it was every citizen's duty to provide for
the continuity of its way of life.

At the age of seven, the education of the young Spartan male was taken over directly by
the State when he was placed in his "agoge", or living group, where he lived communally
with all the other boys of his age. To quote Plutarch on the education of the boys, “their
study of letters was restricted to the bare minimum; for the rest, their education
consisted exclusively in learning unquestioning obedience, superhuman endurance, and how
to win at wrestling.“

The obedience Plutarch speaks of is further established in Xenophon’s “Constitution of Lacedemonians” when he writes,
In order that the boys never lack a ruler even when the Warden was away, he gave authority
to any citizen who chanced to be present to require them to do anything he thought right,
and to punish them for any misconduct. This had the effect of making the boys more
respectful; in fact boys and men respect their rulers above anything.


The purpose of demanding such rigid obedience is obviously for military purposes
considering the standard fighting unit of the time was the hoplite-phalynx. The
hoplite-phalynx consisted of rows of men, each equipped with a large shield that covered
half of his body and half of his neighbors, and when instructed, would charge the enemy
and destroy everything in front of it. The success of the hoplite-phalynx depended on each
man holding his position in the line, so his neighbor was protected, and the whole group
could continue to function. Discipline was a necessity to keep the group working together
and obeying their commanders in the heat of battle. The success of this educational
process can be noted in Herodotus’ Historia, when the reputation of the Spartans
battlefield superiority reaches Xerxes, king of Persia, by word of mouth from Demaratos,
The conversation is as follows,

The same goes for the Spartans. One-against-one, they are as good as anyone in the world.
But when they fight in a body, they are the best of all. For though they are free men,
they are not entirely free. They accept Law as their master. And they respect this master
more than your subjects respect you. Whatever he commands, they do. And his command never
changes. It forbids them to flee in battle, whatever the number of foes. He requires them
to stand firm-to conquer or die.


Another tactic that prepared the boys for battle was depriving them of many common
amenities such as food, clothing, and shelter so that they were not unaccustomed to
hardships. On the topic of providing food, Xenophon reports in his "Constitution of the
Lacedemonians":

As to the food, he required the prefect to bring with him such a moderate amount of it
that the boys would never suffer from repletion, and would know what it was to go with
their hunger unsatisfied; for he believed that those who underwent this training would be
better able to continue working on an empty stomach, if necessary, and would be capable of
carrying on longer without extra food, if the word of command were given to do so: they
would want fewer delicacies and would accommodate themselves more readily to anything put
before them, and at the same time would enjoy better health.

As a result, the young Spartans were already prepared for the misery that accompanied
battle when resources were scarce, and therefore, when actual conflict did occur, they had
the advantage over a society whom had never been forced to experience this before.

The society that did not focus the education of their children on warfare was the
Athenians. Rather than forcing young boys to learn the skills that would make them great
warriors and benefit the state, an Athenian education was mainly set up to benefit the
individual citizen. Like Sparta, education started at the age of seven when parents would
send their children to school in hopes of attaining character, taste, temperance,
moderation, and good-behavior in word, thought, and deed. Education was not established to
teach children vocations or proficiency in making money. Rather it was training for living
and achieving a healthy body and mind. However, not much is known about Athenian education
other than the subjects taught and the manner in which they were learned. The first and
most important subjects learned were reading, writing, and arithmetic. To start, the boys
learned the letters of the Greek alphabet, memorized and recited various poets such as
Homer, and solved simple arithmetic problems using an abacus and pebbles. According to
Plato, the poems of Homer were studied because a boy “finds plenty of good advice, and
many stories and much praise…which encourage him to admire…and to model himself on them”
(Plato Protagoras 326.A). One interesting fact about the Athenians was that they never
read silently to themselves. Instead, to teach proper enunciation of sound and clearness
of words, all reading was done out loud. Almost all classes were taught and information
learned entirely from spoken word. Also, another division of the education was teaching
the children to play the lyre early in life because it not only helped them to better
understand the lyric poets, but also served useful in Athenian society as well. Plato
believed that, “the life of man in every part has need of harmony and rhythm” (Protagoras
326.B). Knowledge of music was not just helpful in understanding poetry, but also at
festivals where competitions were held for musical ability. Interestingly enough, if a boy
could not play the lyre well, it was thought to be a sign of bad breeding.
Continues for 6 more pages >>




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