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How Ancient Spartans Raised Their Children

Spartan woman gives shield to her son
Spartan mother gives a shield to her son by Louis Jean Francois Lagrenée. Public Domain

Spartans, a rigid militant society in Ancient Greece, have been known for the tough upbringing of their children, training boys to fight from age seven.

Physical training for Spartan boys was brutal, as they were placed in dangerous situations and there was a demand that they overcome fear. They were not trained to become good soldiers but intrepid warriors.

Legend has it that a woman from Attica once asked the Spartan Queen Gorgo, “Why is it that only Spartan women can rule men?” Gorgo replied, “Because we are the only women who give birth to men.”

The Spartans were not cruel people who liked to torture their male offspring. What they sought was to strengthen them and raise them into brave, devoted warriors who would be willing to fight to death to protect Sparta.

Depiction of Spartan warrior
Spartan warriors were famous for their bravery and devotion to their homeland. Depiction of Spartan warrior by Stavros cc2

In fact, Sparta was the only city-state in Ancient Greece that was not surrounded by walls. Its only fortification was its fearless army of men who became men from a tender age.

Starting at age seven, upper-class Spartan boys began training for a lifelong career as professional soldiers. They entered the agoge (αγωγή), a rigorous and intensive military training program.

Hard physical conditioning honed their bodies, while they sharpened their minds through the study of literature and writing.

Spartan parents raised their sons to be tough, disciplined, and self reliant. They also taught them obedience and how to serve their community.

Above all, they learned to be assertive, gallant, and committed to their fellow Spartan warriors so as to always put forth their best effort.

The state was above parents in raising the boys, and the boys were to grow strong and fierce so they would be the future defenders of Sparta.

The most stunning example is the famous Battle of Thermopylae, where King of Sparta Leonidas and 300 devoted warriors held the whole army of the Persian Empire led by King Xerxes in a narrow mountainous strait.

People across the world, from generation to generation, continue to admire the bravery of Leonidas and his 300 men as legendary heroic figures.

The agoge

The reason Spartans dominated on the battlefield can be attributed to their incredibly arduous and brutal training regiment, the agoge.

The agoge was the ancient Spartan education program that trained Spartan children in the art of war. It was instituted by king and lawgiver Lycurgus in the 9th century BC.

The training was mandatory and started at the age of seven and was integral to the state’s military strength and political power.

Boys were simply taken from their families to live in barracks as units and encouraged from the start with competitive play against other units.

The goal of the agoge was to turn boys into Spartan soldiers whose loyalty was to the state and their brothers-in-arms, not their families. By the time they graduated, they were allowed to marry and start a family.

The curriculun was not limited to learning military techniques and survival skills but included literacy. By age 10 they had been taught to read and write and physical exrcise increased.

An important part of training was dancing. Spartan boys danced extensively holding their weapons so that all movements while armed became ingrained and natural.

By age 12 they had learned all of the Spartan war songs and the real military training would start. Their hair was cut and their tunics were taken away. They were only given a cloak for all weather.

Repulse of Pyrrhus' army from Sparta
Repulse of Pyrrhus’ army from Sparta, the city with no walls. Drawing by Edmund Ollier, 1882. Public Domain

The prospective Spartan soldiers would go barefoot all the time to toughen their feet. To develop a bestial mentality, they would eat very little so they were always aggressively hungry for more.

Hunger tested their cunning in finding more food. They could steal food, but if caught they were punished for being caught, not for stealing.

Training was harsh and brutal for prospective Spartan soldiers. To toughen them more, Spartan instructors beat them severely for any reason they saw fit.

Many boys would end up dying during the brutal training. Those that survived, however, became true Spartan soldiers and were unbeaten in battle.

Finished with the agoge at age 20, the young Spartan had to be selected by a group of older peers before he became a full Spartan citizen. From then on, his life would be devoted to the army.

Whether he was away at war or at home, the Spartan soldier would continue training with his peers to better his ability to fight in combat. That was his devotion.

Other cities in Ancient Greece were noted for their advanced culture such as theater and philosophy. Sparta was famous for personal fortitude, character, restraint, and the moral fiber of its people.

Spartan Women and Their Offspring

It was important for Spartans to increase the birth rate. The only way for the city’s population to swell was by increasing the number of babies born.

Sparta was consistently struggling to keep its birth rate above replacement levels in order to have more soldiers.

In a culture where giving birth to as many boys as possible was valued, women had a well-respected position and role in Spartan society.

Compared to women in other city-states in Ancient Greece, Spartan women had more rights and enjoyed greater autonomy. They could own land, inherit property, make business transactions, get an education, and participate in social and political life.

staue of Leonidas king of sparta
Statue of Leonidas, King of Sparta, at Thermopylae, Greece, across the mountain where the famous battle took place. Credit: Dmpexr/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

King Lycurgus reformed Spartan laws as early as the 9th century BC. He emphasized the importance of equality among citizens.

Furthermore, Lycurgus believed that the most important role of a woman was motherhood, and in order to be a good mother, it was important that a woman be educated and spend a lot of time with her children.

Spartan women were very proud of their male children who were expected to honor the city-state with their good behavior and deeds as soldiers.

Therefore, they were released from difficult household chores which were given to the subjugated class of people, the helots (είλωτες). In this way, women could concentrate on their motherly duties instead.

Spartan girls were given the same physical fitness regimen as boys. Girls, however, were not trained in arms and warfare. Furthermore, they were educated at home, while boys attended public schools.

Education for girls included singing, playing musical instruments, dance, and the composition of poetry. These together were called μουσική (music), a word deriving from the Muses.

Spartan girls formed choruses and competed for prizes. Occasionally, these competitions were part of religious festivals. The girl choruses likewise participated in honorary or celebratory events.

The Myth of the Killings of Male Weaklings

The might and bravery of Spartan warriors have fascinated people throughout the ages. A part of this legend was the myth that such fierce warriors could only be the product of a cruel society that put death in battle above all else.

The phrase Spartan women used when they sent off their sons to battle “ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς” (either with it or on it), meaning either come back with your shield or be returned on your shield, added to the legend.

Along with this legend came the myth that Spartans killed male babies deemed to be unfit to become warriors.

The myth was created by later historians based on a claim written by Ancient Greek historian and philosopher Plutarch (Life of Lucurgus, 16.1):

Offspring was not reared at the will of the father, but was taken and carried by him to a  place called Lesche, where the elders of the tribes officially examined the infant, and if it  was well-built and sturdy, they ordered the father to rear it, and assigned it one of the nine thousand lots of land; but if it was ill-born and deformed, they sent it to the so-called Apothetae, a chasm-like place at the foot of Mount Taygetus

Ancient Greeks called that chasm Kaiadas (Καιάδας), and some historians adopted the killing of ill infants as a truth.

Kaiadas, the abyss of “terror,” is located near the village of Trypi about ten kilometers (six miles) from Sparta. Excavations in the cave chasm in 1983 revealed several skeletons, almost all of the bones were from men aged 18 to 35 years old. A few female remains were found, but it does not seem that the archaeologists found any infant bones at all. Therefore, there is no archaeological evidence whatsoever that the Spartans discarded deformed babies there.

But should we really dismiss Plutarch on the basis of this complete lack of evidence exactly where we should expect it? Well, Plutarch was not claiming that this was a practice that existed in his own time. He claimed that it was a practice established by Lycurgus, the king and lawmaker of Sparta who probably lived in the 9th century BC.

Because Plutarch was writing many centuries after the fact, there is no reason to give any special weight to his words, especially not when there is a clear absence of archaeological evidence.



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