Sparta: Taught to War?

At the mention of Sparta, one may instinctively conjure images that are synonymous with the movie 300; which implied Spartans to be aggressive, militaristic individuals who were mainly taught to fight from a young age (as discussed back then in class). [embed] [/embed]

 "...death in the battle field is the greatest glory he could achieve in his life. Spartans, the finest soldiers ever known" - 300


However, the portrayal of the Spartans in 300 may be a tad too simplistic as the Spartans, as feared as they were back then, should definitely not be remembered just for the one Battle of Thermopylae (the battle depicted in 300) during the Greco-Persian Wars and the bold, self-sacrificing King Leonidas. We will explore the Spartans through the perspective of education in this post. Similarly (as in the previous post on Athenian Education), the time period relevant to this post will range from 800BCE-350BCE (Classical Greece).

Spartan Education started out at a young age (about 7 years) and placed equal emphasis on the exercise of the intellect and the exercise of the physique. However, unlike Athenian Education, Spartan Education catered to both males and females, regardless of economic status, as the Spartans perceived education to produce good future citizens of society. This is supported by Plato's Protagoras that mentions the importance of the exercise of intellect in every Spartan, as it would help the individual conduct himself/herself more effectively in terms of reasoning, understanding and thinking (342d-343a). In addition, Xenophon states in the Constitution of the Lacedaimonians that equal emphasis on physical exercise in both parents would produce ideal, stronger children (1.4). Hence, it can be inferred that the equal footing in education given to both males and females stemmed out of the practical consideration; to build a strong core for Spartan society, evidenced by the perception of Spartans as physically strong, thoughtful and witty individuals to outsiders.


Also, Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus mentions that "...if the most important and binding principles which conduce to the prosperity and virtue of a city were implanted in the habits and training of its citizens, they would remain unchanged and secure, having a stronger bond than compulsion in the fixed purposes imparted to the young by education" (13). Plutarch's account hints at a Spartan belief that both males and females alike have contributions to make in society and that education was the best way to build society. In support, Plutarch includes the idea that Spartans were taught to live for their country and not for themselves (25), drawing focus to the idea of achieving a collective for society that benefits every citizen. With the effort of every Spartan (not just the males), the flourishing of Spartan society as compared to their other greek counterparts is definitely a conceivable possibility.


Despite the equality in education for both genders in Spartan society, there were differences that existed between males and females within the Spartan education. According to Plutarch, Spartan Boys would be taken to agoge (state training for boys) that included common experiences relating learning and discipline when they were 7 years old. The boys learnt to read, write and fight (16). Thereafter, boys who were spotted to be courageous and have good judgement would be appointed as captains of their companies while the other boys learnt to take instructions from them (16). This was done so that the boys recognised the core importance of self-discipline. When the boy reached 12 years old, he was taught to steal and survive (under the supervision of a commander and elders) (17) in preparation for his time in the military which would last into his adulthood (24). Besides physical exercise, equal importance was also given to the intellect in agoge as boys were trained in reasoning (19), music and poetry  (21). This was done so that the boys became soldiers who could physically fight and spar intellectually with others as well.

On the other hand Spartan Women did not undergo agoge, but practiced activities such as dancing and singing, other than reasoning, reading, writing and the sharing of exercise with men (14). The chief difference in education between males and females boiled down to a vocational difference; men were soldiers while women were masters of their household and producers of future warriors. Women needed to be adept at taking charge at home while their husbands were deployed in the military.  Moreover, it can be argued that bringing women to the best condition possible (both in physique and intellect) through equal education would produce a more capable society with strong citizens, as the women could perform the roles of nurturing the young and producing healthy children more effectively.

Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas sums up the pride of women in Spartan society well by the remark of "Yes, we are the only ones that give birth to men." in response to a comment made by a foreign woman who said: "You Spartan women are the only ones who rule their men..." (14). Gorgo's response reinforced the presence of parity women were viewed to possess, so much as to command an equal education with men unlike their greek neighbours (i.e: Athenians), in Sparta.

In Essence, although the Spartans integrated the role of the military into their education, to narrow down the achievements of the Spartans to just military might would be injustice as the Spartans were really thoughtful individuals as well; everyone was educated regardless of gender and economic status. In contrast with Athenian Society, where gender and economic factors came into play when one considers taking up an education, the Spartan Education is way more accessible as every Spartan was entitled to education. Perhaps one could argue Athenian Education held more merit on the premise of thoughtfulness, but of what use will that be if hardly any one is there to enjoy the fruit of it?


Spartan Education may not provide the perfect education but it definitely emphasises a society that functions as a collective; one that possesses camaraderie between citizens while reducing the possibility of a sense of entitlement coming up in select groups within society. Looking beyond the aggressive, war mongering image of Sparta, perhaps the Spartans were truly a people who reconciled individuals with equality instead; at least that's what their education suggests. What do you think?