Spartan Agoge and Athenian Ephebeia – A Comparison

  1. Introduction
  2. The Agoge
    1. Origins and Upbringing before the Agoge
    2. Course of the Agoge
      1. Paides
      2. Paidiskoi
      3. Hebontes
      4. Kryptoi
  3. In comparison with Athens
    1. Athenian education
    2. The Ephebeia
  4. Conclusion

1 Introduction

Ever since Zack Snyder’s “300” at the latest, Sparta has been a household name for the general public. The 300 Spartans, who are literally bred into fighting machines through rigorous training from childhood onwards, have permanently shaped the image of the ancient polis.

In this paper, the training and educational regiment of the Spartans, the so-called Agoge (literally “rearing” (Thommen 2017, p.108)), will be presented in detail and compared with the education of young Athenian men, including the Ephebeia, a kind of military basic training, which is surprisingly similar to the Agoge in some features. This comparison is intended to show, on the one hand, that the Agoge is a far more complex process than Hollywood suggests and, on the other hand, to question whether it really is as exceptional in Ancient Greece as its reputation makes it out to be.

Sparta has been compared to Athens time and again over the centuries, not least because the two ancient city-states seem so different at first glance: Athens as the first European democracy compared to the authoritarian military state Sparta. The confrontation between the two city-states in the Peloponnesian War certainly contributed to this almost traditional juxtaposition. While the political, social and military differences in general have often been highlighted, this has less often been done with a focus specifically on the education of the two city-states. This paper aims to examine precisely this.

The largest part of this article will be a detailed description of the Agoge and Athenian education. With regard to the Agoge, I will briefly explain the historical and social context in which this educational system was able to develop in the first place, before proceeding to the actual presentation. In the chapter on Athens, I will first concentrate mainly on the actual education and then on the military service in the form of the Ephebeia.

In order to make this comparison, I will draw on primary sources from Xenophon, Plutarch and Aristotle, as well as modern works on the society and the educational system in Sparta and Athens. With regard to the primary sources, it should be said that between Xenophon and Aristotle on the one hand, and Plutarch on the other, there are a good four centuries and that both Agoge and Athenian education, including the Ephebeia, definitely changed during this time and went through various phases of development under different influences from outside and within (cf. Kennell 1995, p. 7 ff.). Neither the influencing factors nor the different phases of the development of the Agoge can be dealt with in detail in this work due to its limited scope, which is why I will concentrate on the period of the 5th and 4th centuries BC.

In order to present as complete a picture as possible of the course of the Agoge, it is necessary to include Plutarch, despite the time difference, since he complements Xenophon in many aspects and is able to close gaps in his report. The fact that some elements mentioned by Plutarch were not yet present in the classical phase of the Agoge, i.e. at the time of Xenophon and thus within the period under investigation here, is self-evident due to the time difference between the two authors. However, Plutarch often refers to authors from classical times, whose writings have not survived to the present. For this reason, Plutarch remains an important source for the analysis of the Agoge during the classical period of Greek history.

In the following, I will apply the method suggested by Kennell of using only those parts of Plutarch’s work for the reconstruction of the Agoge in the classical period which are reported in the past tense, i.e. which were no longer present or practised at the time of Plutarch, and which can therefore be assumed to belong to earlier phases of the Agoge. (cf. ibid., p. 22 ff.). Admittedly, this does not automatically mean that the corresponding practices and customs go back to the classical period, so I will try, where possible, to support Plutarch’s statements with other sources, analogies with other historical cultures, and last but not least, common sense.

2 The Agoge

2.1 Origins and Upbringing before the Agoge

As briefly mentioned in the introduction, Thommen translates the term Agoge as “rearing” (Thommen 2017, p.108). This already suggests that the Agoge is not an educational system in the sense of the systems that are widespread today in Western culture. The Agoge was also an exception in ancient Greece.

The first time we hear of the Spartan education system on a larger scale is in the work of the Greek author Xenophon, who lived during the Classical period of ancient Greece from 431 to 354 BC. How old the Agoge actually is cannot be easily determined, although some scholars assume “a great age of the institutions or at least relics of primitive forms of civilisation” (cf. Thommen 2017, p.107).

Agoge has often been equated with education and certainly contains elements of it, but differs fundamentally from the modern understanding of the term in the West in that it has a much more clearly defined and – as a rule – public objective: ” … agoge, not simply education, through which each city-state moulded into the character of its citizens the tenets of morality that were required for the efficient operation of its institutions.” (Bitros, George and Karayiannis, Anastassios 2006, p.20). The Agoge is thus a complex system designed to educate children to become ideal citizens (in the sense of the city-state of Sparta). Kennell describes the Agoge as an essential part of Spartan society, without which the Spartan way of life would not have been possible and vice versa (cf. Kennell 1995, p. 116).

Xenophon traces the Agoge, like many of the laws and customs of Sparta, back to the mythical lawgiver Lycurgus (cf. Xen. Const. Lac. 1.1-1. 3), although it is questionable whether he even existed in the form attributed to him: “The reforms were attributed to a legendary lawgiver whom they named Lycurgus (literally, ‘wolf-worker’), but he could not possibly have introduced at one fell swoop all the reforms with which he was credited, and it is not beyond the bounds of credibility that he never actually existed as a real human being.” (Cartledge 1990, p. 76). Whether and to what extent Lycurgus existed and what influence (if any) he had on the emergence of the Agoge is irrelevant for the purpose of examining this educational system in comparison with Athens’ contemporary educational system. According to Knottnernus, the Agoge in its known form “emerged within the fifty years subsequent to the Second Messenian War.” from 650 to 620 B.C. He believes that Lycurgus was merely symbolic of a social development that gave rise, among other things, to the Spartan Agoge (cf. Knottnernus 2002).

The Second Messenian War resulted in the subjugation of the indigenous
Messenians, Greeks like the Spartans themselves, as a result of which they became the lowest class of Spartan society, the so-called Helots (cf. Thommen 2017, p.23). The Helots were in principle slaves, but differed in that they did not belong to the private property of a household, as was common in other parts of ancient Greece, but to the state. It was they who were mainly responsible for supplying the Spartan state and its citizens with food in the form of agricultural products (cf. Knottnernus 2002, p. 5). In a stark contrast to the Helots were the Spartiates at the top of the social hierarchy, i.e. the few inhabitants of Laconia (the region around Sparta), who “were in possession of full citizenship rights.” (Thommen 2017, p. 98). It was only this elite that went through the Agoge, sometimes also for the purpose of oppressing the lower social classes, which will be discussed in more detail later in the text.

So instead of wanting to trace the Agoge back to mythical origins, it had the thoroughly practical purpose of raising the male Spartan offspring to become capable and, above all, obedient soldiers in order to secure Sparta’s rule over its Helotic subjects, although the Spartan army was of course also used for other purposes. Cartledge sees the Helots in general as the reason and origin of the militarisation of Spartan society in the classical period (cf. Cartledge 1990, p.84).

Before the actual agoge began, the child was taken immediately after birth by its father to a place called Lesche, where it was examined for its physical constitution: “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 Taÿgetus, in the conviction that the life of that which nature had not well equipped at the very beginning for health and strength, was of no advantage either to itself or the state”(Plut. Lyc. 16.1-16.2). Whether this was actually the case, and if so, for what exact reason, remains controversial (cf. Thommen 2017, p. 106), partly because nothing can be found of this custom in Xenophon. If it existed at all, there is no evidence in classical times.

After these tests, the first phase of education by the wet nurses of the children began, which did not yet belong to the institutionalised form of the Agoge. Plutarch reports that the wet nurses dispensed with nappies in order to ensure the unhindered development of the young children’s bodies. Furthermore, the children were trained not to be choosy about their food and to eat it completely. They were also trained not to develop a fear of the dark or of being alone and not to cry in general (cf. Plut. Lyc. 16.3). Whether this phase of education was already present in exactly this form in classical times cannot be asserted with absolute certainty. However, it seems plausible that the education of children did not begin abruptly at the age of seven with the institutionalised Agoge, but that children were prepared in one way or another for this intensive phase of their lives even before then.

2.2 Course of the Agoge

As should be made clear from the introduction, the Agoge existed over a long period of time and changed and developed within this period, as can be seen in the comparison of Xenophon’s and Plutarch’s accounts. Despite the four centuries between the two individuals, certain core principles remained: In both authors, institutionalised education begins at the age of seven and the growing young men pass through different age groups in which different demands were placed on them. These groups and their names have changed over time, but the basic demands placed on boys seem to have remained at least similar. Boys in both the classical and Roman phases of the Agoge were expected to survive on their own in difficult circumstances, to be loyal to the state and society, and to contribute to its prosperity in one way or another.

Since the Agoge will be portrayed exclusively in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. and not over the entirety of their existence, I will use Xenophon’s structure from the 4th century B.C. as a guide and enrich it with additional information from Plutarch and secondary literature in order to draw as complete and detailed a picture as possible of the Agoge in the classical period. Xenophon’s age groups are thus not reproduced in detail as in his work, but are mainly intended to provide the structural framework, as was already the case in Thommen’s account (cf. Thommen 2017, p. 107 ff.).

2.2.1 Paides

The first phase of the Agoge comprised the 7-14 year olds, who were accordingly called “Paides” (boys). They were assigned a supervisor called a Paidonomos, who was assisted by several “whip-bearers”, with whom disciplinary measures could be carried out against the adolescents (cf. ibid.). According to Xenophon, these measures had the purpose “to chastise them when necessary; and the result is that modesty and obedience are inseparable companions at Sparta”. (Xen. Const. Lac. 2.2). The punishment of boys, when appropriate, was thus intended to make them both modest and obedient. Kennell sees the Paidonomos as the most important distinguishing feature of the Spartan agoge from the educational systems in the rest of Greece, since through it the state actively intervened in the lives of the Spartan offspring (cf. Kennell 1995, p.120).

However, the children were not solely obliged to obey the Paidonomos, but in general any citizen in good standing could “make rules […] for the boys and punish them […] if they were guilty of something.” (Thommen 2017, p. 107). Furthermore, Thommen reports that the children were only allowed a single “garment” per year and “meagre food” (cf. ibid.) The lack of clothing was intended to harden the young Spartans against the heat of summer and the cold of winter. In addition, the boys were probably not allowed to wear shoes, which would later help them to climb up or down steep slopes and generally make them faster and more agile than other Greeks or Greek soldiers. The lack of food was to prepare them to endure hunger when the situation required it (cf. Xen. Const. Lac. 2.5). To make up for these two deficiencies, the Paides were encouraged to steal whatever else they needed to survive. If they were caught, however, they would have to bear the consequences of public punishment (cf. Thommen 2017, p. 107).

According to Plutarch, in Sparta, unlike in the rest of Greece, relatively little value was placed on the ability to read and write: “Of reading and writing, they learned only enough to serve their turn ” (Plut. Lyc. 16.6). This is also confirmed by Paul Cartledge, who ascribes to the Spartans that it was not words but deeds that counted and gives this as the reason why there are relatively few contemporary records of Spartan history (cf. Cartledge 1990, p.7 f.). We can therefore assume that reading and writing played only a subordinate role in the education of young Spartan men.

Furthermore, Plutarch tells us that the boys cut their hair, exercised naked and were only allowed to bathe a few times a year. They slept together in groups, into which they were divided at the beginning of their training, on mattresses they had made themselves (cf. Plut. Lyc. 16.7). Here it must be questioned to what extent Plutarch’s descriptions apply to the Agoge of classical times, but what is being described exhibits similarities to rituals known in research as “Rites of Passage”, which are documented for many cultures. These are rituals that a member of a society goes through, e.g. at birth, puberty, entry into adulthood, marriage, etc. It therefore makes perfect sense that such ritual acts, possibly (but not necessarily) similar to those described by Plutarch, were already performed in classical times for entry into the Agoge. Kennell also sees the endurance of hunger (fasting), as well as the prohibition of shoes and the wearing of only one garment throughout the year as part of such rituals (cf. Kennell 1995, p. 123).

Xenophon also mentions sexual relations between adult Spartan men and adolescent boys in the context of this age group, a practice that was widespread in ancient Greece and by no means frowned upon. Unlike the rest of the Hellenic world, however, in Sparta relationships of this kind were only permitted “If someone, being himself an honest man, admired a boy’s soul and tried to make of him an ideal friend without reproach and to associate with him, he approved, and believed in the excellence of this kind of training. But if it was clear that the attraction lay in the boy’s outward beauty, he banned the connexion as an abomination; ” (Xen. Const. Lac. 2.13). Thommen points out that although Xenophon mentions “the pederastic relations” in the context of the paides, i.e. the 7 to 14 year olds, he probably “referred to the next age group [sic!] of the paidiskoi”, i.e. the 14-20 year olds (cf. Thommen 2017, p. 107).

2.2.2 Paidiskoi

The next phase of the Agoge, in which the now adolescent boys aged 14-20 were grouped together under the designation “Paidiskoi”, provided for “first social ties with adults”, such as the already mentioned romantic relationships between the young Spartans and the already established adult (male) full citizens of Sparta (cf. Thommen 20172, p. 106).

Plutarch reports that it had been important for the young men of this age group to be able to judge other members of their group and of Spartan society as a whole. The overseer of the group, the so-called Eiren, asked the Paidiskoi individually for their opinion of their “fellow students” or of the citizens of Sparta. They had to justify their answers rationally and give them as concisely and accurately as possible. The Eiren then judged whether an answer had been right or wrong and bit the thumb of those who had given the wrong answer (cf. Plut. Lyc. 18.3). Kennell confirms that such a practice already existed in classical times and that it was an important part of the introduction of young Spartan men to public life in Sparta after the relative isolation of the first phase of education. (cf. Kennell 1995, p. 124).

Xenophon unfortunately provides relatively little detailed information in the case of the Paidiskoi, except that at this time the youths had to be forced to do ten times the amount of work. However, he also reports on a custom to teach the young Spartans modesty during this critical period of adolescence. For this purpose, they walked along the street with their hands in the folds of their robes, without speaking and without taking their eyes off the ground in front of their feet (cf. Xen. Const. Lac. 3.4).

On a completely different note is one of the aforementioned rites of passage that the young Spartans underwent during this phase (cf. Kennell 1995, p.126). Here the youths stole cheese from an altar of Artemis Orthia under beatings from the other Paidiskoi (cf. Thommen 2017, p. 106 f.). Plutarch mentions that the blows from the other youths were apparently so severe that many of the boys died during this ritual (cf. Plut. Lyc. 18.1). This custom can already be found in very similar form in Xenophon and is thus attested for the classical period (cf. Xen. Const. Lac. 2.9).

The beginning of the next phase of the Agoge is marked by the entry into what Xenophon calls manhood (cf. Xen. Const. Lac. 3.4).

2.2.3 Hebontes

The education of the young men called “Hebontes” in this phase caused Lycurgus “the deepest solicitude” (cf. Xen. Const. Lac. 4.1). From the age of 20 to 30, the young Spartans were no longer called Paidiskoi. During this phase, the young men continued to be under supervision and “still engaged in choregic and athletic competitions” (Thommen 2017, p. 108). Supervision was no longer carried out by the Paidonomos, but by three so-called “commanders of the guard”, each of whom supervised 100 of the young men (cf. Xen. Const. Lac. 4.3). Probably the most significant novelty was the admission to one of the tent communities, by which the syssitia are meant: “A syssition originally formed both a basic military unit and an eating community. Integration into such an association, […] formed one of the basic elements of civic existence in Sparta.” (Thommen 2017 , p. 109) By joining such a community, another step was taken to slowly introduce the young Spartans to integration into the society of adult Spartan men and thus towards full citizenship.

After the age of 30, the institutionalised education of the Spartans seems to have been completed. They were now allowed to participate in hunting and not to spend the night with their male tentmates, but to return home and spend the night in their own home. They could also hold public office in the state and generally became a full member of society (cf. Thommen 2017, p.107 f.).

Before we move on to Athenian education, another aspect of the Agoge should be addressed, which according to some scholars was not part of the standard educational programme. We are talking about the Crypteia, after which the boys in this phase of the Agoge were called Cryptoi. (cf. Cartledge 1990, p. 79).

2.2.4 Kryptoi

The word Crypteia in itself means something like “hidden” or “secret” (cf. Ross 2012, p. 1 f.). According to Cartledge, the Crypteia took place between the ages of 18 and 20, i.e. at the end of the phase of agoge, in which the boys were referred to as Paidiskoi in Xenophon. Only “an elite few” were allowed to participate in this phase (cf. Cartledge 1990, p. 79). Thommen reports, “The Crypteia formed an essential part of the young people’s entry into adult life.” (Thommen 2017, p.108 f.), which suggests that the Crypteia was an essential part of the education of most, if not all, adolescents. As for the age at which the Crypteia took place, however, Thommen deviates only slightly and gives the age of 20, “after the completion of youth education” (ibid.).

Cartledge and Thommen agree on the point that the Crypteia required leaving Sparta (the city and the laconic villages in the immediate vicinity, not the territory of the city-state) and surviving on one’s own in the wilderness (cf. Cartledge 1990, p. 79). Thommen refers to Plato, according to whom “the Crypteia [is] a kind of hardening training, which included walking barefoot in winter, sleeping on bare ground, as well as special activities for which the whole country had to be roamed around the clock.” (Thommen 2017, p.108).

The most extraordinary feature of the Crypteia, however, was the killing of helots, which act was carried out at night and armed only with a dagger (cf. Cartledge 1990, p. 79). The meaning of the word Crypteia, “secret” or “hidden”(cf. Ross 2012, p. 1), is possibly related to the fact that the Helots were killed exclusively under the cloak of darkness and thus in secret (cf. Strechie 2012, p.3). According to Thommen, any Helots and farm workers who encountered the Cryptoi were killed. Apparently, however, there was at least some kind of guideline here, according to which “only those Helots [were] killed for whom this seemed advisable.” (Thommen 2017, p.109). What kind of Helots could be meant by this will become clear in the following.

According to Plutarch, not all “young men” were subjected to the Crypteia, but only the most intelligent among them, which agrees with Cartledge’s statement that only a few were sent out into the wilderness. They were equipped with nothing but daggers and essential food supplies. During the day they were supposed to stay hidden so that at night they could murder any Helot who crossed their path. In this passage, Plutarch also mentions that the purpose of killing the Helots working in the fields was to specifically kill the physically strongest members of this lowest class of Spartan society. In this context, reference is also made to a certain passage in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, in which precisely these most outstanding of the Helots were honoured for their bravery by the Spartans and then led around the shrines of the gods. It is said that more than 2000 of them disappeared after this event (cf. Plut. Lyc. 28.2-28.4). From Knottnerus we learn that these 2000 were systematically lured by the Spartans with their freedom: If they stood by Sparta in the war, they would be set free (cf. Knottnernus 2002, p.2 f.). The circumstances suggest that the 2000 Helots were ritually sacrificed and that this may also have played a role in the murder of the Helots as part of the Krypteia (cf. Thommen 2017, p.109). Plutarch’s reference to both Thucydides and Aristotle (cf. Plut. Lyc. 28.4) suggests that the Crypteia, in one form or another, also already existed in the classical period.

In general, there are two opposing camps in regarding the true purpose of the Crypteia. While some experts argue that the Crypteia functioned mainly as a concluding part of the Agoge, a final test of survival skills and loyalty to the Spartan state, so to speak, others see it mainly as a means of suppressing the Helots (cf. Ross 2012, p. 1 f.). Thommen sees the purpose of the Crypteia as “securing the border territory” and as a discriminatory measure against the Helots (cf. Thommen 2017, p. 109), so more likely to belong to the latter category. Both camps agree on the point that both educational (towards the adolescent Spartans) and controlling or disciplinary measures (towards the Helots) must have played a role. They only differ in the weighting of both criteria (cf. Ross 2012, p. 1 f.).

3 In comparison with Athens

Now that a sufficiently detailed overview of the Spartan Agoge has been given, it will be compared with the typical education in ancient Athens during the same period. Sparta and Athens were and are often in direct comparison, as both poleis were among the most influential of their time and ultimately faced each other directly in the Peloponnesian War. Also in terms of their influence in subsequent centuries up to the present day, there is hardly any comparison among the Greek city-states of antiquity. As far as the upbringing and education of (male) children and youths is concerned, they also differed considerably, as will be shown in the following.

3.1 Athenian education

Unlike in Sparta, education in Athens was not the responsibility of the state. It was decided by the families themselves, or by the heads of the families (the fathers), “what disciplines their boys should study, who the good teachers were and how long they should be at school.” (Pritchard 2014, p. 2). Contemporaries such as Aristotle had already complained about this state of affairs and believed that education should be both “state-run” and “common to all” (cf. Morgan 1999, p. 55). Very little was dictated by the state itself, including the time of instruction, the size of classes to be taught and the minimum age of pupils (cf. Pritchard 2014, p. 2). The children were taught wherever it suited them, for example in the teachers’ homes. The main concern was that all pupils, 10-12 per class, could be accommodated in the respective building or room (cf. Batdal Karaduman et al., p. 42). In this context, the famed Gymnasium should also be mentioned, which, however, at least originally, mainly served the sporting activities of adults, and later also those of higher education (cf. Forbes 1945, p. 33). This shows, on the one hand, how flexible the Athenians were in their choice of “classrooms” and, on the other, that education often went hand in hand with other aspects of everyday public life.

Growing boys in ancient Athens began their formal education at about the same time as the boys of Sparta, at the age of seven. They were then assigned a special household slave, the so-called “Paedogogos”, who accompanied the child everywhere and also had the authority to punish him if necessary. The Paedogogos was usually not responsible for one child alone, but for all the male children in a family. The proximity of the Paedogogos to the children often developed a deeper emotional bond, as a result of which they still looked up to him with love and respect in adulthood, despite his status as a slave (cf. ibid.).

A school day usually began early in the morning, after sunrise. It remains unclear how long it lasted, but schools were not allowed to be open after sunset. Among other things, this was to prevent teachers from having sexual relations with their pupils (cf. ibid. f.). This is in stark contrast to Sparta, where such relationships were even encouraged, as mentioned above. It should be said that there were indeed relationships between adult men and adolescents in Athens, but these were rather limited to the elite and usually had little to do with education (cf. Hubbard 2006, p. 223 ff. and Hubbard 1998, p. 49 f.), apart from the fact that the older partner was justified as a “role model” (cf. Joyal 2019, p.87).

The children were basically instructed in three different disciplines: Gumnastike, mousike and grammata. In addition to these, singing and/or dancing lessons were sometimes taught (cf. Pritchard 2014, p. 2), although these disciplines were elsewhere counted as falling within the subject of mousike (cf. Morgan 1999, p. 48). In this context the reader should be reminded that Athenian education, like Spartan education, was subject to great change over the centuries and the various disciplines, as well as their content and weighting, were constantly changing, as will become clear in the following (cf. ibid., p. 47 ff.).

Gumnastike included sporting activities such as wrestling, boxing, sprinting and javelin and discus throwing and was taught by specialised teachers or coaches who did not necessarily teach all athletic disciplines. For example, there were schools specialising in wrestling that did not teach boxing. Gumnastike should therefore not necessarily be understood in the sense of modern physical education, in which one teacher usually teaches different sports, but there were several teachers specialised in one sport each, who taught the children. Gumnastike was also the oldest of the three disciplines before the emergence of the other two in the course of the 5th century BC. The latter were considered more important in the classical period, but this did not prevent Gumnastike from being understood as an essential part of the education of Athenian boys (cf. Pritchard 2014, p. 1f.).

Mousike included lessons in playing the kithara, a kind of lyre, and singing poetry (cf. ibid. p. 2.) and seems to have been the older of the two newer disciplines (cf. Morgan 1999, p.48). Grammata grew out of the literary aspects of the Mousike over time (cf. ibid. ff.) and, in addition to reading and writing, also included working with numbers, i.e. counting itself as well as arithmetic, and learning poems by heart (cf. Pritchard 2014, p. 2.). Mousike and Grammata thus seem to have overlapped to some extent (cf. Morgan 1999, p. 50) and in both disciplines the main aim was to teach the young Athenians morally right and virtuous action through confrontation with the heroes of Greek poetry. Sometimes due to envy of their heroic deeds, they were to display similar behaviour and thus grow into virtuous young men (cf. ibid.). The “ethical dimension” of Mousike is also confirmed by Morgan (cf. Morgan 1999, p.48).

With the emergence of Grammata from Mousike and the adoption of the literary-poetic aspect of the latter, Mousike itself developed more into an exclusively “‘musical’ (in the modern sense)” discipline. The transformation of the Greek curriculum from a relatively rough dichotomy consisting of Gumnastike and Mousike into a tripartite division probably took place towards the end of the fifth century BC and was completed by 390 BC at the latest. This does not mean that every Athenian was taught all three disciplines from then on; instruction in only Gumnastike and Mousike existed for decades alongside the tripartite division (cf. ibid. p. 50 f.).

In summary, then, Athenian education can be divided into a physical and a “mental-moral” aspect. Contemporaries often perceived these two aspects as being in conflict or competing with each other in terms of their importance as independent disciplines of the Greek curriculum. This division and perceived conflict continued for centuries (cf. ibid., p.48 ff.).

Unlike Sparta, Athens could not rely for its sustenance on a tax-paying lowest class of population, which would have exempted the majority of the Athenian population from working for their living. There was, of course, an elite that was exempt from this constraint, but not nearly to the same extent as in Sparta. Because of this “lack”, the cost of raising and educating young Athenian boys and adolescent males had to be borne by each household itself. While this was not a problem for the elite, who had the money to have their children taught in all disciplines, it was a different story for the lower strata of society: The less money a family had, the fewer disciplines and the less time a child could spend in each discipline. In addition, many children of poorer households also had to help out with household chores, in the workshop or in the fields, which further led to a lack of available time for learning. Another problem that the elite did not have (cf. ibid., p.3).

Which disciplines were taken and to what extent was thus a question of time and money of each household, in which priorities had to be forcibly set. While in Sparta the main goal of the agoge was to train capable and obedient young men for public service for the good of the state, whether in public office or in war against external or internal threats, Athenian society wanted to produce “agathoi andres”, “virtuous men”. This was not about learning the craft of war, surviving in the wilderness or obeying orders, but primarily about fostering the courage of each individual and developing and strengthening the capacity for right moral action. Gumnastike, for example, was meant to teach young men to face their opponents courageously on the battlefield. Mousike and Grammata, on the other hand, were meant to teach them to act morally right by confronting the noble protagonists of the Greek epics (cf. Pritchard 2014, p. 2 f.).

Since virtue and morally right action were top priorities for the education of Athenian boys, it seems unlikely that the poorer Athenian families would have foregone the instruction of their children in Grammata as the most important discipline for developing this virtue in favour of the other two. Mousike also seems to have been more important than Gumnastike in this respect, even if the latter, as the second most important discipline, could probably only have been taken up by very few members of the Athenian lower class. The most important and widespread discipline of Athenian education was thus Grammata and the development of morality (cf. ibid.).

It must be borne in mind that this can of course only apply to the 4th century BC (and here most likely to the second half of the same period (cf. Morgan 1999, p. 55 f.)), since Grammata as an independent discipline only really gained a foothold in this period, as has already been explained above.

Morality aside, Batdal Karaduman et al. mention that teachers were not squeamish about disciplinary measures: “For instance in a poem of Phanios, we see the tools of beating; such as sticks, slippers, whips. But we don’t find any objections raised to it by Greek writers. What we know of Athenian schools in the fifth century B.C.E. suggests that a stress on discipline and punishment tended to outweigh the teaching of skills. This bias was certainly due in part to the need for soldiers, but it may also reflect Athenian understanding that, for their democracy to survive, young men had to learn to temper their competitive drives. (Nortwick, 2008: 47).”

This shows that order and discipline were also important for the education of young men in Athens, and that the view of Athenian society was also directed towards a military future (cf. Batdal Karaduman et al., p. 44). However, this seems to have been the exception rather than the rule: “For most free, non-elite Greeks, the main occupation for which they had to be trained was that of their parent.” (ibid., p. 45).

After the now adolescent boys had enjoyed instruction in one or more of these subjects, the more privileged among them could be further instructed by the sons of other wealthy families or by the so-called sophists, in order to deepen their knowledge of medicine, law and rhetoric (cf. ibid., p.44). Of these, the latter in particular became increasingly important in democratic Athens, since speaking freely before an audience for the purpose of convincing the same was essential for the democratic process and for increasing one’s own political influence (cf. Joyal 2019, p. 90). This also happened in the Gymnasiums mentioned at the beginning of this chapter (cf. Forbes 1945, p. 33).

3.2 The Ephebeia

Aristotle reports that all Athenians whose parents were both citizens of the polis began a 2-year military service at the age of 18, the so-called Ephebeia (cf. Aristot. Const. Ath. 42.1). It is unclear exactly when this institution was established, similar to the Agoge, but the latest date given is 334/35 BC. It is clear, however, that the institutionalisation of the Ephebeia must have been preceded by a longer development phase that ultimately led to this system of training up the youths. The reason for the institutionalisation may have been a change in the way military conflicts were conducted: Instead of the social elite or “heroes” competing against each other to resolve conflicts, entire armies, recruited from the masses of the people, were now increasingly sent into battle against each other. This required the training and education of every able-bodied man to prepare them for such armed conflicts (cf. Reinmuth 1952, p.35 ff.).

The beginning of the Ephebeia symbolises the entry of young Athenian men into the life of fully-fledged citizens of Athens and the rights and duties associated with it (cf. ibid., p.40). This is also reflected in the development of the meaning of the word “ephebos”, which at first simply denoted a young man (cf. Joyal 2019, p. 88): “the term ephebos comes into use to mean one entering upon citizenship.” (Reinmuth 1952, p.40). The Ephebeia is often described as a rite of passage and in this respect can be compared to the Spartan Crypteia: “division of groups according to age; segregation of these groups from the community for a fixed period of time, often while they did garrison duty in the countryside; their wearing of distinctive clothing; and their reintegration upon completion of service.” (Joyal 2019, p. 88). The division into different age groups is not a characteristic of the Crypteia per se, but of the Agoge in general, while the other points listed here apply to both institutions (“distinctive clothing” can be compared to the sparse equipment of the Cryptoi; there is no mention of a “Cryptoi uniform”).

At the beginning of this military service, it is checked whether the recruits fulfil the two conditions mentioned in advance: First, whether they were indeed already 18 years old and second, whether they were the child of free Athenian citizens. If the latter was not the case, the accused was sold as a slave by the state (cf. Aristot. Const. Ath. 42.1). After the young men were assigned a “guardian” from their tribe and a “director” from the general Athenian citizenry, a tour of the temples of Athens followed (cf. ibid. 42.2-42.3). It seems likely that the “Ephebic Oath”, with which the recruits swore their allegiance to the city-state of Athens, was connected with this tour, since in it the gods were invoked as witnesses: “Witnesses are the gods Aglauros, Hestia, Enyo, Enyalios, Ares and Athena Areia, Zeus, Thallo, Auxo, Hegemone, Heracles …” (Siewert 1977, p.103). According to Reinmuth, the sanctuary of Aglauros lends itself to this, since he is the first-named god (cf. Reinmuth 1952, p. 42). Besides the religious aspect, the oath also contains strong military nuances, as Reinmuth emphasises: “I will never bring reproach upon my hallowed arms, nor will I desert the comrade at whose side I stand, but I will defend …” (ibid., p. 41).

Thereupon the Ephebi (“the youths” or “the young men”) were sent to their respective posts in Attica. In the first year of their training, they were taught by two trainers how to fight in heavy armour and with the bow and the throwing spear. In addition, they were also taught how to operate a catapult. It remains unclear whether the Ephebi were trained before their deployment or during it. During this time, the guardian took care of the recruits. After completing their first year of service, the Ephebi received a shield and a spear from the state, after which they were sent on patrols through the country. During these two years, which the young men spent in the service of the state of Athens, they were exempt from any taxes. However, they were not allowed to accuse anyone of a crime in court, nor to be charged with one, which was intended to allow the recruits to concentrate fully on their military service (cf. ibid.).

Similar to the Agoge, the Ephebeia also underwent a development. As early as 35 years after Aristotle’s report, it was no longer part of the compulsory programme of adolescent Athenian men (cf. Reinmuth 1952, p. 39) and thus differed greatly from the Agoge of Sparta, which was compulsory for all free male citizens of Sparta. Its duration was also reduced to only one year (cf. Joyal 2019, p. 88).

4 Conclusion

The aim of this paper was to show how exceptional the Agoge was, not only from today’s point of view but in comparison to other educational approaches in ancient Greece, as well. While, as already mentioned several times in the course of this thesis, the Agoge did not exist unchanged, but was a system that existed for centuries and was subject to various developments, the reports from both classical and Roman times emphasise its special position not only in Greece but in the Mediterranean world of antiquity in general. The comparison with Athens shows that this was not just a cliché but actually corresponds to a large extent to historical reality: While Sparta strongly influenced the education of her children from the moment of their conception and, in many respects, completely determined it, education and above all the education of children in Athens was a private matter, which had both advantages and disadvantages for the respective polis. Because education in Athens was not institutionalised as it was in the Spartan Agoge, the Athenian upper classes in particular had several options open to them regarding their professional future. The children of the lower classes, on the other hand, had an even harder time of it, since due to limited means they usually had no choice but to follow in their parents’ professional footsteps after very limited instruction in Grammata. In Sparta, on the other hand, all male citizens underwent the same education, which, at least in theory, should guarantee similar opportunities for all citizens, which is also attested to by the term “homoioi”, the “equals” (cf. Thommen 2017, p.98). However, as far as occupational choice was concerned, the options were rather limited in Sparta. Spartans who had graduated from the Agoge either served as soldiers or took on public offices. Since literacy and academia were not held in particularly high esteem in Sparta, and the Helots and Perioeci met the need for food, tools, weapons and other necessities of life as well as luxury items, there was no need for more workers in these professions. Apart from that, it remains questionable whether a Spartan, who had been prepared for a life in the service of the state since his earliest childhood, felt the desire to pursue other activities than those in the direct service of Sparta.

Another difference, which was only mentioned in passing, is literary education. As already mentioned, this was not of too great importance in Sparta. In Athens, on the other hand, it seems to have been of the utmost importance. So important, in fact, that if a family could only afford one of the disciplines to teach their sons, they chose Grammata, so that their sons would learn to read and write, as well as to recite the great works of ancient authors such as Homer. Admittedly, these works were not memorised explicitly because of their literary significance, but with the aim of making virtuous young men out of the boys (cf. Pritchard 2014, p. 2 f.) The fact, however, that literary works were part of the essential tool of Athenian education represents a sharp contrast to the Agoge.

Apart from the fact that education in Sparta was institutionalised and regulated by the state, and that literary education was of very little importance, probably the most serious difference between the two approaches to education is the concept of family. While Athenian children returned to their parents after school and thus spent a large part of their childhood with their family, the family life of Spartan boys ended at the latest with the beginning of the Agoge, if not earlier. As mentioned in the previous text, after Lycurgus’ reforms, a child did not belong to his father, but to Spartan society, and as part of this, every Spartan man contributed to its upbringing. The family was effectively replaced by Spartan society in the form of the other boys in the Agoge and by their overseers until the young men were then prepared at the age of 20-30 to enter Spartan society as full and equal citizens of Sparta.

The comparison with the Ephebeia, which was mainly made in the 19th century (cf. Vidal-Naque, p. 49), also shows more differences than similarities between the two systems. While the Ephebeia lasted only two years, the Agoge lasted at least 13 years (if the Krypteia is taken as the “final examination”), if not 23 years. The psychological and pedagogical influence that the Spartan state exerted on its offspring is many times greater for this reason alone. And even if the Ephebeia is contrasted only with the Krypteia and not with the entire Agoge, the differences here are also abundantly clear: After the Spartan youths had already been prepared for life as loyal soldiers in the service of the state for over a decade, they were sent out into the wilderness on their own to test their survival skills and to kill unarmed and innocent slaves whenever possible in order to keep them in check. In contrast, only the more privileged among the Ephebi had already enjoyed instruction in the Gumnastike at the time of joining the Ephebeia, and thus at least had experience in athletic competition. Actual military training, however, did not begin until then and is more akin to basic military training. Furthermore, there is no comparison in the Ephebeia to the murder of the Helots.

In summary, the Agoge differs from other educational approaches in ancient Greece, such as that of Athens, primarily in its intensity and social regulation and egalitarianism, its emphasis on militaristic education, and its intervention in the most intimate aspects of family life. All these aspects are not found, or at least not to this intensity and extent, in ancient Athens. Whereas young men in ancient Sparta were taught from childhood that the state and society as a collective took absolute precedence over the individual, in Athens democracy gave the individual a voice and influence over political events. This should suffice to prove that the Agoge in the classical period was fundamentally different from other educational systems.



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