Interesting

Agôgè in Sparta


Of Sparta, the contemporary world has a somewhat distorted view through many cartoonish films, such as the recent and very questionable 300 by Zack Snyder released in 2006. Here we will focus on theagôgè and its symbol of power, because as Alexandre Dumas wrote: "Antiquity is the aristocracy of history".


"What makes the figures of Antiquity so beautiful is that they were original. "(G. Flaubert)

As soon as the term "agôgè" is mentioned, historians - even the most specialists - have difficulty in precisely dating its appearance. The most detailed description is found in Plutarch. But even if the latter refers to the past, it is assumed that he may have been influenced by what is called the late agôgè. Let's take a closer look. Ancient Greece follows a historical division between five major periods. First come the Dark centuries[i], then the archaic era [ii] followed by the classic era[iii], then the Hellenistic period [iv] and finally the Roman greece[v]. Plutarch was born in AD 46. J.C., well after the appearance of the agôgè.

In Hellenistic and Roman times, Spartan education took the name of agôgè. Before the IVe s BC, allusions to the education implemented in Sparta are rare, if not nonexistent. However, we find some traces of it in Herodotus [vi], but nothing very explicit to the point of saying that the agôgè developed before the classical period.

Another difficulty arises when one wishes to trace a continuous and uniform history of the Spartan institution in question. Indeed, the latter has known various "cuts" which have modified its original content. The first of these interruptions would have taken place between 270 and 226 BC Cléomène III [vii], helped by the philosopher Sphairos, would then have recreated an agôgè, different from the original. The second cut occurs from 188 to 146 BC, it is imposed by the Achaean league [viii]. These interruptions did not have a devastating effect on the agôgè, rather it was a relaxation of the rigor of the workouts. But traditions like the annual reading of the Souda de Dicearque [ix], remind young Spartans repeatedly of the old model which must absolutely be taken as an example.

The temple of courage

As Condillac [x] wrote in his Ancient history " Sparta was properly a camp where the citizens, abandoning the cultivation of the land to slaves, only practiced the profession of arms ”. While this phrase is a bit of an exaggeration, it is by no means false. Sparta is indeed a warrior city, which devotes a cult to war, courage and honor. Spartan education is original in that it is compulsory, collective and organized by the city. If one wants to become a citizen, one must absolutely follow this teaching. Xenophon specifies in one of these texts [xi] that the adolescent who does not follow the harsh Spartan education is not entitled to honors. He is then only a diminished citizen unable to access elite bodies or magistracies. Plutarch is even more explicit when he writes that "that of the citizens who did not support the agôge had no share in the civil rights [xii]". If one can lose all "civility" by not acting as agôgè, it is also a means for inferiors to gain freedom, even citizenship at best.

As we have mentioned, this compulsory training is organized by the city, which has earned it many praise from the greatest philosophers, such as Plato or Aristotle. In fact, other states are criticized for not providing training for future citizens. Aristotle commends Sparta for delivering an education consistent with the regime's spirit, although training for war is too important for him.

Xenophon attributes the creation of the agôge to Lycurgus [xiii], although this has not been historically demonstrated. However, unlike the rest of Greece, which entrusts the education of its young to slaves, the "pedagogues", Lycurgus gives full authority to a figure from the highest office, the "pedonomist". Assisted by "the whip carriers", the "pedonomist", a full citizen, provides educational support for young Spartans. However, there are doubts about the total exclusion of slaves from the "faculty".

At the heart of the arena

The education of young Spartans within the agôgè is based on discipline, rough living and constant emulation. As in other Greek cities, education begins at the age of seven. Sparta stands out on the length of training. In Athens, for example, education ends between the ages of twelve and fourteen. In Sparta it can last up to twenty years, and in a way up to thirty. At each "stage of formation" the Spartan attains a new "status". At thirty, the Spartan is qualified hebrews or from neoi whereas when he entered the agôgè he was still only a paides. He is still under the authority of the pedonomist and cannot travel abroad.

In addition to the "normal" curriculum, namely the teaching of art, letters, poetry and writing, the emphasis was very quickly placed on learning to live together. From the age of seven, children are brought together and encouraged to work together. Around the age of twelve, they are brought to sleep together on straw mattresses that they themselves had to make with their own hands, using reeds. The children are divided into age groups.

Very early on paides must obey and have a good demeanor. Discipline is essential. The fact that they are constantly confronted with respected leaders and not slaves reinforces this idea of ​​respect. Each child is subject to the authority of any citizen who attends his training. The pedonomist and whip carrier can inflict many punishments on the paides, ranging from corporal punishment to starvation.

The hard way education intensifies even from the age of twelve, which is a kind of stage in the agôgè. Xenophon openly criticizes the softness of the other cities which “soften the feet of children by giving them sandals”. In Sparta, the paid walk barefoot and have one coat for the whole year. They receive only a small amount of food which they have to supplement with plunder. We are witnessing "ritual thefts", like those of cheeses. But like any ritual, it should not take place all the time, under penalty of correction. By theft, we want to encourage the spirit of spartan lookout and hunter.

But this collective life also conceals a fierce "competition" between young people. Everyone aspires to become the best soldier and why not become one of the three hippagret, heads of the royal guard composed of three hundred hippeis. Xenophon again, about this internal competition specifies that "because of their rivalry, they play fists wherever they meet". But clashes are also part of the agôgè and follow a very precise rule, where each citizen has the right to separate the combatants.

In addition to the links that the paid, relationships are forged with older Spartans. We are then witnessing what we could call "educational pederasty". Even if philosophers like Plutarch or Elien claim that sexual relations with young boys were punished by exile or even death, other texts suggest that this type of relationship was not only practiced but allowed in Sparta. Moreover Plato condemns in the Laws "Unnatural love" practiced in Sparta. In any case, these pederastic relationships played a major educational role within the agôgè because they encouraged the substitution of the parental model and encouraged reconciliation as well as mutual aid.

Let's decipher the kryptie

As we have just seen, the Spartan education within the agôgè is harsh, fraught with trials. Spanning more than twenty years, the law of the strongest reigns supreme. The most valiant have the right to the highest honors. In this long initiatory path, the kryptie represents a kind of culmination of this obstacle course. The ultimate test of the agôgè, it concerns only a small number of Spartans. But what does this supreme step consist of?

Let us quote them Laws of Plato: "Well, for my part, I can try to evoke the date of the Spartan legislator's discovery, namely the practice (...) of hardening against pain, in the fights of one against the other and in certain thefts that happen each time under a shower of blows. And there is also something called kryptie, a prodigiously taxing endurance exercise, with the absence of shoes and bedding in the middle of winter and the fact of doing without servants and being to themselves. servants, while wandering day and night throughout the whole territory [xiv] ”. The words of Aristotle, reported by the grammarian Herakleides Lembos add that "it is said that Lycurgus is the instigator of the kryptia, according to which (…) making an armed expedition [the Spartans] hide during the day and at night , kill as many Helots [xv] as necessary ”.

These extracts and many other sources do not allow us to trace this ordeal beyond IVe s BC It is also difficult to define precisely the exact content of kryptia. However, we are more sure of its extreme character. The crypt is left on its own for a year. He must survive thanks to the theft and slaughter of Helotes. Not all of them succeed. Those who fail are punished. In contrast, those who succeed form the elite of neoi and constitute a kind of over-trained commandos.

Kryptia can then appear as the crowning achievement of Spartan education, a final stage which makes the student the perfect worthy citizen of Sparta. Kryptie is a kind of practical and concrete implementation of all the teaching followed for many years within the agôgè.

It is a training in courage, which, according to Aristotle, leads more to the brutality of wild beasts than to true philosophical courage [xvi].

An institution specific to Sparta, the agôgè is both an educational institution and a school for roughing it. This warrior factory was able to provoke the astonishment, but above all the admiration of its contemporaries throughout Greece. To pass the test of Kryptia is to guarantee each Spartan immense glory, proof of his extreme courage and devotion to his glorious city.


[i] 1200 BC

[ii] 800 BC

[iii] 510 BC

[iv] 323 BC

[v] 146 BC

[vi] - 484 / - 425

[vii] King of Sparta from 235 to 222 BC.

[viii] Confederation of Cities of Achaia

[ix] Philosopher disciple of Aristotle (- 347 / - 285)

[x] 18th century philosopher and writere

[xi] Rep. Lake., III, 3

[xii] Inst. Lake., 21, 238th

[xiii] Mythical legislator of Sparta (-VIIIe)

[xiv] Laws, I, 633b-c

[xv] Population of Laconia enslaved to the Spartans

[xvi] Pol., VIII, 4, 1338b 17-19


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