10 Wild Facts About The Way The Spartans Raised Their Children
Sparta! The very name is redolent of military prowess and self-sacrifice. Whether because of the famous film 300, or from general knowledge; almost everyone knows about the last stand of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartan soldiers as they held the Persian Army at the gates of Thermopylae for three days, saving Greece but dying in the process.
The Spartans have always, even in the ancient world, been viewed as something of a race apart, special, different and, to be perfectly honest, downright scary. The Spartan state was unlike anything either before or since; in many ways it resembled a martial equivalent of a religious sect. The state played a huge role in everyday life and regulated even when and who people could marry. Every aspect of life was controlled in a manner designed to support the military with young boys entering training from a very tender age.
Spartan women enjoyed more rights than their contemporaries but Sparta was, in all other respects, a very stratified society. All Spartiates (descendants of the original inhabitants of Sparta) were required to serve in the army for life (or at least until age 60), there was no other acceptable occupation.
In order to serve in the army Spartiate boys were required to complete the Spartan education in the agoge and therefore take their place as a fully-fledged Spartan citizen. If a family could not pay for the agoge education they would lose citizenship and become one of the perioikoi, free men who lived in but were not citizens of Sparta and who provided skilled crafts and services, (all manual labor was done by the state owned slaves known as helots). For this reason the state education was seen as the lynchpin of Spartan society.
The Spartan attitude to childhood is almost completely at odds to our own. Children were seen as a state asset rather than an emotional blessing. With that in mind here is our list of 10 of the wildest things these young Spartiate children were required to do.
10Spartan babies were bathed in wine
There was a belief, in the ancient world, that bathing a baby in wine would act as a test to see whether it was strong or not. The wine, it was thought, would cause a weak baby to go into convulsions.
Spartans practiced a rudimentary form of eugenics. They did not care about newborn babies in and of themselves, their only interest was in breeding as many warriors (or begetters of warriors) for the state as possible. Spartan parents were not supposed to form any deep emotional bond with their children at all. The custom, therefore, was to bathe all newborn babies in wine; once this test was completed the mother would present the baby to the Gerouisa or City Elders who would inspect it carefully. If they decided that the baby was healthy it was returned to its parents and permitted to live.
If the elders declared that the baby was too weak to be of benefit to the state it was condemned to death. It would, by the bizarre logic of the Spartan mind, have been improper to have actually taken some physical action to put the baby to death. Many of the vulnerable newborns were taken to the slopes of Mount Taygetus and left out in the wild all alone, these babies died lonely, and scared either freezing and starving to death or by being eaten by wild animals. Other, luckier ones, were given to helots to raise as their own, if these children survived infancy they could look forward to a life of misery and drudgery and the possibility of being tortured and mistreated by their own blood relatives.
9Children were taught that the only valuable death was in battle (or childbirth for women).
All Spartiate boys were expected to become warriors and all Spartiate girls were expected to produce more boys for the state.
Spartans buried their dead close to the living and typically without any tombstone or grave marker. The one exception to this rule was that men who fell in battle would be granted the honor of a tombstone with their name and the simple inscription ‘in war’ beneath. Women who died in childbirth were also buried with a named tombstone. No other death was deemed worthy of being recalled or recorded.
This practice ensured that children would grow up to revere those who laid down their life for the state and strive, wherever possible, to emulate their example.
8Children were reared on a diet of ‘Tough Love’
Spartiate children were allowed to live at home with their mothers only up until their 7th birthday. After that time they were required to enter the state education system of the agoge.
Babies were reared by a nurse rather than by their birth mother. During their time at home they were not cosseted or coddled in any way –they were given only one piece of clothing each year so that they would learn to endure the changing seasons. They were not even allowed to wear shoes as these would make their feet soft and vulnerable. The children were encouraged to be brave in all things and babies were often left to cry rather than being comforted when upset.
Although they lived in their mother’s house boys would spend time each day with their father who would take them to his mess hall ‘syssitia’ to dine. Both boys and girls, unless of very high status, would also be expected to spend time on the family farm which was managed for the family by paid free men and which formed the basis for the family’s wealth therefore enabling the boys to attend the agoge.
7Spartan children were expected to treat all older Spartans as their parents.
In ancient times much was made by other Greeks about the fact that Spartan children were taken from their parents at a tender age. This was used as a base from which to demonize Spartans as ‘the other’ and highlight the differences between other Greeks who cared for and raised their own children and the ‘foreign’, ‘strange’ Spartans.
Nevertheless although children did not live with their parents they would be permitted to spend holiday periods on the family farm and have contact with their fathers and mothers. Relationships of love and affection did develop and mothers and fathers could and did feel intense pride in the achievements of their children.
Children were seen as a state rather than a personal asset and as such they were encouraged to respect all older men and women as though they were their blood parents. Older men were addressed as ‘father’ and Spartans subscribed to the ‘it takes a village’ mentality in that all citizens had the right to reprimand any underage youths.
Children graduated to full citizenship at the age of 21 but before they were able to take on this mantled of responsibility they were required to spend a year as an instructor in charge of 60 youths in the agoge. This served to show how civic responsibility applied in practice and prove to the children that they all had a valuable part to play in Spartan society.
6Spartan children were taken from their parents at age 7
Spartiate children were deemed to belong to the state rather than to their families. At age 7 children left their parental home forever and moved into the agoge or state sponsored school. Spartiate boys would be assigned to a group of about 60 boys of a similar age known as an ‘ilea’ headed up by a boy of about 20 years old who was called an eiren. His job was to guide the boys in the ilea and teach them how to become young warriors.
During the day the boys learned to build their strength through games of wrestling. They would also learn to ride, swim and fight. Punishments were harsh and swift and if the boys cried out they would be punished again until they learned to endure pain in silence. In later periods boys would engage in whipping contests where they would compete to see who would be able to endure the pain the longest.
The young boys would no longer eat with their father’s mess, instead they would eat at the eiren’s home where he used the opportunity to quiz the boys on everything they had learned and teach them about Spartan martial culture and history. When they went to bed they were made to sleep directly on a bed of reeds and were not permitted access to a blanket for fear that this would make them soft and unable to endure extremes of weather.
Even in the agoge, however, Spartans revered democracy and were encouraged to practice the principles in their daily lives. As such the boys of the ilea were required to elect their own leader and possibly had a say in who their eiren would be.
5The time at the Agoge was brutal and included ritualistic beatings, hazing and shortage of food
The Spartans believed that their children had to be taught to deal with the harshest things that life could throw at them. There was simply no concept of giving children an easy ride. A boy’s time in the agoge, therefore was tough and unpleasant.
Boys were expected to learn enough mathematics, literature, art and music to enable them to be free thinkers. While soldiers were required (and taught to) follow orders the trainers realized that there would be times when the soldiers might be on their own, cut off from the rest of the army or isolated in the heat of battle and would have to be able to act independently. Boys were also taught to speak well – rhetoric was a highly prized skill in ancient Greece. Spartans were so praised for their pithy way of speaking that it gave rise to the modern day word ‘Laconic’ (Lacedaemon was the ancient name for Sparta).
In addition to this hard work the boys were expected to become physically fit and tough. Food was kept in short supply so that the boys would learn what it was to go hungry. It was expected that the boys would supplement their diet by stealing food. Those who were caught were punished because they were caught, this, it was felt, trained them to be stealthy warriors. Any boy who showed weakness could expect to be ridiculed rather than supported and girls (who often trained alongside the boys) would often use public festivals and other events to ridicule the boys they felt were slacking or not training hard enough.
4Boys were encouraged to join the secret police
Spartan society was very bottom heavy. The Spartiate citizens formed only a very small minority of the people living in Sparta during ancient times. The helots or slave laborers formed the largest part of the population; if they became organized they had the potential to destroy the Spartiate class in a mass revolt. Because of this the Spartiates had to rule by fear and decimate the helot population on a regular basis to prevent them becoming too strong or organized.
During their time in the agoge certain young boys would be seen to be successful and therefore marked as potential leaders. Those boys would, on completion of their training in the agoge be asked to join the Krypteia. Once a year the Spartan leaders would declare ‘war’ on the helots. The Krypteia were armed with knives and then ordered into the countryside to kill as many helots as possible in order to terrorize the survivors into submission. The Krypteia were required to stalk their prey and remain in ‘stealth mode’. Any of the Krypteia who failed in this and were caught were publically whipped.
Membership of the Krypteia was seen as an initiation or rite of passage. This was vitally important because only those citizens who had served in these ‘death squads’ would be considered for promotion as they had proved themselves willing to do anything for Sparta.
3Pederasty was an expected and normal part of childhood
These days we, quite rightly, are appalled at the concept of pedophilia, the idea that adults could view children as sexual beings is repugnant. This was very different in ancient Greece – relationships between adults and children were considered to be quite normal and acceptable. Sparta went even further and actively encouraged pedophilic relationships. So important was homoeroticism for the Spartans that they encouraged athletes to compete in the nudge, oiling their bodies to enhance the visual excitement of the experience.
Men who did not engage in a romantic relationship with a young boy were believed to have disgraced themselves because they failed to make a boy like themselves. Boys were encouraged to look for a lover and were considered to have failed if they did not have one. Men actively searched for suitable relationships but the power was in the hands of the boy – he was the one who could choose whether or not to enter into the relationship. If a boy was courted by two lovers they were encouraged to work together to ‘improve’ the youth. These older lovers were responsible to a great extent, for the boy’s military training. If a boy failed in a task or made a mistake he would be punished, but the punishment for the elder lover would be even more severe to take him to task or his failure, properly to train his apprentice.
There is some debate as to whether or not these romantic relationships were consummated or whether they remained chaste though it is instructive that the Athenian word for sodomy can be literally translated as meaning ‘do it like a Spartan’!
2Girls were not exempt from high expectations
Unlike much of ancient Greece, women played a hugely important role in Spartan society. They were seen as the creators of the next generation of warriors and therefore, unique in their time, they received an extensive state sponsored education and were given physical training to keep them at a peak of fitness in order that they could have many healthy pregnancies.
Girls started their formal education at age 7, the same time as their brothers were sent to the Agoge. Girls would spend some years at school before returning to their mother’s home until the time of their marriage. They were taught to be as literate as their brothers and required to learn poetry and history as well as reading wring and art. Unlike other Greek women a Spartiate girl was permitted to exercise in public and while wearing a short skirt or even with no clothing at all. For this reason many other Greeks would scorn the ‘loose morals’ of Spartan women. Sexual relationships between young girls and older women were tolerated and even encouraged.
At age 18, a few years younger than her brothers, a girl would submit for the citizenship tests. She had to be able to demonstrate through her knowledge and physical fitness, that she was worthy of becoming a citizen. If she failed she would become one of the perioikoi. Once a woman passed her citizenship exam she was permitted to marry – her ‘bridesmaids’ would shave her hair (all married women had short hair) and she would put on men’s clothes. The happy couple would then sneak off for a night, they would continue to be able to meet in secret until the man reached the age of 30. Adultery was not frowned on and, at certain times, it was common for Spartan women to have children by more than one man.
1Spartans had to continue to live communally until the age of 30.
Even after a Spartiate boy passed his citizenship test and was accepted as a full member of society he was required to live at the pleasure of the state.
Following graduation from training all new citizens were required, by law, to join a syssitia (a mess) of about 15 citizens each. They would retain this membership for life and the mess was, in great part, a replacement for the traditional nuclear family which was so foreign to Spartans. Spartans had to live in the syssitia until the age of 30 at the youngest. They could, marry before this time and indeed were encouraged to do so. The procreation of new Spartans was important business, not least because only descendants of the original founders could be citizens so it was important that each man begat heirs to prevent his bloodline from dying out.
Spartan marriages were seen to be a utilitarian arrangement, for the begetting of children, true affection and love between spouses was seen as a weakness that would take a man’s mind away from his military duties. Men and women lived apart, at least until them man reached the age of 30 and was permitted to sleep away from his syssitia. Nevertheless some couples formed a deep and long-lasting bond
It was only at age 30, when a Spartan man was deemed to be of an age to hold public office, that he would be allowed to live on his farm with his wife. He would, of course, still be expected to eat his daily meal with his syssitia.
Weird, wild and wacky, the Spartans had a very different view of childhood to our own. Children might be very much wanted but they were wanted for the benefit that they brought to the state as opposed to the emotional attachment and fulfilment they would bring to their parents.
Spartan parents might very well have loved their children as deeply as we do today but they showed that love in a very different way. They taught their children to grow up physically fit, to feel no fear and to place the needs of the state before the needs of themselves or their families.
While the practices set out here are alien to us today (just try bathing a baby in wine in a delivery suite at your hospital and see how far you get!) but there is a lot that we can learn from the Spartan way of raising their children. It is certainly no bad thing to encourage children to learn to be tough and self sufficient, to speak well and to prize physical fitness. It is probably better, however, to ensure that they do not think it is acceptable to hunt the poor, steal food, leave sick children to die, or send them to boarding school age 7!