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.
10. Spartan 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.
9. Children 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.
8. Children 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.
7. Spartan 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.
6. Spartan 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.