I just listened to the latest edition of In Our Time, on the history of Sparta. Interesting show. I was particularly interested in the experts’ discussion of the agoge and the crypteia – the hardcore military training that Spartan boys hand to undergo.
Spartan childhood was fairly rough right from the beginning. If you were deformed or sickly, you had a good chance of being thrown over a cliff. Then, you were handed over to the state at the age of six. From the age of 10 to 18, you underwent the agoge, a severe military training that involved drills, gymnastics, fight-training, and food deprivation – you were given so little food you had to forage and steal, though you were beaten mercilessly if you were caught.
Throughout summer and winter, you wore the same small piece of cloth, and slept on a mat of reeds that you made yourself. At the end of the agoge, you had to take part in some weird ritual called the ‘stealing of the cheeses’ at the altar of Artemis, which basically involved being ritually flagellated, sometimes to death.
Then, the hardcore among you would be selected for the crypteia, where you were sent out into the wilderness to fight and kill. Perhaps you remember the famous scene in Frank Miller’s book and film, 300, where Leonidas proves his worth by killing a wolf.
Well, actually, the crypteia involved the killing of helots, the local slave population. It was a method of ethnic cleansing to keep the helot population down. Nice, eh? Oh, and another thing, kings didn’t have to undergo the agoge, so Leonidas won the thrown by marrying the King’s daughter, not by proving himself in training.
The idea of the state training its young people to be incredibly tough, and incredibly obedient, has appealed to philosophers through the ages. Plato far preferred the discipline and conservatism of Sparta to the restless innovation of Athens. He took the idea of the state being solely responsible for the upbringing of youths and used it in his Republic. Rousseau, the father of totalitarianism, was another big fan. So was Hitler – he saw Sparta as the first ‘volkish’ nation, and praised its eugenics programme.
At the more acceptable end of the political spectrum, Spartan education was an inspiration for Kurt Hahn, the German (and Jewish) theorist of education, who founded Gordonstoun. Hahn liked the idea of sending young people off into the wilderness, to face danger and learn resourcefulness. The Duke of Edinburgh, a Gordonstoun old boy, tapped into that spirit with his Duke of Edinburgh awards. Geelong Grammer, the famous Australian school, also follows Hahn’s neo-Spartan ethic – its pupils spend a year studying at Timbertop, an outdoor camp where they are sent off on outdoor expeditions.
And in our own day, Sparta seems to have a new cultural resonance. Think of Fight Club, and Tyler Durden’s military training of his mindless black-shirted ‘space monkeys’, or Frank Miller’s 300, which seems to celebrate Spartan ‘civilization’ as opposed to Persian / Iranian despotism.
Miller said in an interview: “For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we’re up against, and the sixth century barbarism that they [Islamic jihadis] actually represent. These people saw people’s heads off. They enslave women, they genitally mutilate their daughters, they do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us.”
While the Spartans, on the other hand…