Spartan Public Education

Spartan Public Education

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T. Rutherford Harley ("The Public School of Sparta," Greece & Rome, Vol. 3, No. 9 (May 1934) pp. 129-139.) uses Xenophon's Polity of Lacedaemon, the Hellenica, and Plutarch's Lycurgus for evidence of the Spartan education system. The following is a summary of the relevant sections of his article with a few more recent references.

Upbringing of Children to Age 7

A child deemed worth raising is given to its mother to be cared for until the age of 7, although during the day, it accompanies its father to the syssitia (dining clubs) where it sits on the floor picking up Spartan customs by osmosis. Lycurgus instituted the practice of appointing a state officer, the paidonomos, who puts children in school, supervises and punishes. Children are barefoot to encourage them to move swiftly, and they are encouraged to learn to withstand the elements by having only one outfit. Children are never satiated with food or fed fancy dishes.

Schooling of 7-Year-Old Boys

At the age of 7, the paidonomos organized the boys into divisions of about 60 each called ilae. These were groups of peers of the same age. Most of their time was spent in this company, according to Figueira. The ilae were under the supervision of an eiren (iren) aged about 20, at whose house the ilae ate. If the boys wanted more food, they went on hunts or raids.

" So seriously did the Lacedaemonian children go about their stealing, that a youth, having stolen a young fox and hid it under his coat, suffered it to tear out his very bowels with its teeth and claws, and died upon the place, rather than let it be seen."
From Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus

After dinner, the boys sing songs of war, history, and morality or the eiren quizzes them, training their memory, logic, and ability to speak laconically.

" The Iren, or under-master, used to stay a little with them after supper, and one of them he bade to sing a song, to another he put a question which required an advised and deliberate answer; for example, Who was the best man in the city? What he thought of such an action of such a man? They used them thus early to pass a right judgment upon persons and things, and to inform themselves of the abilities or defects of their countrymen. If they had not an answer ready to the question Who was a good or who an ill-reputed citizen, they were looked upon as of a dull and careless disposition, and to have little or no sense of virtue and honor; besides this, they were to give a good reason for what they said, and in as few words and as comprehensive as might be; he that failed of this, or answered not to the purpose, had his thumb bit by his master. Sometimes the Iren did this in the presence of the old men and magistrates, that they might see whether he punished them justly and in due measure or not; and when he did amiss, they would not reprove him before the boys, but, when they were gone, he was called to an account and underwent correction, if he had run far into either of the extremes of indulgence or severity."
From Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus

Spartan Literacy

It is not clear whether they learn to read. For more on the issue of literacy in Sparta, see Whitley and Cartledge.

Physical Training

The boys play ball games, ride, and swim. They sleep on reeds and suffer floggings -- silently, or they suffer again. Spartans study dance as a kind of gymnastic training for war dances as for wrestling. This was so central that Sparta was known as a dancing place from Homeric times. For more on the importance of dancing in Sparta, see "Dionysiac Elements in Spartan Cult Dances," by Soteroula Constantinidou. Phoenix, Vol. 52, No. 1/2. (Spring - Summer, 1998), pp. 15-30.

Foster Sons Allowed in Spartan Schools

Not only were the schools for the sons of the Spartiate, but also for foster sons. Xenophon, for instance, sent his two sons to Sparta for their education. Such students were called trophimoi. Even the sons of helots and perioikoi could be admitted, as syntrophoi or mothakes, but only if a Spartiate adopted them and paid their dues. If these did exceptionally well, they might later be enfranchised as Spartiates. Harley speculates that guilt may be a factor here because the helots and perioikoi often took in the children that the Spartiates had rejected at birth as unworthy of rearing.

From Agoge to Syssitia and Krypteia

At 16 the young men leave the agoge and join the syssitia, although they continue training so they can join the youth who become members of the Krypteia (Cryptia).


The passage from Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus:

" Hitherto I, for my part, see no sign of injustice or want of equity in the laws of Lycurgus, though some who admit them to be well contrived to make good soldiers, pronounce them defective in point of justice. The Cryptia, perhaps (if it were one of Lycurgus's ordinances, as Aristotle says it was), Gave both him and Plato, too, this opinion alike of the lawgiver and his government. By this ordinance, the magistrates dispatched privately some of the ablest of the young men into the country, from time to time, armed only with their daggers, and taking a little necessary provision with them; in the daytime, they hid themselves in out-of-the-way places, and there lay close, but, in the night, issued out into the highways, and killed all the Helots they could light upon; sometimes they set upon them by day, as they were at work in the fields, and murdered them. As, also, Thucydides, in his history of the Peloponnesian war, tells us, that a good number of them, after being singled out for their bravery by the Spartans, garlanded, as enfranchised persons, and led about to all the temples in token of honors, shortly after disappeared all of a sudden, being about the number of two thousand; and no man either then or since could give an account how they came by their deaths. And Aristotle, in particular, adds, that the ephori, so soon as they were entered into their office, used to declare war against them, that they might be massacred without a breach of religion."


  • "The Public School of Sparta"
    T. Rutherford Harley
    Greece & Rome
    Vol. 3, No. 9 (May 1934) pp. 129-139.
  • "Cretan Laws and Cretan Literacy"
    James Whitley
    American Journal of Archaeology
    Vol. 101, No. 4. (Oct. 1997), pp. 635-661
  • "Literacy in the Spartan Oligarchy"
    Paul Cartledge
    Journal of Hellenic Studies
    Vol. 98, 1978 (1978), pp. 25-37.
  • "Mess Contributions and Subsistence at Sparta"
    Thomas J. Figueira
    Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-) Vol. 114, (1984), pp. 87-109


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