In Sparta, education had only one goal, to train soldiers. The Spartan belonged to the state from birth until death. This philosophy was linked to an intransigent military vocation. Despite the Spartans’ small population, they had one of the strongest armies in the world at that time. During the Greco-Persian Wars, they saved Greece and perhaps even the Western world.

For Sparta, education was compulsory, collective and organized by the city. As we have seen, political privileges were the monopoly of a small minority. In the midst of the Periecs and the Helots, who were six times more numerous, the Spartans were like victors installed in a conquered country, in the midst of a population, if not hostile, at least subjugated and oppressed, who were only waiting for a breach to rebel. Also in Sparta, all the laws, all the institutions were aimed at making the Spartan a soldier whose whole life was devoted to the service of the state. If he was handicapped or too weak in constitution, his father was obliged to abandon him on Mount Taygetos where he perished. If, on the contrary, the child was robust, he was allowed to live. The life of the Spartan therefore began immediately with natural selection. Then, he remained entrusted to his mother until the age of seven. But the Spartan mothers who were preparing them for their future life were already trying to make their children soldiers ready to endure all the hardships.

The agoge

At the age of seven, the State tore the child away from its mother and gave it a completely military education, called agôgè, which meant training. Physical exercises held the greatest place. The goal was to develop strength and flexibility. The body was accustomed to undergo the rigors of the temperature and the most constraining material sufferings. Young Spartans always went barefoot and barely covered. They never slept in a bed. Their food was just enough. Each year, in front of the altar of Artemis and according to a well-established ritual, they were whipped until they bled, with the prohibition to let out the slightest complaint or to ask for mercy, under penalty of exclusion and dishonor. Finally, they were encouraged to trickery and espionage. When they stole food without anyone noticing, they were awarded praise. On the other hand, if they were caught they were punished. For two years, they were also charged with occult surveillance of the Helots, in order to prevent any uprising. The Spartan state was in no way concerned with intellectual culture. It was indeed rare for a Spartan to know how to read and write. Music alone had its marked place in public education, but it was admitted there only as a means of accustoming the ear to the cadence. Young girls received an education inspired by the same principles, gymnastics and music played a main role in it.

A life in the service of the State

At thirty, the Spartan had completed his education, but he still did not dispose of his life. He continued to belong to the state and could not live among his own. He had to marry to father the strongest possible children, but the state always came before the family. He who did not marry or who had no children was held in low regard. Every evening he had to attend the public meal called syssitie which brought together all the citizens. No Spartan could cultivate the land, practice a trade or engage in commerce. Only the Helots and the Periecs were in charge of it. Each head of family owned a piece of land of equivalent value in order to respect the concept of Equals. The State remained the owner and the Helots cultivated this land by paying an annual fee to the Spartan. The trades were exercised by the Perièques who alone bought, sold, and exchanged foodstuffs and everyday objects. Without non-military activity, therefore, the Spartan could not grow rich. A law forbade him even to use gold and silver coins, only iron coins were authorized. The Spartan State was therefore an oligarchic, military community, with total equality between its members, except in the army where there was a hierarchy. The virtues of the Spartan were courage, a sense of honor and complete submission of the individual to the state. If he had been a brave soldier and had reached the age of sixty, he was rewarded with absolute respect.