Raising Boys to Military Men in Sparta
The Spartans continue to fill us with awe centuries after their culture has disappeared. However, remnants of their civilization remain within our sports and military. My conversation with historian and author, Paul Rahe, explores how young boys as 7 were turned into men and warriors. We discussed:
- Staying Power
- Physical Discomfort
- Fighting and battle techniques
This conversation is part of an interview I recently had with Paul Rahe, an expert in ancient Greece. Paul has written a trilogy of books on Sparta and the Spartans. You’ll find the links below:
More details from this portion of my interview with Paul Rahe, as well as links to the books referenced can be found below:
Bill: To become a part of this, I don’t want to call it a fraternity, but to become part of this squad – of this elite group, you were taken from your mother at a seven or eight years old, correct?
Paul: Yes. You were taken away from your mother at seven years old, and then you were put through a kind educational system they call the agōgē, and there are stages in it. It shifts almost the way we shift from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts to Explorers. Perhaps because the Boy Scouts were really modeled on ancient Sparta. Certainly Baden Powell was aware of ancient Sparta.
The idea was to build trust and comradery within age classes that advanced together to more and more demanding challenges of mainly a physical sort, but not just a physical sort. They were trained in this elaborate way, and at a certain stage. probably when they were about 18, they would have to go off individually and live in the mountains, and they would have to steal food. Sometimes they were used to police the Helots that were runaways in the mountains.
After this year of withdrawal from the community, they come back, and those who have succeeded are initiated into one of these squads, these syssitia. It’s very much like a fraternity in the sense that you cannot join a syssitia unless everybody consents to it. Every single member of the syssitia has what you might call a “blackball vote” and can say, “No, we will not take this person.”
Obviously what they’re looking for is somebody to fight next to them in the battle line. Somebody they can trust with their own lives. Then you spend the next 27 years pretty much living with the people in your syssitia.
Bill: Now, on the agōgē, before you get to the syssitia level, why did they try…? The helots were this subjugated kind of class of slaves. I was reading that when you went into the agōgē, the kids – the young boys were essentially not treated very well. It seems like that they were deprived of food, they were essentially challenged continually, and they almost lived like a helot. It seems like they lived like a subjugated servant. Why did the Spartans want them to be that low to the ground? Why did they want them to be that? To get that feeling?
Paul: Your way of putting it I think is very well. They wanted them to experience something like the life of the helots so that they would know what would be in store for them if they were to fail in battle. So you give them a sense of the value of liberty by exposing them to something very much like slavery.
Bill: So that discomfort, they really valued that just because it’s so counter-intuitive in some respects. By exposing them to that discomfort they’re also… the syssitia is dancing and their poetry and they’re sort of living this expanded life, but they actually deeply know almost a poverty abject experience. That’s very interesting.
Paul: Well, think what boot camp is like for a would-be United States Marine. It’s very similar. You have somebody yelling at you, cursing you, you get put through your paces, you get pushed to your limits. What they’re trying to do is twofold. Build up your strength and your abilities and your skills, but also build up your pride. The fact that you can endure. And look, endurance is very important for the kind of warfare that the Spartans and all the other Greeks engaged in, at least on land, which is to say Hoplite warfare. You have to think of it as something like an ongoing rugby scrum. You have a group of men lined up, eight deep. Each man bears a shield and there’s a hook in the middle of the shield. He puts his arm through it. There’s another hook on the right side of the shield, his right. He lays hold of that. His shield covers his left side, and it covers the right side of the man next to him. So the shield is almost useless for individual fighting. It’s very good however, for fighting in a phalanx.
So, what you have is a clash of people with these shields against other people with these shields. In the right hand of each man is a spear, and if he loses it, he can resort to a sword that he has by his side. There’s pushing and shoving and stabbing that is part of this warfare. So, what’s required to win, staying power, endurance. That’s what these young Spartans learn. They learn to put up with pain, with discomfort, and they gain in the kind of physical strength to stand their ground and shove their way through.
Bill: Okay. So, what I was going to ask is that how do you actually kill someone if they’re just matched up shield against shield, but basically they’re just trying to thrust the spears in between the gaps in the-
Paul: Or, over the top.
Paul: The two places where a Hoplite is most vulnerable, the neck and the groin, because it’s very hard to… They may wear a breast plate, but that will not protect your neck and it won’t protect your groin. They may wear a helmet, it may protect the head by and large, but not the neck. They may wear greaves on their legs, but they don’t protect the groin. So it’s either over the top with the spear or under or around the shield with a sword. It’s a rough way to die.
- The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge, Paul A. Rahe, Yale University Press, 2015.
- The Spartan Regime: Its Character, Origins, and Grand Strategy, Paul A. Rahe, Yale University Press, 2016.
- Sparta’s First Attic War: The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, 478-446 B.C., Paul A. Rahe, Yale University Press, 2019.
Bill Murphy is the CEO of RedZone Technologies. Responsible for the vision and direction of the company, Bill has guided the company to a leadership position in Enterprise Cybersecurity and IT Managed Services. In this quickly evolving environment, his leadership has made RedZone Technologies an avenue for innovative solutions, while remaining a dependable and reliable partner in the face of rapidly changing technologies and threats.
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