Sparta had an educational system that was unlike the schools of their time; they used rather extreme methods that might scare the overprotective parents of the present. Being female, I only find it unfortunate that only males were recruited—but, considering what modern day scout rangers have to put themselves through and the tasks which they have to accomplish with speed and accuracy, I’ve come to understand why.
At age seven, Spartan boys left their homes to enter into the Agoge system. Under Agoge, they were trained and educated until the age of eighteen. Upon graduation, they’d become the elite soldiers that Spartans were expected to be.
Upon arrival, the boys would be divided into dormitories and all are treated equally. Leonidas and his brothers: Dorieus and Cleombrotus, despite their royal lineage, were not given special accommodations.
At age twelve, they took the training up a notch. Simple physical exercises would become tests in endurance and skill. Despite the changes in weather conditions, the boys were only allowed one piece of clothing made of rough linen and they slept in the most uncomfortable mattresses. Their beds were made of rushes, a material more suitably used as a window canopy.
Basically the boys were taught to become the best of soldiers while using the least of their resources. Efficiency in all aspects was key.
One can’t help but be proud of their achievements while at the Agoge. There’s a certain satisfaction is seeing how you’ve improved from one physical test to the next; how you’re body has grown with your increasing strength.
The Spartans were well aware of this propensity and were quick to emphasize humility. “Spartan boys were taught to walk with their hands folded beneath their cloaks and their eyes towards the ground as an act of humility.”
Leonidas and his brothers were not exempt from this. Despite their connections to the king, there was no time and no motivation for them to act all high and mighty. In fact, the instructors in the Agoge were given the right to discipline any one who was caught misbehaving.
Imagine having to adjust from eating food prepared in the royal kitchen to that of a broth with the consistency of porridge. I’m thinking: watered-down chicken stew with bits of rice, bland and without seasoning. Nonetheless, the produce must have been organic.
Though, I also imagine that the boys had been too tired from their physical exercises to remain picky about the culinary experience. They had to survive on very little food. From the age of seven until they are eighteen, they’re expected to live on the porridge but, as the Agoge system would have it, food could be stolen to supplement their diets.
The Spartans never did this to encourage criminality, they wanted the boys to develop initiative and cunning. Traits that would be essential to their survival in the battlefield. Of course, should they be caught, the would be punished the same way an enemy might beat them as a prisoner of war.
Though the Athenians often called the Spartans illiterate one must keep in mind that the Spartans were their enemies for most of the classical period (479-323 BC). So, even in literature, the Athenians insulted them—because they’d couldn’t just defeat them in battle.
Contrary to Athenian belief, the Spartans, too, had poets like Tyrtaeus and Alcman, their poems were sung at festivals. The boys were also taught the arts–singing and dancing, to name a few. During their festivals, choir groups would compete against each other. Songs and dances allowed for the development of camaraderie and taught the boys to move as one unit in the battlefield.
This was never mentioned in the film 300 but Leonidas was never expected to take the throne. He had a few elder brothers who were in line before him. So the young Leonidas was treated like any normal citizen of Sparta and was not exempt from going through Agoge.
It became his advantage, later on, to have been one of the few Spartan Kings to have undergone the rigid training of the Agoge. How did he become the King of Sparta around the time that Xerxes became a threat?—Well, we’ll talk about that some other time.