Polity of the Lacedœmonians


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Chapter VI Spartan Education and Life



Education of Boys


. . . Throughout the rest of Greece the custom on the part of those who claim to educate their sons in the best way is as follows. As soon as the children are of an age to understand what is said to them, they are immediately placed under the charge of tutors who are also attendants, and sent off to the school of some teacher to be taught "grammar," "music," and the concerns of the palestra.3 Besides this they are given shoes to wear which tend to make their feet tender, and their bodies are enervated by various changes of clothing. And as for food, the only measure recognized is that which is fixed by appetite. But when we turn to Sparta, we find that Lycurgus . . . set over the young Spartans a public guardian who enjoyed complete authority. This guardian was selected from those who filled the highest magistracies. He had the right to hold musters of the boys, and as their overseer, in case of any misbehavior, to chastise them severely. The legislator further provided the guardian with a body of youths in the prime of life, and bearing whips, to inflict punishment when necessary. The happy result is that in Sparta modesty and obedience ever go hand in hand, nor is there lack of either.

Instead of softening their feet with shoe or sandal, the rule of Lycurgus was to make them hardy through going barefoot. This habit, if practiced, would, as he believed, enable them to scale heights more easily and clamber down precipices with less danger. In fact, with his feet so trained, the young Spartan could leap and spring and run faster unshod than another shod in the ordinary way. Instead of making them effeminate with a variety of clothes, his rule was to habituate them to a single garment the whole year through, thinking that so they would be better prepared to withstand the variations of heat and cold.

Again, as regards food, the Eiren, or head of the flock, must see that his messmates gathered to the club meal, with such moderate food as to avoid that heaviness which is engendered by repletion, and yet not to remain altogether unacquainted with the pains of penurious living. . . .

Though Lycurgus did not actually allow the boys to help themselves without further trouble to what they needed more, he did give them permission to steal this thing or that in the effort to alleviate their hunger. It was not, of course, from any real difficulty how else to supply them with nutriment that he left it to them to provide themselves by this crafty method. . . .

It is obvious, I say, that the whole of this education tended, and it was intended, to make the boys craftier and more inventive in getting supplies, while at the same time it cultivated their warlike instincts. An objector may retort, "But if Lycurgus thought it so fine a feat to steal, why did he inflict all those blows on the unfortunate who was caught?" My answer is: for the identical reason which induces people, in other matters which are taught, to punish the mal-performance of a service. So they, the Spartans, visit penalties on the boy who is detected thieving, as being but a sorry bungler in the art. . . .

Furthermore, and in order that the boys should not want a ruler, even in case the public guardian himself was absent, he gave to any citizen who chanced to be present authority to lay upon them injunctions for their good, and to chastise them for any trespass committed. By so doing he created in the boys of Sparta a most rare modesty and reverence. And indeed there is no one whom, whether as boys or men, they respect more highly than the ruler. . . .

In his desire firmly to implant in their youthful souls a root of modesty Lycurgus imposed upon the bigger boys a special law. In the very streets they were to keep their two hands within the folds of the cloak; and were to walk in silence and without turning their heads to gaze, now here, now there. They were rather to keep their eyes fixed upon the ground before them. . . . You might sooner expect a stone image to find voice than one of those Spartan youths; to divert the eyes of some bronze statue would be less difficult. And as to quiet bearing, no bride ever stepped in bridal bower with more natural modesty. Note them when they have reached the public table. The plainest answer to the question asked — that is all you need expect to hear from their lips.

1 Xenophon, . The Works of Xenophon, translated by H. G. Dakyns. 4 vols. London, 1890–1897. Macmillan and Co.

2 Xenophon, Polity of the Lacedœmonians, 2–3.

3 The athletic field where outdoor sports were held.


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Chicago: H. G. Dakyns, trans., "Education of Boys," Polity of the Lacedœmonians in Readings in Early European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1926), 64–65. Original Sources, accessed March 24, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=HNEF696GJ3K9DLC.

MLA: . "Education of Boys." Polity of the Lacedœmonians, translted by H. G. Dakyns, in Readings in Early European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, Ginn and Company, 1926, pp. 64–65. Original Sources. 24 Mar. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=HNEF696GJ3K9DLC.

Harvard: (trans.), 'Education of Boys' in Polity of the Lacedœmonians. cited in 1926, Readings in Early European History, ed. , Ginn and Company, Boston, pp.64–65. Original Sources, retrieved 24 March 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=HNEF696GJ3K9DLC.