BMCR 1996.09.28

The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta

, The gymnasium of virtue : education & culture in ancient Sparta. Studies in the history of Greece and Rome. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. 241 pages. ISBN 9780585038773. $39.95.

The agoge, Sparta’s famously harsh and disciplined system of education, is well-known, and regularly gets a chapter in any work on Sparta. It is less common for it to get an entire monograph to itself; in fact, Kennell says in his introduction (p. 3) that “Spartan education has never been the subject of an in-depth, book-length examination that marshals and evaluates the evidence … in the proper historical and cultural contexts”. It is this lack that K. intends to put right.

Furthermore, K. wishes to present a different version of the agoge than the one familiar to most Greek historians. His argument is that too often aspects of the Classical Greek agoge have been extrapolated from the better-attested agoge of the Roman period, the assumption being that the institutions were largely set in stone. K., on the other hand, argues that much of the Roman agoge is the result of later accretions, and one must strip away the Roman and Hellenistic additions before one can truly assess the Classical period. Indeed, as K. points out (pp. 113-114), the term agoge itself is not used before the mid-third century B.C. 1

Hence, K. begins by identifying the major changing points in the history of the agoge (“In the Track of the Famous Agoge“, pp. 5-27), and then works backwards, following with the agoge of the Roman period, which he deals with in three chapters, “Training up the Youth” (pp. 28-48), “The Contests of the Later Agoge” (pp. 49-69), and “The Lycurgan Customs” (pp. 70-97). Only then does he turn, in considerably less detail because of the relative lack of solid evidence, to the Hellenistic (“The Inventor of the Agoge“, pp. 98-114) and Classical (“From Artemis to the Dioscuri”, pp. 115-142) periods. He concludes with two appendices, “Testimonia on the Whipping Contest” (pp. 149-161) and “The Status of Amyclae” (pp. 162-169).

K.’s approach is laudable—like all ancient institutions the Spartan agoge should indeed be treated as an evolving set of customs, not something unchanging over a thousand-year period. However, there are some weaknesses in K.’s own methodology. Much of what he says in this work is highly speculative, especially when dealing with the earlier forms of the agoge (note especially the discussion of the role of the Stoic Sphaerus in Chapter 5, “The Inventor of the Agoge“); this is hardly surprising, since it can only be a matter of educated guesswork as to which aspects of the Roman agoge actually date back to earlier period, but the reader could do with more signalling of when K. is operating on sure footing and when he is not. Too often K. will make a proposition, and then treat it as a fact upon which to base a further proposition (note p. 111, where K.’s redating of Pseudo-Plutarch’s Laconian Institutions into the Hellenistic period is treated as a fact from which to date the institution of the famous whipping contest).

There is also what seems to this reader at least to be a serious methodological error in the first chapter, upon which much of K.’s later argumentation is based. K. believes that there were two major periods of discontinuity when the agoge ceased to be observed. One he places (pp. 9-11) in the period from Philopoemen’s occupation of Sparta in 188 to the restoration of the city’s independence from Achaea by Rome in 146. This certainly seems to be the case.

The second discontinuity, however, which K. places before the reign of Cleomenes III (pp. 11-13), is surely a chimera. K.’s argument is that because Cleomenes, and Agis IV before him, wished to restore the agoge, it had fallen into disuse by their time. This is a false inference. Agis’ planned and Cleomenes’ actual “restorations” need imply no more than that the then-present form of the agoge was distasteful to them, and that they cloaked their reforms in a veil of ancient precedent, in the same way as Athenian revolutionaries appealed to the “ancestral constitution”, or Augustus claimed to be “restoring” the Roman Republic—no-one would claim that the Roman Republic had officially ceased to exist some time before Augustus decided to restore it. Indeed, Plutarch does not say precisely that Cleomenes planned to restore the agoge; what he actually says ( Cleom. 11.4) is that Cleomenes turned to the agoge and restored its “proper forms” ( ton prosekonta), equally if not more compatible with the reform of an institution already in place than with the reintroduction of one which had been allowed to lapse. To accept a lapse in the agoge from the 260s 2 until 227 B.C. requires firmer evidence that one took place, and a better reason than K. can give as to why it should have happened (K.’s answer is to include the lapse in the agoge with other indications of modernizing in third-century Sparta, such as the building of a theatre and the introduction of coinage; this is hardly adequate).

Disregarding this “period of discontinuity” has serious consequences for K.’s argument, as the break between the Classical agoge and that of Cleomenes becomes far less clear-cut (I am not, of course, arguing that there is no change at all to the agoge under Cleomenes). Moreover, K.’s belief in the discontinuity leads him to ride roughshod over the evidence at times. Plutarch states that Cleomenes’syntrophoi were mothakes ( Cleom. 8.1); K. dismisses this (pp. 134-135) because if there was no agoge in Cleomenes’ youth there can have been no mothakes (K. does not answer the question of why in that case the syntrophoi should have been described as mothakes in the first place).

There are a good number of other places where K. either can be disagreed with, or is just plain wrong. The old myth that only one Spartan king at a time could lead an army out of Sparta is trotted out (p. 138; there are in fact plenty of occasions when both Spartan kings were on campaign—the Mantineia campaign in 418 being just one—and the prohibition was against joint command of the same army). 3 K. argues that a Spartan could not marry before he was thirty, and was often not allowed to leave the barracks permanently until the birth of a child (p. 132) on the basis of evidence that Hodkinson interprets as suggesting that a Spartan married before he was thirty, but could not leave the barracks until that age; 4 Hodkinson seems preferable. K. seems to resort to sophistry at p. 73 to exonerate the Spartans from the charge of actually killing anyone at the whipping contests, by suggesting that Plutarch did not mean by apothneskontes to say that the contestants “died” but that they were “on the point of death”.

Having said all this, one must add that, for all its faults, it is a good thing that this book exists. Assessing each piece of evidence for the agoge in its own particular circumstances, rather than simply gathering all together and making a model from the pieces to hand, is the right way forward. And even if one does not agree with K.’s ideas or his reconstruction, any historian of Sparta ought at least to read this book in order to give his own ideas a thorough shake-up (a particularly destructive bomb placed under received opinion is to be found in the discussion of Amyclae, which deserves better than to be tucked away in an appendix).

Finally, the book is produced to high standards, the only typographical error that I spotted being in the bibliography, where A. Balland’s volume of Fouilles de Xanthos is said to be vol. 2, rather than 7. More cross-references would be useful, e.g. at p. 79 K. concludes that the whipping contest and the struggle over cheeses described in Xenophon ( LP 2.9) are not the same, but it is not until p. 111 that one discovers K. believes the one was an altered form of the other. 5 And as a last point, I do find the idea of listing an author’s works in the bibliography by alphabetical order of title, rather than chronologically, to be somewhat bizarre.

  • [1] But for convenience’s sake, I shall continue to use the term for the Spartan educational system throughout its history. [2] Building false inference upon false inference, K. argues (p. 13) that Agis’ desire to restore the agoge indicates that it had not existed in his lifetime. I see no merit in such reasoning. [3] There is also the myth that the term “hoplite” comes from the shield carried (p. 140), but since that has only recently been exploded (by J. F. Lazenby and D. Whitehead, “The Myth of the Hoplite’s Hoplon”, CQ n.s. 46 [1996], pp. 27-33), K. can be forgiven in this instance. [4] S. J. Hodkinson, “Social Order and the Conflict of Values in Classical Sparta”, Chiron 13 (1983), p. 242. [5] Conversely, some cross-references are of the form where note x will refer the reader to note y, which will refer the reader back to note x again (e.g. Chapter 6 nn. 106 and 180).