Spartan Training: Brutal Training That Produced World’s Best Warriors

Spartan training is the intense physical training that the ancient Spartans of Greece underwent in order to become formidable warriors. The Spartan training regimen was known for its emphasis on strength, endurance, and mental toughness.

But why was it so notorious? And why did it make them so famous? Or rather, what did the Spartan army actually do to transform young Spartans into fierce soldiers?

The Start of the Spartan Army

spartan-army
March of the Spartan army across the mountains

The army of the Spartans became famous around 480 BC when the Spartan community was attacked by a vast Persian army. At the brink of extinction, the last Spartan rulers decided to fight back. Actually, they decided to reclaim the superiority they once had over their own lands, defeating the way bigger Persian army.

However, 480 BC was not the year that the military regime of Sparta started. The training that made the fierce Spartan warrior was implemented around the 7th or 6th century BC. The army was quite fragile at that point and about to be conquered.

The Spartans, however, weren’t really planning on defeat and managed to create a society that was fully focused on attacking and resisting enemy attacks. The leaders of the city-state implemented a training regime called the agoge, which was responsible for the shift in sentiment.

The main character here is a leader called Cleomenes and he managed to increase his soldiers to 4.000, adding some novel weapons in the process. The agoge was both a military and a social process. But what does the agoge consist of?

The Agoge

The agoge served for the installment of the soldierly mindset and its virtues of strength, endurance, and solidarity. Some claim that only young boys and men would participate in army training, but this is actually not true. Or rather, not entirely true. Spartan women were just as well trained in some shape or form.

Women mostly focused on gymnastics, which was part of the curriculum alongside weaving and cooking. It was very rare for a woman to actually go on to fight on the battlefield. However, training in gymnastics was definitely unheard of since any woman in Ancient Greece was mostly confined to the household realm. Not for the Spartans.

Spartan-running-girl
Bronze figure of a running Spartan girl, 520-500 BC.

What Age Did Spartans Start Training?

The training regime called the agoge was divided into three age categories. Spartans were about seven years old when they started their training, entering a group called the paides. When they reached the age of 15, they’d transfer to a group called the paidiskoi. After reaching the age of 20, they were upgraded to the hēbōntes.

Times have definitely changed since training seven-year-olds for the military is not necessarily something that would be accepted today. Right? 

First Level: The Paides

Still, the agoge was not just a strict military training for combat. The first level, the paides, included a broad curriculum that focused on writing and math, but also included gymnastics. It’s probable that sports and athletics was a big part of the curriculum, in which the children would compete in events like running and wrestling.

An interesting aspect of this life stage was that the young men were encouraged to steal their food. It’s quite probable that the ones that were in this life stage were underfed. The hunger would accumulate to a point that the young soldiers really needed some food, so they would go out and steal it.

Although encouraged, they were punished when they were actually caught in the act of stealing. After all, it’s only stealing if it’s not really allowed to be taken. The trick was to do it without getting noticed by your contemporaries.

Why would a society encourage stealing? Well, it mostly had to do with teaching them lessons about stealth and resourcefulness.

Some other aspects of the training were also quite remarkable, for example, the fact that the children didn’t wear shoes. Actually, they weren’t provided with a lot of clothing anyway: the soldiers would only get one cloak they could use for the whole year. It was believed that it trained them in agility and being able to live a life with little assets.

young-spartan-boys-training
Three Spartan boys practicing archery by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg

Second Level: The Paidiskoi

As you might know, puberty hits around the age of 15. It’s probable that this determined the transition from the first level to the second level of the Spartan army. During the stage of paidiskoi, Spartan boys were encouraged to become an adult and were more and more allowed to participate in the social life of adults.

Unfortunately for the young boys, this would go hand in hand with more intense Spartan warrior training. Some sources also state that this included pederasty, a loving relationship with a mentor: an older man. It was common in other city-states of ancient Greece, as can be seen from numerous illustrations on pottery and other forms of ancient Greek art but there is no conclusive answer if it was actually the case in Sparta.

Third Level: Hēbōntes

Luckily, puberty has an end. Around the age of 20, the first two stages of army training were completed and the boys became full warriors. Reaching the same level as the father figures they always looked up to, the new warriors became eligible for the army.

While it is the last stage of the agoge, it wasn’t necessarily the last stage of life. In fact, this stage would normally end before the age of 30. Only after completion of the third level, hēbōntes, the Spartans would be allowed to start a family.

Men that completed the brutal training and showed excellent leadership skills would be able to lead an agelē. If not, they could become a member of a syssition, which was a sort of community of men that ate and socialized together. Membership of a syssition was a life-long thing.

spartan-warrior
Spartan warrior

How Hard Was Spartan Training?

Simply put, the overall training wasn’t ‘hard’ in the sense that strength was the main focus. Especially if you compare the above-described education with modern military training regimes, Spartans wouldn’t really stand a chance against modern armies. While modern training regimes combine toughness, endurance, strength, and agility, the Spartans mainly focussed on the latter.

How Did Spartans Train?

In order to obtain an excellent level of agility, training included gymnastic competitions and exercises. However, the main part of the training probably revolved around dancing. Dancing was not just an important part of the curriculum of Spartan women, it was actually recognized as one of the most valuable tools for training soldiers.

A famous Greek philosopher, Socrates, stated that the most beautiful dancers would be regarded as best fitted for warlike matters. Dancing, he said, was very similar to military maneuvers and was a display of discipline and care for a healthy body.

socrates
Socrates

How Well Trained Were Spartans?

So the Spartan army wasn’t really well trained if we compare it to modern armies yet, they are renowned as potentially the most popular warriors in the history of the world. While their training was brutal and an overall challenge, the training was not always focused on the physical. More so on the mental.

Think about it: humans learn by example. The things that we learn from a very young age provide us with the foundation of our life and worldview. If this foundation revolves around physical training and agony, it becomes normal and even wished for.

This was the main difference between Sparta and other city-states: they enforced training through law and custom. Other states would leave it to the individual and not really care about a military focus in the upbringing.

This was also affirmed by another famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle. He wrote that the Spartans of Ancient Greece excelled ‘not because they trained their young men in this manner, but because they alone trained and their opponents did not.’ 

What Did Spartans Really Look Like?

Starting training from a young age, it goes without saying that men and women from Sparta were in good shape and had athletic bodies. They weren’t allowed to eat too much so that they wouldn’t become sluggish through being too full. Some thinkers from ancient Sparta think that the combination of training and little food created soldiers that were slim and tall, perfect for battle.

So how tall were Spartans really? It’s hard to say since there is no reliable archeological evidence. It might well be that they were taller than their contemporaries, but it’s not likely that they grew taller because they ate less. In fact, if we follow modern science, eating too little probably stunts growth rather than enhancing it.

spartan-swordman
Spartan swordman

Training After Agoge

While the distinctive aspect of the training of the Spartans was the starting date, military training changed in focus once the warriors actually reached adulthood. It shifted to training in marching and tactical maneuvers, therefore more related to the actual battlefield.

The leaders of the army taught their men how to analyze the position of the army that they were fighting against. What is their weakest spot? How to counterattack? What is the best formation we can adopt to conquer the enemy or win the battle? 

The combination of mindset and fighting maneuvers created healthy men (and at times women), really completing the superiority of Sparta on the battlefield. Because of it, they were able to defeat and resist attacks from enemy armies that were way bigger. Eventually, however, they were sucked into the Roman empire, leading to a gradual decrease in power.

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