History of Sparta

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Birth of History: Herodotus' Persian War

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:04 The Problem in Sparta
  • 1:30 The Agoge
  • 3:40 Life of a Spartan Warrior
  • 5:06 Structure of Spartan Society
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed
Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Robert Egan
In this lesson, you'll examine forces that shaped a Spartan society of elite warriors. We'll also explore the stratified caste system created by Lycurgus.

The Problem in Sparta

Sparta has a problem. In a frenzy of ambition, it has conquered its neighbors in the regions of Messenia and Lakonia. The conquered people become helots in the Spartan system, serfs who worked the land for the Spartans. The problem is that the helots actually outnumber the Spartans, by some estimations by a factor of ten to one. To keep this subjugated population under control, every Spartan must be a warrior. In Greece, that meant a Spartan must be a hoplite and fight in a phalanx.

As we saw in our lecture on the phalanx, this extremely organized style of warfare was as demanding as it was effective. To maintain this formation required rigorous discipline. To hold one's position in this crushing scrum of bronze took nerves of steel. The entire phalanx system flies in the face of fight-or-flight instincts of self-preservation. It was the most terrifying form of warfare discovered thus far.

While citizens of every Greek city-state were expected to go through this nightmare, for most, it was a nightmare from which they would soon wake and return to their normal lives. They were farmers, merchants, potters and masons, who donned their armor maybe once or twice a year to teach the Corinthians whose pasture that was.

For the Spartans, the nightmare of phalanx warfare was never-ending. With enemies abroad and a massive population of enslaved helots at home, a Spartan man lived a life of near-constant warfare. This was the Spartans' problem: how to turn their entire population into fearless cogs in a synchronized killing machine.

The Agoge

According to legend, the problem of how to order Spartan society came from a figure named Lycurgus. A leader (but not the actual king), Lycurgus is credited with developing a training system called the agoge. The agoge was many things. It was a series of trials that would cull the weak and cowardly from the Spartan stock. It was a system of education that would take the strong and make them stronger, and take the brave and make them braver. Finally, the agoge was a society that would forge these powerful individuals into a single deadly unit.

Through eugenics, education and training, Lycurgus sought to make Spartans the ultimate warriors. Let us follow the journey of a Spartan boy through this agoge. Meet Brasidas. At his birth, Brasidas' mother bathed him in wine. For the skin of a newborn, this is essentially the same as pouring rubbing alcohol on an open wound. At his first breath, Brasidas knew that the world he was entering was hard and cruel. Many babies did not survive this first shock and were discarded.

After this bath, the Spartan Council of Elders examined Brasidas closely. If he seemed sickly, deformed, weak, or slow, he would be left in the hills to die of exposure or cast off a cliff and forgotten. Past this first hurdle, Brasidas enjoyed a semi-normal childhood until age seven, when he was torn from his mother's arms and thrown into an agela or bouai, or herd of boys around his age. This broke down the bonds of family and got young Brasidas to consider his comrades his family. These boys were barely fed. This got them used to hunger and encouraged them to hunt, forage or steal to feed themselves. Stealing was not forbidden, but getting caught was severely punished.

Around age 12, Brasidas faced a strange rite of passage. He and the other boys of his agela had to steal honey cakes from an altar of Artemis. Protecting the altar were older boys with whips. To meet his goal, Brasidas would have to overcome his fear and face the flails. Centuries later, Romans would travel hundreds of miles just to witness this strange event.

After this rite of passage, Brasidas was given the only article of clothing he'd have for one whole year, a blood red cape called a phoinikos. At around the same time, Brasidas was expected to choose one of the older boys who'd just whipped him to complete his education. This older boy introduced Brasidas to his warrior society, with whom he would eat, sleep, practice and fight. He served as a mentor, a teacher, a comrade and a lover, binding Brasidas ever more tightly to his phalanx cohort.

Life of a Spartan Warrior

At age 18, Brasidas graduated to a paidiskos. As a paidiskos, he would serve as a military reserve force. To keep his blood thirst keen, the Spartans made him a member of the Krypteia, or secret police. These young men would spy on the helots, occasionally murdering them to keep them cowed.

At age 20, Brasidas was considered a man and entered full military service. He was encouraged to find a wife and start making babies, but he was still required to live in the barracks among his cohort. Only at age 30 was Brasidas released from active military service, though he would still serve as a reserve fighter in time of need. He was allowed to leave the barracks and live with his wife and children. He was also given a vote on the Spartan Assembly. This assembly had the final say on all matters of state.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account