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The Existence of Spartan Boys

The entire Spartan way of life was directed toward keeping the Spartan army at tip-top strength. Boys lived at home only until their seventh year, when they were taken away to live in communal barracks with other males until they were thirty. They spent most of their time exercising, hunting, training with weapons, and being acculturated to Spartan values by listening to tales of bravery and heroism at the common meals presided over by older men1. The standard of discipline was strict, to prepare young males for the hard life of a soldier on campaign. For example, they were not allowed to speak at will. (Our word “laconic” meaning “of few words” comes from the Greek word “Laconian,” one of the terms for a Spartan; another is Lacedaimonian, from the name Lacedaimon applied to Sparta). Boys were also purposely underfed so that they would have to develop the skills of stealth by stealing food. Yet if they were caught, punishment and disgrace followed immediately. One famous Spartan tale taught how seriously boys were supposed to fear such failure: having successfully stolen a fox, which he was hiding under his clothing, a Spartan youth died because he let the panicked animal rip out his insides rather than be detected in the theft. By the Classical period, older boys would be dispatched to live in the wilds for a period as members of the “secret band”2 whose job it was to murder any helots who seemed likely to foment rebellion.

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