The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education & Culture in Ancient Sparta

The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education & Culture in Ancient Sparta

The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education & Culture in Ancient Sparta

The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education & Culture in Ancient Sparta


From antiquity to the present, the ancient city of Sparta has been seen as a model either of discipline, obedience, and virtue or of totalitarianism, conformity, and tyranny. But virtually all observers, regardless of their image of the city, have agreed that the government-run educational system, or agoge, formed the cornerstone of the distinctive Spartan way of life. The Gymnasium of Virtue is the first book devoted exclusively to the study of education in ancient Sparta, covering the period from the sixth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. In placing the agoge in its proper historical and cultural context, Nigel Kennell refutes the popular notion that classical Spartan education was a conservative amalgam of "primitive" customs not found elsewhere in Greece. He argues instead that later political and cultural movements made the system appear to be more distinctive than it actually had been, as a means of asserting Sparta's claim to be a unique society. Using epigraphical, literary, and archaeological evidence, Kennell describes the development of all aspects of Spartan education, including the age-grade system and the physical contests that were integral to the system, among them the notorious endurance contest, at which naked boys were flogged in public. He shows that Spartan education reached its apogee in the early Roman Empire, when Spartans sought to distinguish themselves from other Greeks. Specifically, Kennell attributes many of the changes instituted in the later period to one person - the philosopher Sphaerus the Borysthenite, who was an adviser to the revolutionary king Cleomenes III in the third century B.C.


In 1975 I saw the acropolis of Sparta for the first time, under the peerless guidance of Colin Edmonson. Three years afterward, it was my great good fortune to join the students under his aegis as a regular member of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Colin's knowledge and love of Greece, at all periods of its history, made as great an impression on me as it did on the other students at Athens in 1978/79. Many years later, this work now joins the growing shelf of books that trace their ultimate origins to his inspiration. I hope he would have found something of value here.

I began the manuscript for this book in the pleasant surroundings of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and finished it at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, whose research facilities and climate of scholarly fellowship are without equal. I would like to thank the staff of both institutions for making my work so much easier. Also, I thank Glen Bowersock, Bruce Frier, Christopher Jones, Sara Aleshire, and Brad Inwood, who all read portions of the manuscript, for greatly improving my argument. Paul Cartledge also read what has become Appendix 2, and I thank him for his very constructive criticisms, even though he may be surprised to see the material appearing in this form. Of course, any remaining errors or omissions are to be counted dead against me.

I gratefully acknowledge the permissions granted by the Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin -- Preussischer Kulturbesitz and the Ephorate of Antiquities for Laconia and Arcadia to publish photographs of material in their collections. In addition, I thank Peter Ackroyd for allowing me to use his version of a passage from Sir Thomas Browne Christian Morals as the epigraph for this book.

Finally, thanks beyond words go to my wife, Stefanie, whose unflagging scrutiny of the manuscript as it haltingly developed has improved it beyond measure. Corona meae vitae es.

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