Creating some of the greatest warriors in history should not be and is not easy. Society after society has tried to master the art of creating the perfect warrior and military fighting force; some have come close but most have failed. Only one has truly achieved it. Albeit a fleeting success, Sparta’s society-wide redesign produced the meanest, strongest, most skilled warriors and society in history. A truly incredible feat.

Way back in the 9th century BCE Sparta and its legendary lawgiver, Lycurgus, overhauled every single aspect of Spartan society with one goal in mind: a militarized society. From that point every citizen and institution of Sparta became obsessed with producing the best military in the Hellas and within it, the best warriors. This is how they came to the reputation of success they have to this day. 

The founding stone of this redesign and militarized society was the education system. The ‘Agōgē’ as it was called, which simply means ‘raising’ was dedicated to producing elite fighters but also embodied the raison d’être of the Spartan system: collectivism. 

From chaos to order…

A painting of Lycurgus, the ancient legislator of Sparta, created by Merry Joseph Blondel in 1828. Lycurgus is depicted as an elderly, bearded man with a contemplative expression, wearing a deep red robe. He sits on a rock, holding a scroll inscribed with Greek text in one hand. Beside him are symbols of warfare and Sparta: a bronze shield, a helmet, and a spear. A dramatic sky with clouds forms the background.
Portrait of Lycurgus (Lykourgos, Lycurgue), legislator of Sparta by Merry Joseph Blondel, 1828, Picardie Museum, Amiens, France

The origins of the Agōgē are murky at best. Most of what we know from various ancient sources is legend or myth. Even the sources, such as Herodotus and Plutarch are skeptical about some of the information floating around Sparta. But in the absence of other information lost to history it is something to work on. 

It is suggested that a Spartan Prince named Lycurgus exiled himself from Sparta in the 9th century BCE to allow his nephew space to rule Sparta. In exile Lycurgus traveled widely to places including Crete, Asia Minor and Egypt where he observed law and society in its many forms. Before long he was called back to Sparta to clear up the ruinous governance of his nephew. Lycurgus returned to Sparta with his new grand plan for law in Sparta; he envisioned a new comprehensive set of laws that would not be written down. Instead they would be learnt by the Spartan people by living them and that way they would come to embody them. 

The key tenets of Lycurgus’ plan were the fostering of courage and discipline among the men of Sparta but more importantly a broad policy of socialization which removed personal interest, ego and selfishness. Corruption and violence had plagued Sparta’s first century of existence, so Lycurgus was determined these disruptive influences would be removed by making every citizen wholly and completely allied to the state and the state alone. This would be done by teaching young men these principles from the moment they were born. 

The First Steps

The first step on the Agōgē journey was for boys aged 7 years or over called “Paides”. Before the age of 7, boys were tutored by their own fathers about the ideals and value of Sparta. However, before this Spartan society ensured no weakness infiltrated its junior ranks. 

When a baby was born it was checked for defects and weakness. One legend reports that babies were dunked in wine and if they cried they were deemed weak. Weaklings were left to die or thrown into a pit. The goal was a strong, pure warrior class and this started with the genetic makeup of the male population. 

A painting depicting the scene of 'The Selection of Children in Sparta.' In a grand hall with tall columns and dimly lit surroundings, Spartan elders, seated at a long table, evaluate a newborn presented by a Spartan woman. Behind the central figures, onlookers, including men and women, anxiously await the decision. A beam of light illuminates the baby and the faces of the evaluators, emphasizing the gravity of the moment. The artwork captures the solemnity and significance of this Spartan ritual, where the fitness and future of a child were decided upon birth.
The Selection of Children in Sparta by Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours, 1785, Wikimedia Commons

Once these strong young boys reached the age of 7, they left their families behind altogether and severed all connections and destroyed any notion of exclusive loyalty to their biological family. This was the first step to becoming a citizen only concerned with the total wellbeing of Sparta; family ties did not come into it. From the age of 7 onward, these boys had thousands of parents; every single citizen was considered a parent or tutor who could guide and admonish the boys in Sparta. This fostered a collective spirit and responsibility to ensure the next generation was well trained and strong enough to defend Sparta. 

A detailed illustration depicting boys training in ancient Sparta. The scene unfolds in a lush, tree-lined avenue with classical architecture on either side. In the foreground, a group of young boys engage in athletics. Onlookers, possibly trainers or older citizens, watch their progress. Statues and monuments adorn the path, emphasizing the significance of martial training in Spartan culture. The overall atmosphere suggests discipline, tradition, and the importance of physical prowess in the Spartan way of life.
Boys training in Sparta, Encyclopædia Britannica

From the very start these boys were taught how to be tough with physical exercise including boxing and hunting. They were taught how to read and write but only for limited practical reasons; the goal was not philosopher warriors, merely literate men. Part of this physical conditioning included being barefoot and hungry most of the time to harden their bodies and minds to hardship and pain. 

The teen years

An engraving by Hermann Vogel depicting Spartan youths in intense wrestling and martial arts training. In a sunlit courtyard, the young boys, bare-skinned, engage in combat under the watchful eye of their instructor. The backdrop features classical Greek architecture with columns and open spaces. Their focused expressions highlight the discipline and resilience of Spartan upbringing, representing the military tradition of ancient Greece.
Spartan youths by Hermann Vogel

The next stage after this rough introduction was the transition phase when boys aged 12 and older (“paidiskoi”) became fuller members of society. The focus on physical activity continued but with increased intensity, including thieving trials to encourage cunning among the young boys who more often than not were hungry enough to steal anything. 

However, one of the key changes was the introduction of mentors and lovers. At the age of 12, these boys would be encouraged to take an older boy as a lover; failure to do so resulted in shunning and punishment. Historians agree this relationship was almost certainly sexual however this was not the only characteristic. The older lover nurtured the younger boy; in Ancient Greek they were termed as ‘inspirer’ and ‘hearer’ reflecting the mentoring nature of the relationship. 

Xenophon strongly asserts that the relationships between lovers and hearers was not sexual. Similarly, Lycurgus promoted the soul over the appetites of the body. However, it is also well established that the Spartans considered homoerotic relations beneficial to the cohesiveness of the army as lovers would have greater bonds creating more loyalty among the ranks. This certainly seems to have been the goal with the young boys.

Into manhood

A painting titled 'Study for Lycurgus Showing the Ancients of Sparta their King' by Jacques Louis David from 1791. The scene unfolds in a typical Spartan mess hall with grand columns and arches. In the center, the legendary lawgiver Lycurgus stands assertively in a white robe with a red cloak, gesturing toward a group of attentive Spartan elders seated at a table. They react with a mixture of surprise and reverence. To Lycurgus's right, a Spartan woman holding an infant is accompanied by children, representing the future generations of Sparta. On the left, a large statue of a Spartan warrior looms in the background, its silhouette emphasized by the glow of a nearby flame. This artwork powerfully conveys the reverence and importance of Spartan leadership and tradition.
Study for Lycurgus Showing the Ancients of Sparta their King, by Jacques Louis David, 1791, Wikimedia Commons

The final stage of the Agōgē was when young boys became young men and were available for military service. At the age of 20 until they were 30 and graduated, the ‘hebrontes’ as they were called were under the tutelage of the ‘paidonomos’, a citizen appointed to oversee the entire Agōgē and charged with the final training standards. 

The Spartan Ephors who were the elders in charge of the law and politics of the city appointed and oversaw the conduct of the Agōgē intimately reflecting the importance of the Agōgē to Spartan affairs. 

In this final stage of training, the young men were required to seek election to a common mess for when they graduated. All through the Agōgē the boys ate in communal messes with communal food; this was true throughout Sparta, for men, women and even Kings. The elections to messes were important. One no vote resulted in rejection and failure to secure a mess resulted in exile from Sparta. The mess eating structure was the embodiment of Spartan egalitarianism but it was still a selective system fed straight from the rigors of the Agōgē.

Loyalty to thy country

Education systems by their very nature promote an ideal and a set of values. However, they are often tied up in academic tutelage or literature. In Sparta, the values of the city were present in every single activity within the Agōgē. The Agōgē was there to train every single citizen that loyalty to the state above all else, including family, was paramount. Indeed, it was tantamount to treason for a citizen to consider their own interests above Sparta’s. 

Plutarch quote about Sparta:“No man was allowed to live as he please…they always had a prescribed regimen and employment in public service, considering that they belonged entirely to their country and not to themselves.”

Plutarch wrote:

“No man was allowed to live as he please…they always had a prescribed regimen and employment in public service, considering that they belonged entirely to their country and not to themselves”

Plutarch’s reflections are the product of the Agōgē; each man is an asset of Sparta who has been rigorously trained and conditioned like a machine for the common good. This is reflected in the common messes, the physical training and the reward of land and family when they successfully complete the Agōgē.

Warrior School

Within this sacrifice of individuality to the state came the absolute promotion of physical strength and warrior-like commitment. Each and every citizen was expected to be a warrior or supporter of warriors. The Agōgē trained the men from the age of 7 to be fierce and strong hence the intense and often violent physical training. This included induction into the ‘Krypteia’, a secret police force that controlled, if not tormented, the Helot population of Laconia. It was staffed by Agōgē students and allowed them to hone their skills in deceit and warfare. 

A graphic displaying the word 'Agogé' centered in bold typography, accompanied by its English translation below which reads 'raising'. The content is framed by a double-lined border, with the phrase 'English Translation' positioned at the top center.

Similarly, the boxing, running and nude physical inspections all amount to the state producing the best warriors they could – this was the essence of the Agōgē’s existence. But this went further because girls were also afforded extensive physical training in the hope that strong women would produce strong baby boys who in turn would become strong warriors. This represents the all encompassing commitment Sparta made to a warrior community. 


Plutarch writing later was heavily critical of the Agōgē for its lack of academic education which did not produce political leaders. However, many other writers have praised it for underpinning the broad and enduring success Sparta had as a military power. This was both foreign and domestic as it brought broad stability to spartan society as the socialization of the Agōgē encouraged frugality, community and loyalty. These remain the values most associated with Sparta to this day – that’s the legacy of the Agōgē and the legendary Lycurgus.