Book Review: Leonidas of Sparta, a Boy of the Agoge by Helena Shrader

Ancient Sparta, with its extreme social institutions, has fascinated both observers from other Greek city states and students of history for centuries. The problem with writing historical fiction about ancient Sparta is that the Spartans left virtually no written record. While, as Helena P. Schrader points out, they were not illiterate, they produced no historians and everything we have gleaned about Spartan society and social practices has been written by outsiders. Even the archeological evidence about Spartan life is sparse.
Given this situation, Helena P. Shrader has done a masterful job of piecing together the evidence about Spartan society in general and the institution of the agoge in particular to form a compelling and coherent narrative.
Sparta was unique among Greek city states in having public education for both boys and girls, girls to age 14 and boys to age 19. The educational system was called the agoge. Spartan boys left home at seven and lived in barracks with their age mates, under the supervision of an eirene, a twenty-year-old graduate of the agoge.
Leonidas was born to one of the two royal families of Sparta, the Agiads. The Agiad King, Anaxandridas was married to Taygete, but she remained barren for so many years that the ephors prevailed upon him to take a second wife, Chilonis, who soon provided him with an heir, Cleomenes. Taygete then became pregnant and provided him with a son, Doreius, and years later gave birth to twin sons Cleombrotus and Leonidas. Much to Taygete’s dismay, Cleomenes, the son of the second wife was declared the heir to the kingship when Anaxandridas died.
As royal prince, Cleomenes was exempt from training at the agoge, but his half-brothers were not, and Leonidas and his twin brother Cleombrotus started the agoge at age seven. Shrader traces Leonidas’ experience at each level of his agoge training. The boys were issued one chiton and one himation per year and went about with their heads shaven and barefoot. The younger boys were assigned to serve the adult citizens in the communal mess halls known as the syssitia. They were required to call every male citizen “father.” Any citizen might interrogate them to determine if they knew what they were supposed to know about Spartan laws and customs, and they would be humiliated if they did not answer these queries correctly. The curriculum of the Agoge included reading, writing, singing and dancing, various sports, Spartan laws, history and traditions, and the skills of hunting, fishing, trapping and foraging that would enable an individual to survive on his own if he found himself isolated in enemy territory. Stealing was encouraged but boys would be punished by flogging if they got caught. At age 13 boys were expected to survive on their own in the countryside for ten days and at age 14 for forty days.
Once the boys became youths they were taught the arts of war, with constant drilling and practice with weapons.
Shrader humanizes Leonidas and his friends and her book reads as a fast paced story with a number of exciting adventures and misadventures. I was quickly drawn into the story and every page made me want to read more. I am looking forward to reading her other two books about Leonidas.

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