Review of Spartan Education. Youth ahd society in the Classical period by Jean Ducat

New England Classical Journal May 2007 pp149-150
Review by Paul Cartledge Cambridge University

This is a quite extraordinary piece of work, one of the most impressive and important in all ancient history to have appeared in recent years. It is a simply monumental study of a fundamental aspect of not just ancient Spartan but all ancient Greek history. Emeritus professor Jean Ducat began his scholarly life as an archaeologist. It is almost as extraordinary that he should now be doing such historical work as it is that Josiah abef, who started out likewise, should be too (see my review of his latest essay collection in NECJ 33.3 [August 2006] 221-4)-and both at the very highest possible levels. Though written in French, this book appears in an English translation, done by a triune co-operative of translators (their respective assignments clearly signalled), all of whom are themselves professional experts in the field. Anton Powell indeed is not merely a co-translator. He is the book's publisher, and, even more to the point, the publisher as well as editor of and contributor to a whole series of cutting-edge Sparta-related volumes. Ducat is therefore in the very fortunate position of having utterly reliable interpreters of his uniformly elegant and polished French prose, and we in turn are deeply in their collective debt. The professional standard of the production is exemplary throughout.

Ducat's book makes a major contribution to scholarship on two intimately related fronts: first, the proper method of approach to be adopted to the evidence, and second, the proper goal of understanding and explaining rather than morally judging Sparta's educational system. Tucked away within the Index Locorum at the back of the book is the following entry: "Xenophon.... LP [Lakedaimonion Politeia): the whole book may be considered as an enlarged commentary on [chapters] 2-4 and 6.1-2." Actually, Ducat also offers a formal, very detailed commentary, with translation, of those passages from that curious work; indeed, after an introductory section discussing briefly the history of the study of the subject of Spartan education, it is with this translation and commentary of the single major documentary source that the book begins. Here the methodological point is that any history of classical (sth-4th century BCE) Sparta's education system must not only begin with but pretty much also end with Xenophon's pamphlet. However, thanks to the pamphlet's curious character as a selective apologia or eulogy rather than a reasoned description or balanced evaluation, we can never hope to achieve a proper history of education in classical Sparta.

Ducat is therefore in something of a bind, because he does actually want to come to some positive conclusions about the education's aims and objectives, which is at least very hard to do if you don't even know what it consisted of. In a way, his very methodological scrupulosity thus literacy, numeracy and mousikie (dancing, singing)-those that truly were a matter of paideia ("education"). What came to be referred to later (only after the Classical era, apparently) as the agoge or "upbringing" applied chiefly or exclusively to the system's later or latest phase(s), from roughly age 14 to 19; the term is better understood, and translated, as "discipline," or perhaps "regimen"," I'd be inclined to suggest Moreover, and much more controversially, the paideia element properly so called was in Ducat's opinion largely or whol1y a family matter, achieved by private means, even after the boys had begun to come under formal public scrutiny after the age of 7 or so. In other words, much or most of a Spartan boy's education was pretty like what went on in other Greek cities and Was not designed to produce an exclusively dedicated, uniquely Spartan style of warrior, for which (anyway secondary) goal only the last stages, the later agoge proper, served at all as a direct and conscious, state-directed preparation.

I hope I have not myself exaggerated or otherwise misrepresented Ducat's patiently and cumulatively elaborated case. If I am right, Ducat thereby joins the growing chorus of those who want to see Classical Sparta as being in reality-as opposed to as represented in the "mirage" of interested, self-serving fabrication, wish-fulfillment or propaganda-not all that different, let alone abnormal or countercultural. This normalizing Interpretative impulse is perhaps most vigorously on display in the chapter on the Crypteia, where, without going 50 far as to deny outright the Helot killing function attributed to it by Aristotle, Ducat does nevertheless do all he can to talk up the quasi-initiatory, quasi-socializing function of "vagabondage" that it allegedly embodied to an equal or superior degree. Call me old-fashioned, but this all seems to me to be taking several, rather giant steps too far. But it would take another book of comparable length for me to argue that again in adequate detail! Suffice it to say here that what is very modestly ventured on the dust-jacket seems to me to be spot-on: Jean Ducat's Spartan Education is "likely to be seen as his magnum opus" and no less "likely to become the definitive reference on its subject."