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Sparta and the Imperial
Schools of Britain
Anton Powell
The sacrificial honour code of [the British] officer corps, demanding displays of extreme
physical courage (a social phenomenon as yet unexplored) …
(Darwin (2012) 256)
[T]hey belonged to a class with a certain tradition, they had been to public schools
where the duty of dying for your country, if necessary, is laid down as the first and
greatest of the Commandments!
(Orwell (1968) [1941] 70)
It is not easy to estimate the degree in which the English people are indebted to these
schools for the qualities on which they pique themselves most – for their capacity to
govern others and control themselves, their aptitude for combining freedom with order,
their public spirit, their vigour and manliness of character, their strong but not slavish
respect for public opinion, their love of healthy sports and exercise. These schools have
been the chief nurseries of our statesmen … and they have had perhaps the largest share
in moulding the character of an English gentleman.
(Report of the Royal Commission on Public Schools [the Clarendon Commission],
London 1864, i.10.56)
[T]he easy indoctrination of the closed society.
(Tyerman (2000) 481)
A Companion to Sparta, Volume II, First Edition. Edited by Anton Powell.
© 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2018 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Anton Powell
When Xenophon wondered how Sparta, with its small population, had come to dominate the Greece of his day, he saw much of the explanation in Sparta’s way of educating
its young (Lak. Pol. 1–4). If today one asked a similar question about how, in spite of
Britain’s smallness, the English language has become the commonest language of travel,
diplomacy, the internet (and much else), part of the answer might still resemble the
judgement given in 1864 by the Earl of Clarendon’s government‐appointed Commission
(above). The global ascendancy of the English language may seem to flow not only (and
obviously) from the potency of American and European technology, but in part from the
way in which the elites of England and Scotland educated their own young in past centuries. That system of schooling helped to make possible the Anglophone global empire
of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the blocking of challenges to it from
speakers of French and German. The present chapter looks, in part, at how memories of
Sparta influenced the educational system of the British ruling elite of that period. It may
appear that one imperial system, that of the Spartans, was – through the medium of
scholars, teachers (and of Plato and Plutarch) – effectively guiding and encouraging
another, at a distance of over two millennia. It will be argued, however, that resemblances between the two systems went far beyond mere imitation, and arose
largely – though not entirely – by coincidence, through similarity of social function. As
a result, for the study of Sparta itself, a knowledge of what happened in British imperial
schools may prove a rich source of hypotheses.
The present chapter is inevitably more a pioneering study than it is a survey of existing
scholarship. Only one systematic comparison of the two systems is easy to find, ‘The
Public School of Sparta’, by T. Rutherford Harley (1934), a brief but valuable article.
Harley correctly observes that Sparta’s austere system was a response to the threat from
the overwhelming numbers of unfree helots in Sparta’s homeland. He does not, however, say which group in Britain and the empire, according to his comparison, corresponded with the helots: that is, which group the Public Schools were designed to
dominate. Perhaps the point needed no explanation at the time he wrote, or the matter
was judged indelicate.
The British schools which at times looked for inspiration to Sparta did not call themselves ‘imperial’. They called themselves ‘public schools’, to advertise their accessibility
to boys from far and wide. The term became the object of irony. A dictionary, compiled
at the end of Victoria’s reign and published in 1902 (Chambers’s Twentieth Century
Dictionary of the English Language, London and Edinburgh), defined the term thus:
‘Public school … an endowed classical school for providing a liberal education for such
as can pay high for it – Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester, Westminster, Shrewsbury,
Charterhouse, St. Paul’s and Merchant Taylors, &c.’ A full list would have been much
longer and included, among many others, Downside, Marlborough, Radley, Repton,
Sherborne, Uppingham. In Scotland were Fettes and Loretto and (founded later, in
1934) Gordonstoun. The name ‘Public School’ is now mainly used in scholarship – and
in political controversy.
Present‐day study of these schools is conditioned by political fact: all of the schools
named above still exist, and all see their existence as enduringly threatened by opinion
and government of the Left. From the eighteenth century to the present, most British
prime ministers and countless other leading politicians attended Public Schools (as we
shall continue to call them), a fact in itself productive of controversy. In recent times,
Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain: Comparisons
British governments, including those of the Right, have found the past global importance of the Public Schools an acutely inconvenient subject, potentially bad for foreign
trade. To mention it at all may recall painfully such bygone boasts as the following, from
a master at Harrow School:
The Public Schools, if they taught nothing else, would more than justify their existence by
their teaching of this one lesson – Play the game. …This small island race … would [not]
ever have attained to its unique position in the world – or have been such a great civilizing
agency among backward races, if it had not learnt on its playing fields to carry on, though
tired and exhausted, to act with fairness and not to be afraid to face responsibility. (Mayo
(1928) 196–7, quoted at Tyerman (2000) 466)
The conflicted, embarrassed, state of modern opinion affects serious study, and is
­productive of partisanship and self‐censorship. For a scholar to suggest that the Public
Schools were (let alone ‘are’) in any way a success is to invite accusation of elitism, or of
imperialism. Terminology which expressed central values of the imperial schools is now
shunned or derided: ‘pluck’ (courage), ‘funk’ (fear, cowardice), ‘blue funk’ (helpless
terror), ‘owning up’ (confessing to authority), ‘playing the game’ (observing the informal
rules), ‘keeping a straight bat’ (behaving honourably), ‘straight up and down the wicket’
(conventional and proper), ‘letting the side down’, ‘chaps’ and ‘gentlemen’, ‘cads’,
‘bounders’ and ‘rotters’. (We sense immediately the prominence, in Public School ethical language, of imagery from team games, which reflected a political aim: collectivism.
Sparta’s unusual attachment to team games may be understood similarly.) But bygone
language of the Public Schools is seldom analysed in the way that scholars dispassionately
study any corresponding terms which survive from Sparta. The Guardian newspaper (of
London) ran an editorial in 2013 (28 June) calling for the avoidance of all cricketing
metaphors, because of their British imperial associations. (Metaphors from team games
reflecting American global hegemony – ‘touch base’, ‘step up to the plate’, ‘whole new
ball game’ – thrive internationally, and are currently subject to no such taboo.) Most
modern writing about the Public Schools falls into one of three groups: books of serious
historical survey with a sensationalist element; autobiographical memoirs by former
pupils which tend to extremes, either celebratory or condemnatory; and publicity issued
by the schools themselves which may omit or gloss over historical topics now found
inconvenient. An aim of the present chapter is to confront material which remains controversial without evading or patronizing the past. Precisely because of the continuing
sensitivity of the subject, the history of the imperial schools remains underdeveloped and
This situation in our source material for British schools may itself significantly resemble
ancient Greek discourse about Sparta. Plato (in the Republic and Laws) and Aristotle (in
the Politics) issued serious and occasionally sensationalizing criticism of Spartan education, while partisans such as the Athenians Kritias and Xenophon cried up Sparta’s qualities, deploying (at least in Xenophon’s case) a degree of evasion if not mendacity which
recalls Sparta’s own approach to the city’s history. However, there is a crucial difference
between the ancient and the modern sets of information. While detail from the Greek
classical period concerning Sparta’s education system is seriously lacking, modern
information on the Public Schools is so plentiful that it can barely be mastered. Literature
Anton Powell
concerning a single school, albeit the most famous, and published over only a small part
of its history – Eton, 1860–1900 – ‘fills several shelves’ (Honey (1977) 118). It is because
of such modern abundance that we can hope to compare Sparta with Britain instructively.
On many matters where we have little evidence about Sparta, there is a great deal of evidence about Britain. And it is not only the quantity of modern evidence which counts; its
quality is such that much can be cross‐checked and confirmed in detail. It emerges from
our countless modern sources that there was indeed in Britain, as the Clarendon
Commission claimed in the 1860s, a single system for the inculcation in privileged boys
of what was called ‘character’. Public School ‘chaps’ were ‘moulded’ to a degree which
recalls the claims of Sparta and its partisans concerning the homoioi, the ‘Similars’.
Critics and defenders of the Public Schools concur in applying to them the term
‘Spartan’; the usage is utterly commonplace. It is found from Victorian times (Rawson
(1969) 363) to the present day (e.g. Hickson (1995) 40, 42, 80; Tyerman (2000) 216,
377). The comparison is sometimes detectable, fleeting and implicit, in modern scholarship concerning Greece: A.H.M. Jones in his book Sparta ((1967) 35–7) applied the
vocabulary of Public Schools and English adult aristocracy (‘prefects’, ‘school fees’,
‘clubs’, ‘blackball’). For some, the comparison is almost to be dismissed as a thoughtless
cliché. Elizabeth Rawson, in the best‐known study of Sparta’s reception down the ages,
noted that the comparison was made by the Victorian philosophical writer Walter Pater,
but she commented:
The now notorious comparison of public school and Spartan ways of life seems elsewhere
hard to find until we reach the liberal opponents of both in quite recent years. The leading
educationalists of the [Victorian] period do not, I think, turn to Sparta for precedent,
though to Plato they may. ((1969) 363)
This seems to minimise the situation. For one thing, Plato’s educational schemes were
themselves extensively inspired by Sparta (Powell (1994)). Also, reference to Sparta in
connection with British schools from the nineteenth to the twenty‐first centuries is not
only conspicuous but, at times, highly positive. So, for example, on websites concerning
two of the schools, consulted by the present writer almost at random. Marlborough
College’s official site describes conditions existing at the school around 1850 as ‘extremely
Spartan’ (‐us/college‐history/first‐fifty‐years;
consulted 10 December 2013). Gordonstoun’s founder, Kurt Hahn, is described as
inspired by ancient Greece: the head boy was styled ‘Guardian’ in imitation of Plato’s
Republic and the school’s general regime ‘could be described as Spartan’ (www.; consulted 21 May 2014). Another Scottish Public
School, Loretto, referred to itself, from the Victorian era, as Sparta in its Latin motto:
Spartam nactus es, hanc exorna.
Fortune has given you Sparta; do her credit.
Sedbergh, a Public School in a remote setting of NW England, used the same motto for
a time in the late nineteenth century (Honey (1977) 221). Similar identification with
Sparta became widespread in ambitious, though less socially exclusive, British schools.
Thus King Edward VI Grammar School, Camp Hill (Birmingham) adopted the above
Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain: Comparisons
motto, and Thames Valley Grammar School (founded in 1928) evoked Sparta elaborately in its school song:
Amid the Grecian mountains, where loud Eurotas rolled,
And lovely Lacedaimon the Spartan plain controlled,
Word of the poet came that stirred her youth aflame,
‘You have Sparta for your birthplace, do honour to her name.’
Hanc exorna! etc.
29.1 The Role of Thomas Arnold: A British Lykourgos?
That British identification with Sparta went wide is clear. How deep it went is a different
question. The word ‘spartan’, with a lower‐case initial, might be used unreflectingly to
mean no more than primitive or poor, as of accommodation and food. But often the
term, as used with a capital initial, evoked a moral programme – one which, of course,
intimately included harsh physical conditions. And here reference to the Sparta of history
(and of pseudo‐history) might be elaborate and highly ambitious. At the heart, if not at
the root, of the resemblance between Sparta and British elite education was one man;
and it is quite possible that he was inspired to believe in his mission by Sparta’s self‐
image, as relayed above all by Plato and Plutarch. Spartan story offered the supposed
precedent of a single lawgiver who had, with the aid of religion, succeeded in establishing an all‐conquering system of education. The British counterpart of Lykourgos was
Dr Thomas Arnold (1795–1842). Unlike Lykourgos, Arnold certainly existed. Like
Lykourgos, Arnold became the subject of a historical vortex, with a series of evolving
reforms being attributed to him for which in reality others were largely or wholly responsible (Mangan (1981) 16–17; Copley (2002) 150). In Arnold’s case, his influence was
passed on by former pupils and associates of his who became reforming headmasters
elsewhere, such as C.J. Vaughan at Harrow and G.E.C. Cotton at Marlborough (Honey
(1977) 118, 299; Tyerman (2000) 248–9; Copley (2002) 178).
Arnold was a historian of Greece, editor of Thucydides’ history; institutionally speaking,
he was a minister of the Anglican church and, briefly before his early death, Regius Professor
of Modern History at Oxford (1841–42). His chief platform, however, for national (indeed
empire‐wide) influence was his fourteen‐year rule as headmaster of Rugby Public School
(1828–42). Before his arrival the school had been a far‐from‐glorious institution in an
undistinguished Midland town. Challenged by Rugby school to a cricket match, the captain of the Eton team had supposedly replied, ‘Rugby, Rugby…? Well, we’ll think about it
if you’ll tell me where it is.’ (Honey (1977) 239). After Arnold, this was to change. Some
immediate idea of the potency of Arnold’s reputation as reformer, and the international
significance of the reforming Public Schools which he shaped, may be gained from the
worldwide export from Britain of team games, and notably the game named after Arnold’s
school: rugby football. This sport, a highly‐codified system of running and brawling now
widespread in the territories of the former British empire and in western Europe (and also
in the United States, under another name and with its own locally‐designed nineteenth‐
century code), was formalized and given detailed rules under the influence of Arnold’s
school, though after his time as headmaster.
Anton Powell
Team sport (as distinct from the normal Greek athletic contests between individuals,
as at the Olympic and other pan‐Greek festivals) itself had Spartan precedents: Xenophon
referred in the classical period to teams picked for a game of ball at Sparta (Lak. Pol. 9.5);
Pausanias, some five centuries later, wrote of a brawling free‐for‐all game between
Spartan teams, which took place at the Platanistas (3.14). Arnold’s successors, however,
were not aiming to reproduce Spartan forms exactly, but to apply and adjust pre‐existing
British (and on occasion American) practices to evolving local needs A rough manly
game requiring physical courage and fitness but also team‐work and a measure of restraint
might serve imperial requirements. The less violent, and even more internationally pervasive game of Association Football (‘soccer’, as distinct from ‘rugger’; the ‐er termination was a favourite in Public School slang)1, would be invented (or rather gentled and
codified out of traditional mauls of kicking) in part by an Old Boy of Harrow School,
C.W. Alcock (Tyerman (2000) 271), who also founded international cricket matches.2
Scholars seem not to have found in Arnold’s extensive writings any explicit reference to Sparta as a source of inspiration (Rawson (1969) 363). We are faced with a
paradox, identified by one of the most astute recent historians of the Public Schools,
J.R. de S. Honey. Honey perceived the marked resemblance between Sparta and the
Public Schools, and found it ‘amazing’ that so few apologists of the British schools in
the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries referred to Sparta in their public rhetoric
(Honey (1977) 221). Arnold did write, however, that his intention was to ‘sophronize’
the boys of Rugby (Honey (1977) 7, 15). Here he was virtually using code, comprehensible only to a classically‐educated few. The word ‘sophronize’ was not regular
English. (It does not, for example, appear in the late‐Victorian dictionary quoted
above.) For historians of classical Greece, and especially to students of Thucydides such
as Arnold himself, the meaning might be clear enough. The Greek sōphrōn and its cognates suggested oligarchic rule, and especially the regime of Sparta, the supreme model
of sōphrosune ̄ (Thuc.8.24, 64). Plutarch in his Life of Lykourgos (ch. 14) used the verb
employed by Arnold to refer to the Spartan lawgiver’s attempts to reform, to ‘sophronize’, the women of his community.
Plato learned from Sparta, and was to pass on at second hand to Arnold, the idea that
a very small community (‘a little commonwealth’ in Arnold’s reported view: Honey
(1977) 10), by isolating its most unruly and unpromising element – boys, youths and
young men – and by subjecting them to intense and unusual discipline, physical and
moral, could turn them into a unified, obedient and irresistible ruling group. For Plato,
as for Sparta, human nature was plastic. He wrote, ‘You can convince the souls of the
young of anything you try to’ (Laws 663e–664a; Powell (1994) 279), and ironically
imagined himself accused of creating imaginary constitutions as facilely as one might
work warm wax (Laws 746a). That was not normal Greek thinking: Athenians prided
themselves on fixed, ancient qualities born from their native soil. Spartans, in contrast,
did not see themselves as an autochthonous community. They had arrived in Laconia by
invasion, had suffered a rare degree of turbulence and revolution, and had triumphantly
reinvented themselves under Lykourgos, emerging as ‘tamers of humans’ (damasimbrotos:
Simonides 218), with a system of education uniquely capable of harnessing and directing
males otherwise potentially vicious and corrupt. The image of Sparta’s plasticity lent
itself, in Britain, as in other European cultures of modern times (see Chapter 26 by
Mason and Chapter 27 by Rebenich in this volume), to drastic educational and political
Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain: Comparisons
reform. But the ‘amazing’ scarcity which Honey identified, of explicit references to
Sparta by educational authorities of the imperial period, has still to be accounted for.
Part of the explanation for it is, that many – though not all – classicists who might have
been expected to make the comparison were not well informed about Sparta. Their focus
rather was on the literary texts of Athens (and, to a much lesser extent, on the later moralizing of Plutarch), rather than on the anthropology of bookless Sparta. One influential
classicist and Public School headmaster, Cyril Norwood, could write (in 1929), ‘the
Greeks had no team spirit’ (quoted at Tyerman (2000) 467), ignoring the evidence of
Xenophon and Pausanias on Sparta. Writing and reading the Greek dialect of Athens
was, until recently, the primary aim of the Public School Hellenist. As late as the 1970s
one young graduate of a Public School, admirably competent in the writing of Attic
Greek, on being necessarily reminded that the Spartans too were Greeks, replied thoughtfully, ‘Yes, I suppose they were.’3
Arnold would follow Plato and Sparta in his efforts to insulate his community from
certain information. Rather as Plato excluded poets from his imaginary Republic and
historical Sparta frowned on book‐learning, Arnold succeeded in having newspapers
whose politics he deplored banned from the local public library: the Tory Times of
London was among them. Scholastic learning itself should respect certain limits. (We are
reminded of Plutarch’s description of Sparta’s teaching literacy to its young only ‘as far
as was necessary’: Life of Lykourgos, 16). For example, the teaching of science at Rugby
was to be excluded. Boys should not learn to speak French well, but should learn it
‘grammatically as a dead language’. Here was another form of cultural insulation, recalling classical Sparta’s attempted shielding of its citizens from foreign contacts and influences: republican and turbulent France might even be feared as the democratic Athens
of contemporary Europe. The Greek and Latin languages were to be the formal heart of
Arnold’s curriculum. More important for Arnold, however, was an informal purpose: the
inculcation, with the Christian religion, of a certain morality, what became known
widely – and somewhat evasively – in the Public School system as ‘character’ (Honey
(1977) 210, 223–4). The ‘character’ required would evolve: the cult of sporting manliness, for example, reached its height after Arnold’s time, in the late nineteenth century.
He himself seems not to have preached the ethic of team games, of ‘muscular Christianity’
as it became. Insistence on Christianity would become less intense in the schools of the
twentieth century. But the belief that boarding schools could, indeed should, impose
character would survive, arguably to the present day.
Sparta had insisted that boys should at all possible times be supervised by adults, a
point made clear by Xenophon (Lak. Pol. 2.10–11). Plato enthusiastically echoed the
idea in his Laws (942; Powell (1994) 273–4): life should be lived as far as possible in
common, in a crowd, synchronized and under authority. Roaming and playing free were
not to be permitted. Arnold and his successors moved towards a similar discipline. And,
as in Xenophon’s picture of Sparta, where an adult male could not be present to supervise, a chosen youth was put in control (Lak. Pol. 2.11). Arnold intensified the role given
to the oldest boys, those in their late teens, to act as role‐models, supervisors and punishers of their juniors (Honey (1977) 11). These were his ‘Praepostors’. Conceived as
the headmaster’s moral agents, they came to be imitated almost universally in other
Public Schools; more commonly known as ‘Prefects’, they regularly were given the
power to cane (Tyerman (2000) 479 for statistics concerning such whipping in the
Anton Powell
twentieth century). In this they resembled the selected young mastigophoroi (‘whip‐
bearers’) of Sparta (Xen. Lak. Pol. 2.2). The practice was copied in Prep(aratory) Schools,
the junior version of Public Schools for boys aged from eight (or even younger). Far
more widely in Britain and its empire, in the state‐funded academic Grammar Schools for
boys between the ages of eleven and eighteen, Arnold’s system was imitated to the extent
that Prefects (aged sixteen to nineteen) had until the late twentieth century the right to
identify and detain young miscreants (in ‘Prefects’ Detention’; known at the present
writer’s Grammar School until the late 1960s as ‘priggies’ book’), though not to cane.
Arnold’s method of supervision throughout the day was intensified and became the
norm in Public Schools, where a technical term for it was ‘mapping‐out’ (Honey (1977)
175; Hickson (1995) 39, 46). Xenophon (Lak. Pol. 2.2) had written that Sparta was
exceptional among Greek states in insisting that the education of boys be controlled not
by slave paidagōgoi but by a citizen of high standing, the paidonomos (literally, ‘boy‐
herd’). Arnold at Rugby improved the conditions and elevated the status of Assistant
Masters; at Harrow his ex‐pupil Vaughan did likewise. Only in the mid‐nineteenth
century did it become normal in Public Schools for teachers not to be ‘ushers’ of low
status but ‘gentlemen’, a transition designed to give the masters more respect from, and
thus more control over, the boys – whose own parents were in most cases wealthy and
sometimes aristocrats.
Arnold’s system, with continuing adjustments, became the pervasive model for Public
Schools in Britain, from the mid‐nineteenth to the mid‐twentieth century (and beyond).
Not only were his former pupils and other associates of Rugby eagerly sought as headmasters elsewhere in Britain; his methods were imitated in other countries, notably in
territories of the (former) British empire. Respectful outsiders to the Spartan system,
such as the Athenian Xenophon or the conquering Pyrrhos of Epirus, might think of
sending their own sons to be schooled at Sparta. Respectful outsiders would do likewise
with the British Public Schools, for more than a century. An Ashanti prince came from
West Africa (Honey (1977) 67). So did sons of Indian princes, and a boy who would
become independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Eminent Nazis were
similarly impressed, and thought of enrolling their sons en masse after Britain had been
safely conquered (though not at Eton, where the waiting‐list was thought too long).
Joachim von Ribbentrop, as Hitler’s ambassador in London, enrolled his son at
Westminster. In recent years the children of Russian oligarchs have been discreetly welcomed to the system. By the late nineteenth century there had developed an education
network of exceptional potency. Its structural similarity to what we know of Spartan
schooling is so elaborate that it is difficult to summarize. But we must try.
British Public Schools, and their Prep Schools, took in boys of wealthy families as
boarders from the ages (approximately) of eight to nineteen, thereby removing them – as
Sparta had done – to a large extent from the influence of family. To these boys was given
a homogeneous education involving, as in classical and Roman Sparta, austere physical
conditions and a morality imposed in part by the cane or the whip. Academic and literary
education at the Public Schools, while far in advance of anything we hear of from classical
Sparta, was – as at Sparta – deliberately limited in the interests of character‐formation. In
both systems, intensely competitive sports involved much violence: for example, the
same type of cricket ball, hard, heavy and dangerous, was used in Britain for small boys
as for adults. (For death by cricket ball at Harrow in 1871, Tyerman (2000) 343.) In the
Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain: Comparisons
Public Schools as at Sparta, there was pervasive insistence on the need for physical
courage and on the willingness to die in battle for the sake of the community. Hierarchy
was elaborate. Fear had been treated as a god at Sparta: Phobos had its shrine, and fear
structured the community, fear of divine punishment, of the city’s authorities, and of
unified public opinion. Fear of punishment pervaded the Public Schools (Gagnier (1988)
28, 34): a former pupil of Arnold’s Rugby described how the boys ‘feared the Doctor
with all our hearts … and the public opinion of boys in our daily life above the laws of
God’ (Hughes (1857) ch. 7). Or, as another of Arnold’s ex‐pupils put it, ‘the boys at
Rugby … were ruled by high respect and by fear and by fear [sic]. Arnold was to them
Black Tom, as he was called’ (Copley (2002) 257). Religion was prominently used, as by
Arnold and later headmasters in their priestly capacity, to cement discipline. Sermons by
the headmaster from the pulpit were intense experiences, long remembered (Honey
(1977) 313–14). At Sparta the kings were priests and controlled information from the
most influential shrine, Delphi; at the British Public Schools of the late nineteenth
century most headmasters were in Holy Orders. Pederasty, as we shall see, was so widespread as to structure each society, albeit in very different ways.
If we are committed students of the Greek world, we may be slightly biased towards
the idea that the noblest warrior state of Antiquity has had mighty influence on modern
civilization. That idea should, however, be examined sceptically. Within the Public
Schools, the ideal (found in Plutarch’s Lykourgos, ch. 18) of the brave Spartan boy who
silently endured while a fox fatally gnawed his belly might offer children a role‐model in
a way that biblical Christianity did not: the child as hero. (The corresponding Christian
idea, ‘little lord Jesus no crying he makes’, seems to have been an invention of a hymnist
in the late nineteenth century; it may even have been a reaction to the pagan ideal of the
Spartan boy, altogether more inspiring to unreconstructed young males.) Certainly the
story of boy and fox became widely known in Britain. The novelist Henry Williamson,
educated in Edwardian England, expected readers of his novel A Fox Under my Cloak
(1955) to understand the reference. In Germany this story, and the associated morality
of extreme physical endurance, pervaded the military cadet schools of the nineteenth
century and later, to an extraordinary extent. The boy cadets used their own verb for
heroic resistance to pain, spartanern. German public figures, especially those on the
conservative or radical Right, were outspoken in their approving references to Sparta as
an educational model (Roche 2013a; Rebenich, this volume, Chapter 27). But in public
discourse in Britain enthusiasm for Sparta may have been more guarded, perhaps
reflecting a more intense Christianity in British as compared with German pedagogy.
Arnold himself, we have seen, could be cryptic in referring to his imitation of Greek
models. Now, if it was the case that evocation of (pagan) Sparta was expected not to resonate widely and favourably with the publicly and insistently Christian audiences of
Victorian and Edwardian Britain, it is unlikely that a wish to imitate Sparta would guide
the prosperous parents of the age in decisions about how their own children should be
educated. It seems, rather, that there was some divergence between parents and
educational authorities. Parents were described by educational authorities as ‘the greatest
obstacle to progress’ (Mangan (1981) 132–4). One extreme view reported from
Marlborough was that ‘parents are the last people who ought to be allowed to have
­children’ (Honey (1977) 149–50). Such views recall Plato, who had lamented the
variety of character transmitted by parents to their offspring (Laws 788a–b).
Anton Powell
Professional educators may have found in Sparta (or in Plato’s modified versions of
Sparta) a source of ideas and a legitimating precedent. But for them to have succeeded,
as they did, in constructing a Sparta‐like system across Britain and much of its empire,
that system must have been seen as meeting widely perceived needs of the age. A similar,
indeed stronger, logic applies to the Spartans’ original establishment of their own austere
system, since Spartans – unlike Arnold and his followers – probably had no encouraging
Greek precedent to fortify them. The fact that Sparta and the Public Schools show such
similarity may have arisen less from the erudite hellenizing of classically‐educated headmasters such as Dr Arnold than from structural resemblances in the two societies, the
Spartan and the British.
Ideals expressed, and especially those which are energetically pursued, tend to be generated by what are perceived as serious problems. When imperial Rome preached on
coinage the ‘good faith’ or ‘harmony’ of the armies, it was because in reality the legions
were disobeying the central authority or at each others’ throats; when modern
French ­politicians urge rassemblement, they are seeking to solve acute disunity. Sparta’s
energetically‐pursued ideal of harmony and austerity was generated by memories of a
Sparta riven by extremes of luxury and poverty. Classical Sparta unified in obedience to
its law, or rather to its authorities and their shifting ways of imposing order, was the
product of an archaic Sparta remembered as the scene of some of the longest and most
intense disorder of any Greek city (Powell, this work, Chapter 1). Spartan discipline, in
short, was the product of well‐grounded fear that events of an appalling past might recur.
With the Public Schools of Britain the case was strikingly similar.
29.2 Indiscipline and Fear of Revolution
There were Public Schools before Arnold. They had in common with the Arnoldian
schools not only many of their sites and a somewhat classical subject‐matter, but also the
fact that they provided boarding for boys of wealthy family. But by the early nineteenth
century the existence of these schools was in several cases threatened, by low numbers and
shortage of income (Tyerman (2000) 226, 246), but ultimately by disorder and public
disapproval (Honey (1977) 1). The boys frequently lived in anarchy and violence of their
own making (Tyerman (2000) 172–4). In 1845, Harrow School ‘was close to extinction;
the few remaining boys so riotous and vicious that the new Head was advised to sack the
lot of them and begin again’ (Tyerman (2000) 245). Their masters had little authority
over them and were indeed subject to physical attack. At Westminster, the young Lord
March is recorded as having set his master’s hair alight, and then been obliged – in extinguishing the fire – to beat the poor man’s ears. The masters responded by keeping their
distance, refusing to intervene in cases of misbehaviour which might reveal their own
powerlessness. A poet, William Cowper, in 1784, addressed the masters thus:
But ye connive at what ye cannot cure,
And evils, not to be endured, endure,
Lest power exerted, but without success,
Should make the little ye retain still less.
(From Tirocinium, or, A review of schools)
Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain: Comparisons
Cowper’s long poem of protest against the Public School system of the eighteenth
century can be read as symptomatic of a widespread public revulsion, which by the 1830s
would become part of an irresistible movement against public violence, theft, drunkenness and whoring – in short the movement commonly known as Victorian. Arnold’s
problem was, as a recent analyst has noted, to ‘save the schools … of the aristocracy from
the taunts and outrage of the middle class’ (Tyerman (2000) 248–50). And, just as
Public Schools predated Arnold, so ‘Victorianism’ was much older than Queen Victoria
(whose reign began in 1837).
In England as at Sparta alarm at disorder within the aristocracy was driven by
something more urgent than puritanical morality and educational ideals: fear of revolution (Honey (1977) 3–4 for this fear in Arnold). Rebelliousness among Public School
pupils was a main driver of reforms at the schools, in the first half of the nineteenth
century (Honey (1977) 194). Where violent disaffection might lead, when the poor
were led by men of some education, was clear to all after the French revolution of 1789
and particularly after the Terror of 1793–4 in Paris and the provinces, with its generalized beheadings. In revolutionary France, as in revolutionary England of the seventeenth century, the wealthy and educated classes had – crucially – been divided. Some
of the eminent rich had taken the side of the excluded. Among Charles Ist’s parliamentarian enemies of the 1640s was the Earl of Manchester; in France of the early 1790s
one of the richest aristocrats of all, the Duc d’Orléans, reinvented himself as citizen
Philippe Egalité. Fear of division, of subversion from within led by men with intimate
knowledge of the ruling system’s weaknesses, is evident at Sparta and was no doubt
widespread in England in the age when the Public Schools were reformed. At Sparta the
state’s most eminent general of his day, the regent Pausanias, was accused of having
(c.470 bc) conspired with the helots in revolutionary schemes (this work, Chapter 11).
Whether or not the accusation was true (as Thucydides believed it to be), it shows what
was widely feared. In England, Cowper’s symptomatic protest against the Public Schools
was no inarticulate howl from the social depths: it was a learned and highly‐wrought
work of literature, designed to appeal to an educated public and written by a former
pupil of Westminster School. It was from such sources that leadership for the feared
political revolution, or for some profound reform, might come.
If revolutionary movements were to be avoided, it might well be thought, in
England as at Sparta (where the corresponding terror for the aristocracy of the sixth
century was the general Greek movement towards tyranny), that the wealthy had
better act with discipline and in unity. And yet the English places of aristocratic education threatened the opposite. Not only was there much individual disobedience in
the form of violence, drunkenness (and the manufacture of alcohol), whoring, pederasty and theft, in some cases there was organized rebellion. The masters were at times
excluded by force from the boys’ domain. Such exclusions were also familiar at the
other end of the social scale: in Victorian cities there existed citadels of criminal life,
where the police dared not penetrate: they were known as ‘rookeries’ (Chesney (1970)
ch. 4). In the case of the Public Schools, the exclusion of masters by boys also had a
name, ‘barring‐out’ (e.g. Edgeworth (1796)), and was remembered into the twentieth
century (see Figure 29.1).
Collective rebellions of this sort happened at Rugby in the decades before Arnold’s
arrival (Copley (2002) 63–4). Similar events occurred at Harrow, where boys blocked
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Figure 29.1 Billy Bunter bars his study against authority. (From Billy Bunter and the School
Rebellion (1967), first published in 1928 in the boys’ magazine The Magnet).
with chains the road to London, to prevent communication with their parents; the headmaster anxiously searched the boys’ rooms for gunpowder (Tyerman (2000) 197). Eton
and Winchester pupils were notorious for their insurgency: in 1818 senior boys at
Winchester defied a magistrate and the constabulary, and were only suppressed by the
militia (Honey (1977) 6). The age of rebellions lasted from the 1770s until the end of
the nineteenth century, when boys at the Leys School, Cambridge, allegedly succeeded
in driving away mounted police (Honey (1977) 107–8). The most famous (though perhaps not the most serious) rebellion happened a few years after Arnold’s death: at
Marlborough in 1851 boys took control of school buildings for about a week and set off
a series of explosions (Honey (1977) 41). Harrow boys, in particular, had supported
radical, indeed republican, causes in the late Georgian era (Tyerman (2000) 198–9). It
must have been evident to many in authority that such attitudes, such techniques, might
come to be employed on a national scale, in a political context, perhaps with the same
Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain: Comparisons
confident young men as leaders. In 1873, during a rebellion at King’s School Canterbury,
boys sang the Marseillaise (Honey (1977) 106). Might they not one day league themselves, as in France, with the rebellious poor, England’s counterpart to the helots? Or
might they even – the worst of cases – seek to ally with a foreign republican regime, with
France, the perennial enemy?
Counter‐measures from the authorities were to be expected, and they would need to
be of a force and sophistication to overcome the anarchic energy and initiative of the
young. Fear, we have seen, was an effective instrument at Sparta as in the Public Schools.
For Spartans, there was fear of the Olympian gods: disasters such as helot revolt or earthquake were seen as divine punishment for the Spartans’ own failings. The objects of fear
in daily life were, for the young, the whip (administered ‘severely’, Xenophon makes
clear (Lak. Pol. 2)); for adults, there was humiliation as a result of misconduct in battle
or of other subtler, failings; and for all there was the dread of concentrated rejection by
a united social opinion. For pupils at Public Schools of Britain, religion offered additional terrors, concerning the afterlife. We have seen that Thomas Hughes, former pupil
of Arnold at Rugby, wrote that fear of schoolfellows’ bad opinion eclipsed the terrors of
the Christian religion. His point was intended to be paradoxical: those religious terrors
were in any case, his readers might assume, intense, but at Rugby social opinion was
more frightening still. And then there was the whip – or, rather, the cane.
29.3 Flogging, Pederasty – and Boys in Love
Autobiographic literature about caning and flogging at Public Schools is abundant,
moving – and instructive about the case of Sparta. The whipping at the British schools
was knowingly graded in severity, and in the degree of publicity accorded. It might, at
the extreme, involve dozens of violent blows administered before other boys, if not a
whole school assembled for the instructive spectacle. Flogged boys might afterwards
need days of absence in bed, to recover. Some deaths are recorded (Honey (1977)
200). Although other boys were recruited at times as ‘holders‐down’ of the squirming
victim, there was – beforehand – frequently an insistence on voluntary submission. The
condemned boy might have, theoretically, the choice not to be flogged, but to be
expelled – or to withdraw himself – from the school. The fact that a majority chose to
remain and be flogged confirms the psychological possibility of the endurance recorded
of Spartan boys. In Britain as in Sparta, a boy’s reputation for manliness was at stake.
(‘Take down your breeches like a man!’, was reportedly a Victorian dictum (Honey
(1977) 212).) The deaths in the British system likewise help to make believable
Plutarch’s claim personally to have seen boys dying under the lash at the Spartan festival of Orthia (Life of Lykourgos, 18).
Experienced observers and sufferers at the British schools might analyse the beatings
with precision. One regular officiant at the punishment later wrote:
The swishing was given with the master’s full strength and it took only two or three strokes
for drops of blood to form everywhere and it continued for 15 or 20 strokes when the
wretched boy’s bottom was a mass of blood. Generally, of course, the boys endured it with
fortitude … (Quoted at Honey (1977) 198)
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Noteworthy are the words ‘of course’, and also the fact that this account concerns a Prep
School, for boys of thirteen and under. A seasoned victim at another Prep School wrote,
of his own suffering,
I remember that it was at about the 15th blow that it really began to hurt and from thence
the pain increased in geometrical progression. At about the 28th blow one began to howl.
The largest number of smacks I ever received was I think 42. (Quoted at Honey (1977)
A.A. Milne, long remembered as the author of innocent childhood tales such as Winnie
the Pooh, also described, from his experience as a pupil at Westminster, the ‘ever‐present
threat of tanning by prefects’. The chief problem, he wrote, was ‘not the actual pain, but
the perpetual fear of it’ (Honey (1977) 199).
In our own times, there is little inclination to look for anything positive in the regular
infliction of severe pain. We are thus ill‐equipped to understand why Sparta, and the
Public Schools, persisted in the practice. Leslie Stephen (father of Virginia Woolf) was
describing the Public Schools he knew, but could equally have been describing the ritual
whipping of young Spartans at Orthia’s shrine, when he wrote:
[T]o be flogged in accordance with traditions handed down from hoar antiquity, and
embodied in special local jargon, is to have gone through a sacred initiatory rite. (Cornhill
Magazine, March 1873, quoted at Honey (1977) 284)
Stephen, once of Eton, was writing in long retrospect. But at the Public Schools, as at
Sparta, the old with their selective memories had extraordinary influence in defending
traditions of their choice.
Both Sparta and the imperial Public Schools were believed by their contemporaries to
be intensely given to pederasty. (Pederasty involving Public School masters was perhaps
seen as less of a threat, although it presumably was part of the explanation for so much
whipping of boys’ bare bottoms.) At Sparta pederastic love (like the whipping of the
young) was formalized: it was normal for a young man to form a recognized couple with
a teenaged boy. Xenophon in his eulogy of the Spartan system claims that such couples
enabled the transmission of correct social values from the elder to the younger male. He
denies that obvious lust for a boy’s body was permitted at Sparta, but with revealing candour admits that he is ‘not surprised that some people do not believe this’ (Lak. Pol.
2.13–14). The comparison with the Public Schools is complex and interesting. Before
Arnold, ‘vice’ – as it was termed, with deliberate vagueness – had evidently flourished in
the largely unsupervised colonies – and officially‐shared beds – of boys at boarding
school. Arnold himself wrote:
None can pass through a large school without being pretty intimately acquainted with vice;
and few, alas! very few, without tasting too largely of that poisoned bowl. (Quoted
at Hickson (1995) 20)
Almost certainly part of Arnold’s motive in intensifying the prefect system was to
exploit the insight of older boys in the effort to repress sexual behaviour. After his time,
and notably after 1859 when there was something of a national panic in Britain about sex
Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain: Comparisons
in boarding schools (Hickson (1995) 51; Tyerman (2000) 272), anti‐sexual efforts by
the school authorities structured boys’ lives. Commonly, boys were forbidden to speak
to each other unless they belonged to the same ‘house’ (a residential unit within the
school, used as a basis for ‘inter‐house’ competition, especially in sport). Informal
conversation between older and younger boys became a punishable offence (Honey
(1977) 183). Sleeping arrangements now involved meticulous segregation and sometimes physical traps were set to detect illicit journeying between beds. Masters patrolled
silently (and boys set up their counter‐intelligence system: watchers who called ‘Cave!’
as the enemy approached). Offenders were liable to be flogged and then expelled, both
processes being staged as spectacles to teach and intimidate the majority. Much of what
is seen as ‘Spartan’ about the boarding schools – the cold showers, the intensive athletics
for all, the meagre diet, the planning and policing of every moment of the waking day
(Hickson (1995) 23, 39, 46–7) – was justified in part as directing the boys’ energies and
thoughts away from sex. In this way the ‘Spartan’ schools of Britain may seem decidedly
un‐Spartan in their motivation.
The gulf – real but easy to overestimate – between Spartan and Public School practice
flowed in part from religion. The three widespread religions of modern times which
claim descent from the Old Testament, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, share a horror
of sexual sin, indeed may privilege sexual offences as worse than almost all others. In
contrast, the three most revered and supposedly potent gods of the Hellenic world were
conceived as accomplished rapists: Zeus, Poseidon and Apollo. Sparta’s cherished figures
of local myth were little better: the Dioskouroi (Castor and Pollux) were rapists, and
Helen an adulteress. The casualness with which sexual promiscuity on the part of free
males might be regarded in Antiquity was largely impossible among adults in the mainstream of nineteenth‐century Public School muscular Christianity. Significant dissident
voices were, however, heard.
George Cotton, formerly a teacher at Rugby under Arnold and a future Bishop, as
reforming headmaster of Marlborough preached that friendships ‘especially between an
older and a younger boy’ might be beneficial (Honey (1977) 186). Arnold himself had
apparently encouraged the practice (Honey (1977) 186). More boldly, an Old Etonian
wrote publicly (in 1882) that the horrors of pederastic friendships had been exaggerated,
citing the case of a peer, indeed Lord Lieutenant of a county (and so, by implication, a
sound chap), who was none the worse for his involvement in such routine Public School
Every old public school boy knows what is meant by ‘spooning’ [sexual infatuation and
courtship] … It exists in all large schools … A friend of mine, a peer, the Lord Lieutenant
of his county … [etc.] … told me that when he was at school he was ‘taken up’ (as it is
called) by boys bigger than himself, and petted – he supposed because of his good looks;
that before he received such notice he was an ‘untidy, slovenly little ruffian’, and that he
dated his conversion to gentlemanly habits and refined manners from the time when he was
so patronised. (Journal of Education, March 1882, 86, cited at Honey (1977) 181)
The writer in question, by emphasizing the existence within the Public Schools of
technical terms for pederasty, was driving home his point that such sexuality was widespread (without, by implication, having ruined those institutions). His further point that
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erotically‐based friendships could actually be beneficial by the standards of conventional
morality recalls Xenophon’s account of Spartan male couples, and the Spartans’ own
technical term for the older member of such couples, the ‘inspirer’ (eispnēlas: Cartledge
(2001) 97 and esp. 208 n. 18). Explicit reference to Spartan homoeroticism as desirable
cement for a military unit is made in recent times, by an eminent surgeon describing his
own attitude as a Public School boy under the embattled British empire of 1939–40:
I quite early acquired the idea that male comradeship was superior to heterosexual love as a
result of receiving a good classical education and perhaps because in 1939 and 1940 we
were in pretty desperate straits. The example of the Sacred Band [a Theban homoerotic
battalion] …, never mind the general ethos of the Spartans, was very much on our minds.
(John Gleave, once of Uppingham School, quoted in Hickson, (1995) 196)
More widespread perhaps, though not commonly related to Sparta, were the warm
and close relations between certain Public School teachers and the boys in their care.
Several such are recorded in detail by Hickson ((1995) ch. 2), by implication as sexualized but seemingly not involving unambiguously sexual contact. If indeed these were
often cases of repressed sexual desire on the master’s side, the evidence of enduring
respect and gratitude on the part of the boys involved, once they had become adults,
suggests that Xenophon’s account concerning Spartan male couples and the educational
value of repressed pederasty may not be wholly unrealistic. Arnold had taken an influential lead in seeking to socialize boys by breaking down the gulf between them and their
schoolmasters. There were to be, it was hoped, no more colonies of contemptuous
young, impermeable to adult values, no more – to use our own slang – ‘Planet Boy’. As
part of his programme to ‘sophronize’ the young, Arnold regularly invited his pupils to
tea with his family. With some masters such intimacy might turn to sexual love: Arnold’s
former pupil C.J. Vaughan was forced out from the headship of Harrow (in 1859) by
love‐letters he had written to a senior boy. Vaughan was profoundly respected, and kindly
remembered, as a headmaster who had, in general, benefited his pupils (Tyerman
(2000) 277–83).
The urgent desire, especially from the 1860s, to repress erotic behaviour by boys at
Public Schools may help to understand the paradox noted earlier: that the schools resembled
Sparta and yet public references to Sparta by defenders of the schools were rather infrequent. School headmasters of the late nineteenth century, were – by an overwhelming
majority – classicists (statistics at Mangan (1981) 288 n. 63). They would be well aware
that homoerotic themes, and indeed values, were prominent in classical (and especially
in Greek) literature. Arnold himself, an admirer of Plato, would have known the
Symposion where not only do homosexual themes abound but supreme intellectual
wisdom is even described at one point as attainable through ‘the correct use of pederasty’
(211b). A majority in society knew too little about Sparta to be enthused by evocations
of it; and the minority who did know might have decidedly mixed, or negative, feelings
about the lusty paganism of Laconia. Any who revered the Spartan education system had
good reason to express their enthusiasm guardedly if at all.
The widespread anxiety of our own age concerning sexual activity and children tends
to take a different form from the Victorian, focusing on predation of children by adults.
This focus may tend to obscure in our own day two things which Victorian school
Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain: Comparisons
authorities, like the Spartans before them, were well placed to understand: that sexual
contact between the young may be much more common than that involving adult and
child, and that much of it is wholly voluntary (Hickson (1995) ch. 3). Memoirs from the
Public Schools refer often to ‘crushes’, ‘pashes’ and ‘grand pashes’: the vocabulary for
such passionate attachments was (and continues to be) rich and revealing (Hickson
(1995) 216–20 provides a glossary of such terms). The terminology varied between
schools and thus suggests that the behaviour in question was observed directly and independently rather than being mainly a matter of hearsay from the wider culture. At the
Public Schools, as at Sparta, these attachments were promoted by the structure of children’s lives. Athleticism at the mid‐to‐late Victorian schools (as at Sparta), far from
repressing lust through physical preoccupation and exhaustion, may have engendered (as
among professional athletes today) an unusually high level of animal spirits. If the boys
were to be in a state to learn effectively in class, they could not be kept permanently
weary. The intense value conferred at the Public Schools, as at Sparta, on athletic prowess in senior boys will have encouraged worship of them, and their bodies, by younger
ones. (For Spartan girls shown sympathetically in local poetry as close to worshipping
beautiful older girls, Calame, this work, Chapter 7) Similarly impressive, no doubt, was
the sheer power possessed by prefects (as by the elite of whip‐bearing young men who
policed children at Sparta). It was only to be expected that sometimes a younger boy
might be smitten with desire by the presence of a ‘blood’, a ‘swell’ or a ‘god’. Again such
terms are richly revealing.
Recent testimony from the Public School of Loretto, the self‐proclaimed Sparta of
Scotland, reveals the social question confronting segregated, single‐sex communities of
the very young. A former pupil of the school published in 2001 his account of being
seduced at the school, decades earlier and at the age of twelve, by a charismatic young
teacher (named). In accordance with the adult values prevailing at the time of publication, the writer testified dramatically (and to the criminal justice system) about his
­victimization by a predatory adult in authority: ‘I was about to become a victim of one
of the most serious crimes anyone could possibly commit: the sexual rape of a child.’
Other elements of the writer’s account reveal a quite different culture. As a boy he had
felt ‘hero worship’, indeed for the whole class this teacher was ‘our hero’; ‘other boys …
had heard … that a visit to his bedroom was the ultimate accolade for “special friends”’;
‘I was trembling with excitement and desire at the thought he was going to have sex with
me’ (Don Boyd, The Observer, 19 August 2001). Such enthusiastic collusion in what
both parties at the time might wishfully regard as an offence‐without‐a‐victim is often
impossible for the authorities to detect, or at least to prove.
Both the boarding schools of Britain and the educational system, indeed the whole
social system of Sparta were intensely hierarchical. (Thucydides observed of the Spartan
army, in his own day, that it consisted almost entirely of ‘officers over officers’: 5.66.4.)
Enthusiastic collusion in sex between those of different rank tends to subvert hierarchy.
In an educational context it produces favouritism, bitterly resented by the young as some
of their number are perceived as unfairly receiving high rewards – or light punishment.
In a military context – and both Sparta and the Public School system were preoccupied
by the need to make the young soldierly – sexual collusion may produce chaos: for
example, if (in modern terms) a private is known to be having an affair with a general,
how is a sergeant or a lieutenant to give orders or punishment to the private in the
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normal way? Sparta’s reaction to the problem was to institutionalize such relations across
the power lines: by recognizing as a couple two lovers of different statuses, it might be
far easier for hierarchy – and society generally – to make allowances in the treatment of
the individuals concerned. Thus, for example, adult lovers could – without scandal –
deliberately be placed either together in a battle line or be widely separated. The contrast
between the Public Schools and Sparta, in the management of what was a very similar
problem, may even recall the difference between some modern universities in the
handling of (similarly widespread, and usually heterosexual) affairs between teacher and
student. Some universities repress, insisting on the exclusion of the teacher. Others, in
contrast, impose no automatic punishment but require that the teacher report the relation institutionally, so that he or she can be removed from all formal evaluation of the
student – as a means of preserving the credit of the hierarchy and of its judgements in
the face of a phenomenon deemed to be inevitable.
29.4 Women as a Moral Force
A reason why this chapter has had nothing so far to say about girls’ education in the two
cultures is that, in both and for similar reasons, there was far less formal provision for the
collective upbringing of females. The Spartan system had as one prime aim to produce
disciplined military courage which was by definition among Greek‐speakers a ‘man’s
thing’ (andreia, andreion). It is highly likely that one main purpose of Sparta’s bringing
its boys together into a state‐controlled system was to reduce the influence of women.
Small boys at Sparta were removed from their mothers and sisters rather for the same
reasons as young husbands were discouraged from spending much time with their wives.
If soldiers, or future soldiers, were to have the correct self‐subordinating attitude to
death and due loyalty to their fellow‐fighters, they had better not have one eye on a
comforting home where women might shelter them morally and physically. Women
might overlook any failures on some battlefield far away from the female view. Therefore,
if women could be controlled by men (and Sparta had noteworthy problems in this
sphere), they were to be trained as viragos, inciting their sons and husbands to fight
bravely and die if necessary (Figueira (2010) 276). That, famously, was the Spartan ideal
for female utterance: ‘Come back with this shield or on it’ (that is, come back having
stood your ground in battle or having died bravely). That this was a vigorously‐­promoted
ideal of female mentality suggests that Sparta feared the opposite; this was a society,
according to Aristotle (intensely critical of Sparta), where men in reality were dominated
by women (gynaikokratoumenoi: Pol. 1269b). Xenophon, in one of his many unintentionally revealing moments, explains why Sparta had chosen the colour red for its ­soldiers’
cloaks. He does not say that it was the most virile colour, but that ‘it was least feminine’
(Lak. Pol.11.3). How did the British Public Schools compare?
Only late in the twentieth century did Public Schools in general begin to admit girls.
Traditionally the schools had been of their essence masculine. Arnold, in removing even
the ‘dames’ who had managed the boys’ lodgings, was acting like other school authorities of his day (Honey (1977) 11; Copley (2002) 162; Hickson (1995) 130 for women
excluded and portrayed as ‘hags’ at twentieth‐century Downside). In their best‐known
form, from Arnold’s day to the mid‐twentieth century, the schools’ primary aim was to
Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain: Comparisons
produce trained men for the masculine professions: to control navy, army, the church,
the law, the colonies, industry and business – and, of course, national government. In
later life, these men would be ‘in country curacies [as Anglican priests], London chambers [as barristers], under the Indian sun, and in Australian towns and clearings’ (Thomas
Hughes (1857), quoted at Copley (2002) 161–2). The fact that women had no vote
until after World War I reflected a deep belief (and not only among men) that women in
general – Miss Nightingale might be allowed to be an exception – had no aptitude for
such spheres. Famously, boys at Prep School (let alone Public School) were liable to be
persecuted for showing emotions – such as crying or clinging to symbols of home – which
suggested attachment to the world of mother. Arnold, surprisingly, preached against the
Rugby boys’ tendency to ‘feel ashamed … of being attached to their mothers and sisters
and fond of their society’ (Honey (1977) 22). An anti‐female culture was evidently well
established by 1840.
In enforcing the ethos of male society, however, women played an important part.
‘Big boys don’t cry’ remained a widespread slogan in British society until the late twentieth century; in many cases – perhaps in most cases – it was uttered by women. As
reportedly at Sparta, women played an essential moral role in directing men towards
physical bravery. The widely‐remembered action of upper‐class English women during
World War 1 in humiliating men by presenting them with white feathers, symbol of cowardice, unless they enlisted, may in reality have been exaggerated in its extent. Siegfried
Sassoon, poet and decorated infantry officer of the First World War, described (in his
Glory of Women) women’s role in the war with the skilfully‐ambiguous line, ‘You make
us shells’. Shells for the women of Britain and Germany; shields for those of Sparta.
Widespread, into the late twentieth century, was the insistence of English women that
boys forgo comfort and live rigorously, to avoid becoming ‘milksops’ and ‘molly‐coddled’,
two suggestively‐feminine terms. The boys in question probably had no idea what a
‘molly’ was. They might think of the Latin mollis, ‘soft’, as well as of the female forename, but ‘molly‐house’ in eighteenth‐century English had meant what we would call a
gay brothel. The concept of molly‐coddling remained a formidable moral instrument at
the disposal of women: here was an accusation of effeminacy that no boy wanted.
An extreme case – but revealing because the woman concerned was in her day hailed
as highly successful – was Beatie Sumner, product of late Victorian aristocracy and wife
of a revered sportsman (the cricketer C.B. Fry). She founded a naval training school for
boys, ‘The Mercury’ in Hampshire. In the words of a liberal critic in the mid 1980s:
Beatie established a regime like a sadist’s daydream. As a young woman, she had gamely led
the boys barefoot up the rigging. Now she gave orders … [The boys] went barefoot in all
weathers … Their heads were shaved. Their letters were read. They were ceremonially
flogged, bent over the breech of a gun, before their assembled comrades. … The food was
foul and insufficient. Pointless drilling exhausted them beyond the point of collapse; one
boy died under the instructor’s boot. Meanwhile the school, and Beatie, became famous
and respectable. (V. Glendinning, Sunday Times 11.8.1985, reviewing R. Morris,
The Captain’s Lady)
We cannot say whether the resemblance here to ancient images of Sparta was deliberate
or simply a case of parallel ideals arising from parallel militarized structures. But the bare
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feet for boys, the ceremonial flogging, the food and the possibility of death recall details
from Xenophon and Plutarch.
If on occasion Spartan men seemed to have lost their courage, they were described
as having gone ‘soft’ (malakoi, Thuc. 5.72.1, 75.3): the normal state of Spartans was
supposedly the opposite. Correspondingly, Sedbergh Public School, which for a time
figured itself explicitly as Sparta, also styled itself, in its motto, ‘hard nurse of (real)
men’, dura virum nutrix. This seemingly is a modern translation into Latin of a
Homeric phrase (Od. 9.27) which had referred not to Sparta but to Ithaca. The Latin
expression in any case hints once more at the essential role of women in producing
tough men; in Antiquity, Spartan women might supposedly boast of being the only
females in Greece to produce real men (Plut. Lyk. 14; Figueira (2010) 282). On the
principle that an ideal expressed is a fear revealed, here one may detect – in Sparta as
in the Public Schools – a fear of softness, of the soft nurse, and an implicit promise to
repress such weakness.
29.5 ‘Softness’ and Deviants
Within the Public Schools, and to some extent in the adult institutions which they fed,
signs of ‘softness’ of character in men might be vigorously persecuted. A writer in the
Spectator magazine of 15 June 1889 conceded that ‘softs’ in the Public Schools remained
a problem, but they were fewer than before and ‘a great deal more unhappy’. The
achievement of making a deviant miserable is recorded with satisfaction in a memoir of
life at Cambridge University between the World Wars:
Freaks and conceited fools were not suffered gladly, and odd ‘behaviourism’ was promptly
dealt with … one unpleasant young man returned after a vacation with a most conspicuous
moustache. Rightly or wrongly, he was sat on … while half of it was shaved off. The rest was
left to his sense of symmetry. (Salisbury Woods (1962) 28)
Here it is hard to avoid thoughts of conscious imitation of Sparta, where (according to
Plutarch (Ages. 30)) officially‐recognized cowards, the tresantes (‘those who had trembled’, in battle), were obliged to signal their absurdity by wearing only half a beard.
Such cowards were also, according to Xenophon (Lak. Pol. 9.5), forbidden to appear
happy in public.
Sparta was famous for its use of the morally edifying spectacle. Some spectacles might
be positive: Xenophon salutes the Spartan king Agesilaos for making his men give the
visual impression by their zealous military training that a city in which they found themselves (Ephesos) was ‘a workshop of war’ (Ages. 1.26–7; Hell. 3.4.16–18). Other Spartan
spectacles were meant to impress negatively: helots forced to dance drunkenly, and
tresantes obliged to appear in public as physically absurd and abject. A rather similar,
though superficially more light‐hearted, message was conveyed in a series of English
novels for boys, about Public School life, which was extremely popular in the early twentieth century and is now excluded on principle from many children’s libraries: the Billy
Bunter books by Frank Richards (in reality a thoughtful and politically sensitive man,
Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain: Comparisons
whose real name was Charles Hamilton; George Orwell sparred with him in print).
Bunter, a teenaged pupil at boarding school, Greyfriars, is anti‐hero, the sum of absurd
deviance. He is a coward and cannot stand pain: ‘Ow! Gerroff! You beast. Gerroff! Ow!’
(Richards (1967), 44): no fox under his cloak. He is, rather like Sparta’s officially‐identified
cowards, dressed deviantly: his bow tie and check trousers contrast with the uniform of
all his classmates. (In reality, such breach of school uniform would have been impossible.) He is an incompetent liar, boasting about his parents’ modest suburban villa as
‘Bunter Court’, where honey is produced from extensive ‘hunneries’. He alone wears
glasses, to contrast with the athletic regularity of his classmates. And above all he is to be
viewed as uniquely unathletic because grossly fat. This last quality is entirely his fault
(observe the cake in the illustration at Figure 29.1). His classmates tease him accordingly: ‘I told you that fourteenth helping was a mistake!’ Here, as at Sparta, is a moral
lesson in the flesh, well adapted to children’s talent for bullying those perceived as anomalous. And to reconstruct the positive morals which are implied, the reader was simply to
observe Bunter’s qualities and to invert.
Athleticism and physical courage are here not the only ideals shared with Sparta:
Spartans – apart from the tresantes – were noted also for uniformity of dress, both in daily
life and on the battlefield. In addition we hear of a Spartan, Naukleidas, being fined for
fatness (Athen. 550 d–e; Aelian VH 14.7). But the resemblance between the ideals of the
Public Schools and of Sparta goes beyond such particulars. An overall homogeneity was
valued. First, further evidence from the fiction about Bunter, this time involving the portrayal of non‐deviants, of ordinary, positively‐viewed chaps. Their dialogue is almost
‘Oh, bother Greyfriars!’, said Monson. ‘I’m fed‐up with Greyfriars an’ Greyfriars cads!’
‘Fed up to the chin!’ agreed Gadsby.
‘Absolutely!’ yawned Vavasour.
(Richards (1967) 52)
‘My hat!’ said the captain of the Remove.
‘My nose!’ mumbled Johnny Bull.
‘Ow! My eye!’ moaned Frank Nugent …
‘What about class?’ asked Mark Linley.
A chorus of groans answered him.
(Richards (1967) 58)
‘A chorus’. We recall that a poet around 500 bc described the Spartans as like cicadas,
‘eager for a chorus’ (Pratinas, at Athenaeus 633a). Contrast characters in recent
Anglophone fiction for the young, such as the more dissonant Beavis and Butthead of
Mike Judge:
butthead: Chicks with bikinis – and explosions. That’s like, huh huh, COOL.
Yeah, cool.
butthead: Shuddup, Beavis!
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Harmonious collectives of young heroes and heroines were common in early
t­ wentieth‐century British literature, such as Swallows and Amazons of Arthur Ransome
(1930), or (by two female writers) the Just William series by Richmal Crompton (published from 1922 to 1970, about the suburban William Brown and his gang, the
‘Outlaws’), and the two child‐detective series The Famous Five (published 1942–63)
and The Secret Seven (1949–83) by Enid Blyton. Contrast the Harry Potter series of
Joanne Rowling (from 1997 onwards), about a bespectacled hero who began his literary
life confined at home. Arguably the fantasist Harry Potter is the representative of a generation of children house‐bound with their electronic toys, alone for a reason (involving
perceived sexual risk) analogous to the reason for which earlier children in Public
Schools had been confined in groups and closely policed. But whereas Harry Potter
reflects a generation growing up to be solitary specialists at their terminals, the collectivism of earlier British literature about the young reflected children bred for the
chummy conservatism of a group who – in harmony against others – would run
an empire.
29.6 Song and the Invention of Tradition
Different Public Schools had cultures which differed slightly from each other; the differences
might indeed be emphasized as a matter of honour. There was ‘the Eton unembarrassment of which we are proud’ (Honey (1977) 218–19), including the unashamed poise
with which Etonians would offer themselves as leaders. The more academic Winchester
produced ‘almost compulsive conformists, brilliant but safe men’ (Honey (1977) 224).
Harrow fiercely defended its own variety of conformism (Mangan (1981) 215). Schools
emphasized their antiquity and their difference by inventing local tradition and pseudo‐
archaic language (Sparta, too, did both, and for similar reasons: this work, Chapter 1);
Harrow on occasion tried to be different – in respect of invented difference. When in
1987 the then headmaster of Harrow, Ian Beer, was perceived as inventing traditions,
Old Harrovians went to the press, complaining that: ‘Harrow once prided itself on not
stooping to meaningless Latinisms and pretentious language. Beer must be stopped.’
(Evening Standard, London, 22.9.1987). For more thoughtful comment on the invention of tradition at the Harrow of the mid‐nineteenth century, see Tyerman (2000) 301.
Invented tradition, as at Sparta, was importantly conveyed in song. Metre (and, in the
British case rhyme) tended to exclude deviation. Sparta used indoctrination by songs,
and especially those of Tyrtaios, to incite military courage and esprit de corps (Calame,
this work, Chapter 7, and Powell (1994) 302): Plato wrote that Spartans were ‘replete’
with these songs (Laws 629b). The theme is instructively echoed by a former pupil of
Victorian Harrow:
Harrow Songs … made for something greater than entertainment. They are instinct with
public school spirit, a clarion call to strenuous endeavour, an injunction to work and play
with faith and courage, to fight against odds, to follow up wherever the Light may lead,
and to sacrifice self, if need be, to the common end. No finer sermons have ever been
preached, and none that lingers longer in the memory. (Vachell (1923) 30, quoted at
Tyerman (2000) 344)
Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain: Comparisons
Another Old Harrovian, the Conservative politician Leo Amery, wrote that his school’s
songs were ‘an all‐round education in themselves, the embodiment of a manly conception of personal life, of public duty and public policy’ (Honey (1977) 139). Amery’s
contemporary at Harrow in the years around 1890, Winston Churchill, likewise ingested
the message of the songs (Honey (1977) 139; Tyerman (2000) 344–5).
The invented past, conveyed by such songs, ‘deliberately excluded suggestion that the
school after 1874 was, in any essential way, new’ (Tyerman (2000) 301; 308–9, 344 on
Harrow songs; 329 on ‘Harrow’s cloying pseudo‐history’). The headmaster who promoted such songs in the 1870s, H.M. Butler, ‘concealed change, brutal choices’
(Tyerman (2000) 301). A historian of the school in 1936 claimed that ‘continuity has
never been broken’ (P. Bryant, cited at Tyerman (2000) 490). This vividly recalls post‐
revolutionary Sparta of the classical period, with its apparent claim that its constitution
was, by c.400 bc, ‘slightly more than 400 years old, approximately’ (Thuc.1.18.1), and
also Plato’s insistence in his Sparta‐inspired Laws (798a–b), that the community should
be deceived into thinking that no previous constitution had even existed. Plato in that
work faced the difficulty of designing a new community – largely but not entirely on
Spartan lines – which was meant swiftly to become oblivious of its own newness.
Remarkably, he proposed that the new community’s principles, as set out in his very long
book, should be inculcated in full by song (Laws 664b). Modern scholarship concerning
Sparta has learned to be wary of the Spartans’ claims to have conserved their constitution
through the classical period largely unchanged since Lykourgos. That wariness is echoed,
in a different sphere, by a recent historian of Harrow School: ‘In an institution limed
with the past, present habit acquired the standing of immutable practice, until the next
change’ (Tyerman (2000) 441). Change often took the form of preserving old behaviour
while radically changing the justification for it, and perhaps adjusting its form.4
29.7 Public School ‘Types’ and Spartan ‘Similars’:
The Importance of Social Isolation
Again, a professed ideal can usefully be decoded. If (subtle) differences between schools
are idealized, the feared default is – uniformity. Indeed, uniformity in most matters was
itself an ideal, which the Public Schools attained to a degree which recalls the Spartan
homoioi. The English classicist R.L. Nettleship, comparing the Public School system with
Plato’s Republic, wrote in the late nineteenth century:
The successes of our Public School system have lain, much more than in any particular stimulus
that they have given to literary or scientific activity, in the production of certain types of
character and the preparation for the art of life. (Nettleship (1935) 47–8)
Another Oxford classicist, T.L. Papillon, wrote, ‘Many a lad who leaves an English public
school disgracefully ignorant … yet brings away … a manly straightforward character, a
scorn of lying and meanness, habits of obedience and command, and fearless courage.’
(Darwin (1929) 21–2). Ideals shared with Sparta are numerous and clear. Public School
boys after Arnold’s day were commonly taught that ‘all but the most material forms of
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intelligence were slightly effeminate’ and that they should ‘rely on action rather than
ideas’ (Mangan (1981) 106), notions which would have been readily understood by the
Spartan leaders Archidamos (commending Spartan ignorance: Thuc. 1.84.3) and
Brasidas (Thuc. 5.9.10). An implied link between abstract thought and softness is
apparent when Perikles, shown defending his Athens against Sparta and its ideology, felt
obliged to claim that Athenians ‘enjoy theorizing without being soft’ (Thuc. 2.40.1).
The Clarendon Commission’s phrase ‘capacity to govern others and control themselves’,
and Papillon’s words ‘habits of obedience and command’ echo a commonplace of
Antiquity concerning Spartan excellence in knowing how to ‘rule and be ruled’, archein
kai archesthai (Powell (1994) 274).
In Antiquity, Sparta’s geographic situation, isolated from neighbours by mountains and
far from the sea, was seen as a main reason for her success in maintaining a distinctive
character. Plato was clear that such isolation was desirable for the production of distinctive
ideals (Laws 706a). The Public Schools would follow a similar principle. Harrow and
Westminster might be seen as losing cachet as expanding London encroached upon them.
The new, or refounded, schools of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were typically far from great cities: examples (from among many) are Hurstpierpoint, Lancing,
Marlborough, Oundle, Sedbergh, Uppingham, and their Roman Catholic counterparts
at Ampleforth, Downside and Stonyhurst. When Charterhouse school moved, from all‐
too‐accessible London to the country town of Godalming in 1872, a huge rise in pupil
numbers resulted (Honey (1977) 143).The country towns in question were just large
enough to supply servants and supplies, but were small enough to be politically dominated by the school: the owners of pubs (let alone of worse places of debauchery) could
be pressed to exclude or report boys who sought illicit pleasure. School playing‐fields
added a further layer of insulation: anyone crossing them in either direction was likely to
be seen. Eton (near Windsor) had the good fortune to be many miles from London. Yet
it too had to resist the threat of unwanted contacts: as the new Great Western Railway
threatened to approach Eton in 1835, the Duke of Cumberland objected in Parliament
to the likely disturbance of discipline among the Eton boys (Hansard. 27 August 1835).
Isolation brings costs, and much inconvenience. Why was isolation deemed necessary?
The cases of Sparta and the Public Schools illuminate each other. The historian is trained
to look for the overall workings of institutions, their role in a wider political system. But
the parents of Sparta or Britain who consented to send their children away, and in the
British case at least to ‘pay high’ for it, were probably not always, or usually, motivated
mainly by thoughts of what was best for their society. More useful, as explanation, is the
sweeping biological approach of Aristotle in the Politics (1252a), according to which
every living creature wishes to be leave behind offspring resembling itself. Parents in our
two systems are likely to have been motivated above all, in creating and maintaining their
various systems of education, by concern over social mobility. Admittedly, some British
parents wished their children not to be entirely like themselves. They sent their children
away so that they would meet their social superiors. The ‘forming of great acquaintances’
(‘contacts’, in modern idiom) was a parental motive officially recognized (Mangan
(1981) 132–4); the poet Cowper in the eighteenth century ironically noted that, for
some, it was more alluring to be acquainted with an earl or a duke than with Latin
grammar. But in both our societies access to the boys of grandest lineage was limited.
Spartan heirs‐apparent to the kingship were seemingly excluded from the communal
Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain: Comparisons
education of boys. In Britain, only a small minority of Public Schools would predictably
contain many sons of peers. The form of social mobility that most exercised parents, in
Sparta as in Britain, is likely to have been of the downward variety. As Edward Thring
wrote (c.1873), albeit with a vested interest as headmaster of Uppingham, ‘I think …
that it is the fixed idea of every Englishman … that it is the thing to send a boy to a
public school, and the ordinary English gentleman would think he lost caste by not
doing so’ (Honey (1977) 145–6). The idea was neatly implied in a common insult: a
‘home‐made gent’ was no gent at all. Gentlemen (apart from young aristocrats) could
not be made at home; they had to go away to school.
As late as the mid‐twentieth century in Britain and Ireland, with social and political
distances reduced by universal education, it was common to hear prosperous parents
explain why they had decided to send a child to boarding school at a particular time: ‘He
[sometimes ‘she’] was starting to sound like the local children.’ A regional accent might,
in adult life, make their offspring déclassé; parents concerned with keeping caste, including
for the child’s sake, might exert themselves to prevent such. Here are two examples from
the present writer’s personal knowledge. Both date from c.1960; each episode culminated in physical punishment:
Educated parent: Say ‘like that’!
Small Leicester boy (innocently): ‘lahk thah’
Educated parent: Say ‘my coat’ !
Small Dublin girl (defiantly): ‘mih coaht!’
The comic aspect, in retrospect, of such discipline may mislead: it was, and no doubt
continues to be, of great importance in many societies – and all the greater where social
distances are more alarming. Where differences of speech carry a political threat, imposition of discipline is likely to be severe, as in North‐Eastern Greece of modern times,
with its insecure borders. Greeks of today tell that their former Prime Minister
Konstantinos Karamanlis (1907–98) was beaten at home as a child for calling bread by a
name he had learned from Bulgarian‐speaking children of his village. In the Victorian
Public Schools, where the nation’s poor might still be conceived as ‘the Great Unwashed’
or ‘the heathen within’, intense concern could be expressed about the degree of assimilation which might take place even in the school holidays:
The effect of their holiday homes … would be … to lower the standard which the school had
been trying to raise … by the mean habits and vulgar tricks which it would renew in them,
the cockney or provincial slang which it would reinfuse into their speech, out of all of which
they were being refined. … there is little of that honourable love of truth, which distinguishes
English public‐school boys, to be found in the homes of the lower middling class. (Henry
Hayman, a future headmaster, writing in1858: quoted at Honey (1977) 148–9)
And in ancient Sparta? Spartan children of the landowning class probably resembled
their British or Irish counterparts in one demographic respect. The children in each
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society are likely to have been very heavily outnumbered, around their own homes, by
children of far lower status. The very young are impressively adaptable: if privileged
Spartan children were left to roam free for long periods, their chosen playmates would
often be the children of helots – and assimilation would result. (Even in the market place
of Sparta we hear that citizen adults might be outnumbered some 100:1 by those of
lesser status: Xen. Hell. 3.3.5.) We do not know whether the Dorian dialect which helots
spoke differed much from the Greek of the Spartans; so thoroughly have helots – the
majority population of Laconia and Messenia – been effaced from history that we do not
possess the name of, let alone have any words from, a single helot individual. But attitudes, dress and comportment were no doubt very different. We hear that impressive
strength and stature could get a helot man killed; such things were therefore probably
dissimulated as far as possible by humble posture and clothing. Spartans in contrast were
masters of the impressive pose. Helots freed from Spartan control by the Theban invasion of 370/69 were reportedly urged by the invaders to sing them verses from Sparta’s
favourite poets: the helots refused, because ‘the masters [Spartans] wouldn’t like it’
(Plut., Life of Lykourgos 28). The story suggests that the helots knew the poems, and
that the Spartans might have wished that they didn’t. Culture had simply leaked from
one group to the other, through proximity. We should ask a corresponding question:
How would the Spartans have liked it if their own children had started to resemble little
helots (or indeed if young helots had acquired a few Spartiate ways)? The reaction is
likely to have been utter horror.
In addition to individual parents’ anxiety about the declassment of their own
offspring, there would be a wider fear, that the distinctive qualities in which the
Spartans as a group took such pride might be diluted and vanish in the sea of
helots. Related, but more pressing still, would be a fear of divided loyalties. Spartans
were formally and permanently at war with the helots: the declaration of war was
made annually, so that it would be religiously permissible to kill the latter (Aristotle,
cited at Plut., Life of Lykourgos 28). Helots who had impressed in the limited military tasks assigned to them, were particularly likely to be massacred as a precaution, as being potentially the most effective rebels (Thucydides 4.80). Adult
Spartans could not be allowed to hesitate over such killing, distracted by thoughts
that here were men who excelled according to military values and who in childhood
had been their friends.
The British case may help us to see why the Spartans, with their exceptionally high
ratio of unfree to free in Laconia and Messenia, should have taken the exceptional measure (by Greek standards) of bringing the children of (almost) all citizens together for
collective education supervised by the state. Once assembled in their age‐classes, Spartan
children could be taught more effectively that helots were different, inferior, contemptible. The helots deliberately made to perform drunken dance in front of young Spartans
(Plut., Life of Lykourgos 28) were meant to act as a general lesson of how crude and
incompetent helots were: the regimented displays of sober dancing by Spartans themselves at their festivals no doubt served as counterpoint in the matter of elegance.5 (See
Figure 29.2.) British memoirs of Public School life sometimes emphasize how boys were
inducted into contempt for the general population (known widely, at least from the
1930s, as ‘oiks’, a term of unknown origin). A former pupil of twentieth‐century Loretto
(at Musselburgh, outside Edinburgh) has written:
Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain: Comparisons
Figure 29.2 Public School poise and the downfall of a – physically powerful – oik (From Billy
Bunter and the School Rebellion (1967), first published in 1928 in the boys’ magazine The Magnet.)
We called Musselburgh’s other schoolchildren ‘keelies’ and were taught to ignore them.
Any contact was forbidden, and would have been a beatable offence. A cane would be
administered by prefects … Spartam nactus es, hanc exorna is the school’s motto … Like the
Spartans, we were supposed to be superior. We were the ruling elite. (D. Boyd, The Observer,
19 August 2001)
The horror of contamination by contact with children of ordinary background explains
one of the least sympathetic of the reforms carried out, somewhat covertly, by Arnold
and other Victorian school authorities: the sabotaging and ultimately suppression of the
‘Lower Schools’ associated with the senior Public Schools. These ancient foundations
had been created to equip younger children from the local area, and of non‐wealthy
family, with the necessary knowledge – especially of Latin – to enter the senior school.
Arnold’s devious opposition to the principle embarrasses even an admiring modern
biographer (Copley (2002) 170–4). But the decline of the Lower Schools, or rather their
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amputation from the senior institutions, was widespread in England (Bamford (1960)
ch. 12; Honey (1977) 124; Copley (2002) 172; Tyerman (2000) ch. 12); this process,
and the establishment of Sparta’s socially‐exclusive education, illustrate each other.
Classical terms were used in the formation of British elite school dialect: ‘Cave!’, ‘Look
out!’, from Latin cave; ‘tunding’ (‘beating’), from Latin tundo; ‘yack’ (‘throw’), apparently from Latin iacio; ‘Senior Inferior’ at Malvern School (Observer (London),
26.4.1992) which recalls the Spartan term hypomeiōn (‘Inferior’, a citizen with restricted
rights). It seems just possible that the term ‘oik’ was coined from, or reinforced by, the
Greek word perioikoi (‘dwellers around’), the name given at Sparta to free but politically
inferior neighbours.
29.8 Sparta and the British Public Schools:
Achievements Shared – and Differences
What should they know of England, who only England know?
(Rudyard Kipling, ‘The English Flag’, 1891)
Till recently it was thought proper to pretend that all human beings are very much
alike, but in fact anyone able to use his eyes knows that the average of human behaviour
differs enormously from country to country …
(Orwell, ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English
Genius’ (1968 [1941] 56)
Public school and state school do not mix easily.
(T.E. Lawrence (1978 [1936] ch. 21)
Historians in modern times are often reluctant to explain actions by reference to the
morale, high or low, of the actors. Morale, it may seem, is not verifiable on any physical
measure, and so should be excluded from scientific analysis of history. However, the
cases of Sparta and of the British boarding schools make the concept hard to avoid. The
founder of modern study of Sparta, the late Geoffrey de Ste. Croix, when questioned in
private conversation by the present writer about morale among former pupils of British
Public Schools, emphatically identified two such schools: of Winchester he said
‘Wykehamists got a tremendous sense of morale from the school and regarded themselves as tremendously privileged for having been to the school’; of Etonians, ‘They
really did feel something tremendous.’ Such morale might be crucial in determining
whether a man put himself into a physically or socially dangerous situation. Sparta’s military actions, not only in the mythicized case of Thermopylai but in better‐attested episodes over the following hundred years, reflect an extraordinary self‐confidence. First
Brasidas (in 424) then Gylippos (in 414–3) were sent into Athenian‐dominated spheres
with virtually no other Spartans in their (small) forces. Yet they were expected to make
an enormous difference by their courage and military acumen – which they did, in the
Thraceward region and in Sicily respectively. Sparta was no doubt buoyed by their
example when, in 396, it allowed its king Agesilaos officially to invade the Persian empire.
Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain: Comparisons
That empire embraced most of the Middle East; Agesilaos’ general staff consisted of only
thirty Spartan officers (Cartledge (1987) 212–13). Until it unexpectedly lost its empire
in 371, Sparta took no drastically effective measures to arrest the numerical decline of its
own citizen population. On the eve of Leuktra, in that year, Sparta’s citizens seem to
have included no more than some 1200 fighting men. Whether or not we see, with hindsight, Spartan demographic policy as deluded in an imperial power (Roche (2013b)),
that policy is of a piece with the military confidence just noted.
In Sparta’s case we can glimpse the deliberate manufacture of a sense of deep
superiority, that is, of high morale. We have copious evidence that such morale existed,
and influenced policy. For the British Public Schools the evidence of morale deliberately
engendered, and enacted in politics and soldiering, is far more copious still. For decades
in the mid‐nineteenth century Britain’s prime ministers came almost uninterruptedly
from Harrow. Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill continued the tradition (with
interruptions, most notably by Neville Chamberlain, educated at Rugby, and Clement
Attlee, schooled at Haileybury) between 1923 and 1955. From the eighteenth century
to the time of writing, nineteen prime ministers have been educated at Eton. On
becoming leader of the Conservative party (in 2005), David Cameron included thirteen
fellow Old Etonians in his front‐bench team. Stanley Baldwin, speaking to a group of his
fellow Harrovians in 1923, said:
When the call came for me to form a government, one of my first thoughts was that it
should be a government of which Harrow should not be ashamed. I remembered how in
previous governments there had been four, or perhaps five, Harrovians, and I determined
to have six. (quoted at Honey (1977) 155)
Playful boasting apart, Baldwin’s words – and, more importantly, the fact of his choice
of ministers – reflect affinity and its familiar offshoot: trust. Here were men, from his old
school with its homogenizing culture, whom he felt he could understand and predict.
Part of the reason for the high morale of Public School men was their belief, as encouraged by Baldwin, that they could rely on each other for protection – and promotion.
Another part of the reason is, that – as at Sparta – so many others of their group had
succeeded before them.
When Spartans went into battle, they did so with an immediate advantage. A hoplite
phalanx, once broken, became – in Aristotle’s word – ‘useless’. Spartans, even before
battle, could be confident that their own phalanx would not break except under the most
unusual circumstances: their own men would not turn and run. A phalanx opposing
them would believe this too – of the Spartans. But concerning their own side, Sparta’s
enemies in many cases could have no such confidence. On occasion we read of a phalanx
opposed to that of Sparta breaking and running even before the point of engagement
(Thuc. 5.72.4). For most Greek armies, perhaps for most armies of history, one of the
most effective inducements to run is the fear that one’s own neighbours and allies may
do so. The bravest soldier, if isolated among enemies, will expect to be killed; the bravest
force, once surrounded, is usually defeated. The character imposed by the imperial
Public Schools, the pluck demanded on pain of permanent humiliation, probably meant
that officers from that background could – like Spartans – count on each other to a
degree unusual in military history. The death‐rate among young Public School‐educated
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officers on the Western Front during World War I (e.g. Maclean (1923)) is, like that of
Spartan commanders in the classical period, public testimony to the courage and (indirectly) to the confidence engendered by their respective systems of upbringing. Aristotle,
passionately opposed to the use of Sparta as a positive model, implied that Spartan education aimed at one virtue to the exclusion of (almost) all others: physical courage
(Politics 1338b). Orwell, similarly intense in his criticism, claimed – as we have seen
­earlier – that willingness to die for one’s country was the ‘first and greatest’ of virtues
advocated by Public Schools. But in both cases the critic may have tended to mistake one
characteristic, genuine, unusual and spectacular, for overall character. It was not the
supreme aim of Sparta or of the Public Schools to die for the group, but to live in such
a way that the group, and as many as its members as possible, should survive and rule.
The contempt among Public Schoolboys for meanness and for lying (at least to each
other), to which the classicist Papillon testified, might also prove a potent imperial instrument in civilian contexts.6 The Indian Civil Service (‘ICS’), the famous ‘steel frame’ of
British civilian rule in India, was – until the 1930s when important numbers of Indians
were admitted to its ranks – a largely British Public School elite. In the late nineteenth
century, men from individual schools were numerous enough to hold annual ‘Old
School’ dinners in India (Honey (1977) 155), Eton at Simla in the north, Marlborough
at Calcutta in the east. The distances the scattered guests might need to travel may give
some idea of the moral and political importance of these occasions. Under the Raj slightly
more than 1000 British men dared to administer more than 300 million Indians. The
qualities of the ICS were, of course, controversial. The Indian nationalist leader Nehru
quoted the criticism that the organization was ‘neither Indian nor civil nor a service’;
Orwell, who served as an imperial policeman in Burma, wrote of ‘gin‐pickled old scoundrels high up in the government service’ ((1937) II.9). But that the ICS (largely retained
in its structure, though not in its British personnel, by the Indian government after
independence in 1947) cohered at all, its few men isolated from each other by vast
distances in a populous sub‐continent, was probably in part due not only to a towering
sense of superiority but to affinity, trust and mutual aid among men trained to share a
character, to know and to care intensely about how their fellow Public Schoolboys in the
Service would react to corruption or to other weakness. The phrase ‘letting the side
down’ had, in imperial times, far more potency than in the more individualist civilizations of the West in recent decades.
There are, at first sight, differences between the Public Schools and Sparta profound
enough to help explain why the comparison between the two cultures has not been made
commonly in scholarship. There was, for example, no question of Eton College chaps
formally declaring war each year on the oiks of nearby Slough, even though in the
nineteenth century the boys of Harrow, athletic and deeply cohesive, terrorized the local
population in ways which may recall Sparta’s krypteia (Tyerman (2000) 196, 201, 212,
223), while the boys of Rugby and Marlborough schools resembled Sparta’s young
thieves in plundering local shopkeepers and farms. Sheer numbers precluded open war;
so did Christianity – and the fact that Eton College, like all the Public Schools and deeply
unlike the city‐state of Sparta, existed as part of a country increasingly subject to popular
elections. Book‐learning (and intellectual, anti‐athletic values: Mangan (1981) 189–96)
had a prominent place in the Public Schools without any known counterpart in classical
Sparta. Learning at these schools became in the twentieth century less classical, more scientific.
Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain: Comparisons
Men acknowledged as among those most responsible for the technological defeat of
Nazi Europe were educated (not least in self‐confidence) at Public School. Hugh
Dowding, who in the mid‐1930s procured radar for RAF Fighter Command and then in
1940 used it to administer the aerial defeat of Germany’s planned invasion of Britain (in
the process facing down his own prime minister, Churchill), was educated at Winchester.
Alan Turing, who in the 1930s led the invention of computer science before, during
World War II, breaking German naval codes and thus thwarting German blockade of
Britain, studied science and maths at Sherborne. Churchill himself left late‐nineteenth‐
century Harrow with a lively interest in the technological and innovatory aspects of war
(Edgerton (2011) index under ‘Churchill, W.’). But even the differences, between the
Public Schools and Sparta, may sometimes help to explain Spartan history. Sparta’s social
exclusiveness led to a fatally dwindling population, one which no amount of high morale
could prevent from losing its empire in 371. The Public Schools existed to ‘confer an
aristocracy upon boys who do not inherit it’, as the founder of Radley school stated in
1872 (Honey (1977) 229). Sparta, in contrast, was noted for depriving of aristocratic
status men who had inherited it (Hodkinson (2000) ch. 13). The short life of the Spartan
empire over Greece (or, more accurately, over much of mainland and eastern Greece),
between 404 and 371, may be illuminated by contrast with the British case.
Plato observed that an oligarchy, so long as it stayed united, was difficult to overthrow.
The idea is nicely illustrated – or may even have been inspired – by the case of Sparta at
the time of her greatest defeat. After Leuktra and the consequent loss of empire, there
was – as commonly in history after a grand military defeat – an attempt at revolution
from within the Spartiate class. It was, apparently, swiftly repressed by king Agesilaos.
Unity of values, inspired by the common education of the Similars, is likely to have been
influential here, as throughout the classical period.
What of solidarity within the ruling elite of Britain, and the possible global consequences thereof? What may that have to do with the somewhat Spartan nature of British
upper‐class education? How might Britain (and thus the English‐speaking and the
English‐understanding worlds) have developed without the Public Schools?
The questions are vast and barely tractable. But they are worth approaching, briefly,
for the indirect light they may throw on Sparta’s dependence on her own system of
schooling. For the British case, the most useful control may be the neighbouring, similarly imperial, culture of France. French families from the 1780s onwards were, it seems,
moving towards a more nuclear structure, with children increasingly valued and kept
close to home (Ariès (1962), cited at Honey (1977) 208). France, unlike Britain, created
no pervasive and enduring structure of elite schools to which children were sent away.
And yet in other respects, and over centuries, France and Britain developed remarkable
similarities and it is this overall similarity that allows the differences between the two cultures to be evaluated. French and British scientists, technologists and artists flourished in
rough parallel: Descartes with Newton; Lamarck with Darwin; Daguerre with Fox
Talbot in photography; Turner and Constable with the French impressionists. French
politicians in 1793, like British in 1649, scandalized a monarchic world by decapitating
their king and by turning to a degree of republicanism. In imperial politics, France and
Britain competed for North America: Le Québec with British Canada, La Louisiane (some
third of the landmass of the present USA, from New Orleans to the Canadian Rockies)
with the British colonies south and east of Quebec. France and Britain also fought it out
Anton Powell
for India; France secured Indo‐China as its eastern analogue of the British Raj. This list
of near‐parallels, and of mutual influence, political, military and intellectual, could be
greatly extended, over centuries and down to the present day, though intellectuals in
both countries may for patriotic reasons frequently prefer not to recognize how deep the
resemblance is. But if an English‐speaker reads the globally‐incomparable French newspaper Le Monde, she or he may be struck by two differences above all, as compared with
Britain, differences which may – indirectly but importantly – illuminate the comparison
between Sparta and the Public Schools.
First, there is the French mastery of political psychology, as evidenced by the breadth
and precision of terminology. While Anglophones regularly conceive of the ideas behind
such words as déclassement (downward social mobility), communautarisme (ethnic
groups keeping to themselves and privileging their own), amalgame (logical lumping
together, especially in politically hostile fashion: ‘Labour, Tories, just the same …’), it is
significant that no neat equivalent terms exist in English. The comparison is not entirely
one‐sided: there is, for example, in idealizing France no neat way of saying ‘wishful
thinking’. But in countless ways the student of politics finds that phenomena which in
the Anglophone world are sensed only vaguely have in France already been clearly conceived, and named. France (to re‐apply a phrase of Perikles) is a school, very likely the
school, of politics. How then, given France’s long parallel development with Britain and
its pre‐eminence in political analysis, to explain France’s limited success – in imposing its
political power, and language, in the wider world?
The answer may involve the other great difference which strikes Anglophones who
study France: the depth and openness of internal divisions within that country – at almost
every conceivable level of society. In 1793 revolutionary Paris sought, morally and physically, to abolish the country’s second city, Lyon as, in the previous century, Paris had
wrecked the thriving (Protestant) port of La Rochelle. Since the 1790s monarchy in
various forms has gone and returned repeatedly. The Republic is already on its fifth
constitution. The current one was born of Charles de Gaulle’s threat to unleash against
Paris rebellious paratroopers from Algeria, in 1958: that is, to risk civil war. The French
practice of mutiny was particularly noticeable among infantrymen of the First World
War. (Tragedy was re‐run as farce a century later, when the French football team mutinied against its management in the World Cup of 2010.) The chief political parties shift,
split and change names. They divide into mutually‐hostile courants each loyal to a leader.
(Anyone daring to ‘leap’ from one current to another risks being stigmatized as a
saumon.) Ministers and magistrates brief the press against each other; distinguished academics battle to promote their protégé(e)s, their entourages. Personal vengeance, viewed
sympathetically, structures not only a successful nineteenth‐century novel (Dumas’
Count of Monte Cristo) but is a regular source of entertainment in Le Monde of today: les
réglements de comptes (settling of scores) are spectacularly recorded in le grand banditisme (organized violent crime) of Marseille and Corsica but also in les grandes écoles (the
elite national campuses) of Paris. In 2014 eight Presidents of rival university campuses in
Paris were obliged by the Ministry of Education to sign a formal ‘non‐aggression pact’
with each other (Le Monde, 8 May 2014). The language of civil war is also used of tensions within the main parties of left and right, where leaders struggle to impose a ‘cease‐
fire’ between factions.7 Disunion, involving senior representatives of the French state, is
itself enshrined in telling vocabulary, entirely familiar to French readers: at the extreme
Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain: Comparisons
‘leurs relations sont exécrables’, ‘ils se vouent une haine inexpiable’ (‘they are committed
to an inextinguishable hatred’), or, more simply, ‘ils s’étripent’ (‘they are tearing each
other’s guts out’). It is plain why the ideal of rassemblement (‘coming together (again)’)
is invoked so often. In such circumstances, political energy and ambition are likely to be
directed inward, rather than towards achieving influence abroad. Far from being a mere
cultural curiosity, this ancient pattern of disunion may (for example) be part of the
reason why French is not now the language of the American Mid‐West.
What makes such information striking to British admirers of France is the contrast
with the qualities, the vices, of Britain’s own Public School‐dominated system. Here, it
seems, is a crucial difference between cultures in other respects widely parallel. At the
period when de Gaulle, and mutinous French generals in Algeria, were threatening to
invade their own capital city, Britain was complaining of suffocating consensus at the top.
The British press coined the term ‘Butskellism’, to describe the amount of agreement
between leading figures in the supposedly rival parties of government: R.A. Butler of the
Conservative Party and Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party. Both men, significantly, were ex‐Public Schoolboys (respectively, from Marlborough and Winchester):
arguably their unity of political culture trumped party divisions. Appropriately, this
informal unity produced by the imperial schools allowed the British elite to give away
most of its empire, between 1947 (India) and the early 1960s (Africa) – and to concentrate
on acquiring wealth abroad by other, gentler, means. That process caused within Britain
no obvious internal turbulence to compare with the revolutionary paroxysms provoked
in France by the decolonization of Algeria.
Every country has, no doubt, its internal hatreds within and between its ruling institutions. Many such rancours arise from diversity of personalities which themselves arise in
part from regionalism as well as from differences in education. The Public School system,
though at enormous (and continuing) social cost, minimized such problems in government.
By segregating the sons of the wealthy, very largely from a desire that they not resemble
the masses, the Public Schools from eastern Scotland to southern England produced a
ruling class whose members resembled each other. They could, because sharing a code of
collectivist ethics, knowledge and sense of humour, get on, a term which significantly
combines the meanings of co‐existing harmoniously and making progress.
The two great powers of classical Greece, Athens and Sparta, resembled each other in
their success at avoiding internal disharmony. In each, attempted revolutions within the
classical period were few, and none succeeded. Athens in the late sixth century had found
a way, under Kleisthenes, of unifying its citizen population by reducing the power of
regionalism, whereby political chiefs might deploy rigidly‐loyal, hereditary, networks
based in their villages or suburbs. Sparta’s system of schooling, quite possibly itself originating in the same period (although claiming to be far older), likewise produced a ruling
group which acted as a counterweight to hereditary chiefs – indeed, as we have seen,
heirs‐apparent to the Spartan kingship were seemingly excluded from the system of
schooling. It may be paradoxical to claim that the Public Schools, so conservative in their
apparent ethos, served in Britain, as did the schooling of Similars at Sparta, to reduce the
power of kingship and regional chiefs, and to enforce the rule of a much wider class with
a shared code. But throughout most of the classical period can be detected a slow, sometimes lethal, struggle between the republican institutions of the Similars and Sparta’s
royal chiefs. Even in this respect there were important differences between Sparta and
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Britain. Spartan kings, confronted with the potency of the Similars, retained far more
power, for centuries, than did British monarchs surrounded by better‐educated chaps
from the Public Schools: that, indeed, may help to explain the short life of Sparta’s
formal empire (404–371), given the limitations of king Agesilaos who dominated that
period (Cartledge (1987)). Again, the Public Schools were far more open to recruits
from modest lineage than was the Spartan schooling. England, in Orwell’s phrase, ‘was
ruled by an aristocracy constantly recruited from parvenus’ ((1968) 69). This contrast
may help to explain the greater humanity and versatility of Public School products: many
an overwhelmingly grand chap had – in Spartan terms – four helot grandparents. But
what Sparta, and its education system, shared with the Public Schools may help to explain
why Sparta, like Britain of the imperial period, successfully avoided internal revolution
and was relatively free to export its energies. Sparta’s painfully‐imposed harmony made
possible a wider and longer‐lasting hegemony within the Greek world than that achieved
by any other Greek state. And in consequence of her extraordinary schooling Sparta’s
reputation endured – as the English language may – far longer, as well as wider, than
political empire.
29.9 Conclusions
Resemblance between Sparta and the Public Schools of imperial Britain was complex in
its origins. There was some deliberate, advertised, imitation of Sparta by educational
authorities. The reforming Thomas Arnold was probably inspired, largely at second hand
and through Plato, by Sparta’s example in his ambition to mould his pupils into a
miniature and morally superior community of rulers. The illustrious precedent of Sparta
was widely invoked, to justify and dignify existing practices which otherwise might have
seemed perilously eccentric. In retrospect, references to the Public Schools as ‘Spartan’
have been commonplace for over a century. But in prospect the nineteenth‐century
reformers, and founders, of Public Schools mostly did not invoke Sparta. That difference,
between retrospect and prospect, may be crucial for understanding the resemblance between the two cultures. The Public Schools mainly did not imitate the Spartan system;
they repeated it. Only when the repetition had been achieved was it widely perceived.
Imitations of a foreign culture can be conspicuously announced and yet, in the execution, superficial. So, for example, with modern attempts to create ‘legions’, military or
civilian, with standards and formal ranks in imitation of Rome, or to mimic French
cuisine or couture or hairdressing salons. In some cases the imitation amounts to little
more than the borrowing of vocabulary. The Public Schools, with important exceptions,
did not borrow much Spartan vocabulary. Had there been much conscious imitation of
Sparta, that in itself might have suggested a profound difference, since the Spartans
themselves had probably not been systematically imitating another culture. Rather, the
Public Schools’ resemblance to Sparta was systemic, proceeding not from imitation but
from a shared intention – to protect, and to differentiate from the general population, a
small and beleaguered group which was destined to rule. It is this deep resemblance
which may make the two cultures instructive for the understanding of each other.
When two cultures coincide remarkably, information about one may be tentatively
applied to the other. Thus, given that Sparta and the Public Schools clearly shared much
Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain: Comparisons
in their relation to the mass of the local population, it is worth asking whether Sparta’s
unusual insistence on providing a state education, together, for the children of citizens
was inspired in part by a horror of social assimilation such as is abundantly attested in the
British case. The passionate modern testimony to the role of song at Public School, in
the formation of character and ideals, illuminates and reinforces ancient testimony on the
importance of song in Sparta’s ambitious system of indoctrination. Public School
emphasis on team games helps us see the significance of Sparta’s attested and distinctive
attachment to collective sport. Testimony on the severity and frequency of whipping at
Public School likewise focuses our thought on the everyday violence recorded of Spartan
education. Observing the vortex by which reforms in Public Schools were attributed to
Thomas Arnold may confirm our suspicions that an extreme vortex applied to Lykourgos.
Now, given that there are also countless deep differences between our two cultures, neither case can simply be read across into the other; for purposes of positive reconstruction
a comparison serves rather to suggest possibilities, to generate hypotheses which may
then be tested against the (near‐) contemporary evidence for the society in question. But
in another respect, comparative evidence may be decisive.
In evaluating ancient evidence about Sparta, scholars have often rejected certain
reported details as simply at odds with modern ideas about human nature. Very much
of the traditional picture of brave and austere Spartans may be suspected of being
mirage and propaganda. Plutarch’s testimony (Life of Lykourgos, 18) that he had personally seen boys ‘dying’ under the lash at Orthia’s festival has sometimes been diluted
in translation. ‘Dying’ (apothnēskontas in the Greek) has been rendered as ‘expiring’,
because – it has been felt – surely no sophisticated society would so annihilate its own
young. Study of death (far more commonly from disease than from beating) in the
Victorian Public Schools does not prove that Plutarch’s unambiguous Greek was true.
But it decisively punctures the negative generalization that such things cannot be true.
Similarly with ancient testimony to Sparta’s distinctive use of lying (see note 6, and
Powell, this work, Chapter 1). Some scholars have assumed that the multiple and concordant ancient testimony on this subject amounts to no more than a hostile ethnic
stereotype, that societies cannot surely differ so greatly from each other as the ancient
evidence claims. Contemporary evidence on the imperial British schools again seems to
invalidate such an assumption. Educational authorities claimed to have witnessed,
indeed engineered, a dramatic difference in the matter of lying, within the one set of
institutions. Lying by the boys to authority had been endemic in the early nineteenth
century. And the reformers had achieved conversion, had replaced one custom with
another, that of ‘owning up’. Here too the fact that the Public Schools were not on the
whole deliberately structured to resemble Sparta is important. Had they been so structured, they would be less valuable as evidence of the possibility that Sparta could generate a truly austere system independently.
The present chapter has focused mainly on certain continuities, shared culture, within
and between the Public Schools. But even in our brief survey much evolution has been
apparent within these British institutions, in such matters as the prominence of athletics,
attitudes to sexual activity, predominance of classical languages in the curriculum, and
the use of a version of Christianity by the school authorities. The schools themselves have
tended to seek to mask change, to stress their own antiquity and continuity; the public
may be misled. Similarly with Sparta, where insistence – over centuries – on continuity in
Anton Powell
‘Lykourgan’ practice was so systematic as to amount to grand falsehood. Scholars today
are increasingly alert to the chance that Spartan institutions, even under the austere
‘Lykourgan’ regime of the classical period, were subject to change. Acquaintance with
the history of the Public Schools is likely to encourage the search for (disguised) evolution within Sparta. Scholars in future may well resist increasingly the Spartans’ claims to
have created an institutional monolith. They may even come to doubt whether there was
at Sparta much deep continuity at all. But here again the Public School case, and its associated public achievement, may suggest that – with high morale as its key – something
exceptional did endure. To the question posed from Antiquity to the present, ‘How
could the Spartans bear to live such uncomfortable lives?’, the imperial schools – and the
popular literature about them – suggest an answer. Both systems offered membership of
some of the most elating in‐crowds of history. People will indeed make remarkable sacrifices to achieve a sense of superiority. Comparison with athletics is (once more) relevant: the higher the pinnacle of public success apparently within reach, the more
extraordinary are the sacrifices of physical comfort which the ambitious will make.
1 Thus ‘waste paper basket’ became ‘wagger‐pagger‐bagger’.
2 For initial bibliography on the emergence, after Arnold, of ‘muscular Christianity’ and the cult
of team games, Tyerman (2000) 338–9. For the related cult of dying young, with the body still
beautiful, Tyerman (2000) 341–3; compare Sparta and la belle mort (Loraux (1977)).
3 Author’s private information.
4 Tyerman (2000) 336 for the evolution of whipping at Public Schools; Powell ((1998) 134) for
the evolution of whipping at Sparta.
5 The principle of teaching a negative stereotype by exaggeration and visual staging is vigorously
employed today. American films commonly portray villains as having English Public School
accents. English film prefers the stereotype of stupidity, as in Monty Python’s ‘Upper‐Class
Twit of the Year’.
6 From Arnold onwards, the public schools worked hard and consciously to address a deeply‐
rooted culture among boys of lying to authority: e.g. Honey (1977) 5–6, 24–5, 44, 149, 202;
Copley (2002) 121–2, 137, 139, 141–2, 163. The ideal, to some extent realized, became
‘owning up’ (Lawrence (1978) 98). There was no corresponding requirement for ‘owning
down’: deceiving one’s inferiors might be a vital instrument of empire. The topic of hierarchical lying in Spartan culture is similarly large and complex; see Powell (this work) Chapter 1
and (1994) 284–7. In Spartan style, Plato in the Laws makes elaborately clear that it was not
lying in general which was to be banned, but lying to authority (916d–917b).
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