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What were the Spartan Cheese Games and why were they so Terrifying? - A Guide to Spartan Training

A Spartan standing in front of a shield wall.
A Spartan as seen in the film '300'. Getting that buff isn't easy...

The Spartans have a legendary reputation for being as tough as the hide of a heavily tanned elephant. They ate little to no food, they could march for miles without resting, and they didn’t think twice about taking on the might of the Persian Army; despite the whole ‘facing certain death’ thing. Heck, the Greek City-State of Sparta didn’t have any defensive walls to protect it because its soldiers were the walls. And no, I don’t mean they were drizzled in concrete and had to stand with their arms outstretched. Instead, the Hoplites just grabbed their swords and shields and got to fighting whoever was hanging about outside Sparta.

But being as tough as the scabby bit on a poorly moisturised elbow does not come easy, these warrior people were trained in the art of being rock-hard from a very young age.

At the age of seven, a young Spartan would be taken from their family and made to join Spartan School, a place called the Agoge. It was a bit like school here in the UK today. Just really different.

A Spartan child is taken away from the family for training at the Agoge. A scene from the film '300'.
A Spartan child is taken away from the family for training at the Agoge. A scene from the film '300'.

How so? Well, let’s see…

Perhaps one of your favourite things to do at school is arts and crafts? In the Agoge, junior Spartans would undertake fun arts and crafts activities too, like having to make their own bed out of the smelly plants ripped up from the ground of a river bank. Wait, that doesn’t actually sound much fun.

A muscly Spartan Warrior.
How did a Spartan warrior get this ripped and not eat much food? That's a mystery from history.

Spartans wouldn’t get a packed lunch or even a school lunch. In fact, they would barely be given any food at all; forcing them to steal for their supper. The Spartans didn’t think of stealing as wrong, the stealing was only a problem if the youngster was caught doing it. If that happened they’d be punished for their dim-wittedness and slow reactions by being flogged (this would involve the poor Spartan kid being hit with a big wooden stick or lashed with a razor-sharp whip by their teacher repeatedly. Bet detention with your class teacher doesn’t seem so bad now, huh?).

Spartan school uniform, as it was, consisted of just one cloak that the pupil would have to wear no matter the weather, be it boiling hot or freezing cold. Lose the cloak and too bad, they weren’t going to get a replacement, regardless of whether or not they wrote their name on it. There was no lost property cupboard in Ancient Sparta. Nor were there any regular cupboards either.

Whilst Spartans did receive a standard education in reading, writing, and numbers, they spent most of their time doing PE. Not handball or touch rugby, oh no. Spartan PE involved sprinting, wrestling, and undertaking a frivolous activity in which pupils had to punch, kick and bite each other because… erm… reasons.

What about tests? All students have to do some tests, right? That dear reader, is where the Spartan Cheese Games come in. Now, you’d be forgiven for thinking that something called the ‘Cheese Games’ might be kind of fun. Something suitable for all the family, perhaps? Maybe like a game show on the telly? One that includes a comical event where contestants hurl amusingly over-sized lumps of cheese at one another? Oh no, my friend. There was nothing family or fun about the Spartan Cheese Games.

Spartan combat training. A young trainee practices sword fighting.
Spartan training, Zack Snyder style.

Picture the scene: a temple devoted to the Greek Goddess Artemis, within it a stone table covered in tasty cheese. Surrounding the table stands guard a group of big burly Spartans; each muscle-bound titan armed with a lethal-looking whip. See where this is going yet? Then the Spartan youths are brought in. They are instructed to perform a simple enough-sounding task; to get the cheese. Without hesitation, the youths charge over and are whipped repeatedly whilst they gather the cheese. The nasty whip strikes leave the would-be cheese pilferers covered in heinous cuts and slices, and soon their blood is soaking the floor of the temple (we can only hope one of the burly guards put one of those yellow wet floor signs down, can you imagine how dangerous it would have been otherwise?). The game only ends once all the cheese has been taken.

Brutal, right? The thing is, such was the effectiveness of the Agoge that the students would relish the chance of being whipped. It was the ideal opportunity to show off their courage and toughness. Especially when, despite the pain, they wouldn’t even make a sound of complaint. No grunts, no groans, no screams as a big dude whips you... nothing.

So, what have we learned? That if ever your teacher mentions anything about ‘cheese’ or ‘games’ you should run and hide. That is, however, unless you want to be a Spartan. In which case, don your tunic and go and get that cheese, your reputation depends on it.


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