When ancient Spartans were young, just 7 years old, they were put through intense training of the mind, body, and spirit. This training, lasting for 13-plus years, was called an Agoge. The purpose was to turn them into formidable warriors, adept at such essential skills as survival and warfare, and experts in such critical areas as culture, religion, and the arts.
Through grueling physical and mental challenges, the thinking went, they would be ready for anything that came their way. (And a lot, often unexpectedly, did come their way.) It worked to a T. Agoges turned these young Spartans into unbreakable soldiers, ready for anything and well-suited to be more dangerous — and more prepared — than the generations that came before them.
This rite of passage, once such a prominent part of a person's life, faded away thousands of years ago. In 2015, Spartan founder and CEO Joe De Sena revived it in the modern world, and it's had an indelible impact on countless people's lives ever since.
“We relish so often in the moment of victory, the moment at the finish line, getting across that last second in the marathon," De Sena says. "But actually, the thing we have to focus on is the whole journey leading up to that moment. That’s what Agoge represents. It happens to be much bigger than anything we’ve experienced in our modern lives."
What IS An Agoge?
The Spartan Agoge is a 60-hour-plus expedition in an exotic, usually remote, culturally significant location in which students — led by a team of expert instructors and high-performance coaches, called Krypteia — tackle a variety of missions that push them to their very limits, and teach them who they really are and what they're truly capable of achieving.
Notable past missions include decoding a Ming dynasty stone tablet on the Great Wall of China, hauling loaded whiskey barrels across remote Scottish highlands, and taking part in a Mongolian shaman fire ceremony. Past Agoges have been held in such remarkable locations as Beijing, Kyoto, Mongolia, Namibia, the Greek islands, Iceland, and the Isle of Skye.
"Each of the locations is very special culturally and spiritually," Spartan Vice President of Product David Watson says. "It really is bringing groups of human beings together. They're forced to work together, and in doing so, they discover who they really are and what they are really made of. Hopefully they walk away changing something about themselves for the better."
Why Do People Do It?
We understand why the ancient Spartans mandated Agoges. They were attempting to build an army that was unstoppable, second to none. And as for the young Spartans. they didn't have a choice in the matter. They were doing it, come hell or high water.
But in the modern day, in a completely different world, we have found that people from all walks of life, and from every corner of the globe, are volunteering to be Agoge students. Why? After five years of hosting them, this is what we've discovered.
They Want to Learn Skills
Over the span of a single weekend, Agoge students learn invaluable survival skills that they will take with them for the rest of their lives. No, we're not in ancient Sparta anymore, but the same techniques that the Spartans used to defeat their enemies and survive still apply in 2020, albeit in different ways.
They Want to Learn About Themselves and Be Tested
"You think you know yourself, but you don’t truly know yourself until you’ve been tested," De Sena says. "And not quietly tested, but really tested: back against the wall, it’s pouring rain, you’re cold, you’re starving, you can’t see straight, you’re tired. That’s when you find out who you are, what you’re made of."
They Want to Build Relationships
During the Agoge in Mongolia, when three students were suffering from hypothermia after swimming in a frigid lake, their fellow students wrapped them up in anything they could find, laid on them to provide body heat, and gave them clothes off their own backs. Keep in mind that these people, for the most part, had just met. When you do an Agoge, you build connections and lifetime bonds that are irreplaceable.
They Want to Experience the World
"You can certainly go on a vacation and get a tour guide and see the Great Wall of China," De Sena says. "That’s not the same as an Agoge, covering 100 miles with the preeminent expert [William Lindesay] who hiked the entire Great Wall by foot. How would you ever do that?”
You couldn't. To do an Agoge is to see the world, and really understand the world, like few people ever have before.
Why Does Spartan Put These Events On?
As Spartans, we recognize the tremendous value that Agoges bring to people's lives. But looking at it strictly from a business perspective, putting on these events is hugely challenging. They cost a ton of money, and they are logistical nightmares. (You try hosting an event in Erongo, Namibia!) Yet we've never once second-guessed our commitment to Agoges, and plan to put them on for years to come. Why?
It Brings People Together and Helps Break Barriers
"Sometimes we think that people are different in different parts of the world," De Sena says. "They have different beliefs. We don’t necessarily get along with them. In reality, when you go visit the world, break down those barriers, and do hard shit together, you realize, ‘You know what? Mongolians are pretty cool. Chinese are pretty cool. The Scottish are pretty cool, and they’ve got some really cool ancient attributes to their culture that are awesome, that maybe I can incorporate into my own life.'"
The obstacles are difficult — at times painfully so — but they are also an absolute blast. We often talk about how Spartan races, and our endurance events, teach discipline, preparedness, and grit. But first and foremost, they're fun. Who wouldn't want to navigate the subterranean tunnels of Iceland, make fires as the Bushmen do, and compete in a Bökh wrestling tournament?
Why Do People LOVE to Watch It?
Our incredible video team films pretty much every one of our events, from races to world championships to Agoges (and everything in-between). Our Agoge videos are generally some of our highest-viewed pieces of content. Why?
People WISH They Were There
Sure, it's hard. It's really hard. It's arguably the hardest thing that you will ever do. With that comes tremendous intrigue. What does it look like to run with the marathon monks of Mount Hiei? And what does it look like when someone actually finishes and achieves what they believed they couldn't? The sheer emotion is palpable. This is FOMO, times 1,000.
"I definitely never accomplished anything like this in my life," Hanno Zandee, a Spartan Mongolia Agoge student, says. "I pushed through walls I didn’t even know were there, walls that I’ve never seen before. It’s not an experience I would exchange for anything in the whole world."
People Want to See If the Students Will Survive
Call it the Evel Knievel syndrome. You can't look away. Can someone — exhausted, hungry, anxious — really swim 380 meters in 11-degree water and live to tell about it?
People Want to Learn About Ancient Cultures and See the World
"It’s really a window into the world," De Sena says, "It's a window into the way different cultures eat, live, and train, and what ancient rites of passage they have.”
There weren't any formal Agoges in 2020 — COVID-19 put a wrench in those plans — but De Sena did host them for kids at his farm in Pittsfield, Vermont all summer long. He has been putting out the "bat signal" for future events, both at the farm and in various jaw-dropping locations around the world.