Youth of Sparta and of Mars: Uses and abuses of Classics at the Prussian Cadet-Schools (1717-1920)

This paper was presented at the Classical Association Annual Conference 2012, University of Exeter, 12 April 2012.

An expanded version of the paper was presented to the Caius Graduate Arts Society, Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, 5 June 2012.

Above the grand entrance of the Central Cadet-School in Groß-Lichterfelde, Berlin, there stood the inscription ‘Martis et Minervae Alumnis’. However, the cadets who passed under this portal were well aware that their lives were more likely to be dedicated to war than to wisdom. Nevertheless, the Prussian Cadet-Corps’ syllabuses and curricula placed a strong emphasis on Classics, even though the schools followed the curriculum of a Realgymnasium (Latin was taught, but no Greek). In particular, ancient history was a major ingredient in the curriculum of the eight preparatory cadet-schools (Voranstalten) for boys aged 10-15.

Using sources such as textbooks, memoirs and newly-researched archival material, this paper aims to explore the ways in which Classical literature and ancient history were taught at the cadet-schools, and to demonstrate that the treatment of Classical subject-matter in lessons led the pupils in question to embrace Classical models (the more war-like and self-sacrificing the better) even outside the classroom. For instance, an enduring trope among cadets of all ages was the idea that they were true ‘Spartanerjünglinge’ (Spartan youths). The boys identified their educational experiences with those of young Spartans, and even coined a verb ‘spartanern’ to describe their competitive strivings to endure extremes of self-inflicted suffering without flinching.

The cadets’ ideas of the Classical world also strongly influenced their choice of games and recreations – as well as the imaginative devices employed by senior boys to bully their juniors.  Role models were drawn not just from Sparta but from a wide range of episodes in Roman as well as Greek history. Many boys were even inspired to write dramas based on Classical subjects for performance by their classmates, ranging from comedies set on Olympus to tragedies based on the Jugurthine War, or the defeat of Varus by Arminius in the Teutoburg Forest.