Women in ancient Sparta

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"Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?"
"Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men."

Gorgo, Queen of Sparta and wife of Leonidas, as quoted by Plutarch[1]

Women in ancient Sparta were famous for their fertility relative to that of other Greek women. In contrast to Athens, in Spartan society girls were reared much like boys, including physical fitness training.[2]

Sparta’s reputation for “exposing” their children at birth to discover whether or not they suffered from any one of a number of physical defects (eugenics),[3] and their emphasis on rearing children, particularly boys, with a focus on war has led many to believe that their society was harshly patriarchal. However, much of the ancient world observed Sparta with great confusion due to their perceived leniency when governing their female population.[4][5]

This leniency is only in relation to the foreign male authors of the time and historians would be quick to ignore it if not for the absence of Spartan texts on the subject. Sparta seems to have purposely not recorded its history, and given that men of the time were disinclined to observe women, particularly those they thought of as acting above their position, readers must rely on what little information they have pertaining to the women of Sparta.[6]

Dowries also led to confusion over land ownership. Many Spartans believed that brides should be chosen for character and physical sturdiness rather than economic standing and therefore no formal dowries were given at marriage. In this way women could become increasingly wealthy inheriting both from their fathers and husbands.[7] Land transactions were also permitted as gifts.[8]

In the home[edit]

"Someone contacted a Spartan woman to ask if she would agree to let him seduce her. She said: ‘When I was a child I learned to obey my father, and I did so; then when I became a woman I obeyed my husband; so if this man is making me a proper proposal, let him put it to my husband first.'"[9]

Marriage[edit]

As with inheritance, the practice of marriage is not well enough documented or universal enough to declare a specific practice amongst all Spartans. A Spartan man was required to marry at the age of 30, just after he completed Kryteian[10] Still, some men married in their twenties and simply crept away from the barracks at night to meet their wives. Women married later than most other Greek societies, usually in their late teens and early twenties. Often marriages were bride-captures prearranged with the father’s consent. In bride-captures, the bride (dressed by the bridesmaid) was clothed in men’s sandals and cloak and her hair was cut. The groom would then carry the woman away to have sexual intercourse and return to his barracks before the morning.[11]

Another practice that was mentioned by many visitors to Sparta was the practice of “wife-sharing”. In accordance with the Spartan belief that breeding should be between the most physically fit parents, many older men allowed younger, more fit men, to impregnate their wives. Other unmarried or childless men might even request another man’s wife to bear his children if she had previously been a strong child bearer.[12]

For this reason many considered Spartan women polygamous or polyandrous.[13] This practice was encouraged in order that women bear as many strong-bodied children as they could. The Spartan population was hard to maintain due to the constant absence and loss of the men in battle and the intense physical inspection of newborns.[14]

Motherhood and duties[edit]

Mothers were essentially the head of the households in Spartan society when fathers were off at war.[15] Sons were taken from the house at age seven and put through agoge. Daughters also underwent public education, although girls stayed in their mother’s houses until they were married, around the age of eighteen, and would have developed an overwhelming bond with their mothers. Women were not expected to learn domestic duties like weaving and cleaning, as the estate’s helots would perform these tasks. Therefore, women were more preoccupied with maintaining their physical stature, bearing children, and supervising the helots who worked the land.[2]

At any given moment the Spartan polis would have consisted of predominately women, given that half of the men were at war. When the men weren’t stationed they were preoccupied with training and remained separated from their homes leaving the women to completely dominate the household. This is why socially and politically women had a freedom within the community.[5]

Spartan law codified under Lycurgus expressed the importance of motherhood and child labor to the contribution of Spartan population. Motherhood and child labor were considered major duties in Spartan society, as equally compared to the duty of male warrior in Spartan army. Under the Spartan law, women who had died in child birth and men who died in serving their country both equally deserved the honor of having their names in-scripted on their gravestones.[16]

Spartan women were highly encouraged to produce many children, preferably male, to increase Sparta's military population. They took pride in themselves for breeding a brave warrior. Being the mother of a popular warrior was a high honor for a Spartan woman.[17]

Divorce[edit]

Spartan women were allowed to divorce their husbands without fear of losing their personal wealth. As equal citizens of the community, women could divorce and were not required to or discouraged from remarrying. The unique family unit of Sparta also did not force the woman to relinquish her children, as biological paternity was not important in raising the children. Boys were already taken into agoge and girls would have felt a strong connection to the mother.[13]

Youth[edit]

“for modesty attended them, and there was no wantonness in their behavior”[18]

Formal education[edit]

Female education is vague and rarely mentioned as in a formal class setting, presumably taking place in the home. It is at least documented that wealthier women wrote letters to their sons and it is therefore assumed that they could read and write. It is more clearly understood that women studied mousike, which consisted of the arts, music, dancing, and poetry. Given the Spartan focus on community as a family, it is considered possible that girls were also taught in a community-run institution that was given equally to all Spartan families.[19]

Physical training[edit]

Bronze figurine of a girl running, probably from Sparta

Female Spartan babies are remarked to have been significantly more nourished than other female Greek children and in some cases than Spartan male babies. Many believe this preference was shown to female babies because it was especially important to have physically fit women to bear children. In their youth, female Spartans ran around nude alongside the boys and competed in gymnastics, wrestling, foot and horse races, and other required physical trials, all in the public’s view.[18][20]

Girls also frequently competed in gymnopaedia, the Spartan festival of naked youths. Women were also known to compete in the Olympics and other important athletic events, usually wrestling.[18]

Religion[edit]

All Greeks worshipped generally the same gods, but location denoted a region’s emphasis on different gods. For instance, Spartans held warrior gods much higher than peaceful gods. Women more specifically worshipped gods associated with beauty, health, fitness, and childbirth (like Eileithyia).[21]

Spartan women also participated in cults centered on local heroes or myths. The Cult of Helen of Sparta was obviously large amongst Spartans as well as the Cult of Cynisca. Cynisca was a famous Spartan chariot racer and princess and was the first woman to win at the Ancient Olympic Games. In following Cynisca, many Spartan women practiced chariot racing and participated in horse races.[21]

In Spartan burial rites, women’s names were etched into their gravestone upon burial only if they died during childbirth, as men received this honor only if they died in active battle.[22]

Ceremonies[edit]

There were no female-specific ceremonies or festivals, aside from occasional all-female chariot races or athletic events. However, this could be a result of women already holding significance in community wide festivals and religious ceremonies.[23]

Clothing[edit]

Spartan women's clothing was simple and notoriously short. Many foreigners remarked that Spartan women’s legs were constantly spread. Since women did not weave their own clothes and instead left the creation of goods to the perioikoi, the purchase of elaborate cloth and of metal bracelets was a sign of wealth. It is unknown whether women wore these silver and gold bracelets at all times or if only for religious ceremonies and festivals. Women were also not allowed to grow their hair long.[24]

Famous Spartan women[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Plutarch, Moralia 225A and 240E
  2. ^ a b Blundell 1995, p. 151
  3. ^ Sealey 1976, p. 78
  4. ^ Blundell 1995, p. 150
  5. ^ a b Powell 2001, p. 250
  6. ^ Ducat, Stafford & Shaw 2006, p. 223
  7. ^ Blundell 1995, p. 156
  8. ^ Hodkinson 2000, p. 67
  9. ^ Plutarch & Talbert 2005, p. 187
  10. ^ name=Herodotus
  11. ^ Blundell 1995, pp. 151, 153
  12. ^ Powell 2001, p. 248
  13. ^ a b Blundell 1995, p. 154
  14. ^ Powell 2001, p. 246
  15. ^ name= Herodotus
  16. ^ Lerne, Gerda (1986). The Creation of Patriarchy. New York: Oxford University Press. 
  17. ^ Pomberoy, Sarah (2002). Spartan Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195130677. 
  18. ^ a b c Blundell 1995, p. 152
  19. ^ Ducat, Stafford & Shaw 2006, pp. 224–225
  20. ^ Hodkinson 2000, pp. 227–228
  21. ^ a b Pomeroy, Sarah (2002). Spartan women. Oxford University Press. p. 105. ISBN 978-0-19-513067-6. 
  22. ^ Powell 2001, p. 249
  23. ^ Pat. "Women in Spartan Society", Arcane History, 2008. Retrieved on 2010-01-21.
  24. ^ Hodkinson 2000, p. 229

Bibliography[edit]