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]

Spartan women were famous in ancient Greece for having more freedom than elsewhere in the Greek world. To contemporaries outside of Sparta, Spartan women had a reputation for promiscuity and controlling their husbands. Unlike their Athenian counterparts, Spartan women could legally own and inherit property and they were usually better educated. The extant written sources are limited and from a largely non-Spartan viewpoint. As Anton Powell puts it, to say that the written sources are "'not without problems'... as an understatement would be hard to beat".[2]


According to Plutarch's testimony, Spartans practiced infanticide as a matter of course if children were thought to be unhealthy.[3] It is unclear from this passage whether this applied to girls as well as boys, though evidence from elsewhere in Plutarch and Xenophon implies that it does not.[4] It is likely that girls were simply given into the care of their mothers immediately after birth.[5] There is not enough evidence, however, to say whether this was the case throughout Spartan history.[6] Female Spartan babies were as well fed as their male counterparts – in contrast to the situation in Athens, where boys were better fed than girls – in order to have physically fit women to carry children and give birth.[5]

Spartan boys were educated in the agoge from the age of seven, at least for some periods of Spartan history, and it seems that whenever the state arranged for the education of boys, it also institutionalised the education of girls.[7] Unlike their male counterparts, however, Spartan girls would have been raised at home with their mothers while they were being educated.[8] There is evidence for some form of official educational programme for girls as early as the archaic period, and this system seems to have been discontinued in the Hellenistic period.[8] The extent to which education for girls was restored under the reforms of Cleomenes III is unclear, but it may have become voluntary rather than compulsory.[8] State-supervised education for girls was once again restored in the Roman period, the agoge having been once again abolished in 188 BC.[8] Women also took part in gymnastics and dance as physical activities, so they could give birth to healthy babies.

Literacy was, in Sparta, a skill limited to the elite.[9] There is evidence from the Classical period that some women could read. For instance, anecdotes about Sparta are preserved which feature mothers writing letters to their sons who are away.[10] As well as reading and writing, women studied mousike – which consisted not just of music, but also dance and poetry.[11] Women seem to have learned to play musical instruments, as shown in surviving statuettes.[12]

The Spartan exercise regimen for girls was designed to make them "every bit as fit as their brothers".[13] They learned to ride,[14] and votive offerings have been discovered depicting Spartan women on horseback.[15] Other exercise for Spartan women included running, wrestling, throwing the discus and javelin, and "trials of strength".[14] It is possible that Spartan girls exercised naked, and Archaic Spartan art certainly portrays naked girls, unlike the art of other areas of Greece.[5] Girls might have competed in gymnopaedia, the Spartan festival of naked youths.[16] They also competed in running races for various festivals, of which the most prestigious was the Heraean Games.[17]


Bronze statuette of a girl wearing a short tunic. This type of figurine was manufactured in Sparta.[18] The single-shouldered garment, baring the right breast, was the characteristic dress of competitors in the Heraean Games, suggesting that she is a runner. Alternatively, the figure might be dancing.[12]

Spartan women seem to have married relatively late in comparison to their counterparts elsewhere in Greece. While Athenian girls might have expected to marry for the first time around the age of fourteen, Spartan women normally married at around the age of 18 to Spartan men closely related in age. Since citizen boys were taken into military camps at the age of 7 for the purpose of training to eventually become a "Spartan" at around the age of 30, they were forced to sneak out of camps to find and see their wives. Men's absence from their families gave married women a great deal of freedoms and responsibilities. They owned the property and were in charge of the household while their husbands were away. In contradiction to other countries at the time, Spartan women were free to journey outside of the home, free from the restraints that shackled other women into their abode.

Furthermore, the greatest importance of marriage within Sparta was the bearing of children. Women had a pivotal role for raising healthy and strong children; as a result they were required to maintain athleticism and good eating habits. However, before marriage existed a trial period to validate the potential couple could have children in the first place. In the event a couple was unsuccessful in creating descendants the options of divorce and remarriage were a customary solution. For Sparta, all activity including marriage was direct with the single purpose of improving their military.[19]

The evidence for the role of kyrioi (male guardians) in arranging Spartan women's marriages is not decisive, though Cartledge believes that like their Athenian (and unlike their Gortynian) counterparts, it was the responsibility of the kyrios to arrange a Spartan woman's marriage.[20] On the night of the wedding, the bride would have her hair cut short and be dressed in a man's cloak and sandals before being left alone in a darkened room, where they would be visited and ritually captured by their new husband.[21] Married Spartan women were forbidden from wearing their hair long.[22] There is some evidence in ancient sources that the Spartans practiced polyandry. Herodotus says that the bigamy of Anaxandridas II was un-Spartan,[23] but Polybius wrote that it was common at his time, and a time-honoured practice.[24] Along with plural marriage, older men seem to have 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.[25] Even less evidence exists for the suggestion by the first-century AD Jewish scholar Philo that maternal half-siblings were permitted to marry in Sparta.[26]

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.

Matriarchal duties[edit]

Painting depicting a Spartan woman giving her son his shield.
Spartan women enforced the state ideology of militarism and bravery. Plutarch relates that one woman, upon handing her son his shield, instructed him to come home "either with this, or on it".[27]

Because Spartan men spent much of their time living in barracks or at war, Spartan women were in charge of the household.[28] Due to this Aristotle was critical of Sparta, claiming that men were ruled by the strong and independent women, unlike in the rest of Greece.[29] Aristotle also criticised Spartan women for their wealth. He attributed the state's precipitous fall during his lifetime, from being the master of Greece to a second-rate power in less than 50 years, to the fact that Sparta had become a gynocracy whose women were intemperate and loved luxury.[30]

All Spartan women, not just the richest, would have taken advantage of helot labour to perform the domestic tasks that elsewhere in Greece would have fallen to free women.[31] Activities such as weaving which were considered women's work elsewhere in Greece were not considered fit for free women in Sparta.[32] Therefore, women were more preoccupied with governance, agriculture, logistics and other sustenance tasks.

Spartan law codified under Lycurgus expressed the importance of child bearing to Sparta. Bearing and raising children was considered the most important role for women in Spartan society, equal to male warrior in Spartan army. [33] Spartan women were encouraged to produce many children, preferably male, to increase Sparta's military population. They took pride in having borne and raised brave warriors.[34] Having sons who were cowards, however, was a cause for sorrow, and the ancient author Aelian claims that women whose sons died as cowards lamented this.[35] By contrast, the female relatives of the Spartans who died heroically in the Battle of Leuctra were said to have walked around in public looking happy.[35]

Spartan women did not simply celebrate their sons who had shown bravery, and mourn when they had not; they were crucial in enforcing social consequences for cowardly men. For instance, when Pausanias, a traitor to Sparta, took refuge in a sanctuary to Athena, rather than pleading for his life, his mother, Theano, is said to have taken a brick and placed it in the doorway. Following this example, the Spartans bricked up the temple door with Pausanias inside.[35] Similarly, Pomeroy cites three of Plutarch's Sayings of Spartan Women which tell of Spartan mothers killing cowardly sons themselves.[36]


In ancient Sparta, cults for women reflected Spartan society's emphasis on women's role as child-bearers and raisers. Consequently, cults focused on fertility, women's health, and beauty.[37] The cult of Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, was an important cult for Spartan women.[37] Also important was the cult of Helen,[38] with many objects used by women – mirrors, eye-liners, combs, and perfume bottles, for instance – dedicated at her cult sites.[39] As well as two major cult sites, a shrine to Helen was located in the center of Sparta, and many steles featuring her were carved and displayed in the city.[39] Cynisca, the first woman to win an Olympic victory, also had a cult in Sparta,[37] the "only woman on record"[40] to have been thus commemorated.

Plutarch writes, in his life of Lycurgus, that only men who died in battle and women who died while holding a religious office should have their name inscribed on their tombstone.[41] This would be consistent with the Spartan reputation for piety,[42] though one translation (Latte) emended the manuscript to read instead that women who died in childbirth would have named memorials, a reading which has become popular among many scholars.[43] This emendation however has lacked archaeological, literary, or epigraph evidence to support it, whereas the two surviving funerary inscriptions for Spartan women lend credence to Plutarch's original claim that these honors were only extended to those women who died while holding religious office.[44] Spartan society was slavishly structured around the obligation of all citizens to contribute to the state, and failure to do so garnered no acclaim; in the starkest terms, Spartan women who died in childbirth could be seen as having made no contribution to the state in their attempt, and therefore were not accorded any special status for their death. Sparta did however place particular emphasis on religion, it could be argued more than any other Greek city state, and therefore it was women who died in the service of the state by worshiping Sparta's deities who were honored with inscribed tombstones.[45]


Spartan women's clothing was simple and notoriously short. They wore the Dorian peplos, with slit skirts which bared their thighs.[5] The Dorian peplos was made of a heavier woolen material than was common in Ionia, and was fastened at the shoulder by pins called fibulae.[46] When running races, Spartan girls wore a distinctive single-shouldered knee-length chiton.[47]

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. Lycurgus was said to have forbidden women from using cosmetics.[48]

Young women grew their hair long and did not cover it,[49] but married women were not allowed to wear their hair long,[22] and covered their heads with veils.[49]

Problems according to Aristotle[edit]

According to Aristotle, "...the Lacedaemonian women defeats the intention of the Spartan constitution, ..." (Aristotle, The Politics of Aristotle).[50] The wives of the Warriors of Sparta would gain the estates at the loss of their husbands. Some would have very large places and some very small. This caused the transfer of property to the few. With the men constantly out to war and the women at home to run the estates the population started to diminish. Aristotle argues "The result proves the faulty nature of their laws respecting property; for the city sank under a single defeat; the want of men was their ruin" (Aristotle, Politics: Book 2).[50] Aristotle in many ways admired the Spartans' way of life: he viewed their idea as good, but doomed to fail.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Plutarch, Moralia 225A and 240E
  2. ^ Powell 2004
  3. ^ Pomeroy 2002, pp. 34–35
  4. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 35
  5. ^ a b c d Pomeroy 1994, p. 36
  6. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 47
  7. ^ Pomeroy 2002, pp. 27–28
  8. ^ a b c d Pomeroy 2002, p. 4
  9. ^ Pomeroy 2002, pp. 4–5
  10. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 8
  11. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 5
  12. ^ a b Pomeroy 2002, p. 12
  13. ^ Hughes 2005, pp. 58–59
  14. ^ a b Hughes 2005, p. 59
  15. ^ Hughes 2005, figure 4
  16. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 34
  17. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 24
  18. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 26
  19. ^ Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. (2011). Genders in History: Global Perspective (Second ed.). Wiley-Blackwell. p. 31. ISBN 978-1-4051-8995-8.
  20. ^ Cartledge 1981, p. 100
  21. ^ Plutarch, Life of Lycurgas 15.3-4.
  22. ^ a b Cartledge 1981, p. 101
  23. ^ Herodotus, Histories, V.40.2
  24. ^ Polybius XII.6b.8
  25. ^ Powell 2001, p. 248
  26. ^ Cartledge 1981, p. 98
  27. ^ Plutarch, Moralia, 241
  28. ^ Hughes 2005, p. 52
  29. ^ Aristotle, Politics 1269b.
  30. ^ Aristotle, Politics 1269b–1270a.
  31. ^ Cartledge 2013, p. 156
  32. ^ Blundell 1995, p. 151
  33. ^ Lerne 1986
  34. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 57
  35. ^ a b c Pomeroy 2002, p. 58
  36. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 59
  37. ^ a b c Pomeroy 2002, p. 105
  38. ^ Redfield 1978, p. 148
  39. ^ a b Hughes 2005, p. 53
  40. ^ Cartledge 2013, p. 200
  41. ^ Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, 27.3
  42. ^ Dillon 2007, p. 151
  43. ^ Dillon 2007, pp. 151–152
  44. ^ Dillon 2007
  45. ^ Dillon 2007, pp. 165
  46. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 134
  47. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 31
  48. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 132
  49. ^ a b Pomeroy 2002, p. 42
  50. ^ a b "Internet History Sourcebooks". sourcebooks.fordham.edu. Retrieved 2016-12-05.


External links[edit]

Media related to Women of ancient Greece at Wikimedia Commons