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 property and inherit, and were better educated.

Our knowledge of the lives of women in Sparta is limited, however, and frequently rests on conjecture, as the written sources we have 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]

Youth[edit]

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]

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]

Bronze statuette of a girl wearing a short tunic. This type of figurine was manufactured in Sparta.[13] 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]

The Spartan exercise regimen for girls was designed to make them "every bit as fit as their brothers".[14] They learnt to ride,[15] and votive offerings have been discovered depicting Spartan women on horseback.[16] Other exercise for Spartan women included running, wrestling, throwing the discus and javelin, and "trials of strength".[15] 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.[17] They also competed in running races for various festivals, of which the most prestigious was the Heraean Games.[18]

Marriage[edit]

Spartan women seem to have married relatively late relative to their counterparts elsewhere in Greece. While Athenian girls might have expected to marry for the first time around the age of fourteen, Spartan girls might have waited until they were between eighteen and twenty, and probably married men who were around the age of 25.[19] Unlike in Classical Athens, it seems that Spartans did not give dowries when their daughters married.[20] This may have been to encourage Spartan men to marry women most suitable for giving birth to and raising strong children, rather than being concerned with their family's wealth.[21]

Spartan men were legally obliged to marry from at least 500 BC,[22] though those under thirty were not permitted to live with their wives, but instead had to visit them in secret at night.[23] Even after they reached thirty, they were still expected to spend much of their time living in the barracks rather than the family home.[24]

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.[25] 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.[23] Married Spartan women were forbidden from wearing their hair long.[23]

There is some evidence in ancient sources that the Spartans practiced polyandry. Herodotus says that the bigamy of Anaxandridas II was un-Spartan,[26] but Polybius wrote that it was common at his time, and a time-honoured practice.[27] 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.[28] 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.[20]

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".[29]

Because Spartan men spent much of their time living in barracks or at war, Spartan women were in charge of the household.[30] When the men were not 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 managed and led the community.[31] Due to this Aristotle was critical of Sparta, claiming that men were ruled by women there, unlike in the rest of Greece.[32] 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.[33]

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.[34] Activities such as weaving which were considered women's work elsewhere in Greece were not considered fit for free women in Sparta.[35] 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. Under Spartan law, women who had died in child birth and men who died in battle both earned the honour of having their names inscribed on their gravestones.[36] Spartan women were encouraged to produce many children, preferably male, to increase Sparta's military population. They took pride in having borne and raised a brave warriors.[37] 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.[38] 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.[38]

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.[38] Similarly, Pomeroy cites three of Plutarch's Sayings of Spartan Women which tell of Spartan mothers killing cowardly sons themselves.[39]

Religion[edit]

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.[40] The cult of Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, was an important cult for Spartan women.[40] Also important was the cult of Helen,[41] with many objects used by women – mirrors, eye-liners, combs, and perfume bottles, for instance – dedicated at her cult sites.[42] As well as two major cult sites, a shrine to Helen was located in the centre of Sparta, and many steles featuring her were carved and displayed in the city.[42] Cynisca, the first woman to win an Olympic victory, also had a cult in Sparta,[40] the "only woman on record"[43] 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.[44] This would be consistent with the Spartan reputation for piety,[45] though Latte emended the manuscript to read instead that women who died in childbirth would have named memorials, a reading which is accepted by many scholars.[46] This emendation, on the basis of two funerary inscriptions for Spartan women, has been questioned by Dillon.[47]

Clothing[edit]

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.[48] When running races, Spartan girls wore a distinctive single-shouldered knee-length chiton.[49]

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.[50]

Young women grew their hair long and did not cover it,[51] but married women were not allowed to wear their hair long,[23] and covered their heads with veils.[51]

See also[edit]

References[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. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 26
  14. ^ Hughes 2005, pp. 58–59
  15. ^ a b Hughes 2005, p. 59
  16. ^ Hughes 2005, figure 4
  17. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 34
  18. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 24
  19. ^ Cartledge 1981, pp. 94–95
  20. ^ a b Cartledge 1981, p. 98
  21. ^ Hodkinson 2000, p. 67
  22. ^ Cartledge 1981, p. 96
  23. ^ a b c d Cartledge 1981, p. 101
  24. ^ Cartledge 1981, p. 91
  25. ^ Cartledge 1981, p. 100
  26. ^ Herodotus, Histories, V.40.2
  27. ^ Polybius XII.6b.8
  28. ^ Powell 2001, p. 248
  29. ^ Plutarch, Moralia, 241
  30. ^ Hughes 2005, p. 52
  31. ^ Powell 2001, p. 250
  32. ^ Aristotle, Politics 1269b.
  33. ^ Aristotle, Politics 1269b–1270a.
  34. ^ Cartledge 2013, p. 156
  35. ^ Blundell 1995, p. 151
  36. ^ Lerne 1986
  37. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 57
  38. ^ a b c Pomeroy 2002, p. 58
  39. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 59
  40. ^ a b c Pomeroy 2002, p. 105
  41. ^ Redfield 1978, p. 148
  42. ^ a b Hughes 2005, p. 53
  43. ^ Cartledge 2013, p. 200
  44. ^ Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, 27.3
  45. ^ Dillon 2007, p. 151
  46. ^ Dillon 2007, pp. 151–152
  47. ^ Dillon 2007
  48. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 134
  49. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 31
  50. ^ Pomeroy 2002, p. 132
  51. ^ a b Pomeroy 2002, p. 42

Bibliography[edit]