What Makes Spartan Women So Different From Other Ancients?
In Sparta, the individual did not matter. Everything was for the preservation and continuous strengthening of the state. They built no walls since they welcomed any to challenge invasion. They lit no nightly fires to remain hidden in the dark. They spoke with so few words, so plain and directly that they keyed the adjective ‘laconic’, which derives from the Spartan Province of Laconia. Though many will remember the Spartans as unflinching selfless warriors to the will of their state, they will always maintain intrigue with how they treated their women. As equals in education and intellectual discussion. For Spartan men who died in battle, and for Spartan women who died in labor, they were honored and remembered with their names inscribed on headstones near their city.
So why would an extreme totalitarian regime, such as the Spartan state be oppressive in so many aspects of individuality, but be so progressive in bestowing Spartan women with freedom and education?
Educated and Quick Witted
Most of the information regarding Spartan women is found through ancient scholars and poets who date between the Archaic Period (eighth century BC) to the classical period (fifth through fourth century BC) of the ancient world. Ancient Greek women endured a life of hardship and servitude. In contrast, the women of Sparta were the exception. Unlike the Athenian women, who contained little rights, and who were in complete dominance over by their husbands, Spartan women were controlled and raised by the state. While other Greek women were bound to the household, Spartan women were expected to exercise and be as fit as possible. Another liberty that was offered to Spartan women was an education.
Depiction of Spartan women freely playing outside with the woman in the foreground holding an instrument showing her interest in music and arts. This may have been a different story for their Greek counterparts. (Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot / Public domain)
According to Sarah J. Pomeroy, “Girls were divided into the categories of children, young girls, maidens who had reached puberty, and married women. Hairstyles distinguished maidens from newly married women, the latter wore their hair short.” However, some Spartan women knew how to weave; the Spartan textile industry was primarily produced by helot slaves and servants, leaving Spartan women and men free for full dedication to serving the state. For the men, it was service in the military, while for Spartan women, it was in staying physically fit and bearing healthy children.
As mentioned prior, the sense of the individual was second to that of the Spartan state. However, with the lack of individualism came the freedom of Spartan women to be somewhat more equal to men than their Greek counterparts. The role of Spartan women was to be healthy, fit, and ready to birth active children for Sparta. Another aspect of ensuring the healthiness of their children was to encourage Spartan women in mental and intellectual discussions regarding state politics, laws, reading, writing, and mythology. It was expected that a Spartan woman should hold her intellectual prowess and whit against any man who challenged her.
Spartan women exercised and participated in foot races alongside the Spartan men. Though the women would never be allowed to partake in the agoge, the Spartan military school training, which all boys had to enter by the age of 7. Spartan women were still given a state sanctioned formal education. According to Pythagoreans listed by Lamblichos, “Spartan women might have been highly literate.” However, there is debate about whether education was granted only to women of the Spartan elite or whether it was allowed to all classes of Spartan women. It was apparent that Spartan women were able to read, write, and allowed to engage in conversation with men.
Spartan women were also notorious for intimidating Athenian Greek men with their sharp wit and outspoken opinions about state laws that did not line with Sparta.
The courage of the women of Sparta. (Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier / Public domain)
Their mothers primarily homeschooled Spartan women. Both women and men would then be examined during festival races and ceremonies to promote competitiveness within the youth. However, the education of women being able to read and write appeared to have been profoundly challenged, forcing it throughout Spartan history to be discontinued and then restarted.
Spartan Women Were Fit and Free
It was common for Ancient Greek women to wear corsets, breast supporter bands that functioned very similarly to that of the modern-day bra. They also wore girdles to keep a feminine feature as well as sustain their gowns. Most Ancient Greek women wore dresses often made from the elaborate textiles that they created. It was considered taboo and unsightly to present any Greek women naked or showing any sign of their figure.
However, this was not the case for the portrayal of Spartan women. According to Hans Licht, author of the Sexual life of Ancient Greece, depictions of Spartan women on ancient vases revealed them to be mostly naked except for a short Chiton (short dress), which contained a slit by the side revealing much of their legs. This was so apparent and so different from Athens that “…Spartan girls were ridiculed. Hence, they were called ‘thigh-showers’…” Spartan women were almost entirely naked if it was not for the Chiton that they wore. Due to the rigorous amounts of bodily exercise, it becomes very apparent to why this is.
Statue of woman wearing a short chiton, to show what Spartan women may have looked like. (Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Much like Licht’s interpretation of the works of Lycurgus, Spartan women were made to run, learn to wrestle, throw discus and javelins, as well as they could. The psychology of the totalitarian Spartan state was that healthy women who were just as fit as men would be able to bear healthy children. Unlike Spartan men, women were given more food and provisions to make sure Spartan women had the best nutrition to ensure this fact.
Spartan women and men were made for walking around almost naked, able to fight, and open for both men and women to dance and socialize only during times of festivals. However, the fact remains that the limited moments of freedom shared by women were often overshadowed by the oppressive draconian laws that proceeded. Men still lived separately from the women in barracks until their thirty-year term of service was over. Both men and women still had to meet up in secret to copulate and enjoy their time as man and wife, or else be ridiculed and severely punished.
Young Spartan women and men exercise alongside each other. (Edgar Degas / Public domain)
Spartan Marriage, Sex and Birth
Throughout most of history, marriages were primarily contractual. The marriage between a Spartan man and woman was no different. However, the Spartans contained certain aspects that were unique to their own culture. The average age for a Spartan woman to be married was at 18, normally to a 30-year-old Spartan male. While this may appear to be quite an age difference, this was very different from what was seen in Athens. In Athens, the average woman was married off at 14 to men who were well into their 30s. Pomeroy also notes that for Spartan men who could not marry by their thirties were severely punished for being useless to society.
Due to the thirty-year commitment male Spartan citizens made, marriages were then brief, and newlywed couples were still separated except for certain times of the year when they could be together. Sarah J. Pomeroy, the author of Ancient Greece, mentioned that in Plutarch's work, it was noted that “Spartan men were reluctant to marry regardless of the Spartan state giving incentives for marriage and procreation.” Another possible reason for this reluctance was being separated and isolated into same-sex groups from the age of seven and until the completion of military service, leaving most Spartan newlywed men unsure of how to interact with members of the opposite sex.
The cultural Spartan marriage customs were often selected at random with men and women left alone in a dark room. The marriage trials would be kept secret, and if the copulation proved infertile for the brides, the couples would be rearranged with other partners. If the marriage was successful, it was customary for the bride to cut her hair short, dress herself in a Spartan man's tunic. Over a period of a few days, the bridegroom would sneak away from his barracks to be intimate with his newlywed wife and then retreat before anyone would find out. If he were caught, he would be punished for leaving the barracks.
Additionally, according to Hans Licht, author of Sexual Practices of Greece, Licht's notes on Plutarch's translations stated that “…Such meetings served not only to make them precise, restraint and moderated but also promoted the birth of children and caused them to embrace with ever fresh so that, instead of becoming sated or weakened by too frequent enjoyment, they left behind as it was provocative and fueled mutual love and inclination."
Though bizarre by the standards of modern-day, as well as for the rules of Athens, this method was somewhat successful for continuing the population and for limiting emotional attachment to family members at a minimum. Spartans were a warrior culture who hated weakness and did their best in both the personal and social aspects to rid of all vulnerability. This was not limited to marriage and intimate love.
Depiction of a Spartan warrior before battle in the sunset. (Mohamed Hassan / Public domain)
Spartan Women Owned Land
The role of Spartan land ownership has been historically controversial due to how much control Spartan citizens had over their land. Many scholars such as Stephan Hodskin explored the works of Plutarch's Lykourgos, to which he stated that it “…fellow citizens to make one parcel of their territory and divide it up a new, and to live with one another on the basis of entire uniformity and equality in their means of subsistence…” However, Hodskin also explores the other side to which inheritance of land through the male line may have been a possibility as well. Whichever the case, when men were at war, and there were no male heirs, Spartan women were made holders of a portion of the property until they were re-married or had given birth to a male heir.
The issues with inheritance can also be referenced and even challenged by the works of Aristotle in the fourth century BC to which he blamed the failures of Greece to the immense rights, wealth, and influence Spartan women had over the state, property, and government.
As Pomeroy explores in her assessment of Aristotle, “…Spartan's freedom to bequeath their land as they wished, and the size of endowments led to two-fifths of the land in his own time having fallen to the hands of women […]. Yet, it does seem to be the case that Spartan daughters received as dowries one-half the contrast, compared to the one-sixth that Athenian daughters inherited….”
Whether the state wholly owned the land, or not, what was most apparent was that Spartan women were the rulers of the household due to the way the Spartan culture was designed. Men spent most of their lives in the agoge, then the barracks, and then at war. If they were lucky and lived long enough to retire at the age of 40, they'd return to the home, which was controlled by their wife or surviving family members.
Depiction of Spartan woman giving a shield to one of her sons before he goes to war, while looking after her other children. (Daderot / Public domain)
The role of Spartan men was to serve in the military; the role of the Spartan women was to remain healthy and plentiful in producing offspring. This one soul responsibility put Spartan women above the typical labors which other women of Greece would endure, such as participating in the creation of the textile industry. Most Spartan women did not sow clothing but made sure to manage their helot servants and slave girls to produce textile and cloth goods for the household and marketplace. They would also take the role of supreme governances of their homes. Since most married Spartan women were mostly alone, while all the men were either in training, in barracks, or away at war, Spartan women were bestowed with the ability to earn income in the form of public and state-sanctioned land and property. In particular, to manage the allotment of land and gain some profit from a percentage from managing the agriculture output by way of servants and slaves.
Over time leading to the Hellenistic Period, many Spartan women were able to accumulate much wealth from their abilities to manage the land and property that were endowed to them. However, actual coin currency was forbidden by the state government in fear that it would promote idol warship among individuals who would turn their attention to the self rather than the state. Regardless, the utilization and acquisition of land was a form of wealth that was approved by the Spartans.
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Men, women and children in Sparta were taught that their first duty was to their state. The Spartan woman thought that the greatest honor was for her sons or husband to die fighting for their state. (this image has been cropped) (Patrick Gray / CC BY 2.0)
When it All Changed – The Hellenistic Blame of Spartan women
It is ironic to think that a city-state dedicated to the eradication of individuality would be a state which promoted equality and freedom to their women. However, that soon changed.
Though women were held with high esteem and were rigorous in governing households and accumulating land wealth, the growing opinions of women became far more cynical, especially as the male population began to dwindle. This was due to the tragic loss Sparta had endured at Leuctra in 371 BC, followed by several helot revolts. Due to the weakening of the state due to these significant wars and uprisings, the male population suffered immensely. However, rather than blame the wars and policies of Sparta, which led to these disasters, many Spartans took to blaming women for Sparta's failings.
As with the issue of women owning property, Aristotle also criticized women having education and power just as adamantly. Aristotle blamed Spartan women for being the sole reason for the faults of Spartan civilization due to freedom, energy, education, and prestige. Though passionate and harsh in his judgment, Aristotle's beliefs might have been quite influential. By the time the Hellenistic Period had begun, Spartan women were forbidden to be given an education. Though in later years, Spartan kings, such as Cleomenes III, would fight to restore the right for women to be educated, only to have it falter out of favor again until the Roman period.
Top image: Spartan woman in foreground with her warrior husband in the background. Source: serhiibobyk / Adobe stock
By B.B. Wagner
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