Spartan Women: Boss Ladies of the Ancient World

G’day, friends! 

In this post, I will provide a short summary of the role of Spartan women!! Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the importance of female presence and voices in the study of History and Archaeology. 

Many female perspectives in humanities have radically impacted our understanding of history and archaeology. Some include but are not limited to, Professor Mary Beard; Dr Alice Kober; Shahina Farid; Dr Sada Mire and, Dr Estelle Lazer. Within the study of humanities, female research sometimes goes unrecognised or is overlooked. In today’s context, we still experience the need for further recognition of female archaeologists and historians competing in a heavily male-dominant profession. Ultimately, the goal is to achieve a greater sense of equality in this industry. We can work towards this aim by spreading awareness to underrepresented perspectives in our academic and professional environments.

This blog is run by an all-female team of dedicated writers, editors and artists. I thank you so much for supporting our work by viewing our posts! 

Context of the Spartan Polis

The wonder of Spartan society reigns supreme over the course of Greek history for its culture is enigmatic with limited evidence left behind. In fact, non-Spartan citizens such as Plutarch, Thucydides and Aristotle primarily documented their interpretations of the operations of the polis from its inception to its ultimate decline at the Battle of Leuctra. The mythical foundations of Spartan society and its strict administration was founded by the lawgiver, King Lycurgus. Under the doctrines set by him, Sparta was to become the most formidable militaristic state that strived to train the finest soldiers for war. There is limited evidence from the perspectives of the Spartan people as “The Great Rhetra” prohibited documenting constitutional activity in writing. Plutarch states in, The Life of Lycurgus, that Spartan laws were only accounted for through oral tradition. Perhaps this feared, military-driven society did not wish to leave any trace of its existence behind. 

Their way of life was described by some historians as “totalitarian”. Pomeroy, Burstein, Donlan, and Roberts write in: A brief history of ancient Greece. Politics, society, and culture

“The Spartan regime may be called totalitarian, for it touched on almost every aspect of life, including those we in modern Western society consider private: how to wear our hair, the choice of whether and when to marry, the conditions of conjugal intercourse, and the decision whether to rear a child.” pg. 96.   

It is no wonder Sparta thrived for such an extensive period (around one thousand years). Although their method of enforcing the law was strict and their social setting austere, they prospered by embracing a greater sense of equality between men and women of the higher classes.  

Over time, Sparta allied and rivaled with other states of Greece, mainly Thebes and Athens.

Sparta topographic map by J. D. Barbié du Bocage from “Travels of Anacharsis” published 1817
“antique map of Sparta” Note: this map was drawn based upon the interpretation of ancient texts and is not an accurate representation of archaeological evidence.

The polis constantly faced internal and external threats to their society, including wars and the multiple revolts by their enslaved population, the Helots. The idea of ‘Sparta’ was essentially a polis that worked to create warrior men, intentionally raised to fight in battle, their fate determined from birth. 

In their attempts to create superior warriors, the Spartans believed that women played a vital role in raising them. 

The role of Spartan women is unique and unparalleled to others existing in Greece during the Classical Period. They are considered some of the most independent women of their time. Their excessive freedom was attributed by Aristotle, to the decline of Sparta. He notes that women lived with “intemperance and luxuriously”. Wow, that’s harsh! He continues: 

“…the fact that women are badly handled… not only produces an internal disorder in the constitution… but also contributes to avarice.” Politics, 1269b12-70a15. 

Under the doctrines created by Lycurgus, women asserted rights within the confines of their society that include, owning land (about two-fifths, according to Aristotle), accessing transactional accounts and attending to business. The reason for this comes down to what modern folks would call logic: when men were fighting in battle, women stayed behind to ensure that the estate was supported – when this was achieved, I suppose they believed that the gods were pleased. 

Exercise and Education

Women had greater independence in their everyday life, receiving an education as young girls and participating in physical training. In Volume I of Parallel Lives, Plutarch states that women were allowed:

“…to exercise themselves with wrestling, running, throwing the quoit, and casting the dart, to the end that the fruit they conceived might, in strong and healthy bodies, take firmer root and find better growth, and… with this greater vigour, might be the more able to undergo the pains of childbearing.” 

According to our non-Spartan writers, it was not uncommon for women to exercise naked, or partially clothed. The Spartans believed that the naked figure was a symbol of modesty and good health. To them, physical exposure was not outrageous; it displayed a woman’s refined physique and resilience in harsh physical training. The depiction of the exposed female body also highlights Spartan attitudes towards childbirth. Women who were agile were thought to have delivered the strongest children to take the place of their warrior predecessors. Such a sacred tradition was essential to preserving their powerful existence. 

In Plutarch’s, Moralia, and depending on different interpretations/translations of the text, it is said that an Attican woman asked Queen Gorgo, (wife to King Leonidas), “Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?”

The Spartan Queen’s swift response was, “Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men.” Plutarch, Moralia 225A and 240E. 

Something to reflect on: The role of Spartan women aligns with modern feminist philosophies that women, as well as men, should have the right to choose how they wish to express their bodies. The depiction of women, through the seemingly neutral perspective of Plutarch, reflects a sense of sexual autonomy that is unique compared to any other culture during this time. Do you agree/disagree? Does it count, however, if the aim of these freedoms was to produce strong children?

Young Spartan girls were given access to education that differed from their male counterparts. Boy’s education was mostly confined to training in the art of war. On the other hand, girls were taught by their mothers and female educators in horseback riding, singing, playing an instrument and reciting poetry. Comparatively, girls in other Greek states would receive a “domestic education” and marry at the age of about fourteen. Spartan women completed their education aged eighteen or twenty and were allowed to marry when their family agreed to a proposal. 

Domesticity?

Women often governed the household, although, if of a certain social status, they did not have to participate in conventional household chores. Because Sparta followed a strict hierarchical system, the enslaved Helot women mostly weaved fabrics, cleaned and took care of the children. The wives of Spartan warriors mostly presided over the business side of owning property. 

Relationships and Marriage

As outlined in my previous blog post on Achilles and Patroclus, (shameless self-promo!), I mentioned that same-sex relationships in Greece were not uncommon. To quote me,  

The ancient Greeks were not identified by their sexual orientation and in fact, did not have any phrases that equate to the modern words, “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality”.

The Spartans believed that love between two or sometimes more people was a central foundation to building comradeship and close connections with the ones they were fighting with. In the Life of Lycurgus, Plutarch acknowledges that:

“…even the maidens found lovers in good and noble women… those who fixed their attentions on the same person made this rather a foundation for friendship…and persevered in common efforts to make their loved one as noble as possible.” (18.4) 

You may have heard of the uncanny marriage rituals that the Spartans abided by. Admittedly, the first time I learned of this was by watching Horrible Histories as a child – no regrets! 

Women were often betrothed to men. The proposal was either made to the woman’s father or brother and he, in turn, would choose to accept or decline. The union had to be unanimously agreed upon by both families and subsequently, a ritual kidnapping would occur.

This is where the ceremony becomes a little bizarre…

The soon-to-be husband would kidnap the soon-to-be wife and take her to their estate where he left her to be prepared by female companions for the wedding night. In the darkness, the wife’s head was shaved, she was dressed in boy’s clothing and left by herself to await the arrival of her husband. When he arrived, both would make love and he departed for his barracks shortly after. Spartan elite men lived in barracks most of their lives. They rarely entered the household or even lived amongst their wives and children. Many scholars believe that the wife was made to look unfeminine because her husband had been accustomed to living with other men for most of his life. Apparently, the wife’s duty after her marriage ceremony was to keep her hair cropped. According to some scholars, this tradition was initiated to help men feel more comfortable having sexual relations with masculine-looking women. 

Please feel free to share your thoughts on this week’s topic!

Thank you so much for reading! We will catch you in our next blog post :))

 Further Readings 

Did Women in Greece and Rome Speak? A fascinating and easy-to-read explanation of the social dynamics between Greco-Roman women. This blog was produced by the British Museum and written by none other than, Professor Mary Beard 

Richard J. A. Talbert writes an academic interpretation of the Role of The Helots in Sparta. If you’re more interested in reading intellectual thought, this is an insightful read

<a rel="noreferrer noopener" href="http://&lt;!– wp:paragraph –> <p><a href="http://www.drbrambedkarcollege.ac.in/sites/default/files/Archaic%20Greece%20%28c.%20700-500%20BC%29%20and%20Emergence%20of%20Polis.pdf">http://www.drbrambedkarcollege.ac.in/sites/default/files/Archaic%20Greece%20%28c.%20700-</a></p&gt; Sarah B. Pomeroy,  Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts join forces to produce an academic interpretation of the History of Greece. It is relatively easy to read and follows a chronological sequence of events. 

<a href="http://&lt;!– wp:paragraph –> <p>https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/aristotle-spartanwomen.asp</p&gt; Fordham University, New York, has a resource in their Ancient History Sourcebook on Aristotle’s perspective of Spartan Women

Thanks for joining us, we hope to see you next time!

Oh, and don’t forget to like and comment, it really helps us out ❤

The Arting the Ancients Team

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