Sparta, a city-state renown for its military prowess and the strength of its male population. Often, when people think of Spartans images of the brave “Three Hundred” and their great battle at Thermopylae. While this military might was a focus of the Spartan culture it would not have been sustainable without their culture. In particular, the fact that they treated women as near equals in almost all areas of life. Spartan women in the Archaic and Classical periods had more liberties that their contemporaries from other poleis. From legal rights to education they had a society much more akin to our modern idea of gender equality.
Spartan marital traditions were a major distinguishing factor in the role of women in their society. The age of marriage for Spartan women was substantially higher than others, at around nineteen to twenty-five years of age, as opposed to the Athenian fourteen years of age. (Cartledge 1981 pg.94) The age of marriage is not the only differentiation from the Greek ‘norm’. There is evidence in classical sources that suggest Spartans practiced polyandry, which is the practice of one woman taking multiple husbands.. These sources, however, disagree on whether this was “a traditional law” (Polybius 6.8) or “customarily un-Spartan” (Herodotus 40.2). After the marriage, it was not the man, but the woman who led and controlled the household (O’Pry 2012 pg. 10) This directly contradicts media presentations of Spartans. In movies, such as “300” we see Spartan women as subservient to men, acting as though their role was to do very little while the men were the warriors, heads of household and heads of state. While this would be true in places like Athens and Epirus, this is yet another way in which Sparta differed from the other poleis that dotted Greece.
Education, Fitness and Childbirth
The trend of freedoms for Spartan women does not end with marriage making them an exception to standard Greek society. From the moment of birth, Spartan women were cared for on a level that was equal to that of a male. This is exemplified by the fact that, unlike in Classical Athens, Spartan women were educated in the same schools as men were. (Pomeroy 2002 pg. 28) Spartans taught their children similar skills during this education. For example, we see literate women and men in letters sent by mothers to sons out on military campaigns. (Pomeroy 2002 pg. 8) Beyond academic education, girls were also encouraged to take part in the same physical activities as boys; they took part in sports such as running, wrestling, discus and javelin throwing. (Plutarch 14.2) This regimen was important in the daily lives of Spartan women. This was because a healthy mother would be more likely to give birth to a healthy child. These healthy children would make a healthy future for the Spartan state. The Spartans wanted to be the best they could be from birth; women were encouraged to be healthy so that they could and would produce healthy children, so that Sparta could have a powerful military and thus ensuring a stronger state. (Scott 2011 pg. 416) (Pomeroy 2002 pg. 57). This could be construed as Spartans only using women for generating offspring. Yet there was great respect for women in all spheres of life. In the athletic competition mentioned above we have evidence from archaeological discoveries such as the “Victor” and “The Spartan Running Girl” that the women would strip down for athletic competitions much the same as men would in order to “cut away prudery, sheltered upbringing and effeminacy of any kind.” (Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy & Shapiro 1994 pg. 59-60) To be shown in the heroic nude or even semi-clothed was unheard of for women in other parts of Greece.
Death and Mourning
Another difference between Spartan women and their contemporaries was their reaction to death. According to Pomeroy, Spartan women did not react to the loss of a child in the same manner as other Greek women. (Pomeroy 2002 pg. 58-59). Even in modern western society, women are expected to show grief at the death of a family member. But for SPartan women the reaction was the exact opposite: they accepted heroic deaths, not only with an absence of grief but with happiness. (Dillon 2007 pg. 1) Sorrow was reserved for those who died as cowards. Women were instrumental in enforcing the social consequences of cowardice. Mothers would not plead or beg for the lives of cowardly sons and in many cases they are said to have slain the offending son themselves in shame. (Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy & Shapiro 1994 pg. 59-60) An example of this comes from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War: When Pausanias hides himself inside a temple to Athena to escape punishment for his cowardice, his wife takes a brick and lays it at the door of the temple. Other women followed suit, walling the door and posting sentries outside and starved him until he could no longer fight. They then carried him out to prevent polluting the temple with a dead man (Thucydides 1.128-1.130) This behaviour is best emphasized in a single phrase from Plutarch’s Moralia “ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς” “Either with your shield or on it”, this was said to be a parting cry from mothers to sons off to war. (Plutarch 241.22b) It is also used in media in movies such as “300” and video games like “Civilisation VI”. This is Women telling their sons to be brave. The reason being that the only way for a hoplite to escape battle would be to leave behind the cumbersome shield they carried, thus it is implied that it is better to return dead than return a coward.
Women in Politics
Politics were another area where Spartans differed from the rest of the Greek world, although not as drastically. Politics did nothing to help women become more fertile or bear stronger children more frequently, but it gave them a voice, truthfully however, women in politics were rare. There was however, one major example of female political power: the Queen Gorgo. She was considered both worthy of respect and politically important. This is shown by the fact that both Herodotus, who left women out of his works to the point that one would think they did not exist, and Plutarch who generally focused on politically important figures, both mentioned her in their works. Plutarch goes so far as to quote her saying “When some foreign woman, as it would seem, said to her: “You Spartan women are the only ones who rule their men,” she answered: “Yes, we are the only ones who give birth to men.” (Plutarch 14.4) This does show that women were seen to have much more power in Sparta than other places in the Greek-speaking world and should not be dismissed, their power was still intrinsically linked to the fact that they bore children which would be the future of the state. In legal matters, women were treated similarly to men, being able to inherit land and possessions from deceased relatives. This was, according to Aristotle, the reason for the decline and fall of the Spartan state. (Aristotle 2.2170a)
For the women of Sparta, religion was again centered around health, fertility, and beauty. Thus, cults to the goddess of childbirth were important in Sparta. (Pomeroy 2002 pg. 105) The important religious practices and beliefs in Sparta according to Redfield, were a cult to Helen (the wife of Menelaus who was the cause of the Trojan War) and to Cynisca (Pomeroy 2002 pg. 105) the only historical woman we know of who has ever received the honour of a cult of her own in Sparta, due to her winning the Olympic crown in four-horse chariot racing in the years 392 and 396 BCE. According to Dillon, funerary inscriptions for females were rare, the only women who received them were those who served a function in religion. (Dillon 2007 pg. 152) For men, the same would only be done had they died in battle. As such, that showed that in the eyes of the Spartan people the practice and organization of religion was as high an honour as dying a warrior’s death.
Appearance and Clothing
The last point on Spartan women I will mention is that of clothing and appearance. Spartans strived for health and physical beauty. (Plutarch 14.4) In both males and females physical fitness was paramount to these two values. Although they were not warriors, the physical training and education they received (as discussed earlier) would undoubtedly lead to fit and healthy bodies. To reiterate earlier points, this would have been considered optimal as it would aid in bearing children and surviving childbirth. This would be bizarre for people of the other poleis as they did not believe in women doing such rigorous physical activities. Common clothing, according to Pomeroy, was the dorian peplos which would have been slit at the skirt to bear the thigh. This was worn for everyday use while a single shouldered chiton was worn for athletic events. (Pomeroy 2002 pg. 32) Cosmetics and luxury were banned under Lycurgus (appx 900-800 BCE), so they would not have been used, Their attire would also have been a symbol of their status within society. The woman did not make their own clothes, as was common in other Greek city-states; in Sparta this was the job of the perioikoi and helots. Thus purchasing elaborate clothing and jewelry would have been much more aggrandizing to them then it would have in places where women were the sole producers of their own attire. (Pomeroy 2002 pg. 132) These outfits would have accentuated the physical beauty the Spartans strived for and acted as a status symbol.
The women of Classical and Archaic Sparta were quite an anomaly for the time, They were much more important and independent from male members of society that would have been common in contemporary Greek poleis. They were dressed differently, they mourned differently, they offered an entirely different point of view on the role of women in the world. In modern media portrayals, they are shown to be subservient to the males of the city but this appears to be an anachronism. People have pushed their ideas of how societies would have been onto the past when the truth is quite the opposite. Spartan women were not equal in all ways to men, but they were quite a leap from where women would have been in say Athens, Pergamum or Epirus and could be considered to even have more liberties that many societies up until the mid 1900s.
A very quick case for Spartan gender equality (Source: Youtube)
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Dillon, M. (2007). Were SPartan Women Who Died in Childbirth Honoured with Grave Inscriptions? Hermes, 135(2), 149-165. Retrieved from http://www.Jstor.org/stable/40379113
Cartledge, P. (1981). Spartan Wives: Liberation or License? The Classical Quarterly, 31(1), 84-105. Retrived from http://www.jstor.org/stable/638462
Fantham,E., Foley, H. P., Kampen, N. B,. Pomeroy, S. B., & Shapiro, H. A. (2007). WOmen in the CLassical World: Image and Text. New York: Oxford University Press.
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O’Pry, K. (2012). Social and Political Roles of Women in Athens and Sparta. Saber and Scroll, 1(2), 7-14. Retrived from http://digitalcommons.apus.edu/saberandscroll/
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Plutarch., Perrin, B. (1921). Plutarch’s Lives. London: Heinemann
Polybius (2006) The Histories XII. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pomeroy, S. B. (2002). Spartan WOmen. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Scott, A. (2011). Plural Marriage and the Spartan State. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 60(4), 413-424. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41342859
Thucydides. (1885). The Peloponnesian War. London: James Cornish and Sons
Source: Archaic & Classical Period