WOMEN IN SPARTA

 

 

       Sparta was comprised of three groups of people: citizens, the only ones with political power; perioikoi, free but without any political rights; and helots, serfs owned by the state and compelled to do all of the agricultural work and give half of the produce to their citizen overlords. There is nothing at all unusual about a state in the Ancient World assigning different rights to different groups of people within its borders, but the system left Sparta with a very difficult problem. The helots outnumbered the citizens by about 7 to 1. Further, the helots all spoke the same language, shared the same culture, and lived in communities distinct from those occupied by citizens. Rebellion was a constant threat.

       The circus lion tamer in the cage with his charge knows he must exercise considerable skill and vigilance at all times for he will die if his concentration wavers for even a moment. The Spartan felt much the same way. Athenians were prepared to work hard, but insisted on making time for art, culture, philosophy and conversation. Spartans devoted all their energy to the maintenance of a military machine. It is impossible to understand the life of Spartan women without an understanding of the entire social system, for this preoccupation with being ready at all times for war had as big an impact on women as it did on men. Infants of either sex were exposed to die if they looked sickly and less than robust. Boys lived at home with their mother until the age of 7 when they went away to join a junior branch of the army for the rest of their education and socialization. From then on they were brought up by the group, not their family of birth, and indeed had to accept discipline from and address as father all adult males. They learned obedience and bravery and they learned to be athletes and soldiers. They got married in their mid twenties, but visited their wives only on occasion and by stealth, living full time in the barracks with other men. Only when they turned thirty could they sleep at home and even then they spent most of the day on a campaign, in training or in government office, and they had their evening meal in the mess hall. The state, not the family was the primary source of affection and authority.

       As was the case throughout Greece, a woman’s primary role was the bearing and raising of children, but the Spartans believed that a woman could better perform this job if she remained fit and healthy. Physical training and athletics were as important for girls as they were for boys, and there were regular competitions for running, wrestling, discus and javelin. Apparently they also engaged in horse-drawn chariot races. Some of these events may have been associated with religious practice. In any event it was believed that strong mothers were more likely to produce strong babies.

       Spartan girls did not marry until they were eighteen. Men married in their mid-twenties, but had only quick, surreptitious visits with their wives until they were thirty. Even after that they came home just to sleep at night. Home was very much a female place. Spartan women had a reputation throughout the Greek world for being outspoken and bossy. Athenian men socialized and worked outside, but they came home often enough to impose their will on the entire household. Spartan men were rarely home anyway, so they had little interest in how it was run.          

       An unusual feature of Spartan life was “wife sharing”. Polybius [1], Xenophon[2] and Plutarch[3] all refer to it. Three, four, sometimes more, brothers might share the same wife, as a means of preventing the dividing of their inheritance into several much smaller parts. They regarded any children produced by the relationship as belonging equally to all. An unmarried man, wanting a child but not the responsibility of a wife and home outside of the barracks, might ask to borrow a wife for the purposes of producing a child.

       At one time scholars believed that all of the land in Sparta was owned by the community and simply assigned to individual men as they became adult. Almost all  now accept the private ownership of land and agree that it could be bequeathed or given away, even if it could not be sold. Normally the land was left at death to the owner’s children, with daughters inheriting half the share that sons received. The prohibition on selling land, of course, applied to women as well as to men.

       Spartan daughters expected to inherit half what a son would inherit. While part if not all of their share came in the form of a dowry delivered to them at the time of their marriage, the combination allowed Spartan women to acquire considerably  more wealth than their Athenian sisters. Unlike the Athenian version, a Spartan dowry often included land.  Aristotle reported, in fact, that women owned forty percent of the land in Sparta. There was little liquid wealth. Land could be given away or bequeathed, but it could not be sold; slaves were owned by the state, not the master for whom they worked, and as such could neither be manumitted nor sold. Laws prohibited extravagance at weddings and funerals, and limited the amount of jewelry that could be worn. Spartans led simple lives: there was little money and little on which to spend it. Land, then, was the only source of wealth and land ownership a major key to social and political prestige.

       How much control did a Spartan woman have over the land she owned and how much authority could she wield with her wealth? The question is not an easy one to answer. The Athenian woman needed the approval of her guardian to conduct any business deal worth more than the value of a bushel of barley, and an heiress had no say in the selection of the husband who was going to manage her inheritance. Anything she inherited passed to her son as soon as he came of age. It is possible Spartan women did have guardians, but there is no evidence of one actually using his authority to conduct business for his charge. A man’s day was almost entirely taken up with public business, either military or political, leaving him very little time for home. It is likely that women were left to their own devices to run private affairs much as they saw fit.

       Spartan women had a reputation throughout the Greek world for licentiousness, due in part to their style of dress, their marriage customs, certain cult practices, and to the fact that the denigration of women was an easy and cheap assault on the enemy. The Doric peplos, their standard article of clothing, had a long slit up the side, permitting easier movement for the wearer, but earning them the nickname, “thigh-shower”. Bronze figurines feature Spartan female athletes competing in a tunic that left one breast bare. Plutarch [5] reported that Spartan girls performed nude ritual dances in public and implied that girls and boys competed side by side in the nude. The fact that a Spartan woman could bear one man’s child and still remain married to another, or, even worse, be married to two or more men at the same time was seen by Athenian men as proof that she was shamelessly immoral.

 

 

WHY SPARTAN WOMEN WERE MORE DOMINANT IN SOCIETY THAN THEIR ATHENIAN SISTERS

  1. Girls were given a good education in both the arts and athletics.
  2. Women were encouraged to develop their intellect.
  3. Women owned more than a third of the land.
  4. There was less difference in age between husbands and wives, and girls in Sparta married at a later age than their sisters in Athens.
  5.  Husbands spent most of their time with other men in the military barracks; since the men were rarely home, the women were free to take charge of almost everything outside of the army.
  6. Mothers reared their sons until age 7 and then society took over.  Fathers played little or no role in child care.

 

 

Readers are reminded that most of our information about Sparta and its women come to us through the eyes of Athenian men who regarded Sparta as the enemy. There is nothing we can do about that as there is no other source, but our picture of Sparta may not be as reliable as our view of other corners of the Ancient World. Making a derogatory remark about its women was a cheap and easy way of insulting the enemy.

 

 

1] Polybius 12.6b.8

[2] Xenophon, Constitution 1.7-9

[3] Plutarch, Lycurgus 15.6-9

[4] Aristotle, Politics 1270a23-5

[5] Plutarch, Lycurgus 14.2, 14.4

 

 

 

HOME