Spartan Women: Distinguishing from Their Ancient Counterparts

In the heart of ancient Greece, where individuality was often suppressed in favor of the state, an intriguing contrast emerged within the city-state of Sparta. While Spartan society is renowned for its unyielding warriors, it also harbored a unique approach to women’s rights and education. This article delves into the distinct characteristics that set Spartan women apart from their counterparts in other ancient societies.

Cultivated and Quick-Witted Spartan Women

Spartan Women
Illustration of Spartan women freely engaging in outdoor activities, with a woman in the foreground skillfully playing a musical instrument, showcasing her passion for the arts. This marked a notable contrast from the experiences of their Greek counterparts. ( Source )

In Sparta, the prevailing information about Spartan women is primarily derived from ancient scholars and poets who lived between the eighth century BC (Archaic Period) and the fourth century BC (Classical Period). While ancient Greek women, in general, endured lives of hardship and servitude, Spartan women were a striking exception. Unlike Athenian women, who had limited rights and were subject to the dominance of their husbands, Spartan women were raised and controlled by the state. Instead of being confined to the household,

According to Sarah J. Pomeroy, Spartan girls were categorized into different groups, including children, young girls, maidens who had reached puberty, and married women. Hairstyles distinguished maidens from married women, with the latter wearing their hair short. Spartan women, although some knew how to weave, were not primarily engaged in textile production, as this task was predominantly handled by helot slaves and servants. This division of labor allowed Spartan women and men the freedom to dedicate themselves fully to serving the state. Spartan women were responsible for staying physically fit and bearing healthy children.

While Spartan society placed the collective above the individual, this unique approach granted a degree of equality with men that was unusual in ancient Greece. Spartan women were expected to not only maintain physical health but also engage in intellectual discussions about state politics, laws, reading, writing, and mythology. It was commonplace for a Spartan woman to hold her own in debates and intellectual challenges posed by men.

Spartan women actively participated in physical activities such as foot races alongside Spartan men. Although they were not permitted to undergo the rigorous training at the Spartan military school, known as the agoge, which all Spartan boys entered by the age of seven, still received a state-sanctioned formal education. Evidence from Pythagoreans listed by Lamblichos suggests that Spartan women may have been highly literate. There is debate about whether education was limited to women of the Spartan elite or extended to all classes of Spartan women.

Spartan women were known for their sharp wit and outspoken opinions about state laws, often intimidating Athenian Greek men whose perspectives did not align with Sparta’s.

Spartan Women: Fit and Free

Spartan Women
The remarkable bravery exhibited by Spartan women. ( Source )

In contrast to the attire of most ancient Greek women, who wore corsets, breast supporter bands, and girdles to maintain a particular feminine appearance, Spartan women were depicted quite differently. According to Hans Licht, author of “The Sexual Life of Ancient Greece,” depictions of on ancient vases showed them as mostly naked except for a short Chiton (short dress) with a side slit that revealed a substantial portion of their legs. This stark contrast led to being mockingly referred to as “thigh-showers” by their Athenian counterparts. The emphasis on physical exercise provides a clear explanation for this distinct portrayal.

Much like Hans Licht’s interpretation of the works of Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver of Sparta, Spartan women were encouraged to engage in physical activities such as running, wrestling, and throwing discus and javelins. The rationale behind this approach was rooted in the Spartan state’s belief that healthy women, as fit as their male counterparts, would be more likely to bear healthy children. In contrast to Spartan men, women received more food and provisions to ensure optimal nutrition for this purpose.

Spartan women, alongside men, were accustomed to walking nearly naked, combat-ready, and open to socializing during festive occasions. However, these limited moments of freedom were often overshadowed by the draconian laws that persisted. Men and women still lived separately in barracks until completing their thirty-year term of military service. Both genders had to meet in secret for intimate relationships, as any deviation from this norm led to ridicule and severe punishment.

Spartan Marriage, Sex, and Birth

Young Spartan women and men exercising together in harmonious camaraderie. ( Source )

Throughout history, marriages were often contractual agreements. Spartan marriages were no exception but featured unique cultural elements. Spartan women typically married at the age of 18 to 30-year-old Spartan men, a significant contrast to the Athenian practice where women married in their early teens to much older men. Failure to marry by their thirties often resulted in severe punishment for Spartan men, as it was considered detrimental to society.

Due to the extended commitment of male Spartan citizens to military service (up to thirty years), marriages were relatively brief, and newlyweds remained separated except for specific times of the year when they could be together. Plutarch’s work noted that Spartan men were often reluctant to marry, even though the state encouraged marriage and procreation. This reluctance could be attributed, in part, to the isolation of same-sex groups during their upbringing, making Spartan newlywed men uncertain about interacting with the opposite sex.

Spartan marriage customs were unique; couples were often selected randomly and left alone in a dark room for their initial encounter. These unions were kept secret, and if the marriage did not result in offspring, couples were rearranged with different partners. If the marriage was successful, the bride would cut her hair short and don a Spartan man’s tunic. Over several days, the groom would sneak away from his barracks for intimate moments with his new wife, retreating before discovery to avoid punishment.

Hans Licht, author of “Sexual Practices of Greece,” suggested that such arrangements aimed to maintain restraint, moderation, and continuous passion between spouses, ensuring the birth of children. This unconventional approach sought to prevent emotional attachments to family members, consistent with the Spartan aversion to vulnerability.

Spartan Women’s Landownership

Spartan Women
Depiction of a Spartan woman bestowing a shield upon one of her sons as he prepares for war, all while tending to her other children. ( Source )

Spartan land ownership remains a historically controversial topic due to varying interpretations of Plutarch’s “Lykourgos.” Stephan Hodskin explored this text, which suggested that Spartan citizens unified their territory, dividing it equally among themselves to promote uniformity and equality in means of subsistence. However, there is also debate regarding the inheritance of land through the male line. Regardless of the specifics, when men were at war and had no male heirs, became the custodians of a portion of the property until they remarried or bore a male heir.

The issue of inheritance was also challenged by Aristotle, who attributed Greece’s problems to the extensive rights, wealth, and influence of Spartan women over the state, property, and government. Aristotle’s assessment, as noted by Pomeroy, highlighted freedom to bequeath their land as they wished, with substantial endowments. Spartan daughters received more significant dowries compared to their Athenian counterparts.

Whether the state or individuals owned the land, Spartan women wielded significant influence within households. With men often away due to military service, assumed control over the home, managing helot servants, slave girls, and the agricultural workforce.

The Enduring Impact of Spartan Women

Spartan Women
Depiction of a Spartan woman bestowing a shield upon one of her sons as he prepares for war, all while tending to her other children. ( Source )

In summary, Spartan women were distinctive among their ancient Greek counterparts due to their exceptional education, physical fitness, and relative freedom. Their ability to engage in intellectual discussions, maintain physical health, and assert themselves within the Spartan political landscape set them apart. Spartan women’s unique marital customs, focus on physical fitness, and land ownership further solidified their exceptional status in ancient Greece.

The legacy continues to intrigue historians and scholars, offering a compelling glimpse into a society that, while still deeply rooted in patriarchy and militarism, carved out an unusual space for women’s rights and influence. While not without its complexities and contradictions, Spartan society stands as a fascinating testament to the possibilities and limitations of gender roles in the ancient world.

1 thought on “Spartan Women: Distinguishing from Their Ancient Counterparts”

  1. This cannot be any example today as females were raised & controlled as cows or pigs to raise martial offsprings because Spartan worked as hired, mercenaries in contrast Greek women lived an honorable life!! Women allowed to behave as men is a huge anomaly contrary to what women today might belive !! Women forced to be like men is also contravention of natural rules !! It’s actually lethal for society health & structure !!

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