Women in Ancient Sparta

It’s no secret ancient Greece wasn’t exactly progressive in terms of gender equality (remember our old friend Hippocrates and his magic cure-all?). However, there seems to be a pop-culture misconception that Spartan women were some how different. That because Spartan men were often away at war, it necessitated the city-state have more equable gender politics.

Oh, if only.

It’s true that Spartan women had greater legal standing as property owners. And it’s true that Spartan women competed in athletic contests like and alongside the men with little, if anything, on. It’s also true that typical domestic, “womanly” work expected of women in other Greek city-states were considered distasteful for free women to do.

However, the culture completely revolved around the masculine. Greater property rights came because Spartan men lived almost exclusively in barracks when they weren’t off at war. Because only the menfolk were considered strong and virile enough to go off and fight. So women got to not only own a goodly chunk of the property, they got to manage it pretty much totally on their own.

The idea of men needing to be strong enough for war also fueled women’s athletic competitions and freeing them from what was elsewhere thought of as women’s work. The physical competitions – foot and chariot races, wrestling, and discus and javelins throwing (according to volume one of Katherine French and Allyson Poska’s Women and Gender in the Western Past) – were actually conducted, for unmarried women only mind you, because it was thought the training would make women more likely to conceive “vigorous” sons.

Sons, and daughters, that these women would essentially raise alone. Spartan men married around age 20 (Spartan women also married later, most likely around age 18, as opposed to other Greek city-states where women married upon puberty; although like other Greek women, they probably were not allowed to choose their spouse), but were required to live in the barracks until they were about 30. Thus children could go as many as 10 years without knowing their fathers; for sons conceived in the first year of a marriage, they would very likely be moved into the barracks to begin military training by the time their fathers lived in the home full time.

Even on the wedding night, femininity had little place in Spartan society. The night before a couple’s wedding, the bride would be dressed in men’s clothing and have her hair chopped short, then she’d be left alone in the dark. After her husband-to-be finished his dinner, he would go to her, the couple would have sex, and then he would return to the barracks. The next day, they’d get hitched. Although there are many theories as to why this tradition was started, Sarah Pomeroy in Spartan Women proposes that it was to help ease the switch from homosexual sex (oh yes, the Spartans were still Greek after all, so women were still inferior sexual partners in their estimation) to heterosexual sex. Personally, I see it as a continuation of their devaluation of women and femininity.

Still, Spartan women did wield a bit of political power, though not in any direct manner. Their political power mostly rested in their wealth and property. And even this one perk was tainted; Aristotle (among others) heavily blamed the wealth of Spartan women for the city-state’s decline.

About Manda:
Manda is, in no special order, an artist, mama, writer, activist and history geek.

Comments

  1. So glad that your ancient history posts are making a comeback!

    The whole thing about the women being dressed as men the night before their wedding is just bizarre.

  2. “what was elsewhere thought of as women’s work” You talk about valuing femininity, but what is feminine is cultural. If these habits were the norm for upperclass Spartan women, then they were the ‘normal’ feminine gendered behaviors, not masculine ones.

    Also, this analysis is highly class based. Which women are being freed from domestic labour? Certainly not the slaves and lower class people making up the majority of the population.

  3. I get your relativity argument Cat, except that things like weaving and cooking, etc WERE viewed by the Spartans as distinctly feminine activities. But for free Spartan women, engaging in such activities was thought to make the women only conceive daughters or weak sons. Their society valued strong, militaristic men; so in their efforts to produce them, they tried to wring as much of what they viewed as femininity out of their women as possible.

    And of course it’s highly class based. Much of history, especially ancient history, is highly class based. Certainly slaves would pick up the slack of domestic work for women who could afford them. It’s a reasonable assumption that women who had no slaves did considerably more “womanly” work, though one can only imagine that their husbands, and possibly they as well, were eager to capture/buy slaves as soon as possible.

  4. Women in ancient times is a great topic, and I really enjoyed this glimpse into the women of Sparta.

    One of my favorite topics is gender constructs, so my ears perked up at the statement: “Even on the wedding night, femininity had little place in Spartan society.” I recognize that stripping the soon-to-be brides of their clothes and hair took away their identity and that this ritual was completely demoralizing for the woman. Is it femininity that was stripped from the bride? Do clothing and hair length define femininity, and are these qualities unique to the female sex?

    Our language is encroached with so many negative connotation towards women, and for me femininity is one of them. It implies an essentialist world view wherein sex and gender are considered one in the same and personality traits and characteristics are inherently male or female and where femininity is measured against the masculine, defined by what the masculine is not.

    Just some thoughts on language :)

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