Women in Ancient Sparta

In most Ancient Greek city-states, women were essentially little better than slaves. Thier lives controlled first by their fathers and later their husbands. They lived in a completely separate part of the house and had to be accompanied by a near male relative when they went out. Women received no formal education. Women could not inherit or own property.

While women in Sparta were not the equal of men, they had much more freedom than women in any other city of Ancient Greece. This unusual treatment of women had everything to do with Sparta’s militaristic society and culture.

The only purpose of any Spartan was to produce superb soldiers for the Spartan military. The two roles of women had in this militaristic society were to produce healthy sons and daughters and to manage the household while her husband was off fighting, therefore women were given comparable training and education to the men.

Baby girls underwent the same examination as the newborn boys and if they failed the inspection the infant girls would also be thrown to their deaths into a chasm on Mount Taygetos.

While women were not sent through the brutal Agoge training their brothers had to endure. Girls would go through athletic training. They learned to throw the javelin and the discus. The girls sometimes joined the boys in foot races and even took part in mock battles with the boys. In these events the Spartan girls would be nude as would the boys, in front of an audience of their fathers and mothers. Spartan women wore their clothes so that they had a good deal of freedom of movement. These short tunics showed off their legs and thighs; this earned Spartan women the scornful name “thigh flashers” from the men of other cities. All this physical training was done so that Spartan women could produce healthy children.

Spartan girls were educated to read and write and do sums. This instruction was necessary for Spartan women because of the need to run the household and family property while her husband was away. Some historians think that Spartan women might have been better educated than Spartan men in those areas. Of course, Spartan women could own property in her own right, not just hold it for her brother or husband.

In the one area that Spartan women were like their counterparts in the other Greek cities was marriage. The women had no choice at all in whom they married. Marriages were arrangements by the woman’s closest male relatives. Spartan marriage traditions were strange. They included a ritual kidnapping of the bride, who had her head shaved and was clad in men’s garments for her wedding night.

Women in Sparta were allowed to conduct worship of certain goddesses without the interference of any men. The worship of Helen of Troy appears to have been particularly orgiastic, with men not even allowed to observe the rites.

It is one of the ironies of history that some writers thought that the Spartans were soft because they allowed their women so much freedom.

Sources:

Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus

Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaemonians

Aristotle, Politics

Bettany Hughes, The Spartans, BBC TV.

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