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Skimpy clothes - if not quite as skimpy as those sported by Lena Headey in '300' - were commonly worn by women in Sparta. It was just one of many freedoms they enjoyed which weren't shared by their Athenian sisters.
As documented in the article ‘Woman of Sparta: Tough Mothers’, Spartan women enjoyed all kinds of rights not shared by their Athenian sisters – albeit plenty of plights too. Sparta’s unique social system and constitution, which was completely focused on military training and excellence, afforded females a level of freedom and responsibility uncommon in the classical world – as child bearers, they were vital to replenishing the ranks of an army that suffered an almost constant stream of casualties; with so many men constantly away at war, they were crucial to running their households and the community at large.
Yet, Spartan women were also subjected to brutal and demeaning rituals and rites, in what was a cruel and strange society. Their glorious duty in life was to facilitate the fiercely macho city state’s status as the prominent military power in Greece, or die trying. The only family and the only love they were allowed to know was Sparta itself.
Here we count down key facts, good and bad, about Sparta’s fairer sex.
1. They Were Citizens of Sparta
This was a crucial factor in Spartan women’s relative empowerment. Unlike the perioikoi, an autonomous group of free inhabitants of Sparta, or Helots, state-owned serfs, essentially slaves, women of Sparta were considered Spartiates – that is, full citizens of the city state. They were exempt from manual labour, could own land, amass wealth and were entitled to an education.
2. They Could Dress Daringly
They probably weren’t quite as revealing as some of the dental-floss sized outfits sported by Lena Headey in her role as Queen Gorgo in300, but certainly Spartan women’s dresses were notoriously skimpy for their age, allowing them to flash not just leg but thigh too. This was deemed acceptable since women, like men, were expected to be models of physical fitness and proud of it. Spartans believed that the stronger the Spartan mother, the stronger the son. Long hair was banned though.
3. They Had to Give Up Their Sons at a Young Age
As much as it was an honour for a woman to bear a child in Sparta – particularly a boy – it was also an incredible emotional burden. For starters, in a society that practiced eugenics – that is, the process of trying to improve a race’s genetic makeup by killing off inferior children – a baby needed to be deemed fit enough to live by a council of elders. If it failed, it would be left out to die. Male children that passed the test would be wrenched from their mothers when they reached just seven years old, and placed in theagoge – an extremely harsh educational system preparing them as soldiers.
4. The First Ever Female to Win Gold at the Olympics Was a Spartan
Just about every event at the modern day Olympics has a men’s and women’s category, but it wasn’t always so. At the ancient games, the Olympics were originally exclusively for male competitors. The Spartans, who – unlike the Athenians and other Greeks – prided their women’s physical prowess and skill, changed that. Spartan princess Cynisca became the first ever female Olympic victor when she won the four-horse chariot race not just once but twice, in 396 BC and then again in 392 BC.
5. They Expected Their Sons to Triumph or Die on the Battlefield
“They would tell their sons as they saw them off into battle to return ‘with their shield, or on it’.”
A famous quote by a Spartan woman, recorded by Plutarch, is that they would tell their sons as they saw them off into battle to return “with their shield, or on it.” That is: shield in hand and triumphant, or carried on their shield, dead.
Plutarch also gives various accounts of Spartan women murdering their sons if they showed cowardice, or celebrating their deaths if they occurred on the battlefield. Clearly the ethos of Sparta was ingrained deep into women’s minds.
6. A Spartan Woman’s Greatest Honour Was to Die During Childbirth
There was only one way a Spartan man was entitled to have his name etched into his headstone, and that was if he died in battle. The equivalent death for a woman was deemed to be while performing her divine duty to Sparta – giving birth. Therefore, only women who passed away while in labour were allowed to have their names recorded on their graves and be remembered immortally.
7. They Were in Competition to Bear the Most Sons
It wasn’t quite Soviet Russia – where women were awarded a medal for giving birth to more than 10 children – but Sparta too had a system for hailing mothers with the strongest and most fertile wombs. If a Spartan female gave birth to three or more sons, she was rewarded special privileges and status, similar to veteran soldiers who had triumphed on the battlefield several times.
8. They Had to Make Love in Secret
The Spartans weren’t shy or conservative when it came to sex – Spartan men were openly encouraged to have sexual relations with other men and young boys as a means of strengthening masculine bonds. But sex with women was considered to be exclusively for the purpose of fathering children.
It was subject to all kinds of strange rules and rituals – one of which was that all liaisons between husbands and wives had to be conducted secretly. The idea was that, since contact would be limited, sexual desires would be heightened and potency increased, resulting in healthier offspring.
9. They Were Major Landowners
As mentioned above, because Spartan women were full citizens, they could own land. And own it they did, in massive amounts – perhaps as much as a third of all of Sparta at one stage. Every Spartan male was allotted a portion of land, called a kláros orklēros, upon completing military service. When he died, this would be passed to his male heir if he had one, but if not, then his daughter profited. Property was shared between married couples, meaning wives could also inherit from their husbands. It was theirs to keep, tend, and profit from even if they divorced.
10. Spartan Women Caused the Decline of Spartan Society?
Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that a contributing factor in Sparta’s decline around the late 4th century BC was that Spartan husbands had become so dominated by their wives. He alleged that Spartan womens’ ability to acquire wealth and land, coupled with the fact that they lived – as he put it – “in every sort of intemperance and luxury” while the male population all the while dwindled, caused disorder to reign in a city state that needed militaristic discipline to survive.
About The Author
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Malcolm Jack is a freelance arts and entertainment journalist based in Glasgow, Scotland. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 2004 with an MA Honours Degree in History.