Spartan Women And Their Role in Society Compared to Athenian Women Spartan Women were definitely more dominant in society in comparison to their Athenian Sisters. Spartan women had the freedom of equality in their society but were not allowed to vote and they had a reputation for boldness and licentiousness that other Greeks found unseemly. The women of Sparta were known for their education, athleticism, producing children, and their natural beauty. Unfortunately, there is no real historical documentation that spells out the ways of the women of Sparta.
Historians rely on the accounts of Archaic Greek (7th century) poets and other subsequent Greek historians and literary figures to piece together the history, and sometimes the mythology, of the lives and culture of Spartan women. Education was a huge part of a Spartans woman’s life and one of the most recognised differences, which made the Spartan women quite diverse compared to the rest of the women living in different cities, especially Athenian women. Athenian women participated in domestic arts such as spinning and weaving. Spartan women were taught reading and writing and such tasks were relegated to the Helots or Perioeci.
A girl’s education was equally as brutal as the men’s. “Teaching a woman to read and write? What a terrible thing to do! It’s like feeding a vile snake on more poison. ” -A Menander’s (an Athenian) reaction to a Spartan women’s education. Spartan girls from the age of 7 were entitled to an education. This education however was physical more so than academic, but nevertheless must have been extremely important to Sparta as they are the only Greeks to of instituted it as state policy. The girls attended their own sisterhood barracks where they were taught gymnastics, wrestling and survival skills.
It is said that the girls participated in the same activities as the boys which included many events such as javelin, discus, foot races, and staged battles. In many such events Spartan women usually competed naked in the presence of their male counterparts, and were respected for their athletic feats. Plutarch mentions nude rituals witnessed by young men. Athleticism was also seen as a guarantee that the strong and fit Spartan women would reproduce, and when they bore children, those children would be strong warriors in the making. Marriage for a Spartan woman was an almost non-ceremonial event.
During the marriage ceremony, the bride wore a white robe, a veil, and jewellery given to her by her husband’s family. The ceremony usually took place in the groom’s tent and the festivities lasted seven days. If a woman was wealthy enough she could have even had a husband for each house she maintained. The night before the ceremony an abnormal tradition was carried out, the woman was abducted in the night by her suitor, her head was shaved, and she was made to wear men’s clothing and lie on a straw pallet in the dark. From there on she would meet with her husband for almost entirely procreative reasons.
If she was formerly a girl, she became a woman through marriage and her childhood toys were taken and dedicated to a goddess. Any Spartan man could abduct a wife, which led to a system of polyandry (many husbands, one wife or vice versa) in Sparta. Some arranged marriages were even chosen on the women’s athletic ability. Before marrying, a couple was required to wrestle in public to show their compatibility. If compatible the groom’s father would agree to the marriage, and twelve months after this selection the couple would marry.
Spartan women could also take another husband if their first had been away at war for too long, which Plutarch recorded in his writings: When king Leonidas left to fight the Persians he advised his wife and presumably other likely widows: To marry good men and bear good children. (The Ancient World, 1997, p104) While there is no proof one way or another, it seems likely that Spartan marriages were arranged by the parents with little thought for the preferences of the prospective bride or groom, but if Spartan women had no say in the choice of husband they certainly had power and status in every other respect.
Not every women in Sparta became married, One group of women existed who were unusually free to go out and about as they pleased, they were known as the Hetairai. These women were trained to become companions for men. They were usually well educated and pretty. Usually they were invited to men’s dinner parties to join in with the discussions and to play music to the guests. (Ancient Greece, 1992, p61) Spartan women usually married when they were eighteen and men usually got married in their mid-thirties, much later than the Greeks. Presumably this was to guarantee healthier and stronger babies rather than a large number, but it meant that ost girls were emotionally stronger when they married. In any event other Greeks clearly believed that Spartan women had far too much power for the good of the state. Plutarch wrote that “the men of Sparta always obeyed their wives. ” Aristotle was even more critical of the influence women had in politics arguing that it was contributing to the downfall of the country. Women did not have a vote in the assembly but seem to have had a lot of influence behind the scene. Women’s roles in Sparta were not limited to marriage and procreation.
They could own and control their own property and did in fact own more than a third of the land in Sparta. They could dispose of their land as they wished. A woman was expected in times of war to be fierce and overtake her husband’s property, and to guard it against invaders and revolts until her husband returned; hence many Spartan women are depicted as warriors. Land ownership for Athenian women was certainly unheard of. Women’s tunics were worn in such a way as to give them a little more freedom of movement and the opportunity to reveal a little leg and thigh if they so desired and went anywhere in their city as they pleased.
Spartan women were forbidden to wear any kind of makeup or enhancements. Athenian women wore heavy, concealing clothes and were rarely seen outside the house. The end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth centuries BC saw a decline in the number of men relative to women. If boys left home for good at age 7 and husbands and fathers spent the greater part of their life in military training with other men, the impact of all this on the lives of women must have been enormous. Daughters inherited along with sons.
Unfortunately, when we get down to the particulars there are some gaps in our knowledge. Attempts were made to get rid of the practice of needing a dowry to get married. It is possible that endeavours by fathers to get around the law have led to considerable confusion in our eyes as to what was a gift and what was a dowry. Daughters may have inherited half of what a son inherited; it is also possible that if you combine dowry with inheritance they ended up with a full share of the estate. Spartan and Athenian women lived much of their lives far removed from the men of their societies.
Athenian men spent time away discussing politics and philosophy, but when they went home they expected obedience from their wives and no Athenian citizen would ever admit to taking advice from a woman. Spartan men were absent even more; while they were the only ones who held official office everyone acknowledged the influence women had in decision making. Spartan women may have gained freedom from male domination, but they were even less likely to get any emotional support from their marriages.
The men of Athens had to be the boss in public, but there was no such social requirement in the home behind closed doors. The overt power of the husband was replaced in Sparta by an unspoken but very real control by the state. Spartan women remained breeding machines whose purpose was to produce the male soldiers the state needed to defend itself against revolt by the Helots. If babies were seen as unfit when examined at birth they were abandoned on Mt Taygetos and left to die. Mother love was replaced by a mother’s pride in her son’s bravery in battle and disgust with any sign of cowardice. Come home with your shield or upon it” was reputed to be the advice one woman gave her son as he went off to war. She may well have been speaking on behalf of all Spartan women. Another freedom that Spartan women had over other Greek women was their ability to fraternize in public with Spartan men. Along with exercising with the opposite sex came the ability to trade conversation and political witticisms with them. In fact, Spartan women were notoriously known for their razor-sharp wit and outspoken natures. This freedom turned heads amongst the other Greeks, and they, of course, disapproved greatly.
But, if the physical health of a Spartan woman was seen as vital to her ability to produce strong Spartan boys, then her mental and intellectual might have been seen as just as important. When Sparta deteriorated in the 4th century B. C. , their fall from grace was blamed in part on the inclusion of their women in public life, their ability to own land, and thus their supposed ability to exert a certain amount of power over their men. It seems that the general consensus was, if you gave a Greek woman an inch, she would take a mile.
Social and economic status was restricted within the Spartan women’s community. This status was only of importance in issues such as marriage, as a Spartan woman could only marry within the Spartan community as well as within their own social and economic status. The jobs Spartan women were eligible for also depended on their economic/social status. It was unusual for well born women to have a job outside of the house, except some did become priestesses in the temples, whilst the lower born women usually became midwives, shopkeepers, dancers or musicians.
The worship of Artemis was common throughout the Greek world; only in Sparta was a warrior spirit and sense of equality allowed to flourish among the upper-class Spartan men and women. Plutarch’s Moralia contains a collection of “Sayings of Spartan Women”, including a laconic quip attributed to Queen Gorgo (wife of Leonidas 1): when asked by a woman from Attica why Spartan women were the only women in the world who could rule men, she replied “Because we are the only women who are mothers of men”.