Separating the truth from the myth
Who were the Spartan women, really? (Image from ThoughtCo)
Hi, my name is Jaclynn and I’m a history addict.
I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’ve always had a particular interest in ancient history, traveling around the world to visit sites, monuments and museums in parts of the once classical world that have peaked my interest over the years. In my younger days I stumbled across mention of the great social experiment known a Sparta, but hadn’t given it the attention it deserved until the 2007 film 300 (based on the 1998 comic series of the same name by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley), which absolutely blew me away. I developed quite an interest in Spartan (or as I prefer to call them, and the name they actually used for themselves, Lacedaemonian) history, with emphasis on Spartan women. (How the heck could I not, after seeing Lena Headey play Queen Gorga?!) Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that there was a whole lot of misinformation out there about Spartan women. Sure, their lives were unarguably better than it was for women in other Greek city-states, or polis (plural: poleis). But was Sparta the feminist utopia that films like 300 (and it’s sequel, Rise of an Empire) made it out to be, with fiercely independent queens and women warriors?
I tried to break it down into simple categories below, with both good and bad, using other classically contemporary Greek city-states as comparison and counterpoint. I use the word Greek loosely, as there was no united “Greek” identity, but in doing so I mean one of the city-states, poleis, of what we now refer to as ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks were very aware that they were by no means culturally identical, but they almost all agreed that they had more in common with each other than not — with one exception: the Spartans.
Early Life and Education- Sparta:
A bronze statue of a Spartan woman exercising (either running or dancing, historians aren’t sure) c. 500 BCE. (Go see it at the British Museum) One derogatory slur used again Spartan women was to call them “thigh flashers”, and you can see why from the statue above.
Girls in Sparta received a separate state-sponsored education to boys, but they did indeed receive some sort of public educational program. Girls were mainly taught at home by mothers and domestic Helots (slaves), while boys attended the agōgē (the rigorous education and training program mandated for all male Spartan citizens, with the exception of the firstborn son in the ruling houses) from ages 7–29. Most historians agree that Spartan girls could read and write. They were actively encouraged to perform physical activities like gymnastics, running, wrestling and dancing, and their education focused heavily on the physical dimension. They raced (both on foot and on horses) and exercised in public, not sequestered away. Adolescent girls went through a process of public education and socializing which imbued them with society’s ideals and helped shape their adult behavior. They also received the same share of food as their brothers, keeping them healthy and fit and their lifespans longer than found in other Greek poleis. It’s pretty clear that the Spartan’s did not see women as categorically inferior to men, like their neighbors did.
This sounds great, but keep in mind that this education in physical fitness had to do with the Spartan mentality that the fitter the woman, the stronger the son she could produce. It was a form of Spartan eugenics and an attempt to create stronger offspring, ideally male. Women were not allowed to train with weapons, and although women completed in their own, women-only, sporting events, no women were allowed to participate in the sporting events of the Olympics. One very interesting loophole to the Olympics rule involved a Spartan princess named Cynisca (her name, oddly enough, meant something like “Girl Puppy”). She competed in the Olympiads in the four-horse chariot races — as an owner and breeder of horses, not as a driver — and won in 396BCE and 392BCE, becoming the first woman to win in the games. Technically she didn’t compete, her driver did, but she was an expert equestrian and a talented horsewoman.
My ancestors and brothers were kings of Sparta.
I, Cynisca, victorious with a chariot of swift-footed horses,
erected this statue. I declare that I am the only woman
in all of Greece to have won this crown.
Inscribed circular stone base of a four-horse chariot dedicated by Cynisca of Sparta, winner of the Olympic chariot races.
Early Life Education- The rest of Greece:
The position of women in ancient Greece differed between time, city and class, but women were generally not given any sort of formal education. Most Greeks believed women were naturally and categorically inferior to men, physically deformed or malformed, intellectually lacking and on same the level as children. Why send them to school? Aristotle sums up the Greek view of women with this quote:
“The female is, as it were, a mutilated male, for there is only one thing they have not in them, the principle of soul.”
Girls learned how to cook and prepare food, run a home and do housework, make clothing and raise children, and that’s generally where their education ended. A few notably Greek women could read and write (Sappho) but only wealthy families who had servants or slaves to take care of the domestic activities could afford to teach their daughters to read and write. Spartan women, conversely, never (or very rarely) were required to do these things, depending instead on the work of Helots, a subjugated slave population who performed the labor that was the bedrock on which Spartan leisure and wealth rested.
Rights and Law- Sparta:
Spartan women had more rights and enjoyed greater autonomy than women in any other Greek polis of the Classical Period (which would be the 5th-4th centuries BCE). Women could inherit property, own land, make business transactions, and as have seen, were better educated than women in Greece in general. Literary sources written by male Athenian authors make it sound as though it was considered shameful for an (upper class) Athenian woman of the citizen class to even go outside the home unless it was for a religious occasion, and she certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to speak to other men, let alone do gymnastics!
Like women in other Greek poleis Spartan women were legally prohibited from taking part in any of the official processes of the Spartan government. They could not take part in meetings of the apella (the assembly of all male Spartan citizens over the age of thirty) and they were forbidden from holding any form of public office. Spartan women almost certainly exerted some political influence, but any influence they had was behind the scenes.
Rights and Law- The rest of Greece:
Women outside of Sparta in the ancient Greek world had few rights in comparison to male citizens. Unable to vote, own land, or inherit, a woman’s place was in the home and her purpose in life was the rearing of children.
What prepubescent male mind did this leak out of? Spartan women have developed an almost Amazonian mythology, but unfortunately for us (and men living in their parents’ basement) nothing about this image is accurate. (Image at Pinterest)
Spartan women generally tended to marry at a more mature age than Greek women in most cities. Women tended to marry in their late teens, men married in their mid-20s, and most women married men not much older than themselves. This was for the purpose of procreation, to ensure that the Spartan female was physically and mentally fit for sexual intercourse and bearing healthy children. Husbands and wives lived separately until the husband turned 30 years old. Before that, he lived in barracks with other warriors, and she managed her household and finances, only seeing him if he could sneak away at night to work at producing male heirs.
Debunking the movie 300, I’m sure a lot of people, myself included, thought that Spartan society must really have been feminist and fiercely female, but the fact is that Spartan women were valued exclusively for their ability to produce strong sons who would eventually be able to fight in battle on behalf of Sparta. Every Spartan girl was expected to become a wife and a mother. The ideal Spartan women needed to pump out as many sons as possible, and like most women of the time they had little say in their choice of husband.
One interesting fact I learned was that only unmarried Spartan women kept their tresses long. Upon marriage, Spartan women shaved their heads and then continued throughout their lives to keep their hair close cropped. They also possibly wore a veil. The image of Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo, with her beautiful, wavy locks of long hair, are unfortunately completely inaccurate.
Marriage- The rest of Greece:
Girls were married off by the time they hit puberty, so 12 or 13 wouldn’t be an odd age for a bride. Husbands were usually much older, chosen or approved of by the father. In Athens, in the case of a father dying without male children, his daughter and heiress had no choice but to marry her nearest male relative (an uncle or first cousin) in order to receive her inheritance…which then passed directly on to her Uncle-Husband. Yuck.
300 may not have been the most accurate film, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Spartan women were the most remarkable group of women in all of Greece. Female Spartan citizens enjoyed status, power, and respect that was unequaled in the rest of the classical world. The higher status of females in Spartan society started at birth. Unlike in most other Greek city-states, Spartan girls were fed the same food as their brothers. Nor were they confined to their father’s house or prevented from exercising or being out in public. Spartan women competed in sports and were skilled dancers and athletes. Rather than being married at the age of 12 or 13, Spartans discouraged the marriage of a girl until she was in her late teens or early 20s. The reasons for delaying marriage were to ensure the birth of healthy children, but the effect worked to spare Spartan women the hazards and lasting health damage associated with pregnancy among adolescents. It wasn’t perfect, but Sparta was by far the best of the city-states in ancient Greece to be woman.
The author in the polis of the enemy! Athens was the principal enemy of Sparta during the Peloponnesian War. Fortunately for us, despite the centuries, the earthquakes, the wars and unrest, we can still marvel at sites like the Acropolis. (Image is the property of the author.)
References: (More can be found underlined and linked throughout the article)
My main reference was the brilliant book The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece by Paul Anthony Cartledge
https://www.worldhistory.org/ was also a big help!
For the absolute best podcast on the Persian Empire +Sparta and ancient Greece, check out Dan Carlin’s 3-part series King of Kings. You won’t be disappointed!
One thought on “Spartan Women”
That was a very interesting and informative read. Thank you!