THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN SPARTAN SOCIETY The women of ancient Sparta, those who were born to Spartan parents, had many roles. They were very important and essential for the stability and running of the ancient warrior society. The woman’s role in Spartan society was highly regarded by the state as equal in importance to that of a man’s, but they could not rule or hold public office. They were given the freedom, power, respect and status that was unheard of in the other polis, along with the rest of the classical world.
Since the time of Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver, the women of Sparta were very much aware of their role in society. These roles were in regards to motherhood, ownership and maintenance of land, religion, education, marriage and their strong influence and power in society. In Xenophon’s explanation of the Spartan constitution, the central and most important role in Spartan society for the Spartiate or free woman was to continue Sparta, through childbirth. Spartan women were highly valued as the mothers of warriors and they had to maintain their fitness to ensure healthy pregnancy and childbirth.
Since Sparta was regularly at war for much of its five hundred year history, it was a woman’s role to bear and rear healthy children, in particular, strong and brave sons to serve in the Spartan army. Females were encouraged to participate in physical training so that they could give birth o healthy babies. According to Xenophon, Lycurgus decreed that “women should take as much trouble over physical fitness as men… on the grounds that if both parents were strong, the offspring would be more sturdy and the women themselves would be able to bear the pains of labour. The role of motherhood was so important that mothers who had numerous sons were given special status and according to Xenophon, “Spartans value motherhood so highly that there were only two ways a Spartan would receive their name on a gravestone: death in battle or death in childbirth. ” Women were responsible for bringing up their children in their early years where both girls and boys received a public education. Mothers were responsible for communicating the Spartan values to their children. They encouraged bravery in their sons and did not tolerate cowardice in battle or mourn their sons when they died in battle.
Rather than mourn the death of their son, they would take pride in the fact that their son died in defence of Sparta – Source 1 (Plutarch On Sparta, p. 160) “As a woman was burying her son, a worthless old crone came up to her and said: ‘You poor woman, what a misfortune! ’ ‘No, by the two gods, a piece of good fortune,’ she replied, ‘because I bore him so that he might die for Sparta, and that is what has happened. ” To die for Sparta in battle was a man’s highest honour and what a mother dreams of for her sons.
Therefore, the pride of a Spartan woman was to be a mother of a truly courageous and dutiful son – Source 2 (Plutarch On Sparta, p. 160) “When an Ionian woman was priding herself on one of the tapestries she had made (which was indeed of great value), a Spartan woman showed off her four most dutiful sons and said they were the kind of thing a noble and good woman ought to produce, and should boast of them and take pride in them. ” Spartan mothers were not tolerant to a son’s act of cowardice or unworthiness towards her and Sparta. They were known to shame and kill their sons when they displayed these actions.
For example, a quote from Plutarch’s Sayings of Spartan Women shows just this. Another Spartan woman killed her son, who had deserted his post because he was unworthy of Sparta. She declared: “He was not my offspring… for I did not bear one unworthy of Sparta. ” (Blundell, 1995, 151 & 157; Pomeroy, 2002, 34-37 & 52-69 – Don’t know who said what, notes given from a uni student. ) Spartan women were known to be wealthy although Sparta did not have a coinage system and women were not allowed to possess gold or silver. This wealth was known to have been acquired from property ownership.
Land ownership in Sparta was different from other polis. A family’s land was shared between all members of the family, including the girls but their percentage was smaller than her brother’s. At the beginning of the classical period, a Spartan woman could inherit part of her family’s estate but she never owned it, it was always passed on to her children. This changed and towards the end of the classical period, Xenophon and Aristotle noted that women did own and could manage, control, and dispose of property without the need of male approval.
Women could also acquire land through marriage says Powell, Athens and Sparta. Aristotle indicated that women owned two-fifths of the land near the end of the classical period. With the women owning this much land and the men were constantly away training or at war, they played very important roles in the management of the household and the kleros. They had to supervise the helots who worked in the house and kleros because they did not perform domestic duties or manual labour, an act which was seen only fit for helots.
If a woman was married, any profit from her estate was her husband’s profit too and the same goes for any profit from the estate of her husband’s. If a married couple were to divorce, which was very rare, women were allowed to keep their estates. Women were encouraged to be skilled and knowledgeable with horses so they could ride out to supervise theirs and their husband’s estates which could have been spread out over a vast amount of area. Therefore, Spartan women usually owned, bred and trained fine horses which served as an example of their wealth in land. Blundell, 1995, 155-157; Pomeroy, 1975, 38; Pomeroy, 1991, 144; Pomeroy, 2002, 19-34 & 76-86 – Don’t know who said what, notes given from a uni student. ) Women also played an important role in religion. According to S. B. Pomeroy, Spartan cults for women mirrored the society’s emphasis on female beauty, health and most of all, fertility, being prominent in the cults of Dionysus, Eileithyia and Helen. During religious festivals, such as the Hyporchema and the Caryatid, women would sing, dance, race, feast, dedicate votive offerings, drive chariots in processions and weave clothing for cult images of the gods, said Pomeroy.
At the Hyakinthia festival, women played a part in “riding on richly decorated carriages made of wicker work, while others yoked chariots and drove them in a procession for racing” says Hooker in The Ancient Spartans. At the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, a large number of votive offerings have been found. It is thought that these offerings were made by women who were barren, pregnant or had survived childbirth, as Artemis Orthia was associated with childbirth. Also, Spartan mothers made offerings and sacrifices to the goddess Aphrodite Hera when their daughters got married.
In addition, Pomeroy stated that sundry votive offerings by individual women were evidences of other personal relationships with the divinities. In figure 3. 9 in the book Antiquity 2, there is a 5th century relief showing a Spartan girl involved a religious rite. From early childhood, girls were raised to be the kind of mothers that Sparta required, just as boys were trained to be the soldiers it needed. The Spartan education system that was devised for girls was to create mothers who would produce the best hoplites, to manage property and to participate in religious festivals.
Girls stayed at home with their mothers who taught them the basics of reading and writing. Since music was an important part of Sparta’s religious festivals, the girls had to learn to sing and perform dances such as the bibasis, which was also a form of exercise. Sparta was the only polis where the training of girls was prescribed and supported by public authority. The girl’s physical education involved, “running, wrestling, discus throwing, and hurling the javelin”, as accounted by Plutarch.
The main reason why girls participated in physical activities was to serve the state purpose of giving birth to strong and healthy children, on the basis that both parents were strong and healthy, according to Barrow and Powell. (Blundell, 1995, 151; Fantham, 1994, 57-63; Pomeroy, 1975, 36; Pomeroy, 2002, 4-27 – Don’t know who said what, notes given from a uni student. ) According to Plutarch, unlike girls from other polis, Spartan girls married when “they were ripe for it”, probably around the age of eighteen when they were more physically mature and ready for motherhood.
Spartans were expected to marry within their own social class and was generally arranged between families, with the bride and groom usually knowing each other beforehand. Another form of marriage that was believed to have been practiced in Sparta was marriage by capture. This occurred when a man would choose a bride and carry her off. Although it sounds like the bride had no choice in who she would marry, A. J. Ball suggests that the act of “capture” was purely a symbolic act. Plutarch states that the bride was dressed like a male with her hair shaved off in preparation for the marriage.
Some suggestions why this procedure was undertaken were because it implied chastity, and to “ease” the groom into unfamiliar grounds to have sexual intercourse with a woman since he spent the majority of his time with other men. Trial marriages were also practised in Sparta. It was not unusual for a married couple to keep their marriage a secret until the birth of their first child, just in case the wife was barren and so a new marriage contract could be arranged. The Spartan society had an open minded attitude towards extramarital relations, provided that it was to produce more children.
It was acceptable for an older man with a young wife to give permission for a younger man to have sexual intercourse with her provided that they produce more physically fit children. Also, according to Xenophon, if a man wanted to have children but did not want to get married, he could ask permission from another man if he could share his wife sexually. There were no indications that women made objections or complaints to such arrangements. Married Spartan women had significantly more influence and power in society than other women from other polis.
It is thought that they obtained all this influence and power as a result of their wealth, the constant absences of their husbands and an educational system that encouraged them to speak out and express themselves. However, their authority was more social and not political. They were restricted from voting and could not hold governmental positions, even though they made up the majority of Spartiates. It is thought that they did, nevertheless, give their opinions on public matters. They were known to be unbelievably straight talking and dominated their husbands in the household.
According to Plutarch, “When a woman from Attica asked ‘Why is it that you Spartans are the only women who can rule men? ’ Gorgo replied, ‘Because we are the only ones who give birth to men. ’” Another way females in Sparta practiced their authority was during festivals, where girls would sing songs of praises for Spartan boys who deserved them. They would cheer for the winners and mock the losers of competitions which influenced the boys to strive for excellence. According to S. Blundell, “Females in Sparta were so thoroughly indoctrinated that they formed an effective branch of a state propaganda machine. A shrine of one of Sparta’s most famous women, Cynisca, who had been hailed as a hero for her equestrian victories, was centrally located in Sparta. This further emphasises how much power and influence they had. Aristotle was critical of the wealth, power and influence women exercised in Sparta because he felt that it strongly contributed to Sparta’s ultimate downfall. (Blundell, 1995, 155-157; Pomeroy, 1991, 144-149; Pomeroy, 2002, 56-93 – Don’t know who said what, notes given from a uni student. ) In conclusion, the role of Spartan women in society was of great importance.
They not only played a vital role in the economy, religion, education and public matters, they were the backbone of the entire Spartan race. Without the women playing their role in society, Sparta would not have been the once mighty and great polis as we know it today. Bibliography Hurley, T. , Medcalf, P. , Murray, C. and Rolph, J. 2008, Antiquity 2, Oxford University Press : Victoria. Stevens, V. , Merchant, W. , Hampson, M. and Bradshaw. G. 2006, HSC Ancient History, Macmillan Education Australia : South Yarra. Pomeroy, S. B. 2002, Spartan Women, Oxford University Press : New York Jovy Celestino
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