Spartan Women

I came across the below post on Tumblr recently, with some of the accompanying notes below, numbered for convenience.  It talks about Spartan women, often using colorful language, so if swears offend you, don’t read the rest of this post.  It has nearly 100,000 notes, and, at least among the most recent few hundred when I checked, none of them were negative, so I feel I ought to at least attempt to set the record straight.

It begins with two gifs from the movie 300, portraying Leonidas looking to his wife (and niece) Gorgo for approval before he kicks the Persian messenger into the well, in what must surely be the most famous scene of the film.  The original comment was simply, “THIS IS MARRIAGE!” but other posters added their own comments, which, by the time I saw it, included a number of inaccuracies.

Leonidas 1 Leonidas 2

1) Like, guys. Sparta was so kick ASS sometimes when it came to women. Spartan women were given these small knives so that if their husbands came home and tried to hit them or assault them, they had a weapon within reach. That weapon was for CUTTING THEIR HUSBANDS’ FUCKING FACES so that when he went out in public everyone would know he was an asshole, abusing jerkface and they would publicly shame him.

2) LET’S JUST TALK ABOUT SPARTAN WOMEN FOR A SECOND.

In Sparta, women could own land and were considered citizens. THAT IS A HUGE BIG FUCKING DEAL. Why? Because that was RARE AS FUCK and there are lots of places TODAY where women don’t even get that much.

Divorce was totally fine, and a woman could expect to keep her own wealth and get custody of the kids because paternal lineage wasn’t very important. And it didn’t make her a pariah! She could totally remarry, no big deal at all.

Spartan women participated in some fuckin’ badass sporting events, too. And because they were expected to be as physically fit as the Spartan menfolk (who all had to serve compulsory military duties, btw, and couldn’t marry until they finished them at thirty) they didn’t have time for lots of swishy dresses. So they wore notoriously short skirts. According to some accounts, their thighs were visible at all times. HOLY SHIT.

Also, In Sparta men only got their names on their graves if they died in battle. And women? Women only got their names on their graves if they died in childbirth. THE SPARTANS COMPARED CHILDBIRTH TO FUCKING BATTLE AND IT WAS VIEWED AS A GODDAMN BADASS AND HONORABLE WAY TO GO OUT.

FUCKING SPARTAN WOMEN. THIS DUDE HAD FUCKIN’ BETTER MAKE SURE SHE’S COOL WITH WHATEVER HE’S DOING, IF HE KNOWS WHAT’S FUCKIN’ GOOD FOR HIM.

3) And the women were trained the exact same way as men were. As children they were equals ; they were not allowed to wear clothing until a certain age and at that point they were sent away to a training camp until they were 18. It was only the men who were sent into the wilderness for an extra two years to ensure their strength for battle.

Plus the women could marry whomever they pleased and the men weren’t allowed to live with the women in their house until she said so. And they were tough in Sparta but also all about family. To have male offspring was good luck, to have female offspring was an honour.

This part of the movie was true; King Leonidas really did kill a man because he insulted his wife and he always ensured that he had his wife’s approval. And while Leonidas was away in battle she did rule Sparta on her own.

Sparta knew what was up.

Now, Sparta did treat its women very well, especially for ancient Greece, that much is true.  But many of these examples are just lies or inaccurate, which really bothers me, because I’ve felt that if you’re right, you shouldn’t need to stoop to making up examples to support your correct position.  Just use actual examples.  Using something that can be easily disproven just makes it easier for people to dismiss you and claim that you’re incorrect.  If you’re right in general, endeavor to be right in the particulars.

Starting with 1, I have never, in all my time reading classical sources, come across anything remotely like this.  Unfortunately, none of the notes provided sources, which is frustrating, as if they had, I’d at least know what they were using to come up with these things.  (I shall provide all my sources, so at least if I’m wrong, you can easily find my errors.  If I am wrong in any point here, please correct me, as I wish for this to be as accurate as possible.)  I can only assume they came across an anecdote of one woman doing such a thing, and mistakenly applied it to all, but even then, I can’t find any anecdote of any ancient Spartan woman acting this way.  Spartan women were certainly trained physically, but to brandish a knife against their husbands?  That I find no evidence for.

And while it’s hard to argue from a lack of evidence, it is striking that the ancient Greeks don’t mention these wives’ knives.  Aristotle himself claimed that in Sparta, the women ruled, and whether they did so directly or by ruling the rulers, it made no difference.  He considered the lack of discipline found among the women to be a great defect in the constitution of Sparta.  Euripedes, in his Andromache, says:

No Spartan girl could ever be modest
even if she wanted to be.
They go outside their houses with the boys
with naked thighs and open dresses
and they race and wrestle with the boys.  Insufferable!
It’s not surprising that you don’t train women to be chaste.

While this was written by an Athenian at a time when Athens and Sparta were enemies, and therefore isn’t the best source for an unbiased account, it’s still important that ancient Greek writers who thought poorly of Sparta and its free-spirited women never mention that women were, as a matter of course, given knives with which they were expected to slash the faces of abusive husbands.  Similarly, neither Xenophon, in his Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, nor Plutarch in his Life of Lycurgus mentions any such thing.  

Pausanias provides an anecdote where we might expect to hear mention of these knives.  In his Description of Greece, he tells us of Aristomenes, the Messenian, who led an attack against Sparta.  While waiting outside the city, he captured some Spartan maidens who were performing a dance in honor of Artemis, and set guards over them.  During the night, however, the drunken guards attempted to rape their captives.  Aristomenes first tried to convince them to desist from such an act, but when the men continued their assault, he personally killed the most aggressive of them, and later ransomed back his captives for a great price, still virgins.

This anecdote is far from perfect, though.  The women are maidens, not wives, and had they carried knives, they almost certainly would have been taken away, unless their captors were unaware of the Spartan custom.  But still, we find Spartan women being easily kidnapped, with no mention of a struggle, and I consider the anecdote interesting enough to share, even if it’s not the most germane.

Unfortunately, though, it’s hard to find explicit evidence that this didn’t happen, since you’d only expect that sort of thing to enter the written record if it were to disprove a rumor, and there are few records of abusive Spartan husbands, but there is one example that I think is worth mentioning.

In Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus, we find Cleonymus.  He was a member of the royal family, but had been passed up for the crown due his violent and arbitrary temper.  As an older man, he married Chilonis, who herself was in love with Acrotatus, and this point being widely known, Cleonymus became miserable and despised, for everyone was aware that his wife detested him.  He invited Pyrrhus into Sparta, hoping to take control of the state himself.  As Pyrrhus prepared his army outside the city, what was Chilonis to be found doing?  She was not aiding the soldiers and digging trenches, like the other Spartan women, and instead was waiting at home, with a noose around her neck, ready to commit suicide should Cleonymus and Pyrrhus capture Sparta.  Not quite the behavior one would expect of a woman accustomed to the use of a knife against an abusive husband.

And so we move onto Part 2.  Out of the three, this one is by far the most accurate.  Spartan women are widely believed to only receive a name on their tombstone if they died in childbirth, as mentioned by Plutarch in his Life of Lycurgus.  In fact, before writing this very paragraph, I thought this was correct.  Translations vary between whether the requirement was dying in childbirth or in sacred office, however, and Matthew Dillon argues that it should be “sacred office.”  For this, I must rely on Dillon, as I have not the knowledge of Greek to make this argument.  The original text has “sacred office,” but Latte changed the text, on the basis of two surviving funerary inscriptions that named mothers who died in childbirth, and this change became so widely spread that it is now considered fact.  However, these two inscriptions are Hellenistic, and come from a time when the original laws of Lycurgus lacked their original strength.  The manuscripts, however, have absolutely nothing that would support this change, and in the absence of more convincing evidence, I think it is best to stick with the text, and say that, rather than childbirth, women who died in sacred office were accorded names on tombstones, which still fits with the general thrust of the argument: that Spartans considered particular deeds of women to be as worthy as a man’s dying in battle.

The part about the Spartan women’s clothing is correct, though.  They were called thigh-flashers for their short skirts, in fact, and exercised nude, as the men did.  They also competed in athletics, as the men did.

Women could also divorce freely.  In her Goddess, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical AntiquitySarah Pomeroy writes that marriages could be nullified without dishonor.  After divorce, they kept their own property, and half the produce of the household.  As for custody of children, boys went to the agoge at age seven.  For other cases, though, I haven’t found anything explicitly one way or the other.

One note, is that if a child was born after a divorce, the mother was required to present it to the father, who could decide whether or not to rear it.  If he rejected it, the mother could decide to rear it herself.

As for the idea that paternal lineage was unimportant, this is hard to reconcile with two facts.  Firstly, that Spartan kingship passed through the men, and the mere suspicion of a royal child not having a kingly father was enough to get him passed over for the throne, as occurred to Leotychides, who was rumored to be the son of Alcibiades.  Secondly, Philo records that in Sparta, children of the same mother could marry, but not children of the same father.  If the paternal lineage was so unimportant, why would children of the same father be forbidden to marry?

It’s also true that women were citizens and could own land.  However, they didn’t have all the rights that men did. By the Roman period, women were some of the largest landowners.  Agis, therefore, required their support when he proposed to gather together all the land in Sparta and redistribute it, as Lycurgus had once done.  Since women could inherit land, and since Spartan men tended to spend a lot of time fighting and dying in wars, when they weren’t left to die as newborns, it wasn’t very odd that a great deal of land ended up in the hands of women.  In fact, some ancient writers blamed the wealth of women for their decreased desire in undergoing the labors of childbirth, reducing the number of Spartan citizens past the level beyond which Sparta could support itself.

And finally, we reach Part 3.  I confess, this is lengthier than I had intended, but let us continue, for we are nearly at an end.  First, were women and men trained the same way, except for an additional two years of training?  Emphatically not.  The Spartan boys were reared in the agoge, all except for those expected to become king.  Even princes went through this education, and because of this, some unexpected kings, such as Leonidas and Agesilaus, underwent it.  But the fact that Sparta had state-sponsored education for both boys and girls in no way means that their education was at all similar.

Plutarch describes the girls’ education thusly.

He made the maidens exercise their bodies in running, wrestling, casting the discus, and hurling the javelin, in order that the fruit of their wombs might have vigorous root in vigorous bodies and come to better maturity, and that they themselves might come with vigour to the fulness of their times, and struggle successfully and easily with the pangs of child-birth. He freed them from softness and delicacy and all effeminacy by accustoming the maidens no less than the youths to wear tunics only in processions, and at certain festivals to dance and sing when the young men were present as spectators. There they sometimes even mocked and railed good-naturedly at any youth who had misbehaved himself; and again they would sing the praises of those who had shown themselves worthy, and so inspire the young men with great ambition and ardour. For he who was thus extolled for his valour and held in honour among the maidens, went away exalted by their praises; while the sting of their playful raillery was no less sharp than that of serious admonitions, especially as the kings and senators, together with the rest of the citizens, were all present at the spectacle.

Nor was there anything disgraceful in this scant clothing of the maidens, for modesty attended them, and wantonness was banished; nay, rather, it produced in them habits of simplicity and an ardent desire for health and beauty of body. It gave also to woman-kind a taste of lofty sentiment, for they felt that they too had a place in the arena of bravery and ambition. Wherefore they were led to think and speak as Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas, is said to have done. When some foreign woman, as it would seem, said to her: “You Spartan women are the only ones who rule their men,” she answered: “Yes, we are the only ones that give birth to men.”

Xenophon described it in this way.

In other states the girls who are destined to become mothers and are brought up in the approved fashion, live on the very plainest fare, with a most meagre allowance of delicacies. Wine is either witheld altogether, or, if allowed them, is diluted with water. The rest of the Greeks expect their girls to imitate the sedentary life that is typical of handicraftsmen — to keep quiet and do wool-work. How, then, is it to be expected that women so brought up will bear fine children?

But Lycurgus thought the labour of slave women sufficient to supply clothing. He believed motherhood to be the most important function of freeborn woman. Therefore, in the first place, he insisted on physical training for the female no less than for the male sex: moreover, he instituted races and trials of strength for women competitors as for men, believing that if both parents are strong they produce more vigorous offspring.

Undoubtedly, Spartan women were the most athletic of all Greek women, but against them we are comparing not foreign women, but Spartan men, and their education was something else altogether.  Plutarch tells us,

Therefore, as they grew in age, their bodily exercise was increased; their heads were close-clipped, and they were accustomed to going bare-foot, and to playing for the most part without clothes. When they were twelve years old, they no longer had tunics to wear, received one cloak a year, had hard, dry flesh, and knew little of baths and ointments; only on certain days of the year, and few at that, did they indulge in such amenities. They slept together, in troops and companies, on pallet-beds which they collected for themselves, breaking off with their hands — no knives allowed — the tops of the rushes which grew along the river Eurotas. In the winter-time, they added to the stuff of these pallets the so‑called “lycophon,” or thistle-down, which was thought to have warmth in it.

They were purposefully given too little food, in order to force them to steal, and if they were caught stealing, they were beaten.  One Spartan youth was famous for allowing a fox that he had stolen, concealed under his robe, disembowel and kill him rather than be revealed.  Spartan training was so harsh that in times of war, their discipline was relaxed.  Some Spartan youths joined the secret police, the Crypteia, and were given instructions to spy on the Helots, and murder any who might foment rebellion.

Spartan women did wear clothing, although they competed and exercised nude, as the boys did.  As mentioned earlier, their usual peplos was slit up the side, and considered so revealing that other Greeks called the girls “thigh-flashers.”  Spartan women, according to Sarah Pomeroy, bared their right breast when racing at the Heraea.  But in normal times, they were dressed, and I’ve never heard of them going entirely nude before a certain age.

Next, we come to marriage.  It’s false that the women decided when their husbands lived with them.  While husbands did not live with their wives at first, it was by order of the state, for Lycurgus did not want spouses to have unbridled intercourse, and Plutarch says that some men became fathers before they saw their wives in the daylight, for the men lived in their barracks, and could only visit their wives by sneaking out at night.  It wasn’t until they left the barracks at the age of 30 that they lived openly with their wives.  As for women marrying whomever they pleased, Chilonis, from earlier, has already proven that false.  Spartan women did, however, have the freedom to take lovers, for the purpose of producing superior children for Sparta, but such requests went through their husbands.

(Hermippus mentions a likely apocryphal custom of Sparta, where bachelors and bachelorettes were locked up in a dark building, and whomever they grabbed hold of, they wed.)

The Spartans did consider family important, though.  Even a great general like Dercyllidas was denied a seat by a younger man, because he had not yet fathered a son who would in turn give his seat to him.  But it seems clear that sons were preferred to daughters.  Sarah Pomeroy, in her Spartan Women, says that, “A man with three sons was not obliged to serve garrison duty, and a man with five was exempt from liturgies…There is no indication that the state rewarded fathers of girls, nor were there tangible rewards for the mothers who would endure the pregnancies.”  There is no evidence that the birth of a girl was accorded a special honor.

As for Leonidas and Gorgo, it is true that Gorgo was an especially intelligent individual, but I find no sources that he killed anyone for insulting his wife, nor is there any record that he “always ensured that he had his wife’s approval.”  For one, this would have been extremely difficult, since as a Spartan king, his primary responsibilities were in war, when Gorgo would have been left at home.  The ephors had more power in Sparta, and could force kings to take wives, and one king was even fined for eating at home, instead of in the common mess.  I have never seen an instance of Leonidas asking for his wife’s approval ever, in fact, although she did assist the Spartans when Demaratus sent a secret message.

He wanted to warn the Spartans of the pending Persian invasion, but feared discovery and death.  So he wrote the message on a tablet, and then covered the tablet with blank wax.  Since messages were usually written on the wax, the message appeared blank, and then it arrived in Sparta, no one could discover the secret until Gorgo suggested they remove the wax, whereupon they discovered the warning.  Still, this cannot be considered always ensuring that he had his wife’s approval.  If anything, she sought his, as when he prepared to go to Thermopylae, where his death was inevitable, she asked him what she should do.  “Marry well, and bear good children,” he replied.

In fact, the moment in the film didn’t happen.  When Xerxes invaded Greece, he sent messengers everywhere except Athens and Sparta, because when his father, Darius, had, these two cities had killed their messengers.  When the messengers asked for earth and water from the Spartans, they threw them into a well, telling them to dig it out from there.  After this, though, the Spartans were unable to receive favorable omens, until they pious Spartans decided they needed to pay for their sins, and they asked for volunteers to go to the Persians and be killed in retribution for the killed heralds.  Xerxes, however, refused to act as the Spartans had, and kill innocents, and let the volunteers return home alive.

Still, Leonidas wouldn’t have been mistaken had he sought his wife’s approval.  She doesn’t appear much in the historical record, but every time she does, she leaves quite the impression.  Plutarch records more quotes from her than from any other Spartan woman.  She appears as intelligent and Spartan, disdaining filthy lucre and drunkenness.

But it is ignorant to say that she ruled Sparta on her own.  There was absolutely no need for her to do so while Leonidas went abroad.  Sparta had two kings for this very reason, and in fact, it was illegal for them both to go abroad at once, ensuring that there always remained one to rule at home.  While Leonidas was away, Leotychidas remained at home.  He may not have been in 300, but he was there in history.

There is one fact about Spartan women that I was surprised wasn’t listed, though.  The first female Olympian victor was a Spartan: Cynisca, a Spartan princess, and sister of Agesilaus, who won in chariot racing.  It is said that her brother, King Agesilaus, had her enter in order to discredit the sport, which he considered to be won not by athletic skill, but money only.  His plan failed, though, and wealthy Spartans continued to compete in it, and Cynisca gained a cult following and became quite famous for her victory.

Spartan women were especially strong, athletic, intelligent, and powerful, and there is no need to create fictions to support that position when history supports it already.

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6 Responses to Spartan Women

  1. Very Bangled says:

    I knew there were many reasons to like Sparta.

    Liked by 1 person

    • johnkutensky says:

      Definitely! It’s my favorite of the Greek city-states! Which is why I dislike it so much when people lie about the Spartans and co-opt them for their own purposes. They had a lot of stuff wrong with them, their giant slave underclass, to start with, but I find them so fascinating. They just built such a unique society right in the middle of civilization. I’m not sure there’s ever been anything else like them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Very Bangled says:

        You certainly know your stuff. It is so interesting to read the different observations about the Spartans.

        Like

      • johnkutensky says:

        They fascinated ancient authors. Plato and Xenophon, both students of Socrates, greatly admired them. Interestingly, Aristotle didn’t, though, despite being a student of Plato. Until after the Persian Wars, though, Sparta was generally considered the leader of Greece. One saying was, “All the Greeks know what is right, but only the Spartans do it.”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. JunkChuck says:

    Interesting stuff. More than worth the visit.

    Liked by 1 person

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