What history books never told you about gender roles in Ancient Sparta

Ioannis Dedes
Dec 12, 2020 · 8 min read
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Photo by Karim Ben Van on Unsplash

The city of Sparta is considered by many historical figures the most powerful polis in ancient Greece, with its brave people and strict laws separating the Lacedaemonians from other cities, contributing to the victories in the Persian (499–449BC) and the Peloponnesian wars (431–404BC). Nevertheless, this wasn’t the only distinctive element of the Spartans since their gender balance and their focus on the involvement of women would be a feature only found in Sparta.

The superiority of men was established in all Greek societies but the scale of it in Sparta wasn’t that much of an obstacle to female involvement. Spartan women didn’t only have a more active role in the society but they participated in warfare, while their passion for protecting the city would be something that only they possessed in the Greek world. Additionally, their raising of strong and disciplined children would be part of their indirect contribution to the war. The inequalities and the male-dominant societies in other cities promoted an image of enslaved women, who lacked an active role in the society and in the defence of the polis.

This significant difference between Sparta and the rest of the Greeks stemmed from the progressive Spartan educational system and constitution. This essay provides a comparative analysis which focuses on justifying how the Spartan women had a superior position in terms of women in other poleis while also explaining why this distinction existed between these systems of the same country.

In order to analyse the difference between the Spartan women’s roles and the females in other Greek cities, it’s vital that attention is drawn on the origin of the new system in Sparta, in which women started playing a significant role. Historians such as Plutarch (46–119CE) and Xenophon (430–354BC) praise Lycurgus, the legendary Spartan lawgiver who focused on reforming the society of the polis through equality among citizens and women’s involvement. Although it’s not clear if Lycurgus was an actual historical figure, his work of transformation in the Spartan educational and social system begins around the 8th century.

Lycurgus applied a new Spartan Constitution, “Politeia”, and in spite of primarily changing the social classes of Sparta, it also paved the way for expanding the involvement of the women in the society from the 8th century and onwards. Lycurgus’ laws about female involvement started by education at a young age and as Plutarch states, he considered the upbringing of children as the greatest and noblest responsibility of the legislator. That’s why his laws toughened girls, making them no less of athletes than young men and preparing them for a strong pregnancy.

Additionally, the equality laws continued with the permission of girls’ nudity, which played a major role in giving women a sense of masculinity, while they gained permission of participating in games and spectacles such as the gymnopaedia or the Heraean Games.

As Plato (428–347BC) states in The Republic ‘if women are expected to do the same work as men, we must teach them the same things’. Last but not least, the marriage legislations of Lycurgus about a couple marrying at their prime aimed at bringing a strong kid in life while other arrangements of women being in two marriages would share their female influence in two households.

Xenophon provides a brief explanation of other Greek states, which soften the girls and didn’t prepare them as vigorously as the young boys. He implies that the legislation of Lycurgus focused on ‘building’ powerful women, who would give birth and raise powerful Spartan soldiers; regulations which vary significantly from the other poleis. Generally, the pillars of the new females’ rights, mainly in education, training and in marriage legislations, justify the distinctions of Spartan gender roles and the balance in other cities presented below.

The first and most obvious distinction was the importance of Spartan women for the household and their value in the society, not as Greek domestic slaves. Spartan women had a particular role in the society whereas in states such as Athens and Thebes, the majority of the women were treated like slaves. The fact that Spartan women, just like in any other Greek city, were responsible for the well-being of the household but they didn’t have the same domestic tasks. That’s because women in Sparta could achieve high levels of literacy, a skill limited to the elite in the rest of the country. Aristophanes (446–386BC) depicts a woman poet living in Sparta, Cleitagora, who was called as the ‘female Homer’ and is the perfect example of Lacedaemonian women being highly literate. Problems are encountered when searching works of other Greek women, since their education and their literacy wasn’t taken into great consideration.

Additionally, in contrast to other cities, the law permitted the women to leave the house whenever they wanted and men believed that females would perform better, being mentally and physically healthy. Furthermore, the work of women was also outside the house since around the 5th century, they were allowed to inherit and own land property. They started expanding in the Spartan land, benefiting from the fact that men were absent in the war and women had, legally, the ownership of the areas. In Athens, even at the beginning of the 4th century, the vast majority of the acres in the land legally still belonged to the head of the oikos, regardless of who had practical ownership and had inherited the land.

Moreover, there are many cases where Spartan females could use their man to express their political opinion. In the rest of the Greek cities, cases about Aspasia of Miletus (470–400BC) are found, a wise woman who had politically influenced her husband Pericles (495–429BC), for the decision-making of the polis. Despite the thin line of distinction between the two situations, the fact that it was extremely rare for a man to take into account the woman’s opinion in the cities apart from Sparta, is indicative of the differences of female value.

The second part of the difference between Spartan and other Greek women was mainly based on the involvement in the war, stemming from Spartan discipline and cooperation. Females’ role in the war was more spiritual than practical and as mentioned before, it started with the marriage and the birth of strong babies and future soldiers. Gorgo (506-after 470BC), Leonidas’ wife, when asked why Spartan women were the only ones who could rule men, stated ‘That is because they were the only ones who gave birth to men’. More specifically, Gorgo’s involvement in warfare has been depicted by Herodotus (484–425BC), when he presented the story of her discovering a secret message from a Spartan King in exile, which indicated Xerxes (519–465BC) intentions of an attack. The fact that her advice was accepted was indicative of the influence that women had in warfare, which is not limited on the upbringing of the children. Nonetheless, this is the main aspect of involvement and preparation, as Spartan women would even leave their children’s stomachs empty, just so they could be trained to endure hunger.

This spirit of female brutality is also depicted through Plutarch’s work entitled the ‘The sayings of Spartan women’, which shows mothers being proud when seeing their children die bravely in the battlefield but ashamed of sons who were still alive but characterised as ‘cowards’ in the battlefield. Women would handle the shields to their sons and say: ‘Son, either with this or on this’, showing that retreating wasn’t a respectable option. They didn’t hesitate to state “No, you were not mine”, for the son who was still alive as he retreated from the war while they would casually say “Bury him and let his brother fill his place”, if one of their sons died in the battle. In addition to understanding the discipline and the brutal need of protecting their polis, these sayings are also indicative of the high degree of equality between the two genders.

On the contrary, women in other poleis didn’t have the ability to influence the war and their need of participating in war seemed scandalous for the men, who believed that they were weaker and warfare was a privilege for males. The most obvious example is in one of the speeches from Pericles of Athens, amid the Peloponnesian War, when he stated that the greatest glory of a woman was to be least talked about by men, even if they didn’t praise her but criticize her. Not only women didn’t have the right of being involved in the war, they were also associated with beauty and more sensitive characteristics. As Heraclides Lembus says ‘The women in Sparta are deprived of make-up, and they are not permitted to have their hair long or to wear gold’. The difference in the beauty standards showcase their value, with Spartan females being more involved in war and active in society while other Greek women didn’t have many options apart from being passive and inactive.

In the historical analysis of the differences between the gender roles in Sparta and in other Greek cities, there are some limitations that should be taken into consideration. The lack of specific dates and great gaps of historiography can present an important issue of reliability. The fact that there aren’t exact dates for people such as Lycurgus or for the beginning of change in Spartan society is more than an issue while one might also be skeptical of the different time frames of historians. For instance, Plutarch, who is one of the main sources for studying Lycurgus, lives 7 centuries after the events, provided that they happened, and his evaluation might contain unfinished stories or unreliable secondary sources.

Taking everything into account, gender roles in Sparta were different in various ways from the other Greek poleis. This notion focuses more on the active position of the women in the society, the reduction of the gap between males and females and the participation of women in the war effort, which was rarely the case in other ancient Greek poleis. The reason why Spartan women were more involved in the social aspects, in the education and in the spirit of bravery lied in the origin of the Spartan constitution and the new rules by Lycurgus, which would train and build women, the same way they did with men.

Xenophon. Xenophon’s Spartan Constitution : Introduction, Text, Commentary. Berlin ; New York :De Gruyter, 2002.

Talbert, Richard J. A., Ian Scott-Kilbert, Christopher Pelling, and Plutarch. On Sparta. Camberwell, Victoria: Penguin Group (Australia), (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd), 2005.

Plato. Plato’s The Republic. New York : Books, Inc., 1943

Aristophanes. Lysistrata. New York: Dover, 1994.

Aelian. “Varia Historia: With Introduction and Notes: Aelian, Johnson, Diane.” Varia Historia: With Introduction and Notes: Aelian, Johnson, Diane: Amazon.nl. Accessed October 14, 2020. https://www.amazon.nl/Varia-Historia-Introduction-Notes-Aelian/dp/0773486720.

Herodotus. Herodotus : The Histories. London, Eng. ; New York :Penguin Books, 1996.

Plutarch. “Sayings of Spartan Women.” Plutarch • Sayings of Spartan Women, n.d. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Sayings_of_Spartan_Women*.html.

Thucydides, and Rex Warner. 1968. History of the Peloponnesian War. Baltimore, Md: Penguin Books.

“Heraclides Lembus, On Constitutions.” Topostext. Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, Piraeus, Greece, January 1, 1970. https://topostext.org/work.php?work_id=107.

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Ioannis Dedes

Written by

An 18-year old future Political Science student, fascinated by the world of Global Politics, International Economics and Human Development.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Ioannis Dedes

Written by

An 18-year old future Political Science student, fascinated by the world of Global Politics, International Economics and Human Development.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

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