The women of Sparta

The Greek world seems to have been fascinated with the women of Sparta. Widows could own land, they were educated. They exercised and competed against each other in races. They tended to marry later than other Greek women.  To many ancient writers, they were the most beautiful women of Greece.

The laws established by Lykourgos (Sparta’s equivalent of Athens’ Solon), had fairly radical ideas for the women of the polis, according to Plutarch:

He ordered the maidens to exercise themselves with wrestling, running, throwing, the quoit, and casting the dart, to the end that the fruit they conceived might, in strong and healthy bodies, take firmer root and find better growth, and withal that they, with this greater vigour, might be the more able to undergo the pains of child-bearing. And to the end he might take away their overgreat tenderness and fear of exposure to the air, and all acquired womanishness, he ordered that the young women should go naked in the processions, as well as the young men, and dance, too, in that condition, at certain solemn feasts, singing certain songs, whilst the young men stood around, seeing and hearing them. (…)  Nor was there anything shameful in this nakedness of the young women; modesty attended them, and all wantonness was excluded. It taught them simplicity and a care for good health, and gave them some taste of higher feelings, admitted as they thus were to the field of noble action and glory.

The question of polyandry in Sparta is a complex one. Because a few contemporary authors refer to it we have to assume it existed, but how those arrangements between one woman and her several husbands worked in practice seem to be somewhat murky. The possible links between polyandry, female infanticide and the Spartans’ dabbling in eugenics make it a topic that is far less pleasant to think about than it should be.

From Spartan Women (Sarah B. Pomeroy):

Xenophon, Polybius, Plutarch and Nicolaus of Damascus refer to polyandry at Sparta. This practice is not necessarily indicative of the paucity of women, which, in turn, could be a symptom of female infanticide. Xenophon mentions the case of the married man who has no desire to synoikein with his own wife, but prefers to produce offspring by a married woman who has already proven her procreative gifts. Some scholars understand synoikein as ‘marry’ rather than its common sense of ‘cohabit’, ‘live with’, or ‘have intercourse with’. The two interpretations, of course, overlap: it is a question of emphasis and the writer’s usage. (…) When each of these matrimonial experiments began and how long these lasted is unclear. Xenophon’s description of husband-doubling postdates the rhetra attributed at Epitadeus, the victory in the Pelopponesian War, and perhaps the disaster at Leuctra – undoubtedly a period in Spartan history of such turbulence as to stimulate radical social change.

Nice little page on the women of Sparta, with sources.

Further research – Worth a second look: Sparta, by Michael Withby and Spartan Women, by Sarah B. Pomeroy.

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