By Melina Katsoulakis
Sparta has a name for being the tough city of the Ancient Greek world. Films like ‘300’ represent the emphasis on warrior strength that was incredibly important to the Spartans. However, this was not simply important for the men, physical strength was also a trait cultivated by women. The Spartan social and political system was based on the Laws of Lycurgus, a mythological founder of the city. He believed that “for women to bear strong children, they should avoid the secluded life of most Greek women.” In this sense Sparta was culturally more equal than other Hellenic cities at the time although not necessarily liberated.
Within this polis (city), the oligarchical system of government had a strict role for all citizens to follow. Their entire social structure was based on cultivating these roles; for men this meant being educated in the ways of the warrior, and for women this meant education in how to be a good mother and raise strong men. Although this sounds a lot like the repression of women seen throughout history, the role of mothers in Sparta was culturally regarded as equal to that of strong warriors. There are limited records to show men or women were literate in Sparta since this skill did not aid their overall goals of becoming warriors and mothers.
Girls were given similar physical training to their male counterparts. Unlike the rest of the Hellenic world that desired innocence in their women, Sparta believed women needed to be physically strong enough to undertake childbirth. They were trained in running, wrestling, discus and javelin throwing. Culturally this meant men and women saw each other as more similar than people in Athens. It is also suggested that because of their physical strength as well as the social system of equality, rape was far less common as women could fight attackers off and men had far more respect for them than has been documented in Athens and other Hellenistic cities. Respect was cultivated in this training. Whilst men trained the women watched as a motivational move and similarly the men watched the women train. Since it was common for Spartans to wait until they were 18 to be married, this was useful to find a strong partner for the future.
Contests seemed to be the best way to motivate young Spartans. They promoted health and fitness to determine the best future mothers. Sporting events like the Olympics are well known and male led, however the female equivalent had a large following in ancient times. Women ran races at religious festivals in honour of deities; the Heraean games were a female only competitive event. They were dedicated to the fertility goddess Hera; thus, these races were also linked to motherhood. Most religious participation from women shows how they celebrated their gender. The cult of Helen celebrated Helen of Troy as the ideal wife and mother. Her followers used songs and dances that expressed their freedom unlike the oppression most Hellenic women faced at the time.
In a similar way to contests, horse races were celebrated by men and women since the gender of the owner, riders or chariot riders had no effect on the performance of the animal. A notable figure is Cynisca, the first woman to be involved in equestrian sports, for which she won the 396 BC and 392 BC Olympiads. She was commemorated in a way only men had been before with a bronze statue and led the way for other women to display their power. As sister to King Agis II, many believe her position fuelled her ambition in ways other women would not have had access to. This may not seem like such an independent move, however in the context of the time women in Athens were only allowed to ride in carriages to limit their visibility.
Despite not having any rights in codified law or a vote, the Spartan system still gave room for women to have informal legal power. Thanks to wartime casualties it was common for wives and daughters to inherit land to the point that two fifths of wealth was isolated in a small group of women in the city. This of course gave the wealthy women authority and power that men outside of Sparta despised. A rather outspoken opposition came from the famous philosopher Aristotle. Almost all of their domestic duties were considered outrageous by non-Spartans. Helot slaves did most housework and men were away for army duty, so women took on a figurehead role. Therefore, despite their main duty still being to give birth, the social structure of Sparta meant women were respected as individuals as well.
In many ways this was a cultural decision. The government and public voters saw women as respectable and important to their city, thus their input should not be ignored simply because of their gender. Gorgo was the daughter of King Cleomenes I, she counselled him on political matters and later her husband King Leonidas I is said to have credited his ascension to her alone. Though women did not have political rights, Gorgo was respected in the same way as official advisors. As princess and as Queen she represented the strong woman Lycurgus strove for in his laws.
To find out more about the surprising power Spartan women had during this time, I would recommend “Spartan Women” by Sarah Pomeroy.
Jean Jacques François Lebarbier, A Spartan Woman Giving a Shield to Her Son, 1805, oil on panel, Portland Art Musuem http://portlandartmuseum.us/mwebcgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=23241;type=101#