Reasons Why Spartan Women Were the Black Sheep of Ancient Greece

When we look back on history, we find that most of the time all we can read about is the histories of men, written by men. Now, this doesn’t mean that women simply didn’t exist, or even they just didn’t do anything worthy of note, it just means due to social inequalities at the time the acts of women just weren’t seen as important as the acts of man. This was especially true in Ancient Greece, where there are accounts, on top of accounts on the comings and goings of man, all written by male scholars. This era though, contains a particular group of women that were far ahead of their time regarding the woman’s role, participation in the community and even how women were viewed and treated. It could be argued that in some regards, Spartan women were treated better than the women of the modern age. Life as a Spartan woman contradicts most of the history we were taught at schools that women were always mistreated, and as a lesser to man. Despite there being no (if any) written accounts from the women themselves, their way of life took ancient Greece by storm, and they were without a doubt, ahead of their time.

Education Was a Must

At the time females being allowed to receive a public education was simply unheard of across ancient Greece. Boys were sent to school, while the girls remained home to be home-schooled until they were married off (which was typically from age 12 onwards). This was not the case for the citizens of Sparta. While boys left home to learn survival techniques and skills they would need throughout their warrior life; the girls were taught to be mothers who would produce the highest standard of soldiers. As Spartan women married during their late teens to their early 20’s and didn’t have a broad array of daily chores needing to be attended to, due to the ever-present helots, Spartan women had a similar amount of years to devote to education to that of modern women.

As women often were remembered to have written letters to their warrior sons off at war, it was likely that Spartan women were literate to a degree. They were often taught music, dancing, and poetry (though most of the poetry taught were with the aim of encouraging Spartan traditions, and the occasional taunting of the young man who didn’t act exactly as a Spartan man should), but would it be school without a little bit of teasing?[1]

They Went for a More Natural Type of Beauty

At the time Greek women, apart from Spartan women, wore sweet smelling perfumes and wore cosmetics to meet the beauty standards their society held. They would powder their arms to appear paler, line their eyes with kohl, and have red suns painted (and sometimes tattooed) on their cheeks. This, however, was the exact opposite of the expectations of Spartan women. Lycurgus (the man who no one really knows if he existed or not), was primarily credited to reforming Spartan society, and making the society as successful as it was, with one of the critical ideologies he pushed being not to pursue luxury.

Because of this spartan women “were not permitted to wear ornaments or gold” or even cosmetics and perfume, natural beauty was the aim. In fact, Spartan women were supposedly nauseated by the perfumes used by other Greek women and the Greek women were disgusted by the Spartan women wearing butter rather than perfume, as what is more natural than butter? Let’s hope some trends don’t come back into fashion. Plutarch (a famous Greek biographer) even feared that if a Spartan woman were to meet with another non-spartan woman, they would “both immediately turn their backs”.[2][3]

Exercising Outside in the Nude Wasn’t Just for the Boys

Now, anywhere in ancient Greece (except for Sparta), women would maybe, occasionally, were very unlikely to, set foot outside to collect water. Spartan women, however, would exercise outdoors, in the nude, just as the boys did. The girls would practice gymnastics, discus throwing, and even javelin – all while displaying all for the gods to see. The purpose? To ensure that they were physically fit enough for childbirth and because a strong mother meant strong children, and that is what Spartan society demanded.[4]

Women Athletics Turned a Lot of Heads

Spartan society differed significantly to the rest of ancient Greece that Sparta, particularly the behaviors of Spartan women became a sight to behold. Athletics that foreigners could see spartan women partaking in included; nude co-ed wrestling, ball playing, hoop rolling, the pancratium (the same as wrestling except no holds are prohibited), discus throwing, hunting, chariot driving, and horse racing. In fact, Princess Cynisca of Sparta was encouraged by King Agesilaus to enter the Olympic games, and so she did, twice.

In both 396 BCE and later in 392 BCE Cynisca entered the 4-horse chariot race as a trainer, with her teams bringing home gold on both occasions. Though as she was female (and the feminist movement was still a few thousand years away), she was not permitted to take part in the victory ceremony, instead monuments were commission in her honor. This just fueled Sparta’s reputation, and further reinforced the reputation of Spartan women.[5]

A Passive and Demure Female Was Never a Spartan Female

When you think of history, you may think of how the women were expected to shut up and sit idly next to their husbands, and for the most part, this was true for most of Ancient Greece. In most of ancient Greece it was highly disapproved of for women to socialize in public with men, let alone when the conversation covered areas such as politics, but once again Spartan women step away from the norm of ancient Greece society and follow their own set of rules. Spartan women were renowned for their witty mannerisms and outspoken natures, and this wasn’t frowned upon by Spartan men. Spartan society ensured the women were physically strong to ensure physically healthy children, so why wouldn’t they ensure mentally strong women to ensure mentally strong children as well?[6]

They Skipped Over the Formality & the Boring Bits of Weddings

Throughout most of ancient Greece, weddings were typically formal processions that contained many traditions. At the formal wedding event rituals that occurred include the purification and adornment of the bride, the bride’s hair being cut, and finally had a procession complimented with music, all very formal and official sounding. Sparta certainly had a different take on weddings and would probably gawk at the formality we know so fondly today.

Thankfully, the betrothal is prearranged, so when the bridesmaid abducts and shaves the brides head, it’s not too much of a shock. Until the bride’s husband turns 30, she will continue to wear men’s clothes as a disguise as she secretly meets with her husband. Though it wasn’t too uncommon for children to be conceived during this so-called time of secrecy, and since children are what Sparta demanded, no one would be too mad at the bride anyways.[7]

Marriages Were a Bit Odd

In Spartan society, birthing and raising healthy children trumped all else (maybe apart from military strength). Strength in children was so prioritized that even newborns where assessed after birth, and if they didn’t appear to be physically strong it would be abandoned and left to die (though thankfully travelers would occasionally pass by and adopt the child).

Since Spartans so clearly held onto the idea of strong children, it isn’t unbelievable that married couples would gratefully have children with other members of the society that appeared to hold incredible strength. In fact, it was deemed to be an “honorable act for worthy men to share children and their begetting,” a bit different to now isn’t it? In other societies where women would be shamed, charged, publicly ridiculed or even killed for infidelity, goes to show how far Sparta strayed from the norm.[2]

Dying During Childbirth Was as Honorable as Dying on the Battlefield

The ancient Greeks believed that it was vital to remember the dead as “immortality lay in the continued remembrance of the dead by the living.”[8] In Sparta, no graves were marked apart from the graves of those that died at war, and those that died during childbirth. There was no higher honor for one’s noble sacrifice in Sparta’s eyes than being remembered and venerated, and in turn, giving the deceased immortality. This goes to show just high highly spartan society valued the birth of a child, and just how appreciated the mothers were for their sacrifice.[9]

Spartan Women Had Their Own Wealth

For most Greek women, the idea of owning land and having their own wealth was a fantastical notion, something that would never, in this world or next, happen. But once again Sparta didn’t stick to the status quo. Though during the early years of the Spartan empire, they held similar beliefs to the rest of Greece, this changed radically. As husbands were not allowed to live with their wives until they turned 30, women had plenty of practice of managing estates and maintaining their household, so when the time came to own their own land, they certainly were prepared. It is believed that two-fifths of spartan land was own and managed by Spartan women, an impressive amount when you consider the day and age.[10]

Despite All of This, They Still Were Not Considered Equal to Men

Though Spartan women could be considered “freer” than most other Greek women, as they had access to public schooling, married later in life, weren’t expected to do house chores (those jobs were for the slaves), they still weren’t considered equals to men. Yes, they could share their thoughts and converse with men (a step above most other ancient societies), they couldn’t, however, vote, and were excluded from holding public office.

In fact, they were still considered “non-citizens,” which makes you wonder what other Greek women, who received little if any education, and couldn’t share their thoughts, were regarded as. Though they can be considered to be ahead of their time, it was clear women’s rights had a long way to go before women could be genuinely considered equals to men.[11][12]

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