The Role of Spartan Women in Ancient Greece

Sparta, a totalitarian society focused upon its military strength did not allow its citizens the easygoing lifestyle of Athenians. Men did not spend their days working toward their individual political and economic success or debating high ideals. The men of Sparta focused all of their being on the perpetuation of their state. The men of Sparta focused their lives on training for the physical and psychological rigors of warfare. Unlike the women of Athens, the women of Sparta were granted an equal stake in the success or failure of their state. With their fathers and husbands constantly away training or at war, the women of Sparta were responsible for all else in Spartan society.

Little is really known about Spartan women, but there are several important factors regarding their lives that we do know. While the men of Sparta focused their lives on the military aspect of Spartan society, the women were expected to dedicate their lives to perpetuating Spartan society through the production of both young Spartans and the food to feed them and their fathers.

The women of Sparta had a certain degree of equality that other Greek women never had. Although Spartan women were treated as equals rather than attractive trinkets or chattel, much more was expected of them than the trinkets and chattel of other Greek men. Spartan women served the state by being physically fit and marrying a Spartan soldier to bear children for the state, and by being educated enough to manage the affairs of her husband’s household and estate.

Spartan women served their country by marriage to a Spartan man that would create fine, healthy Spartan citizens to carry on the society. Since the Spartan man was conditioned from boyhood to bond emotionally and sexually with his brothers in arms, this created an interesting twist for the encouragement of procreation by the state. The cultural tradition of marriage through kidnapping continued (as it does today in Kyrgyzstan), but when the new bride was brought to her husband’s home, her mother-in-law would cut her hair and make her look boy like for her first sexual encounter with her new husband. Thus there would be less stress on a man who may have previously only had sexual relations with other men and boys.

Marriage in Sparta was not for love. Spartan soldiers were expected to marry by the age of 30 (still an important age for Turkish men) in order to have someone who would be able to manage the property they would receive from the state at such age. Spartan soldiers were also expected to provide the state with young soldiers to replace them and their comrades who had fallen in battle.

In addition to marriage to a Spartan man, Spartan women were expected to bear children who would be strong Spartan citizens of the future. Women spent their youth and indeed much of their lives in athletic pursuits for the sole purpose of producing strong offspring and surviving the ordeals of pregnancy and childbirth. For these reasons, Spartan women were better fed than other Greek women. Children were not the property of their parents but the property of the state of Sparta. We may even gather from this information that crimes against pregnant women or children could be considered crimes against the state. Since married couples slept together only for the purpose of procreation, jealousy regarding sexual partners was an unacceptable sentiment. In fact, if a man and his wife were unable to conceive, it was perfectly acceptable for a man to sleep with another man’s wife (with the other man’s permission, of course) for the purpose of producing children. This lending of wives for eugenic breeding was considered a service to the state to which all Spartans owed their allegiance. There was no dishonor to women who were “lent out” by their husbands for the purpose of producing children. In fact, special privileges were given to those women who had three or more sons (similar to the Soviet Union’s manner of rewarding women who had seven or more children).

Spartan women were taught to read and write and were expected to be intelligent and emotionally strong enough to administer and control property. When a Spartan soldier turned 30, he would receive an allotment of land from the state and that land was expected to be productive and support the nutritional and financial needs of that soldier. Unable to administer it himself, the soldier would marry a woman who could. Thus Spartan women controlled these properties, as well as properties of their own which they might have inherited, and guarded them against invaders and servant revolts until such time as her husband returned from his military service.

Spartan women, although expected to serve their husband and the state, were provided with vastly different freedoms and advantages that the average Greek wife was not. Spartan women were encouraged to be physically, emotionally and intellectually strong. While these traits were meant to serve the Spartan state, they also served its women well. While Spartan men commanded all things military, Spartan women commanded all things domestic from the interior of the household to the exterior production of agriculture and all associated business investments and ventures.

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