Ancient Sparta, also referred to as Lacedaemon, was an old Greek state found in present day in Southern Greece, in an area presently referred to as Laconia. The Spartan population was split into three categories: fully fledges citizens that went by the name Spartans or Spartites; slaves who were referred to as Serfs or Helots; and those that were neither citizens nor slaves, commonly known as Perioceli. The Perioceli, meaning ‘dwellers around’, were professional artisans or traders. They were responsible for the Spartan armory as they made and refined weapons for the Spartans.
Every male Spartan citizen was compelled to undergo the education system that was sponsored by the state. This education system known as the Agoge emphasized the need to practice endurance, self-control, courage and obedience at all times. Spartan men were later inducted into the military and lived as a group as they transitioned into adulthood. The military policy then was service and loyalty to Sparta before everything else, even one’s own family. The state of Sparta was governed by a set of strict laws written by Lycurgus, a renowned law professional. He was responsible for the reorganization of the social and political structures of the town into a disciplined and wholesome society in the 7th century B.C. (Pomeroy, 2002).
The military academy setup to enroll most of the Spartan men into the Spartan army machinery was also his brainchild. Lycurgus’ law reforms included specific rules and regulations for Spartan women as well. These laws also had certain allowances for the average Spartan woman, which portrayed the Spartan woman as relatively more self-willed as the rest of the Greek women. The reason behind these laws was to ensure that the Spartan state went forth as a powerful, disciplined, and formidable force in the region (Pomeroy, 2002).
Spartan women were more often than not thought to be the driving force behind Sparta’s advancement. Though there are no official historical documents on the accounts and ways the average Spartan women have been positively identified, archaic Greek historian and poet accounts fill the gap by providing insight on the role of the Greek woman, her culture and function in society. Mythology has also helped identify the culture and lives of Spartan women. Thus, Spartan women were revered and envied by other women for being independent and free willed. They enjoyed certain rights, freedoms, and powers that were not accorded to other Greek women. They were not involved in the military operations of the state and were instead expected to be the recipients of formal education. They went to all female schools that were secluded from their male counterparts in the education system and did not attend boarding schools.
They were involved in athletic activities and competitions inclusive of wrestling and javelin. They also took part in dance and song competitions; all of these in a bid to attract suitable mates. Since Spartan women had undergone formal education, they were allowed to take part in trade and were accorded the right to property, meaning they could manage and own property. Spartan women were not involved in household duties and home making chores. These chores that included embroidery, making clothes, cleaning and cooking were assigned to the helots due to their low societal status (Pomeroy, 2002).
In ancient Sparta, girls were entitled to an education at the tender age of seven. Though this education was majorly physical, academic skills were also taught. This was state policy, and all girls were expected to go through with it. The girls went to sisterhood barracks, where they were taught wrestling, gymnastics, athletics, and survival skills. They also underwent a little bit of combat. Some quarters claim that a Spartan woman’s education was nearly as intense and tough as the boy’s education, including activities such as foot races, throwing discuses, staged fights, and javelin.
The rationale behind the strength training as part of the formal education that each girl had to undergo was that a strong Spartan woman would be able to give birth to strong babies, who would later be of use in the Spartan military if they were male. If newborn babies were seen as unfit or considered weaklings, they were taken out of state to Mt.Taygetos where they were abandoned and left for death. It was in every Spartan woman’s best interest to give birth to a healthy baby to avoid having to abandon her own newborn (Pomeroy, 2002).
Upon reaching the age of 18 years, Spartan females would have to take and ace a fitness and skills’ test before moving on to a new phase. They are assigned husbands and released to go back home. The women that failed the test were also allowed to return home though they were considered failures. Their social status would slip from the highly respected Spartite to Periokos, which were middle class members of the Spartan society. Though this could be considered as harsh in current times, it is crucial to note that Spartan women were accorded opportunities that were not on the table for women in other states in ancient Greece (Fantham, 1994).
These other cities were of the opinion that women should stay indoors and attend to home making for the better parts of their lives. The women who went through the tests and earned their high social status were free to move around the state. A near comparison could be made to the modern woman. The freedom was also experienced because their husbands were often away from home on military assignment (Pomeroy, 2002).
Spartan women were advantaged over the other Greek women as they were allowed to fraternize with the men. They exercised with men and even shared conversations on sensitive topics like the politics of the day. Spartan women were revered for their wit, courage and outspoken character. Other Greek states were against the freedom that they saw Spartan women practicing. It is often thought that Spartan off springs were both physically and intellectually superior to the others due to the women that gave birth to them.
Natural beauty was a trait that was largely associated with the Spartan women. Despite all the freedom they enjoyed, Spartan women were forbidden from masking or putting on makeup. Their trademark was their natural beauty, and enhancements of whatever sorts were also discouraged.
Marriage was a vital rite of passage to the Spartans. This was because the ancient Spartan state emphasized the importance of the citizens to give birth to children, especially male children, who were considered a strong asset as far as warfare and the military is concerned. Men who stalled in the marriage frontier were publicly ridiculed, while those who were responsible for fathering male children were praised and even rewarded. In anticipation of marriage, Spartan women who were soon to be wives were shaved clean (Fantham, 1994).
The Spartan family setup was different as the couple ideally lived apart from each other. Men under the age of thirty were still required to live in the communal barracks even after marriage. They sneaked out of the barracks to spend nights with their wives. The Spartan women were not as attached to their children as other women, but they held their heads high if their children held high positions in society (Pomeroy, 2002). Spartan women were also allowed to own, control, and dispose of their property. They had the right to pass it on to their offspring. Sons and daughters were eligible for inheritance. Women owned up to a third of the land in Sparta.
Greek women also participated in the religious activities that were held dear by the Spartans. Location was important as far as the choice of the region’s god is concerned. Women were more inclined in worship directed to gods of beauty, childbirth, fitness, and health. They participated in cults based on legends and myths. The most common cults among the Spartan women were the cults of Helen of Sparta and the cult of Cynisca. Cynisca was a legendary chariot race and heir to the throne. She is thought to be the first woman to win the Olympic Games. Spartan women were very religious and were the front-runners in keeping the religious practices of the Spartans (Pomeroy, 2002).
In her book Spartan Woman, Sarah B. Pomeroy explains the various aspects of women’s lives in Sparta and the greater Greece. The characters used to portray these aspects of life are goddesses and heroes who are thought to have been instrumental in Greek civilization. This is achieved through the comparison of the lives of Spartan women to those of Athenian women. Sarah focuses on the areas of women and religion, creation of mothers, becoming a wife, the lower classes, education, and elite women.
The topic of marriage is still a controversial subject. Other historians hold the opinion that the institution of marriage was an entity that was awkward. They argue that marriage was prearranged by the respective parents. They also state that the practice of wife sharing was a common phenomenon in the Spartan society. Their basis of thought is that, since Spartans wanted to produce both physically and intellectually strong babies, breeding was done between the most suitable parents. It is thought that many older men allowed younger men to impregnate their partners in a bid to get the best outcome. Men who were either not married or childless would request someone else’s wife to have babies with them, especially if the woman was known to have given birth to physically fit children in the past. This made people perceive Spartan women as polyandrous and polygamists. Sarah argues that the reason behind the perceived polygamous nature of Spartan women was a result of the expectations of perfect babies over which they had no control. Rather than looking at them as polyandrous, she depicts them as victims of the culture of the Spartan people (Fantham, 1994).
Ancient historical unfolding, developments, and prominent people are featured in the “Elite Women” chapter of the book. It explains the strategies women employed to remain relevant in the male dominated political and social structures of Sparta. Royal women were treated respectfully in marriage, wealth, inheritance and even in adultery. Some women were involved in state elections. The women of Sparta were, therefore, seen as superior to other Greek women. Pomeroy agrees with this and further explains that wealth acquisition was just another means to have a basis of relevance and autonomy (Pomeroy, 2002).
Thus, the women of Sparta were superior women in their own right. They showed the type of wit, enthusiasm and courage that made them be envied by others. This is evident as they were educated individuals who enjoyed freedoms that were unimaginable in the ancient times.