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Sparta

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SPARTAN WOMEN

The Spartans were renowned throughout the ancient world for their strict military discipline, particularly the powerful men that were bred and trained in their systems. However, it was not only the men who were physically fit and dominant – the females in Spartan society also held their own, and were trained just as hard as the men. Spartan girls were not brought up to perform such tasks as spinning and weaving – these tasks were fit only for slaves – but partook in a certain amount of physical training with the boys (although they were excluded from military training), took part in various singing and dancing competitions, played instruments and recited poetry.[1] Spartan women were very unique in the ancient world, particularly in the areas of education and training, their roles and positions in Spartan society and their place in public life.

EDUCATION AND TRAINING

The women of Sparta were highly valued and respected, particularly for their roles as mothers and nurses. Spartan women also had a reputation for fitness, physical beauty and a strong, independent character. The purpose of a girl’s education in Sparta was to produce healthy bodies, so that, according to Lycurgus, ‘the fruit they conceived might take firmer root and find better growth, so that they, with this greater vigour, might be more able to undergo with the pains of childbearing’.[2] According to Plutarch, the girls were organised into bands, similar to the boys groups. He also states that they sometimes exercised together in a large group, participating in such sports as running and wrestling. The girls exercised with the boys to not only increase their physical resilience and make them tougher, but also to encourage competitiveness and equality, and to promote the two sexes not to be embarrassed around each other.[3] To encourage their own physical fitness as a group, the women of Sparta took up such sports as running, wrestling, throwing the javelin and discus, and ball games. They also performed exercises such as the bibasis, which was a highly strenuous exercise that involved jumping up and down, each time touching their buttocks and heels.[4] All these exercises were thought to increase their chances of producing fit, healthy males who would become prime warriors in Sparta. The education of the girls only involved being taught the basics of reading and writing, unlike the boys who had to learn the ways of the military on top of this. Young Spartan girls remained at home with their mothers to engage in this basic form of education – most of their time was devoted to their physical fitness and other activities such as games, dancing and singing. [5]

ROLES AND POSITION IN SOCIETY

With their husband’s confined to the barracks and on active service until the age of 31 and frequently called up for campaigns or engaged in political and civic duties thereafter, it was left to the Spartan women to run the estates. This meant that they controlled the family wealth – an in effect the entire Spartan agricultural economy.[6] Spartan citizens were dependant on their wife’s efficiency to pay their “dues” to their dining clubs. Spartan women were very wealthy – as the numbers of men declined in the 5th century, two-fifths of the land came into their hands. [7] Married Spartan women exercised much influence in society, especially compared to the rest of their ancient Greek counterparts. The women of Sparta played an important role in the transfer of property. Wealth in Sparta revolved around land ownership. Although in the classic period of Sparta a woman could inherit part of her family’s estate, they did not own it, therefore having to pass it down to their offspring. But by the end of this period women could not own and control estates without male guardians. A change then came about as the many wives of Spartan warriors were left at home as they were absent fighting wars – the women were the basically forced to manage and run the estates left by their husbands. Aristotle once said that ‘…among the Spartans in their days of greatness, many things were managed by women’. A main role of the women was to oversee the land while their husbands were away at war or training, but the biggest role of a Spartan woman was to be a wife and mother of citizens. Xenophon noted that for the Spartiate or free woman, child bearing was the most important function. [8]
PLACE IN PUBLIC LIFE

The definitive place of a Spartan woman in the public eye is really quite hard to define – as Sparta was organised in such a way that everybody from a helot to an Equal had a specific job or function, but it seems that women had no real definitive function than to breed healthy, strong Spartans who would serve the state and hopefully die honourably serving their country. The job of most women traditionally in Ancient times and still today is one in which the mother stays home with the family, but in Sparta, there was no such thing as family as all the men and boys were away in the barracks training, or absent in battle. Women exercised to be fit and healthy for childbirth, to therefore produce fit and healthy children. It is said that a foreigner once asked the wife of King Leonidas why Spartan women were able to influence men more than wives in other cities. ‘We are the only women who can control men’, she replied, ‘because we are the only women who give birth to men’. [9] A Spartan woman’s place of public life was to be a conceiver of a good, strong Spartan who was loyal to their state, and would hopefully go on to become a well-respected member of the community.

In no other Greek city-state did women enjoy the same freedom and privileges of Spartan women. It can be said that Spartan women were the most liberated and independent group in the ancient world. Spartan women were given much freedom and great respect, and in that bred some of the greatest warriors known to the ancient world.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. Barrow, R. ‘Greek and Roman Topics – Sparta’, George Barrow & Unwin, London 1975. 2. Talbot, R. ‘Plutarch on Sparta’, Penguin Classic, London, 1988. 3. Hurley, T. Medcalf, P. Murray, C. Rolph, J. ‘Antiquity 2’, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998. 4. Bradley, P. ‘Ancient Greece – Using Evidence’, Edward Arnold, Australia, 1988. 5. http://www/elysiumgates.com/~helena/women.html ‘Sparta reconsidered - Spartan women’ Last updated 2002

-----------------------
[1] Barrow, R. ‘Greek and Roman Topics – Sparta’, George Barrow & Unwin, London 1975.
[2] Talbot, R. ‘Plutarch on Sparta’, Penguin Classic, London, 1988.
[3] Talbot, R. ‘Plutarch on Sparta’, Penguin Classic, London, 1988.

[4] Talbot, R. ‘Plutarch on Sparta’, Penguin Classic, London, 1988.

[5] Hurley, T. Medcalf, P. Murray, C. Rolph, J. ‘Antiquity 2’, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.
[6] http://www/elysiumgates.com/~helena/women.html ‘Sparta reconsidered - Spartan women’ Last updated 2002
[7] Bradley, P. ‘Ancient Greece – Using Evidence’, Edward Arnold, Australia, 1988.
[8] Hurley, T. Medcalf, P. Murray, C. Rolph, J. ‘Antiquity 2’, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.
Talbot, R. ‘Plutarch on Sparta’, Penguin Classic, London, 1988.

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