It’s a wondrous notion to entertain — hopping into another era, donning the dress of the day and roaming the streets as if you were on vacation. You imagine strolling through the Athenian Agora in search of a delectable ancient pastry, hiking through Bavarian woods on the hunt for Snow White, or stopping in at an English pub for a pint in the 1910s.
Then the reality sets in, and you realize with a sigh that these activities would prove impossible. Only the potters market was the domain of women in the Agora, and even then, it was slaves who deigned to shop there. The Bavarian Forest was no place for a lone lady in the 1500s, and of course, you wouldn’t be allowed to sit at the bar unchaperoned in Edwardian England. You lament that all these marvelous places existed, but that women had a litany of customary hoops to jump through, and were limited in many ways.
Well — most women, anyway.
Sparta, one of the most prominent city-states of Ancient Greece, had a much different way of doing things, even by ancient standards. Its social structure was dedicated to maximizing the states’ military might at all costs, and every aspect of life was tied to one lofty goal: for Spartiates to be the pinnacle of physical excellence. To achieve this, the State had to ensure that women had mental and physical fortitude so they could give birth to strong soldiers worthy of the Spartan name. This is where things got radical:
She enjoyed a state-mandated education from an early age. Rather than remain inside with her mother at all times, wearing long dresses, and learning how to perform domestic tasks like a well-mannered Athenian girl, the Spartan woman was trained in activities intended to make her a strong mother. In addition to music, the arts, and other mentally stimulating subjects, she became proficient in dance, gymnastics, discus, and javelin throwing. She was expected to endure trials of strength, learn to ride horses, and wrestle. Participating in races for prestigious festivals was encouraged, and she may have even competed in the Gymnopaedia while naked. All this was pursued while she lived at home, and so between lessons, she’d have extra time to potentially pursue an activity of her own selection.
She was allowed to be outspoken, and even haze her male peers. Sparta was not an easy place to grow up, and it was especially tough for young men. Any sign of timidity or cowardice could not be tolerated, and many boys were encouraged to bully peers that showed signs of weakness. At state and religious ceremonies, girls would croon choral songs about soldiers in training before dignitaries and people of note. If she knew of a man who was underperforming, she could single him out and shame him via song. And although it may sound a bit toxic, you’d be hard pressed to find another city-state that allowed women to have such strong opinions heard.
Because our Spartan girl needed to be strong and fit in order to create perfect future soldiers, she trained relentlessly in athletics. Now, she couldn’t very well do this in a cumbersome dress or skirt, so she elected to don something a bit racier, or wear nothing at all. Euripides, a tragedian of Athens, was particularly perturbed by their antics, exclaiming in his Andromache:
No Spartan girl could ever be modest
even if she wanted to be.
They go outside their houses with the boys
with naked thighs and open dresses
and they race and wrestle with the boys. Insufferable!
It’s not surprising that you don’t train women to be chaste.
She also had some surprising liberties when it came to marriage. Most of the young ladies of Greece were married off early and were rarely seen or heard from by their friends and family again. The lady of Sparta, however, was expected to marry around age 18 to a soldier close to her in years. If they married before he was released from military camp when he was 30, they lived apart. He would sneak away to see her in the meantime, and it was said that a couple may give birth to children before ever glimpsing each other in broad daylight. If it turned out they were not a good match, the couple could divorce without anyone being the wiser. The women were then free to remarry without stigma if they so desired.
Men spent so much time away at the agoge, their barracks, and then fighting in wars, that the Spartan woman was left to manage their household and land. Busy with logistics, agriculture, and governance, she had little time for the menial household chores that were considered women’s work in other regions of Greece. Instead, trifles such as weaving or sewing clothing were designated to the Helots, an underclass of slaves that made up a large portion of the Spartan population.
Women could inherit land as well. Since so many men left and never came home, it became rather commonplace for the lady of the house to own and run the estate. Because of this, they could amass wealth and even a bit of power. At one point, women reportedly owned nearly half of Sparta’s agricultural land. This didn’t bode well with Aristotle, who claimed that Spartan men were controlled by their wives.
According to Plutarch in his Sayings of Spartans, Gorgo, Queen of Sparta had this to say to a foreigner when pressed about her gender’s authority:
“Being asked by a woman from Attica, ‘Why is it that you Spartan women are the only women that lord it over your men,’ she said, ‘Because we are the only women that are mothers of men.’”
And finally, they exuded unparalleled toughness. Despite our romanticizing it, the ancient world was a hard, cruel place to live. Spartan mothers had to give up an infant to desertion if the state deemed it was too weak, and when she did have a strong son, she no longer lived with him once he turned seven and moved into the agoge. When she sent him off to war, it’s said that she did so with a warning: “return with your shield or on it.”
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