Gender in Ancient Sparta

Patriarchal systems existed since paleolithic times, rendering the art of machismo and paternal power. Male dominance was defined by the patriarch as the fundamental unit of power in ancient society. The clan was only as strong as its male head of the household, building and influencing a generation of sturdy and brisk men who would soon take over the roles that defined them. However, if men inherited this machismo, women enabled it. Women were expected to tend to their men, submit to them, and raise them. But they also proved themselves the purveyors of this masculinity, sometimes engaging in cross-dressing practices, prostitution, and even serving in wars against enemy militias. Nowhere is this more evident than in ancient Spartan society. Spartan society stretched the envelope for women, displaying an implicit gender-bending reality in a society that Aristotle labeled "lawless". Furthermore, ancient Spartan women partook in many interesting social practices that people of today's standards would have undoubtedly labeled perverse.

Who were the women of ancient Sparta? What were their roles? And how did they manage to relieve themselves of their 'feminine' duties? Spartan women were gymnasts, acrobats, prostitutes, priestesses, and mothers. They were expected to marry by the ripe age of 13 and bring many a Spartan man into this world. However, their dexterity and durability were just as important as their role as mothers. They were expected to attend public school focusing on the arts and physical prowess. As they neared sexual maturity, Spartan women were almost always kidnapped or 'taken' for marriage. Immediately before intercourse, the bride's head was shaved and she would lay down in male clothing awaiting her bridegroom's advances. A huge stretch from the fairy tale romances of our day. This gender-bending ritual was key to Spartan male machismo. A mingling of the sexes was unheard of in ancient Greece, and for a man to engage intimately with a woman, it had to be in private and she had to look like a man, for fear that their union may be 'found out'.

The Spartan woman's main duty was to uphold Homeric values such as arete, or excellence, by breeding strong Spartan males. In doing this, she displayed her loyalty to Sparta, and became a key enabler to Spartan hegemony over the Peloponnesus and the local Messenian helot population. She inherited the right to hold property once her husband was away at war, thus managing the fiscal and proprietal issues of the estate. This was unheard of in other regions, particularly Sparta's neighbor of Athens, where women were expected to stay in the domestic realm and avoid fiscal matters. Euripedes exemplified Athenian female drudgery in his play Medea. His protaganist, the female Medea laments, "They [Athenian men]... say we lead a safe life at home, while they do battle with the spear. What imbeciles! I'd rather stand to arms three times than bear one child."

Throughout a Spartan woman's lifetime, it was understood that she would engage in sexual practices much like her male counterparts. She was a product of the city-state or polis, and thus belonged to everyone. She was expected to have a healthy sexual appetite, and enjoy sex much the same way as a man. This helped to spur the population and satiate the sexual desires among men and women. Although sex was key to male machismo, it was encouraged to be under the control of the men. Something that Spartan women had no qualms with. This perhaps may be why Sparta was less engaged in homo-eroticism, something quite rampant in ancient Greek society. Aristotle blamed the fall of Sparta on their women and found the freedom of women most vile. He argued that Sparta would forever be plagued with bad luck as long as women held power. He wrote, "Again, the license of the Lacedaemonian women defeats the intention of the Spartan constitution, and is adverse to the happiness of the state."

Interesting, the role of gender still resonates debate today. The debate of whether or not women should have the same claim to leadership and physical prowess as that of a man remains. Sparta initiated this gray area of gender that will always be imbedded in social discourse. No doubt, the debate began with ancient Greece and is still construed today.


Frost, Frank J. Greek Society, Fifth Edition. University of California, Santa Barbara, 1997.
Ancient History Sourcebook: Aristotle: Spartan Women: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/aristotle-spartanwomen.html


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Anonymous said...

Hello Rania,
My name is Alli McCollum. I am a student at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. I am hoping you will see this, as it does not look like you've been online in awhile. I would really like to ask you some questions about the article on Gender in Ancient Sparta, I am currently writing a paper pertaining to women's roles, especially sexually, and would love to hear some of your thoughts. If you would be willing to talk to me, I would love for you to e-mail me at amccollu@butler.edu.
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Hans Bakker said...

I was listening to a lecture by Leonard Shalin about the alphabet introducing literacy and patriarchy. He made the point that since Sparta did not emphasize literacy it was also less patriarchical. Does that seem to be correct? I do not want to form a rash judgment. I am doing a book review of a book Shalin wrote before he died. But I am also trying to understand his wider perspective on gender.

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