The Spartan treatment of women was one of the features of Spartan society that set Sparta apart from all other Greek cities, and the relative freedom of Spartan women was viewed in the rest of the ancient world as scandalous. Most modern readers, however, have no idea the extent to which ancient Greek women – outside of Sparta - were restricted, disenfranchised and disdained. As a result, when writing about ancient Sparta, the challenge is not merely to show how Spartan women differed from us, but also how they differed from their contemporaries. I address the differences in a variety of ways. Here are some examples:
The first scene is from Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge. Twelve year old Leonidas and his friends, Alkander and Prokles, have come to watch Prokles’ younger sister compete in a girls’ race at one of the Spartan festivals.
“Why are there so many strangers here?” Leonidas asked because he noted that almost everyone around, although Greek, was speaking a different dialect – mostly Ionic.
“Oh, that’s because they don’t have maiden races in other cities,” Prokles’ grandmother Leonis explained. “In fact, they don’t let their maidens out of their houses at all.”
“So how do they go to school” Prokles wanted to know.
“They don’t go to school?” Leonidas was shocked. “Not at all?”
“And that is the proper way of things!” one of the men standing near them insisted, butting into the conversation firmly. He addressed himself to the boys rather than the women. “Everything a girl needs to know in life, she can learn at her mother’s knee in the safety and seclusion of her own home. By letting girls run around in public view you only encourage licentiousness and disobedience! The less a girl sees and hears the better she is.”
The three Spartan boys stared at the stranger in open bafflement. Because he looked at least 40 and by his rich clothes and carefully coifed hair appeared to be a man of wealth, they dared not contradict him.
It was Prokles’ grandmother who answered him sharply. ”If it is such a scandal, why are you here?”
“See! That’s just what I mean!” the man declared, still addressing the boys. “Silence, SILENCE, is a woman’s greatest virtue.” Then turning on Leonis, he sneered at her, “Flaunting your bodies is not half so bad as the way you chatter and interfere in men’s affairs!”
“If you are afraid of women’s words, go back where you came from!” Leonis retorted.
“I intend to do just that!” The man said indignantly and would have turned away, but Leonidas stopped him.
“Excuse me, sir.”
The man looked back.
“May I ask where you are from, sir?”
“I am from the great city of Athens!” the man proclaimed, loudly enough to make others start to take notice.
“Oh!” Leonidas looked so surprised that the man’s curiosity was aroused.
“Does that surprise you?”
“It does, sir.”
“Why?” the man asked, perplexed. He evidently felt that his nationality should have been obvious from his clothes and accent.
Leonidas hesitated. He glanced a little uncertainly at Prokles’ grandmother. She could not know what he was going to say, but she awaited it expectantly. “It’s only that I was taught that Athens was a great and powerful city, sir.”
“As indeed it is, boy – nothing like this provincial pig-sty you call a city! Why, your whole acropolis wouldn’t qualify as more than a collection of third-rate district temples in Athens, and your agora would fit inside ours three times over!”
“I accept your word for it, sir, but it surprises me nevertheless – although I knew you had walls....” Leonidas trailed off enticingly.
“What surprises you, boy?” the man asked impatiently, frowning, sensing something behind Leonidas’ words that he could not identify yet.
“It surprises me that you are so easily frightened.”
“Frightened?!” the Athenian demanded, flabbergasted and uncomprehending.
“I mean,” Leonidas still sounded baffled and respectful, because it was a guise he had long since honed to perfection in the syssitia. “If you fear even the words of women, how you must tremble before the spears of men.”
This exchange is important because it highlights women’s comparative freedom, but also stresses that in Sparta too “the spears of men” were still more important.
The next example also comes from my Leonidas Trilogy, in this case from the second part, A Peerless Peer, (scheduled for release this coming fall). In the exchange below, Leonidas is now 24 and on a visit to Athens. He is speaking with the son of his host, a man of roughly 30 years of age.
“What about your wife?” Leonidas asked.
Kallixenos looked at him startled. “What about her?”
“Can’t you talk to her?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never tried. Why should I? She’s about to provide me with an heir – at least I hope it won’t be a girl. What more is a wife for? Surely you don’t talk to your wife?”
“I would, if I had one.”
Kallixenos just laughed at him. “You may know about war, Leonidas of Sparta, but you know nothing about women.”
“It would seem I know more than you, since I have spoken to many of them.”
Kallixenos raised his eyebrows in obvious disbelief. “Seriously?”
“Seriously. My stepmother was a student of Pythagoras and is literate in the tongue of the Egyptians as well as Greek.”
Kallixenos stared at him. Then he shrugged. “The women in Sparta must be different then. Here they are all illiterate and dumb as sheep. Believe me, my wife hardly knows how to add 2 and 2 together and I don’t think I’ve ever heard her say a whole sentence at a time.
In the following example from The Olympic Charioteer, the exiled Spartan Lysandridas realizes his wife is miserable and wasting away in the confinement and inactivity of her life in Tegea.
“My wife is an excellent driver.”
“Your wife?!” Antyllus gapped at Leonis, who had been watching Afra being backed into the traces and not heard what Lysandridas had said. He was completely flustered and turned back to Lysandridas. “This is ridiculous! I know women are allowed to drive in Sparta, but you aren’t in Sparta any more. Women do not drive in Tegea!”
“I’m not suggesting she drive in public, not in the city. I’m only suggesting she help you to victory by driving on the training track here.”
“That’s the most demanding kind of driving there is! And what horses would I give her?”
“She drove my father’s team – two at a time. How else do you think he got them in shape for Delphi? My cousin Nikandros certainly didn’t do it!” Lysandridas scoffed, and Antyllus raised his eyebrows. He looked back at the oblivious Leonis. She was not his type at all. He found her tanned skin ‘common’ – like a slave’s – and she was too tall and lanky to be appealing. Her face was too square and her mouth too wide. She was even old by Spartan standards! … Of course, he had no idea what Leonis was like – he had no notion of her personality, education or temperament, as it was not his business to have any discourse with another man’s wife – not even his son’s.
Later in the novel, Lysandridas must make a choice between Sparta (which once exiled him) and Tegea. By now his wife Leonis is pregnant.
A terrible thought came to him. What if she carried a girl-child in her belly? How could he raise a daughter in Tegea? How could he confine Leonis’ child to a life alien to the sun and the wind and the strength and fleetness of her own body?
Yet for all the freedom Spartan women enjoyed compared to their sisters in other cities, they were not the equals of men. They were not trained in war, did not fight, nor were they enfranchised. Even in Sparta, marriages were arranged by families and while the girls often knew their bridegrooms and may have had some say in the matter, they were still expected to marry their parents’ choice for them. The excerpt below is from Spartan Slave, Spartan Queen and is self-explanatory.
“Have you met your intended?” he asked cautiously when their laughter faded naturally. Kassia shrugged, and Pharax was puzzled by her apparent indifference to her wedding and bridegroom. Most girls preened and beamed at the prospects of an imminent marriage – much less one to a prince. “Didn’t he meet with your approval?” he asked her.
“I don’t know. It was a formal introduction at the palace with Uncle Anaxandridas and Uncle Leobotas and Uncle Charillos – not to mention Queen Eupolia, Mom and Agesandros – all looking on. If Anaxilas had so much as touched my hand, I fear Agesandros would have gutted him on the spot. Mom was close to fainting the whole time, and Uncle Charillos looked like the cat that swallowed the canary. Actually, it was hilarious.” Kassia giggled, covering her mouth with her hand.
Spartan women remained women and felt themselves to be very different from their men. It would therefore be wrong to portray Spartan women as modern feminists. This last quote is from Are They Singing in Sparta?
Alethea lay in bed exhausted from another sleepless night and wished that she could sleep in. She wished she could hide here and not face another day with all her problems unresolved. Wasn’t it bad enough that Niko was still seen by his peers and the Peers with intense suspicion? That Kassia had lost the young man she was in love with in the Massacres? That the wine harvest was sour? That they had a plague of mice threatening the barley? Did Sandy have to disgrace her too?
Had she neglected Sandy these last years? He had always seemed the easiest of her children. With Niko running away and then Kassia almost killing herself with grief, maybe she had paid too little attention to Sandy, who had seemed so well adjusted and content?
How could she have raised a son who could ridicule a lame man? That was the worst of it. Not, as the others thought, that he had shown so little endurance under the cane…What was the world coming to when 11 year-old boys mocked and ridiculed lame men in the streets?
There was no way around it: it was her fault that her sons had both turned out so badly. She should have re-married right away, at the first opportunity, when the boys were still very young. How could she have been so selfish? How could she have deluded herself that she could raise two boys to manhood without a husband?
As this excerpt illustrates, a Spartan matron’s world consisted of her household and her children, and raising good sons was her principle concern. Sons who failed to meet the standards of society were a disgrace and the widow Alethea acknowledges that she has failed, and that she should have done what society expected -- marry a second time. Spartan matrons were not feminists in the modern sense. They too, like their sons and husbands, were products of their society, but at least that society recognized their role as important and honourable rather than treating them like a necessary and contemptible evil as in the rest of Greece.