When most people think of Sparta, they think of Spartan men. These strapping examples of manhood were most recently depicted in the 2004 film 300, which did a pretty good job of stylishly exhibiting their military prowess and unquenchable determination. However, where were all the women? The most prominent in 300 was easily Queen Gorgo (played by Lena Headey), who remained strong despite her husband’s absence and ultimately revealed Theron’s treachery (as well as finishing him off herself for his transgression). However, in the comic book upon which the film is based, Gorgo has a much lesser role, only appearing briefly at its start. Additionally Helen of Troy was also a Spartan woman (and we all know how that went).
So was Gorgo’s depiction accurate, and what would daily life have in store for you if you were a true Spartan woman?
Like Spartan boys, Spartan girls also had a state education. While certainly not as physically demanding as the one given to boys, there was still a strong emphasis on physical fitness. Dance and gymnastics, along with other sports, were educational staples, with health and moral character prized above grace and culture. Spartan women even took part in the Olympics, with chariot racer and princess of Sparta Cynisca being the first to win at them. Spartan girls were also encouraged to publicly criticise and humiliate their males peer in order to urge them to perform better.
Despite being classed at citizens, Spartan women were not permitted to speak at or even attend public assemblies (although apparently they frequently shared their opinions with their husbands, who would then pass them on to the assembly for them).Women in Sparta could also own land (indeed, around 35% of all Spartan land was alleged to have been owned by women), with the flexibility of Spartan law meaning that they could inherit entire estates in the absence of a male heir or acquire land as dowries or gifts.
- Marriage & Family Life
The Spartan marriage traditions were rather amusing. Brides were often abducted (with their father’s consent), with the elected bridesmaid then having to shave the bride’s head, dress them in a man’s cloak and sandals and then leave them laid on a mattress in the dark. The husband-to-be would then turn up and carry her away to bed before sneaking back to his barracks before morning (these secret visits continuing some time after their rather unconventional wedding). There was no stigma attached to divorce and remarriage, with women just as able to do so as men. As mothers Spartan women were the heads of the household, especially considering that generally the majority of Spartan men were at war. Free to do more or less as they wished within the community, Spartan women left domestic duties to their estates’ helots and spent their time maintaining their physiques, supervising the aforementioned helots and, of course, bearing strong, healthy Spartan children.
So was being a woman in Sparta just one big Greek holiday?
Depends on your point of view, I suppose.
Our guest author, Eli Smith, is fascinated by the Spartans, however, he doesn’t think he could be as tough as a Spartan woman.