Essay on the Role of Women in Ancient Greece

Topics: Sparta, Ancient Greece, Battle of Thermopylae Pages: 41 (14403 words) Published: September 29, 2012
Econ Gov (2009) 10:221–245 DOI 10.1007/s10101-009-0059-x ORIGINAL PAPER

“Rulers ruled by women”: an economic analysis of the rise and fall of women’s rights in ancient Sparta Robert K. Fleck · F. Andrew Hanssen

Received: 10 January 2008 / Accepted: 27 May 2008 / Published online: 20 March 2009 © Springer-Verlag 2009

Abstract Until modern times, most women possessed relatively few formal rights. The women of ancient Sparta were a striking exception. Although they could not vote, Spartan women reportedly owned 40 percent of Sparta’s agricultural land, and enjoyed other rights that were equally extraordinary. We offer a simple economic explanation for the Spartan anomaly. The defining moment for Sparta was its conquest of a neighboring land and people, which fundamentally changed the marginal products of Spartan men’s and Spartan women’s labor. To exploit the potential gains from a reallocation of labor—specifically, to provide the appropriate incentives and the proper human capital formation—men granted women property (and other) rights. Consistent with our explanation for the rise of women’s rights, when Sparta lost the conquered land several centuries later, the rights for women disappeared. Two conclusions emerge that may help explain why women’s rights have been so rare for most of history. First, in contrast to the historical norm, the optimal (from the men’s perspective) division of labor among Spartans involved women in work that was not easily monitored by men. Second, the rights held by Spartan women may have been part of an unstable equilibrium, which contained the seeds of its own destruction.

For helpful comments, we thank Yoram Barzel, Paul Cartledge, Beth Davenport, Dino Falaschetti, Nancy Folbre, Barbara Hanssen, Ron Johnson, Lea Kosnik, Francine Lafontaine, Dean Lueck, Sarah Pomeroy, Mark Ramseyer, Randy Rucker, Wendy Stock, Chris Stoddard, Werner Troesken, Doug Young, and seminar participants at Colby College, George Mason University, Montana State University, the Property and Environment Research Center, the University of Virginia, Wabash College, the 2006 meetings of the Economic History Association, and the 2007 meetings of the American Economic Association. R. K. Fleck (B · F. A. Hanssen ) Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics, Montana State University, Bozeman, USA e-mail: F. A. Hanssen e-mail:



R. K. Fleck, F. A. Hanssen


Greece · Institutions · Property rights · Sparta · Women’s rights D23 · D70 · J16 · J20 · K11 · N33 · N43

JEL Classification

In the days of [Spartan] supremacy a great deal was managed by women. What difference is there between women ruling and rulers ruled by women? Aristotle on the women of Sparta1

1 Introduction For most of history, most societies have restricted the rights and ability of women to own and manage property. The women of ancient Sparta were a remarkable exception. Spartan women not only owned land (a rarity in the ancient world), but reportedly controlled 40 percent of Sparta’s total agricultural terrain by the early fourth century B.C. In addition, Spartan women were publicly educated, able to move about freely, outspoken to a degree that made them famous (Plutarch compiled a book of their sayings), and, even though not formally enfranchised, so politically influential that ancient scholars blamed them for Sparta’s decline as a major power. And this was not simply another example of the enlightenment for which ancient Greece is famous: By most measures, Sparta was the least enlightened of the many Greek city–states.2 The most democratic city–state, and the source of the greatest art, philosophy, and so forth, was Athens, where women were not allowed to own property, received little education, and faced severe restrictions on their ability to move about in public.3 Our goal in this paper is to investigate the Spartan exception, in order to understand better the...
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