THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN SPARTAN SOCIETY
The women of ancient Sparta, those who were born to Spartan parents, had many roles. They were very important and essential for the stability and running of the ancient warrior society. The woman’s role in Spartan society was highly regarded by the state as equal in importance to that of a man’s, but they could not rule or hold public office. They were given the freedom, power, respect and status that was unheard of in the other polis, along with the rest of the classical world. Since the time of Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver, the women of Sparta were very much aware of their role in society. These roles were in regards to motherhood, ownership and maintenance of land, religion, education, marriage and their strong influence and power in society. In Xenophon’s explanation of the Spartan constitution, the central and most important role in Spartan society for the Spartiate or free woman was to continue Sparta, through childbirth. Spartan women were highly valued as the mothers of warriors and they had to maintain their fitness to ensure healthy pregnancy and childbirth. Since Sparta was regularly at war for much of its five hundred year history, it was a woman’s role to bear and rear healthy children, in particular, strong and brave sons to serve in the Spartan army. Females were encouraged to participate in physical training so that they could give birth o healthy babies. According to Xenophon, Lycurgus decreed that “women should take as much trouble over physical fitness as men...on the grounds that if both parents were strong, the offspring would be more sturdy and the women themselves would be able to bear the pains of labour.” The role of motherhood was so important that mothers who had numerous sons were given special status and according to Xenophon, “Spartans value motherhood so highly that there were only two ways a Spartan would receive their name on a gravestone: death in battle or death in childbirth.” Women were responsible for bringing up their children in their early years where both girls and boys received a public education. Mothers were responsible for communicating the Spartan values to their children. They encouraged bravery in their sons and did not tolerate cowardice in battle or mourn their sons when they died in battle. Rather than mourn the death of their son, they would take pride in the fact that their son died in defence of Sparta – Source 1 (Plutarch On Sparta, p.160) “As a woman was burying her son, a worthless old crone came up to her and said: ‘You poor woman, what a misfortune!’ ‘No, by the two gods, a piece of good fortune,’ she replied, ‘because I bore him so that he might die for Sparta, and that is what has happened.” To die for Sparta in battle was a man’s highest honour and what a mother dreams of for her sons. Therefore, the pride of a Spartan woman was to be a mother of a truly courageous and dutiful son – Source 2 (Plutarch On Sparta, p.160) “When an Ionian woman was priding herself on one of the tapestries she had made (which was indeed of great value), a Spartan woman showed off her four most dutiful sons and said they were the kind of thing a noble and good woman ought to produce, and should boast of them and take pride in them.” Spartan mothers were not tolerant to a son’s act of cowardice or unworthiness towards her and Sparta. They were known to shame and kill their sons when they displayed these actions. For example, a quote from Plutarch’s Sayings of Spartan Women shows just this. Another Spartan woman killed her son, who had deserted his post because he was unworthy of Sparta. She declared: “He was not my offspring...for I did not bear one unworthy of Sparta.” (Blundell, 1995, 151 & 157; Pomeroy, 2002, 34-37 & 52-69 – Don’t know who said what, notes given from a uni student.)
Spartan women were known to be wealthy although Sparta did not have a coinage system and women were not allowed to...
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