Women in Athens & Sparta

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Women in Ancient Sparta & Athens
By: Tony Knuth
12/9/09
Historians have spent a long time attempting to establish what exactly life was like for women in ancient Greece. Like all studies of ancient Greece, they focus primarily on the two most powerful city-states in the Hellenic world, Athens and Sparta. Since the majority of the primary documents deal with these two cities, historians are only able to decipher a fragmentary view of what life was actually like for the entirety of society, let alone what life was like for women specifically. Nevertheless, researchers have dug through the chronicles of primary sources available in order to provide the most accurate depiction of Greek women possible. Researchers generally start by analyzing both Sparta and Athens separately in order to uncover how they viewed the role of women in their own society. Then, by comparing how these two societies treated women, a more complete image of their experience in ancient Athens and Sparta becomes evident. Modern historians have thus arrived at the general conclusion that Athens was a place where women were second-class citizens, barred from political practices and social events while being confined to the home for much of their time. Sparta on the other hand, was a place where women exercised a good amount of freedom when compared to their Athenian counterparts. All the same, women in both Sparta and Athens fulfilled very similar roles, albeit in differing ways. As mentioned previously the sources available to researchers on ancient Greek women are relatively scarce. They are not completely unavailable however, and have been provided to researchers by ancient authors such as Aristotle, Plutarch, Xenophon, and Thucydides, just to name a few. Unfortunately, all of these sources do come with their own set of biases. Authors only write to serve a purpose or convey some message, thus their writings -intentionally or unintentionally- are tilted to fulfill their own goals, making it the job of the researcher to recognize this bias and attempt to mitigate any prejudices that become apparent. The majority of what historians know about women from Sparta comes from Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus, the semi-mythical lawgiver of Sparta. After reviewing the text, it becomes apparent that the primary role of women in Sparta was to create strong Spartan men. Hence why Lycurgus is said to have “exercised the bodies of young women” so the “children they were bearing should have a strong beginning in strong bodies and they should grow better”. Since Spartans relied on a powerful military in order to keep their servants, the helots, at bay from revolting, the main role of women was to create the next generation’s army in order to ensure the continuation of Spartan society. Men and women were even encouraged to forgo “jealousy” and made it “honorable for men to give the use of their wives to those whom they should think fit, that so they might have children by them”. This oddity is attributed to the fact education was mandatory for all Spartan children. Consequently, it can be inferred that children were seen more as the property of the state rather than of their biological parents. Nevertheless, it illustrates the importance of reproduction to Spartan society. Xenophon develops this point when he states that Lycurgus “took from the men the liberty of marrying when each of them pleased”, saying “they should contract marriages only when they were in full bodily vigor, deeming this … conducive to producing excellent offspring”. This shows that reproduction was not only encouraged, but also that who procreated and when they did so was important so they could create healthy robust children. Although the women were veritable factories for the Spartan war machine, they were not simply empty vessels waiting to be filled. They actually experienced a good amount of freedom when compared to their Athenian counterparts. Women’s education in Sparta, like their...
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