When modern man tries to imagine
Spartan society and institutions, he is immediately confronted with the
problem of sources. Quite aside from the usual catalog of
problems – incompleteness, unreliable transcriptions, poor
translations, and the like – sources on Sparta are notorious
for coming from foreigners and for dating from a period long after the
institutions and society allegedly described. Worst of all,
many of the most famous depictions are conscious attempts to describe
the ideal society created by a legendary figure (Lycurgus) rather than
an observed society. This is rather like taking Marx's vision
of socialist society as a guide for what life was like in the "real
existing socialism" of the Soviet Union.
Historians are necessarily tied to sources. They are not
allowed to deviate too far from the historical record, i.e., the path
laid down and trodden by all earlier alleged authorities on the
subject. But in a landscape dominated by the unknown, this is
very restrictive; it is like trying to grasp the essence of Africa by
staying on the sporadic, incomplete, and usually foreign-built
superhighways. The reality of Sparta is lost to us
in the vast spaces of the unrecorded, because those things that were
considered too obvious or familiar to record are at least as important
as those peculiarities that foreigners – especially those
with a political or social reform agenda – wished to
highlight. And those things that the foreigner never even saw are just
as important again.
Thus one of the aspects of Spartan society most distorted by a rigid
focus on recorded information is the Spartan marriage. The
intimate relationship between men and women is on the one hand one of
the most fundamental to any society, and at the same time a sphere often sanctified, mystified, and shielded from outside
eyes. The more “traditional” a society
is, the more likely that its sexual relations will be surrounded by
taboos, rituals, unforgiving social proscriptions, and equally rigorous
expectations. Sexual relations are those most likely to be
governed more strongly by custom than by formal law. One need
only compare the reality of a marriage in Afghanistan or tribal
Pakistan with the official code of Islam to see how widely divergent
reality can be from the legal norm. Western laws, in
contrast, govern almost nothing about a marriage itself beyond the
legal consequences of its existence when dealing with property,
liabilities, taxes, and access to information. Yet there are
very clear expectations, traditions, customs, and informal norms to
which people even in the most liberal societies of, say, Western Europe
Arguably, nothing about Spartan society was so radically different from
the rest of the Greek world as the role of women and so, ipso facto,
marital relations. Yet none of our sources on Spartan
marriages were participants in one. Rather, the observers
upon which historians must rely for a description for this inherently
private and intimate sphere are men who came from a radically different
culture. In short, relying on the historical account of
Spartan marriage is rather like trusting a member of Iran's Islamic
Council to describe marriage in America. Recognizing this
fact, it is useful for anyone seriously interested in trying to
understand Spartan society to try to think "outside the box," to
venture into the uncharted areas beyond the written record and use
common sense to hypothesize realistic modes of behavior consistent
with the known facts.
A classic example of the need for common sense in viewing the Spartan
marriage is provided by Plutarch's "Life of Lycurgus." First
Plutarch describes how girls were required to "run and wrestle and
throw the discus and javelin," stressing that "young girls, no less than
young men, grow used to walking nude in processions, as well as to
dancing and singing at certain festivals with the young men present and
looking on." (Plutarch, Lycurgus: 14) He goes on to describe
the way girls watched the boys and youths in their exercises, making
fun of the inept and composing songs of praise for their favorites. In
short, he paints a picture of young people growing up together in close
proximity and actively involved in observing and performing for one
another. He even underlines the point that the interest of youth in the
opposite sex was consciously and intentionally sexual. Then in the next
section, he claims that because men married while on active service and
were required to sleep in their barracks, that some men "might have
children before they saw their own wives in daylight." (Plutarch,
Lycurgus: 15). What? Spartiate men married the very
same girls they had seen racing, swimming, singing and dancing at
festivals, the girls who had cheered or jeered their own
accomplishments; they had seen each other in full daylight –
including in the nude – innumerable times before they even
Furthermore, while the young men on active service (aged 21-30) might
have been required to spend the night in barracks, they were not
imprisoned. The young men were expected to exercise, swim,
and hunt. They were free to take part in chorus, certain team sports,
ride, race, and presumably had responsibility for their estates, or at
least took an interest in breeding Lacedaemon’s famous horses
and dogs. Is it reasonable to expect that two young people who married
at least in part due to sexual attraction did not use their free time
to meet with one another? Plutarch himself says that “the
bride…devised schemes and helped plan how they might meet
each other unobserved at suitable moments.” (Plutarch,
Using a little common sense, therefore, it seems most likely that
because of the requirement for men on active duty to sleep in their
barracks, young Spartan couples were most likely to meet during the
day. It was probably a lot more risky for a young Spartiate
to be AWOL from his barracks at night than to tryst with his bride
while out "hunting" or exercising his horses or checking up on his
estate. The fact that Plutarch could not imagine this and
slips into the assumption that all the "trysting" was done in the dark
of night is simply a function of his own cultural bias.
Because women elsewhere in Greece could not cross the threshold of
their homes without disgrace, were physically unfit, and knew neither how to ride nor drive and so were dependent on men for any kind of
mobility, Plutarch imagines all a young couple's trysts taking place in
the home. Since it might indeed be hard for a young man to go
to his wife's home unseen except at night, Plutarch concludes most of
these trysts took place in the dark of night. But Spartan
women had no restrictions on their movement. On the contrary,
they were expected and required to leave their homes for a variety of
reasons, and observers noted with shock that they were everywhere in
evidence. Furthermore, they could ride, and drive
chariots. No one was going to stop them from meeting up with
their husband at a designated place such as a rural estate or a
favorite glen at will.
Or there is the issue of Spartan women being lesbian and dominant
because their husbands were allegedly away at war so much of the
time. The problem here is that military historians point out
that war in archaic and classical Greece, up to the second half of the
Peloponnesian War (after 431 BC), was essentially about marching out,
facing the enemy on a wide, flat field suitable for hoplite warfare,
engaging in a single battle, and then returning home.(1)
Spartan husbands would thus not have been away for more than a month or so at any one time. Furthermore, until the
second half of the 5th century, even these wars were sporadic and not
even an annual event. This means that many Spartan wives
would have grown old without their husband's being away campaigning for
more than a couple of months in their entire marriage, if at all.
Hardly an excuse for the women to seize control of men's affairs, much less
a reason for them to feel abandoned and compelled to turn to other
women for affection and sexual satisfaction!
As for Spartan women seeking lesbian relationships because the men were
too busy with sport and training, lived in barracks, and ate at the
communal messes, this again ignores the fact that every account of
Spartan society stresses the extent to which girls and boys engaged in
sport, dance, singing, and even swimming in the same places.
In other Greek cities, the girls grew up secluded and unseen
by all except their closest relatives, but in Sparta the girls engaged
nude in sports in the same
gymnasia and swam nude in the same
swimming holes of the Eurotas, as well as taking part in the same festivals and
dances. The fact that the young men slept in barracks did
not prevent young men and young women meeting elsewhere whenever their
elders weren't keeping an eye on them. (And the parents of teenagers
will agree that short of locking them up – which the Spartans,
unlike other Greeks, did not do – it is not possible to keep an eye on
them all the time!)
As for eating dinner at the syssitia, most men nowadays eat the midday
meal – which can also be called dinner and is in many
societies the main meal of the day – away from their wives every day of
their working lives, too. This has not made modern women
notably lesbian or induced them to seize control of their
husbands’ affairs. Why should it have had that
effect on Spartan women?
The rhythm of a Spartan day was undoubtedly different from ours.
To avoid the oppressive heat of midday, vigorous activity
– whether drill for the army or strenuous sports –
was more likely to be conducted early in the morning or later in the
evening, at least in the summer months. The same heat would
dictate that markets and much agricultural activity also halted during
the hottest part of the day. Most probably, all people, rich
and poor, male and female, slowed down their activity, sought out the
shade, and refreshed themselves during that period when the sun was at
its zenith. Very likely, then, this was the period in which
families came together, probably for a common meal, talked about common
interests from the estate to children and, when inclined, made
Let us suppose this was the case: that Spartan wives went about the
business of running their husband's estate, purchasing necessary
materials and selling surpluses, during the "business day" from dawn to
midmorning and again from midafternoon to dusk. This would
still leave them a lengthy and leisurely midday period in their homes
with their husbands, who would likewise have a break in their routine
of drill and sports before returning to the city for dinner.
Was the time a Spartan couple spent together in these circumstances
substantially less than what a modern couple with two careers and
active children has?
Many modern couples complain that the demands of jobs, commuting, and
child-rearing leave little to no time left for interacting with one's
spouse. Marriage counselors recommend spending "at
least one hour" a day exclusively with one's partner. It is
hard to imagine that Spartan couples did not manage at least one hour
together every day, in a society less dominated by instant communication
and the ever-present boss. Why then should Spartan marriages
have been less viable or less balanced than our own?
(1)Hanson, p. 3, and Hodkinson in
Rich & Shipley, p. 146.
Blundell, Sue (1995), Women
in Ancient Greece (London: British Museum Press).
Dettenhofer, Maria, ed. (1996), Reine
Maennersache? Frauen in Maennerdomaenen der antiken Welt
(Munich: Deutsche Taschenbuch Verlag).
Hanson, Victor Davis, ed. (1991), Hoplites:
The Classical Greek Battle Experience (London: Routledge).
Pomeroy, Sarah B. (2002), Spartan
Women (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Rich, John & Shipley Graham, eds. (1993), War and Society in the Greek
World (London: Routledge).
Sealey, Raphael (1990), Women
and Law in Classical Greece (Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press).
Award-winning novelist Helena P.
Schrader has writte a biographical novels on Leonidas. She has also published
three novels set in Sparta. These novels will draw you into a colorful and
intriguing world, richer and more realistic than popular stereotypes.
All her novels can be ordered from online retailers. Helena Schrader
holds a PhD in History and works as a Foreign Service officer.
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