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Article by Helena P. Schrader. First published in "Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History.” Volume 6, #1, July 2010.  A Markoulakis Publication.  Reprinted with permission from Markoulakis Publications.

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 nevertheless conform.

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 got married!

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, Lycurgus: 15)

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 love.  

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).
Plutarch, Lycurgus.
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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