Let's talk about Spartan women — both then and now.
If this decade has been marked by anything it’s the changing attitudes to women. Over the last five or six years, there has been a notable cultural shift away from the stereotypical idea of women as less-deserving and dependent, towards a broader image of strong, diverse and fearless females.
Alongside call-outs of inequality on economic, legal and moral fronts, there has also been a revision of what women are physically capable of accomplishing.
Positive female role models are just as likely to be record-breaking tennis legend Serena Williams or Olympian Shalane Flanagan (who made history last year by being the first American woman in 40 years to win the New York City marathon), as they are to be female titans of industry and entertainment.
Spartan Women of Yore
This may feel like a new phenomenon. But thousands of years before women around the globe were collectively cheering on these superstar sportswomen as they smashed records and rewrote history, there was group of women already kicking ass and taking names – the women of Sparta. The original Spartan women.
What makes the original Spartan women all the more astonishing is the fact that they rocked their roles as strong, independent females in an era when others of their sex were dominated, demeaned and seen as subservient to men.
Fast forward to the 2010s and it’s no coincidence that the women crossing the Spartan race finish line today are as powerful, purposeful and gritty as their strong-willed namesakes from history.
And just as we’re celebrating these modern-day sheroes on International Women’s Day, let’s look to where the seeds of strength and daring were first sown and why Spartan women were so darn admirable:
1. Spartan women were educated
Educating women was not top of the to-do list in classical Greek democracy. Mainly because the idea of learned womenfolk seemed ludicrous to most of the ancient city-states.
Not so in Sparta. On that side of the Mediterranean island, girls started their schooling around the same age as boys. They were encouraged to pursue music, poetry, philosophy and other academic disciplines as means of strengthening their own minds.
Mainly, this was so they could pass their intellect onto the strong sons it was hoped they would bear. But still, it was a right that no other woman in Greece was afforded at the time and that sadly, many young girls around the world continue to be denied today.
2. Spartan women owned land
Homeownership is a modern ambition of many. Across the USA, that legal privilege didn’t extend to all women until the early 1900s. Over two thousand years ago and half a world away, Sparta’s women were already ahead of the US.
Not only could women own property (and according to Aristotle, they owned forty percent of Sparta’s land), but they could also inherit it. This meant that no matter how many male siblings a Spartan woman might have, when the family estate was being sliced up, she was still entitled to part of the pie.
3. Spartan women were fit – and free
In classical Greece, fewer sights were more scandalous to non-Spartans than that of Sparta’s women racing along the dusty roads in competition with their warrior brothers.
Athenian women rarely stepped a foot outside the ‘women’s quarters’ unless fetching water and or off to a funeral. But in Sparta, women not only had the freedom of the great outdoors but, like men, were encouraged to spend this time in athletic pursuit. From the age of seven onwards, girls and boys raced, ran, played catch and competed against each other, with physical prowess the prize to win.
Of course, there was a reason they were spurred on to shape up: Spartan society believed physically fit females would produce hardy offspring who’d grow up to raise hell on the battlefield.
While modern women might baulk at the idea of their ancient sisters being seen as baby-making machines, the off-shoot of this pre-pregnancy care meant healthier, tougher women who could maintain their well-being throughout their child-bearing years in an era when most women didn’t make it past thirty.
4. Spartan women got to enjoy sex
That brings us to another point that puts Spartan society ahead of their time: While all Greek marriages were for procreation, Spartans brides were encouraged to at least enjoy their bout of belly-bumping as much as their partners.
In the capital and elsewhere young girls were married off as soon as they hit puberty. Unprepared for the physical not to mention the emotional fallout of early sexual experience, scholars report that many young girls suffered immensely and frequently died in childbirth.
In Sparta, state laws permitted men only to marry a girl “old enough to enjoy sex.” This is interpreted as 18 years and onwards. Sure, that was a veritable fossil in Athens and other cities of the ancient world. But in Sparta it meant that women would likely be more equal and enthusiastic bed-mates, and so more agreeable life partners.
5. Spartan women were Olympians
The Spartan rep’ may be that of world-class warriors. But while the city’s men were clocking up fights on the front line, women were making history on the race course. In fact, the first woman ever to win at the predominantly all-male ancient Olympic Games was the Spartan princess, Cynisca.
Being female, Cynisca was only permitted to enter the Games in the equestrian event and even then, purely as a trainer.
A skilled horsewoman, she was prompted by her brother, King Agesilaus, to use her talents to train and enter a four-horse chariot-racing team.
This she did. And in no small feat, the Spartan princess managed to race her way to victory twice at the prestigious contest, first in 396 BC and then again in 392 BC.
Her victory had a powerful impact on the ancient Greek world. Following Cynsica’s success, other female competitors decided to muscle in on the Olympic action. This included fellow Spartan, Euryleonis, who scooped the laurels for the two-horse chariot race in 368 BC.
6. Spartan women had opinions
Aristotle and his ancient compatriots have held that “silence is a woman’s glory.” That was certainly not the case on the streets of Sparta. Women here were “notorious” for having opinions and their razor-sharp wit was recognized – if castigated – throughout classical Greece.
Although they could not vote, they participated in political campaigns and as mothers of Sparta’s future warriors, their opinions held sway.
After all, when sons went off to war, their role was not simply to celebrate their boys’ bravery. They were also central to enforcing consequences for cowardly men. According to Plutarch, the parting advice doled out by mothers to soldier sons was: “Come back with your shield – or on it.” And the Greek biographer also tells of Spartan mothers killing cowardly sons themselves.
(Kind of explains, then, why men might think twice about ignoring the words of a Spartan mama!)
7. Spartan women had economic power
Here in 2010s, we’re still fighting for economic fairness between the sexes. But look back to ancient Sparta and you’ll see it was women who held the purse strings.
For as well as being able to own property in her own right, a Spartan wife controlled the family finances, including her husband’s estate and household.
The reason for this was as practical as it was principled: with the menfolk taken up in full-time military service, who could rule the roost and keep the city-state from ruin in their absence? Well, to paraphrase our modern-day Wonder Woman, Spartan females “were the men who could.”
As property owners anyway, it was in their interest to manage the land well. And as educated citizens, they had the know-how to do it.
8. Spartan women raised strong men
There’s a lot of talk about toxic masculinity these days, and in the ancient world, such behavior was not just common but the norm.
In Sparta? Not so much. They had it about right when it came to definitions of what it means to be a strong man.
In a famed incident, Queen Gorgo was asked by an Athenian woman why “only Spartan women rule their men.” The wife of King Leonidas answered: "Because we are the only women who give birth to men."
In other words, only men with the courage and self-confidence to appreciate women as equals could be considered men at all.