Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Sparta's Secret Weapon: Women

Sparta's power is usually attributed to the incomparable Spartan army -- and sometimes the factors that contributed to the creation of that army: Sparta's education system, it's unique constitution, it's laws, discipline and ethos. The importance of Spartan women is almost wholly overlooked. 

Yet the importance of women to any economy has been increasingly recognized and acknowledged over the last quarter century.  Raising female literacy has become an important goal of international aid organizations, because no factor is more important in decreasing both infant mortality and birthrates than female literacy.  Indeed, various studies demonstrate a strong inverse relationship between levels of female education and poverty. Female literacy is often used as measure of development when comparing nations and regions. More recently, development and aid programs have shifted their focus from grants to governments and male dominated organizations to micro-credits to women.

When applied to Ancient Greece, of course, the modern approach appears fatally flawed. No one can seriously argue that Athens was “under-developed” or that it was poor – or can they? After all, based on factors such as literacy, infant mortality, and longevity not to mention per capita income and income distribution, Athens would certainly be rated an undeveloped or “less developed” country today!

Yet by ancient measures of wealth, Athens was comparatively well off – even if, as Thucydides argued, the monuments it built with tribute money sent from its subject cities created the impression of a city twice as rich and powerful as it “really” was.  On this point, however, I take issue with Thucydides: any city that can force other cities to pay for a monumental building program in a distant metropolis deserves to be seen as a great power. (EU take note! The Greeks ares still doing it!) Thucydides was, however, trying to make another point: that monuments alone do not constitute power – a point he underlined by saying later generations would underestimate Spartan power if they judged it on the basis of its monuments.

It is when we look at Spartan power that we need to reconsider the importance of women.  Sparta, like Athens, was a recognized power in the ancient world. From at least the 6th century to the early 4th century BC, it was one of Greece’s “leading” states. It had a large alliance system and eventually broke the back of Athens’ empire, to briefly dominate the Greek world. Based on the amount territory controlled, Lacedaemon had a strong economic base from which to develop its power. It had sufficient rainfall, fertile river valleys, and several natural harbors. It had natural resources, though neither gold nor silver, and it had timber for building ships, marble for monuments, and a benign climate. In short, it had all the objective criteria necessary for becoming a powerful state – except manpower.

That is to say, if we consider only the Spartiates, then Lacedaemon reached its pinnacle of projected power (not necessarily its greatest moment!) at a period of time when the Spartiate population was tiny – less than two thousand men. And if we accept the prevailing view that the Spartiates were unpopular oppressors of their own population and their allies, much less their enemies, then this is an even more remarkable achievement. How could 2,000 men – regardless of how well drilled and physically fit – control a hostile domestic population more than ten times as strong, and all the allies in the Peloponnesian League – and then defeat a great empire like Athens?

Obviously, one answer is that Sparta’s subject classes, perioikoi and helot, and Sparta’s allies were not as hostile to Spartan leadership as is popularly assumed.  (A thesis readers of this blog will find familiar!) Another answer is that Spartan women played a significant role in the Spartan economy, effectively doubling the size of the ruling class. Both, I believe, are true, but today I want to focus on the role of Spartan women.

The ideal Athenian woman “knew as little as possible” and was neither seen nor heard. Her job was to go a virgin bride of 12 or 13 to the house of a citizen and then (despite being still a child) produce as many children as her husband wanted (but let him kill as many of her children as he wanted) until she died.  Oh, and she was allowed to rule over the slaves and her husband’s concubines as long as she didn’t set foot outside the house, show her face even in the doorway, and never expressed an opinion on anything. Xenophon, a liberal strongly influenced by contact with Sparta, thought it was advantageous for women to learn to read and calculate a little so they could manage their husband’s household better, but the more common opinion was expressed by Meander that teaching women to read was like giving more poison to a horrible snake. As Aristotle makes clear, many leading Athenian men would have been much happier, if there had been no need for women at all. Women being the source of all evil, only a society without any women at all could be a real utopia.

Real Athenian society and real Athenian woman obviously did not live up to this ideal. Poorer women had to work just to survive and to help their husbands in their shops and workshops. Not all Athenian women had the “privilege” of being locked up in the dark, stuffy, cramped rooms at the back of an Athenian house for their entire life. Women did step outside their house – at least for weddings, funerals and religious festivals. They probably even opened their mouths and said things, though that is hard to prove. But whichever way one looks at it, Athenian women made no contribution to Athenian economic, intellectual or military power.

In Sparta, in contrast, women were from birth onward better treated than their sisters in Athens. They were fed the same food as their brothers, attended the public school, and engaged in sport so that they grew up strong and healthy. Most important, they were not forced into marriage when still immature, and so not subjected to the trauma of childbirth until they were 18 or older, something modern medicine considers vital to female health. In consequence, Spartan women would have been healthier throughout their lives and lived longer than Athenian women. This would have had the important and often overlooked consequence that there must have been many more grandmothers in Sparta than in Athens. This is more than anecdotally significant.  Recent studies suggest that older, infertile females play a significant role in the survival of young in very primitive societies. We should not dismiss the notion that in Ancient Greece too they could have played a significant role in child-rearing and household management – if they were there.  In fact, however, as there probably weren’t many grandmothers in most other Greek cities because girls married and died very young.

Equally important is the fact that Spartan women were educated in the public agoge. We have no historical record of what they learned there and if you assume even Spartan males received little training in literacy, than neither did the girls. But the notion that Spartiates were largely illiterate or only marginally literate has been effectively debunked by various scholars (see particularly Ellen Millender, “Spartan Literacy Revisited, Classical Antiquity, Vol. 20 ) and it is more reasonable to assume that the girls, like their brothers, left the agoge with functional literacy and numeracy. This is where modern evidence from the developing world suggests that such women were much more competent in the economy than women who lacked literacy and numeracy.  In short, Spartan women were in a position to actually conduct economic transactions for their husbands.  Allegedly, Spartiate women dominated the agora (where bachelors were not supposed to be seen at all) and this again reinforces the image of women who were cable of conducting business.

Could such economically savvy women have contributed to Sparta’s ability to project its power? Could, for example, Sparta afford to send harmosts, generals and admirals overseas because they had competent administrators in their women?  Did female management of the Spartiate kleros and other estates ensure that Spartiates had the economic resources necessary to remain professional soldiers and provide administrators for an imperial power? Did Spartiate women not only manage kleros, but administer tax collection, customs and other economic functions inside Lacedaemon? Probably not, or Aristotle would have mentioned it. Nevertheless, in light of modern experience, we need to reassess the role of Sparta’s better educated, healthier and longer-living women and ask whether they didn’t contribute much more to Sparta’s power and status than just the soldiers they brought into the world in childbed. 

Spartan women -- mothers, wives and daughters -- are vital characters in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:

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  1. Revealing . . . on so many levels.

  2. Sorry to post off-topic, but I hope you will be reviewing the new book by Paul Rahe.

  3. I was curious about this. Thank you. A good read.