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Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Physical Appearance of Spartan Women

On September 10, I speculated about the physical appearance of Spartan men. I'd like to expand that discussion today with some thoughts on Spartan women.

Admittedly, we know even less about what Spartan women might have looked like than we know about their men.  To my knowledge, no human remains that can be definitively identified as Spartan women have yet been uncovered. There are also far fewer contemporary portrayals of women in ancient art than men. Furthermore, unlike the images of men,  women in ancient sculpture and pottery are almost invariably shown well clothed. Aside from debunking modern voyeuristic fantasies about adult Spartan women going about very thinly clad, these do not reveal much about the real women they are intended to depict.

The written record is hardly more satisfying. Obviously, we have the Iliad and the tradition of Helen, the most beautiful woman on earth, a demi-goddess, and a Spartan. Herodotus tells of other beautiful Spartan women as well, notably the wife of King Ariston. But beauty, as we all know, is in the eye of the beholder and individual women, no matter how legendary their beauty, tell us nothing about the general appearance of Spartan women. 

More revealing is Aristophanes description of Lampito, the Spartan female character in his farce Lysistrata.  This play from the late 5th century BC intended to amuse Athenian males after their devastating defeat at Syracuse reflects Athenian stereotypes of contemporary Spartan women. As such, it tells us almost nothing about what Spartan women actually looked like since the audience didn't have a clue either. In a sense, Aristophanes description is no more relevant to reality than depictions of Russian women in American movies from the Cold War as brawny tractor-drivers and factory workers. Still, even the most exaggerated caricatures usually have a grain of truth, and therefore I would like to quote Aristophanes:

Lysistrata: Dear Spartan girl with a delightful face, washed with the rosy spring, how fresh you look in the easy stride of your sleek slenderness.  Why you could strangle a bull!
Lampito: I think I could. It's from exercise and kicking my arse.
Lysistrata: What lovely breasts you have!

What this description suggests is that while Athenians, perhaps in deference to the tradition of Helen, were willing to concede Spartan women might have a pretty face, they presumed Spartan women, because they were known to exercise, developed massive, muscular bodies so unfeminine that they looked like they could "strangle a bull." I would note that portraying enemy women as masculine and non-vulnerable is a useful tool in reducing/eliminating any latent pity men might otherwise have felt for the women of the foe, and so this description may also serve overall propaganda purposes of making Spartan women repulsive to the Athenian audience.

Turning to the grain of truth this description might provide, as I noted in my earlier essay on Spartan appearance, Spartans were apparently generally taller than their contemporaries, which is probably the result of more meat in their diet.  Since one of the most striking differences about the rearing of girls in Sparta compared to the treatment of female infants and children elsewhere is Greece was that they received the same food as their brothers, this meat-heavy diet would have been fed Spartan girls too. In contrast, elsewhere in Greece, girls and women were fed a different, "simpler" diet than their brothers with no "extras," (to use Xenophon's words). In short, the difference in height between Spartans and the citizens from other cities would have been even more extreme when comparing women to women than men to men.

In addition, Spartan girls were expected to run and even race -- hence Aristophanes' reference to  Lampito's "easy stride."  Indeed, if we are to believe Xenophon and Plutarch, Spartan girls were taught wrestling, and were expected to master the bow and javelin, and certainly to master horses -- all things that might make a comedian compare them to women capable of "strangling a bull." 

Certainly, Spartan girls could run, swim and dance. They took part in races both on foot and driving chariots, and they took part in public dances.  All this entailed spending a good deal of time outside in the fresh air, and that meant that Spartan girls were exposed to the elements and their skin would have tanned in the Greek sun.  It also meant that they grew up getting a great deal of exercise -- probably more than most girls get today, and they would very likely have been sleek and lean like their brothers, at least while growing up and in the Agoge. After all, Xenophon and Plutarch stress that the agoge's regime was designed to produce tall, lean youth.

Girls in other Greek cities were, in contrast, not allowed to set foot outside their houses and were expected to be "sedentary." So while the Spartan girls grew tall and fit, women in the rest of Greece grew up stunted from a diet short on protein, rarely had access to fresh air, and did not exercise.  The impact on the physical appearance of other Greek women would have been women significantly shorter than their own men (much less Spartans) and without muscles -- though not necessarily thin. (A girl who eats too much of a carbohydrate-intensive diet and does not move more than a few feet in the course of a day can still grow fat.) In short, the contrast between the physical appearance of Spartan and other Greek girls and maidens would have been much more striking than between Spartan and other Greek boys and men. 

Admittedly, after marriage Spartan women, unlike their husbands, were no longer compelled to exercise or to eat at common messes so they might have become comparatively soft and fat.  However, they still had responsibility for their households and this entailed considerable amounts of outside work and exposure to fresh air and sunlight so that it seems unlikely that Spartan women completely lost their physical condition. Furthermore, because Spartan women did not marry until their late teens/early twenties, they would have been brought to childbed at the optimal age, while girls in other Greek cities generally married much younger and bore their first child at 15 or 16, with all the known negative consequences for their health.

Finally, I would like to suggest that Spartan women's education, literacy, and economic power also had an impact on their appearance. Women who are raised to think they are important to their society, who are literate and encouraged to voice their opinions, women who have real power tend to stand straighter, hold their head high and move with confidence. I find it hard to image Spartan women sitting hunched over with bowed heads as the women of Athenian pottery do.  

In conclusion, Spartan women would generally have been taller than other women, more physically fit, tanned, and over time they would have aged better -- indeed they very probably had a much longer life expectancy than women elsewhere in Greece! In addition, they would have held themselves with self-assurance and moved with greater confidence. Perhaps the combination of these things would indeed have made them seem strong (and brave) enough to "strangle a bull" when compared to their contemporaries.

Spartan women play a dynamic and important role in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Scenes from a Spartan Marriage

When modern man tries to imagine Spartan society and institutions, he is immediately confronted with the problem of sources. Quite aside from the usual catalogue 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 a conscious attempt to describe the ideal society created by a legendary figure (Lycourgos) 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.

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 – and 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 neither knew 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. 

In the valley of the Eurotas; photo by author
As for eating dinner at the syssitia, most men nowadays eat the mid-day 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 wives notably lesbian or induced them to seize control of their husband’s 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 head of mid-day, vigorous activity – whether drill for the army or strenuous sport – 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 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 mid-morning and again from mid-afternoon to dusk. This would still leave them a lengthy and leisurely mid-day period in their homes with their husbands, who would likewise have a break in their routine of drill and sport 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 too little time for interacting with one’s spouse. Marriage counsellors 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?

For the full text and the references see Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 6, # 1, Markoulakis Publications, pp. 46-49.

Leonidas' marriage to Gorgo is a central element in the latter two books of my biographical novel about Leonidas:

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

New Reviews of Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer

Excellent description of difficult period
by Brenda Miller (North Carolina), Sept. 30, 2011

Helena Schrader has done it again, amazingly. In this, her second volume in the Leonidas trilogy, she has brought an admittedly difficult period in Leonidas' life to a level of sustained reader interest. The earlier volume covering the agoge period had an easily identifiable theme and historical framework, and the last volume, which will emphasize Thermopylae, also has an identifiable historical framework to build on. It is this interim period, about which very little is actually known, where Ms Schrader shows her skills as an historical novelist. It bears repeating here that Ms Schrader does and has done, her "homework" on ancient Sparta in this period. Her research is beyond reproach and although she embellishes (as she must),she does not make up her own facts. Although my own field of Greek historical interest is a much earlier period, I know enough about 5th Century Sparta to recognize the accuracy of her descriptions. I can also state that based on my 23 years as an Infantry officer in the US Army, Ms Schrader has clearly done a significant amount of research on armies, soldiers, and what motivates them and makes them cohesive winners.

As she states in her prefaces, Ms Schrader aims to correct general opinion of Sparta as being some sort of brutal producer of robot-like ironmen. She succeeds, to the point where I and I suspect other, at least male, readers, might say that she has gone a bit too far in describing Sparta as a "touchy-feely", sensitive, place where a straight-arrow, incorruptible, nice guy, like Leonidas could even survive, much less become a King and army commander. But there is no arguing with Ms Schrader's research and if such is the Sparta she has uncovered, then so be it.My only disappointment is that I have to wait now for a seemingly interminable period for the final volume of this trilogy!

Ms Schrader has done a superb job here putting flesh on the few historical bones that we have of Leonidas. She has written an absolutely excellent historical novel which should have widespread appeal and which, with the other two volumes, would make a fascinating movie. I would not hesitate to buy the completed trilogy as a gift for members of my own family of very different ages.

An extremely readable historical/biography
by M. Lignor (New York, NY), Oct. 7, 2011

A good start for a review concerning Sparta might be for the layman to know just where Sparta is located. Sparta is on a plain, completely surrounded by mountain ranges. It was a Greek city/state but not fortified as most of the cities of Greece were at that time. Sparta was a collection of small villages built over a large rural area and six very low hills. The highest served as the acropolis and location of the Temple of Athena. Sadly, there's not much of it left to see.

Now on to Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer. The Administrators of the Spartan government tried to get the King of Sparta to set aside his wife and take another as she had not produced a child. The King refused and in an attempt to get an heir, the Administrators agreed to allow the King to take a second wife without putting aside his first. The new wife soon had a son, Cleomenes.

A year after the birth of Cleomenes, the King's first wife gave birth to a son, Dorieus, followed by twin sons, Leonidas and Cleombrotus. As Leonidas was considered to be her third son, he didn't have a chance to become King so he had to go to the agoge (a public school that all Spartan sons had to complete in order to qualify for citizenship).

King Cleomenes has to deal with a co-monarch, King Demaratus, and this King is a fighter while Cleomenes is more interested in sticking his nose into the affairs of Athens. Demaratus is against this move and soon the kings are at odds. Trading on this conflict, the Corinthians are challenging the Spartan's control of the area. At the same time, other Greek cities are asking for aid from Sparta in a rebellion against Persia.

Leonidas, if you remember, is the youngest half-brother of Cleomenes and is not really interested in politics. He has just obtained his citizenship from the school and doesn't think that this revolt by his countrymen will affect him in the slightest. He is an ordinary soldier in the Spartan army and a lot more interested in taking care of his own life. His biggest concerns are to find people to take care of his ruined estate and looking around for a suitable woman to become his bride.

He sets his cap for Gorgo; she is intelligent and tough - qualities that were not the norm for marriageable women in Ancient Sparta. They get married, and they are a good team. Gorgo is extremely clever and this helps Leonidas to take care of his people and the pair become very well thought of monarchs. But, that is for the next book in this very readable series to cover. This book is book two in the Leonidas saga. The first volume: Leonidas of Sparta, A Boy of the Agoge, deals with Leonidas' birth, growing up in Sparta and his schooling at the Agoge. This second volume is about his citizenship before he became ruler, his marriage, the battles (which were frequent) that he fought, and the politics that he learned to handle.

Readers will enjoy this book even if they have not read the first in the series. A Peerless Peer will definitely stand alone and is also a good lead-in to the final book in the series. When readers finish this story they will be anxious to see what happens to Leonidas and Gorgo when his fortunes change for the better.

The author is a superb writer of Historical/Fiction/Biography. The story was very readable and Ancient History buffs will be able to put themselves in the middle of these great battles and the politics that brought them to the attention of the author.

4.0 out of 5 stars

4.0 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Helen of Sparta - What Homer's Helen Tells Us About Sparta

Raphael Sealey in his study Women and Law in Classical Greece (Chapel Hill: 1990) makes a strong case that the marriage customs and status of women as portrayed in the works of Homer are incompatible with customs in classical Athens. He argues that: “The Athenian and Homeric concepts of marriage are so markedly different that one cannot have developed from the other.” (p. 126)
Sealey furthermore argues that the depiction of Helen in both the Iliad and the Odyssey is not the evil, vain, greedy and sex-crazed Helen of Athenian theater but a dignified princess/queen and a wise woman. In the Iliad, Priam honors her, calling her “dear child,” while Hektor, the paragon of Homeric virtue, shows her courtesy and respect. Most important, Menelaos takes her back to be his Queen. In the Odyssey, Helen is depicted in Sparta apparently enjoying the respect of the entire population and providing wise advice to her husband. It is striking that such a portrayal of Helen is consistent with Spartan tradition, where Helen was honored alongside Menelaos, temples were built to her and an annual holiday was celebrated in her honor.
One particularly intriguing aspect of the Helen portrayed by Homer in the Odyssey is that she, like Gorgo, is shown to be cleverer than the men around her! She is the first to recognize Telemachos (Odyssey 4:138:32), and it is Helen who deciphers the significance of an eagle carrying a goose (Odyssey 15:160:78).
This begs the question if Homeric traditions with respect to women had a stronger influence on Sparta, particularly Archaic and pre-revolutionary Sparta, than they did on Athens. Is it possible that Doric traditions generally owed more to the world described in the works of Homer than did Ionian traditions? Admittedly, we do not know just what society the Iliad and Odyssey actually describe and many argue that the world of Homer, like Homer himself, is completely fictional. Yet repeatedly, archeological evidence has come to light that verifies elements of the great epics previously dismissed as “fiction” (e.g. helmets with boars tusks).
We know that women in Sparta enjoyed exceptional freedom and status compared, particularly, to women in Athens. While this difference is traditionally attributed to the laws of Lycurgus, it is unreasonable to presume that something as fundamental as attitudes toward women would change over night. It is far more likely that women in Sparta already enjoyed higher status and that the revolution in Sparta that followed the First Messenian War only codified, institutionalized and developed to new levels pre-existing tendencies. The fact that Cretan women, Achaian women and women in Gortyn also had notably more freedom and status than women in classical Athens is further evidence that at least in Doric societies there was a wider, pre-classical tradition which contrasted sharply to the misogynous practices and laws of classical Athens.
It would be interesting to know if Doric traditions differed markedly to Ionic traditions in other spheres as well – and equally intriguing to investigate to what extent (if any) Ionic traditions were influenced by Asiatic customs. Is it possible that Athenian misogyny had more to do with the influence of the East – of Babylon and Persia – than with the roots of Greek civilization? Was Sparta’s comparatively greater respect for women perhaps more genuinely “Greek/Hellenic”?