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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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  1. Enjoyed your commen sense thinking to the topic of marriage in Sparta. Great to see you post after some weeks! Sure you are very busy. Keep up your wonderful work.