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Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Sparta's Ancient Roots: Homer's Sparta

Nowadays, when we speak of "Sparta" we are usually referring to the historical capital of the ancient city-state of Lacedaemon located in the Peloponnese from roughly 950 until 192 BC. This is a political entity with institutions and a physical presence, whose military, political, social, educational, diplomatic and artistic accomplishments have left a footprint in the historical and archaeological record. 
Yet there was another Sparta, an older Sparta, a legendary Sparta --
 the Sparta of Kastor and Polydeuces 
and Helen...

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 Iliad and Odyssey is not the evil, vain, greedy and sex-crazed Helen of the 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 her men! 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, are 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 abruptly.  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 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 “Greek”? If so, was Sparta's entire society and ethos closer to its "Greek" roots than those of Athens? 


  1. May I suggest the book "Helen of Troy: The Story Behind the Most Beautiful Woman in the World " by Bettany Hughes? It was a fascinating read that was really more about what it was like to be a woman in ancient Greece.

  2. Indeed. I reviewed the book on this blog earlier. Good book.

  3. Not too sure where to post this update on "Archaic Sparta" but here we go...

    "The floor of a room in the remains of the Spartan palace that burnt to the ground in the 14th century B.C. The ten-room palace is likely the lost palace of Sparta. History and other written artifacts such as Homer's epics, reveal that during the Mycenaean period, Sparta was a flourishing culture. Yet no palace had been found from that time period until now."

  4. I think you will like this Helena(that is if you haven't seen it):

  5. Most interesting, Professor. As I like to say; the concept of "Democracy" may have begun in Athens, but true democracy was not born there. In some ways, Sparta was more inline with our modern concept.