No myth about Sparta is as persistent and controversial as the claim that pederasty and homosexuality dominated Spartan society. Even highly reputable historians such as Paul Cartledge subscribe to this theory. However, the evidence against it is, in my opinion, compelling.
Xenophon, the only historian with firsthand experience of the agoge (his sons attended it!), states explicitly: "… [Lycurgus] … laid down that in Sparta lovers should refrain from molesting boys, just as much as parents avoid having intercourse with their children or brothers with their sisters." It is hard to find a more definitive statement than this, and from the most credible source. To dismiss this evidence simply because it does not suit preconceived ideas is arrogant.
Xenophon adds: "It does not surprise me, however, that some people do not believe this, since in many cities the laws do not oppose lusting after boys." This is the crux of the matter. All of our written sources on Sparta come from these other cities, where pederasty was rampant. In short, the bulk of the written record on Sparta stems from men who could not imagine a world without it. But then, they also could not imagine women who were educated, physically fit, and economically powerful, who were not also licentious and lewd. Modern readers ought to recognize that pederasty is not inherent in society – particularly not in a society where women are well integrated.
My position is supported by another ancient authority, Aristotle, who blamed all of Sparta's ills on the fact that the women were in control of things – a fact that he attributed to the lack of homosexuality in Spartan society generally. In this Aristotle exhibits an astonishing appreciation of psychology. Modern research conclusively shows that male victims of child abuse generally grow into misogynous men. The status of women in Athens fits this pattern perfectly, while the status of women in Sparta completely contradicts – indeed, refutes – the thesis that Spartan men were systematically subjected to sexual abuse by their elders as children. (An excellent discussion of child abuse in ancient Greece can be found in Enid Bloch's "Sex Between Men and Boys in Classical Greece: Was it Education for Citizenship or Child Abuse?," in Journal of Men's Studies, January 2001.)
Finally, Herodotus, who was always happy to provide some juicy little story about a man who covets a close friend's wife, or one who steals a rival's bride just before the wedding, or the king who loves his barren wife so much that he refuses to set her aside even for the sake of securing the succession to his throne, has not a single tale in which there is mention of a Spartan with a male lover – either boy or man. This omission is significant and should not be ignored.
The archaeological evidence from Sparta likewise demonstrates an almost complete absence of pornographic depictions on artifacts. This is in sharp contrast to the plethora of explicitly pornographic art from both Athens and Corinth. While pederasty is as frequently depicted in Athenian and Corinthian art as heterosexual sex, no homoerotic art originating in Sparta has to date been found or identified.
On the other hand, some of the most important and lovely pieces of Spartan sculpture depict couples sitting side by side. Regardless of whom the figures were intended to depict (Helen and Menelaos, Chilon and his wife, a Spartan king and his queen), what is significant is the greater importance given to depictions of a man and wife sitting side by side – that is, in partnership – compared to depictions of sexual intercourse. This is because marriage in Sparta was a partnership, not a tyranny as in the rest of Greece. Nor was a Spartan marriage merely for reproduction, it was also consciously intended to bring sexual satisfaction to both partners. Xenophon explains that Spartan laws required men and women to marry in their physical prime and not when too young (for girls) or too old (for men), and that they should be initially restricted in their sexual contact so as to not to become satiated, but rather to enjoy sex together. Note that there is explicit emphasis on the desirability of the female partner enjoying sex as much as the male.
Thus, rather than being something frightful and dangerous that male relatives needed to vigilantly guard (as in the rest of Greece), female sexuality was perceived in Sparta as a positive factor that contributed to a good marriage, to healthy children, and so to the well-being of the state.
This acceptance of women's sexuality is further underlined by the fact that while Athenian plays demean and insult women (see any of Euripides' plays), the poems of Alkman, considered the most Spartan of all poets by the ancient Greeks, openly admire women. His poems, written in the second half of the 7th century BC, were the lyrics of songs performed at public festivals by girls' choruses. Alkman also wrote poetry expressing his own adoration of the Spartan girls he worked with. He was considered by ancient scholars to be the first love poet – a notable distinction for the poet whom the ancients viewed as "the most Spartan"! None of Alkman's texts can be classed as pornographic, but many modern commentators assert – because the texts of the lyrics, designed to be sung by girls' choruses, praise the girls' beauty – that the songs were lesbian in nature. This is nonsense. Boys' and men's choruses sang about bravery and girls about beauty because those were the virtues admired in each respective group. What the texts – and the fact that Alkman was so revered in Sparta – tell us is that the Spartans enjoyed light-hearted music and tributes to female beauty in a public context – not merely in the back alleys of the red-light district.
Furthermore, while female sexuality was recognized and respected, Spartan males were expected to find sexual satisfaction within marriage. Thus Sparta was reputed to have no brothels at all within the city limits, and Spartans claimed to know neither whores nor adultery. To date, the archaeological evidence supports the assertion that there were no brothels in Sparta, and the absence of heterosexual (as with homosexual) pornographic artwork further supports the thesis that in contrast to other cities, sex in Sparta was a private – rather than a public – affair.
Given the fact that Spartan sexuality was so different from that of the other Greeks, it is not surprising that foreign observers of Sparta in the archaic and classical periods have a great deal to say about Spartan sexual relations. The fact that the most famous adulteress of ancient myth, Helen of Troy, was Spartan contributed to the general view of Spartan women as licentious, a view explicitly underlined by Aristotle in his diatribe against Spartan women. The legal right to "wife sharing" further influenced the view of women as sexually uncontrolled – even though the law was clearly designed to serve the state's need for new generations of citizens, not women's lust, and could only occur with the husband's consent. Likewise, the fact that Spartan women were educated, outspoken, and seen in public elicited universal reprobation from other Greeks. Thus Euripides says in Andromache: "Spartan girls could not be chaste even if they wanted to. They leave home, and with naked thighs and their dresses loosened, they share the running tracks and gymnasiums with the young men." It was inconceivable to an Athenian that a woman could go to school with boys and engage in sports in front of boys without becoming sexually degraded as well. Modern readers, however, should not lose sight of the fact that Athenian playwrights were attacking their enemy when they described Spartans. Describing the wives of an enemy as whores and the men as "faggots" was (and still is) a common – if juvenile – means of belittling a foe.
In conclusion, contemporary sources suggest that Sparta was not a particularly homoerotic society, and certainly there was no institutionalized pederasty or homosexual behavior prior to the mid-5th century BC. On the contrary, in Sparta women's sexuality was not only recognized, but respected and to a degree encouraged. Spartan artifacts furthermore suggest that Sparta was indeed more prudish than other Greek societies. The evidence suggests that sex in Sparta was a private matter, sought inside marriage, rather than public entertainment pursued at symposia and on the streets as in Athens. The Spartan ideal of sex was an activity between equals, not an act of domination by an adult male upon a child, slave, or illiterate and powerless wife.