sparta reconsidered

A Spartan Marriage

In Sparta the picture was dramatically different.  Spartan boys left their parental homes at the age of 7 to start their public education in the agoge.  At age 21 they changed the barracks of the agoge for the barracks of the army, so it was not until age 31 that they could at last move into their own home or kleros and live with their own families.  This fact has led many modern scholars to impute widespread homosexuality to Spartan men, but such an assunption ignores entirely the reality surrounding those barracks.

First, even as small boys, Spartan males spent much of their time out of doors playing, hunting, riding, and swimming.  And everywhere the boys went they encountered the female children of their class – because, unlike Athenian girls, Spartan girls were required by law to go to public school just like their brothers.  The girls, too, were required to go to the public playing fields, racecourses, and gymnasiums in order to learn to run, wrestle, and throw the discus and javelin.  The girls, like their brothers, swam in the Eurotas to cool off.  And the girls exercised and swam in the nude just like their brothers.

In addition to sport, Sparta was notoriously "devout" – which meant, among other things, that Sparta honored the various gods at a series of festivals throughout the year, some of which lasted days.  These festivals included processions, athletic contests, and horse and chariot racing – all for both sexes.  A chariot race for women is specifically mentioned at the three-day Hyacinthia, for example.  There were also dancing and singing competitions.  Again, the girls were expected to perform just as the boys were.  Again they sometimes did so in costumes that were (from the perspective of foreigners) "scanty," and sometimes they danced nude.

Because Sparta was a small society (at the peak of its power, under Leonidas I, there were just 8,000 male citizens of all ages), by the time youths reached adolescence they had seen all their prospective marriage partners engaged in a variety of activities and dressed in everything from what passed for formal dress in Sparta to nakedness.  It is important to stress that they hadn't just seen them.  No Spartan law or custom suggested that women should be silent, while many foreign accounts decried Spartan women's outspokenness.  Boys and youths of the agoge were expected to be still and respectful in the presence of their elders, and girls were, too – but not with each other!  No one who has raised or worked with teenagers can truly believe that Spartan youths and maidens played, hunted, swam, rode, sang, and danced side by side from age 7 onwards without talking to – and flirting with! – one another.  The bigger question is rather how the Spartan school authorities and parents kept the entire system from getting out of control.

One answer may well be that they didn't.  Since Spartan marriage customs (from the early archaic and into the mid-classical period) forbade dowries and there was no religious component to the marriage ceremony, the Spartan marriage practice may have in fact amounted to elopement.  According to contemporary sources, the Spartan marriage ceremony was as follows: the bride shaved her hair like a boy (of the agoge), donned men's clothing (presumably the chiton of the agoge), and waited alone in the dark.  The bridegroom came alone and surreptitiously after curfew, "took her" (but not necessarily home!) and then stole back to barracks.  That sounds suspiciously like two young lovers trying not to be caught by the officers of the law patrolling the city streets, because they were up to "something" of which the authorities did not approve!  No complicated and mysterious "cross-dressing" rituals are required to explain the custom if it is, looked at in this light.

Plutarch claimed – and has been quoted by historians ever since, apparently without anyone pausing to reflect – that as a result of this surreptitious marriage custom, men "might even have children before they saw their own wives in the day."  Nonsense!  As I have pointed out above, Spartan bridegrooms would have seen their future wives by day almost daily from the time the girls were 7.  Furthermore, they would have seen their brides as often as they liked by day afterwards, too!  Young matrons were just as free to engage in sports, riding and driving, or to go to market or hang about the temples as their younger sisters – especially if they were not yet in charge of a kleros!  It may be true that young Spartan couples did not risk making love in broad daylight, but given human nature, I sincerely doubt it.

Alternatively, of course, Spartan law and authorities really were stronger than the forces of human nature, and Spartan youths and maidens dutifully did what the law required of them.  This required that a youth still in his prime (still on active service, aged between 21 and 30) select a suitable girl of good character "old enough to enjoy sex" (interpreted as 18 onwards), that he first got her father's permission, and that he then took her alone in the dark of night before returning to barracks.  Not so difficult to live with even for ardent lovers….

Under the circumstances, it is safe to say that the necessity of seeking sex outside of one's class and age group was considerably reduced in Sparta. Since the city policy prohibited brothels inside the city but the youths and boys had to sleep in barracks located inside the city, their opportunities to visit such establishments were far more restricted than in other cities.  As to women of a lower class, these consisted of periokoi and helots.  It appears that the perioikoi, like other Greeks, kept their women locked inside their houses in their own communities and gave the Spartiates little opportunity to seduce them.  Because perioikoi were free, any use of force against them would have brought the Spartiate severe punishment.  It probably didn't happen often.  As for the helots, even these were far less accessible to Spartiate men than chattel slaves were to other Greeks.  First, they lived in the countryside, often far from the city, and second, they were not private but state property.  Because they were not chattel slaves and could marry and have children of their own, they lived in their own houses surrounded by their own families, including fathers and brothers.  This made them far less vulnerable than female chattel slaves.  Obviously, Spartiates could easily use force against these male protectors as well as the girls themselves, but in doing so a Spartiate would have been damaging state property and would have been liable for punishment – if it were without good cause.  Whether Spartan magistrates would consider a youth's passion for a helot girl sufficient justification for damaging valuable workers is, in my opinion, dubious. Despite the tales of "hunting helots," the fact is that these incidents are only recorded from the late 5th century onwards as the situation in Sparta deteriorated rapidly.  At all times, the Spartan economy depended on helots so heavily that it is inconceivable that there were widespread slaughters – except in very unusual circumstances.  Furthermore, the Laconian, as opposed to the Messenian, helots were largely loyal.  They would not have been so, if there were widespread rape and violence against women.

From the woman's perspective no less than from the youth's, marriage in Sparta was never to a stranger.  Spartan girls had watched, cheered, jeered, and flirted with the bachelors of the city from girlhood onward.  They knew them all by name, patronymic, and reputation. If a girl's father came home and announced he had a suit for her hand from one or another young man, she would have an opinion.  Nothing in Spartan law or custom prevented her from voicing it. Whether her father listened to her was another matter, but it is not likely that a Spartan man would force a husband on a daughter over his wife's opposition – and she, no less than her daughter, would know all about the eligible bachelors from watching them on the playing fields and dance floors.  In short, Spartan girls might not have chosen their husbands, but they had a good chance of vetoing a truly distasteful candidate.

As a wife, at least after her husband retired from active service and went to live on his kleros, a Spartiate woman took over control of an estate, household, and the family finances.  She also had control of her children until they reached the age of 7 and her daughters again from puberty to marriage (as it is widely presumed that they no longer lived in the agoge during this stage).  Because she had helots, no Spartiate wife was required to do any menial tasks, and if she managed a prosperous estate she had the money and time for personal pleasures such as horse- or dog-breeding and hunting.  She continued to go into the city not just for festivals but to go to the market or fairs and to exercise, since women were encouraged to remain fit into old age, just as Spartiate men were.  If her estate was a significant distance from the city, she drove a cart or chariot to get there, and once in the city she met with friends and family and spoke to whomever she pleased without discredit. 

There is no reason to think that Spartan women, on average, had more or fewer pregnancies than other Greek women.  They probably had more live births and lower infant mortality because they were older and healthier when they conceived, ate better during pregnancy, and fed their infants better afterwards.  A Spartan mother's sons did, of course, have to pass the inspection of the elders.  If a male child had some deficiency that made it doubtful whether he would be able to develop into a young man capable of taking his place in the line of battle, the elders could order it exposed.  But a mother had the assurance that this would only be done because of a physical fault, not on the whim of the father.  Furthermore, there is no evidence that girls were subjected to the same test.

While it is impossible to generalize about what a Spartan – any more than an Athenian, or American – marriage was like, several features are clear.  The partners were more equal in age and education than their counterparts in other parts of Greece.  They were not strangers when they came into the marriage, and in the majority of cases they would have both consented in some way.  They would have had a longer or shorter period of quasi-marriage, when they were not living in the same household and the wife was not yet in control of the estate, but within a few years they would set up house together.  Henceforth, a man and his sons' citizen status depended upon his wife's good management of the family estate, since a failure by the kleros to pay mess or agoge fees would have resulted in the loss of citizenship for father or son respectively.  It is therefore not surprising that in this household, the wife ruled supreme and alone.  It is inconceivable that a concubine was allowed to live in it, or that "flute girls" came to entertain the husband and his friends.  Altogether, this was a good formula for a marriage based on mutual respect and partnership.

One last point.  It is widely assumed that "because the men were away so much of the time" Spartan women basically lived in a world of their own and related mostly to other women. The alleged "frequent absence of Spartan husbands" is cited as an explanation for lesbianism and adultery.  This is astonishing when one considers that even men on active duty did not drill all day – probably not more than a few hours – and that dinner at the messes did not last as long as the symposia of other Greek cities.  On a normal day, it is probable that Spartan husbands were away from home less than the average working man today, who leaves home at 7 or 8 am and returns only after a commute and an 8 hour workday some 10 hours or more later.  The evidence suggests, furthermore, that during the frequent festivals, men and possibly even the boys were with their families all day.  How much of their free time – and Spartan men, far more than the tradesmen and craftsmen of other cities, had plenty of it – was spent with their wives depended on the relationship itself, just as it does today.  As for Sparta's frequent wars, until the Peloponnesian War, these were purely seasonal, and the campaign "season" was short – two to three months at the most.  Again, in modern times many men travel on business, reserve duty, or to pursue their own hobbies for that many months out of every year.  Few Spartan women saw so little of their husbands as the wives of men on duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, or serving with the navy today. 

None of which means there were no unhappy marriages or no opportunities for women to become interested in other men.  What is noteworthy is that in Sparta there were no official sanctions against adultery.  Helen, the most famous of all Spartan women, ran away from her husband and lived with a younger man for ten years, causing a war with immense loss of life – and then returned to Sparta, resumed her duties as queen, and "lived happily ever after."  She was honored in Sparta with monuments, temples, and festivals – despite her adultery.  Other real Spartan women, including queens, got away with adultery with impunity as well.

It is hardly any wonder, then, that the rest of the ancient world viewed Spartan women as licentious and detestable.  But then again, as Leonidas' wife Gorgo tried to explain in her much-quoted quip: Spartan women were who they were because Spartan men were strong enough and self-confident enough to appreciate them.