Worrying Wives

Helen King

  • Spartan Women by Sarah Pomeroy
    Oxford, 198 pp, £45.00, July 2002, ISBN 0 19 513066 9

As one of my former students once wrote: ‘The Spartans were great worriers.’ Spartan men certainly had a lot to worry about: at the age of seven they were taken from their homes and put into military barracks, where regular anal sex may have been intended to make them grow up to be strong soldiers; once married, they could visit their wives only surreptitiously; they were outnumbered by the servile population of helots, which needed keeping under control; and were faced with the declining manpower of their military state. Then, as ever, there was the issue of what to wear: choosing the short cloak would single you out as a hardline traditionalist. And, of course, there were those licentious, outspoken, undisciplined Spartan women, proverbially ‘the only women who give birth to men’, and best known to history from sayings attributed to them by Plutarch or, even more famously, from a mother sending her son into battle: ‘Come home with your shield, or on it.’ As Sarah Pomeroy has noted, Spartan women always had a weapon to hand since, when they wore clothes, they favoured an old-fashioned heavy peplos which needed to be fastened at the shoulders with sharp fibulae.

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