In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

Worrying WivesHelen King
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Spartan Women 
by Sarah Pomeroy.
Oxford, 198 pp., £45, July 2002, 0 19 513066 9
Show More
Show More

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.

Over time, different features of ‘Spartan women’ have aroused indignation in commentators. The ancient sources, and modern commentators on them, express a fascinated horror – or a horrified fascination – at the thought of Spartan girls exercising in skimpy tunics, which apparently showed a lot of thigh, or even parading before potential suitors entirely naked. But it was not only cloistered Victorian scholars who found them an object of attraction. Feminist historians have seen the women of Sparta as prototypes of the liberated woman. An idyllic image of Spartan liberation can be found in Charles Seltman’s Women in Antiquity (1956): ‘At no time in the world’s history can women have been so contented, so healthy and so happy as they were in ancient Sparta.’ He added that they lacked only two things: a vote and a wardrobe. In the introduction to the first edition of Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (1975), Pomeroy said that she had asked herself ‘what women were doing while men were active in all the areas traditionally emphasised by classical scholars’. Spartan women were covered in four pages, and came out as ‘the most liberated of all’. Paul Cartledge challenged such enthusiasm in his 1981 essay ‘Spartan Wives’, warning that they were ‘not, to put it mildly, as liberated as all that’.

The debate goes on. While Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves tried to recover the realities of women’s lives rather than concentrating on the ways men saw women, Spartan Women is not so much additive – finding out what Spartan women were doing while Spartan men were running their military state – as transformative. Pomeroy’s conclusion explicitly asks: ‘Do knowledge and consideration of Spartan women change our overall view of Spartan society and institutions?’ She assembles all the extant evidence, but is disappointingly reluctant to pursue the answer. After looking at the stages of the life-cycle, and at the experiences of elite and non-elite women, Pomeroy draws back from the question, and instead summarises what made Spartan women different from other Greek women. They were, she argues, distinctive with respect to their health, education, freedom of sexual expression, control over reproduction, control over property and influence in society. She observes, however, that they used this ‘influence’ primarily to enforce social norms: to support the military nature of the state by ridiculing cowards, for example. Spartan women were educated, both physically and intellectually, but this was in order to make them better mothers of future warriors; their exercise programme was to make them strong, while their intellectual training probably inculcated the dominant male values, much as in the case of those elite Renaissance women whose instruction in Latin and Greek would have enabled them only to read yet more texts assuring them of their own inferiority and subordinate position.

This is the first monograph on Spartan women, and Pomeroy comments at the outset that ‘this book has been the most difficult one I have ever written.’ Much of the difficulty is in the fragility of the evidence. From the sixth century BC onwards, the Sparta we have is constructed from Athenian sources and those influenced by them. As Elizabeth Rawson noted in The Spartan Tradition in European Thought (1969), ‘the bewilderingly contradictory attitudes taken to Sparta in post-classical times can only be understood when it is seen how contradictory the ancient sources are too.’ Pomeroy illustrates her book with 19th-century paintings, which ‘remind us that history is a conversation between the present and many pasts’. When she looks at the use of the image of the Spartan mother in modern pro-natalist movements, her chosen example is not the usual one of Nazi Germany but, more interestingly, the early American republic. Spartan Women would have benefited, however, from more examples of how the classical tradition has presented Sparta in different ways to support different approaches to women. Sparta’s admirers wanted to bring back its manly men and its strong state control over the individual; its critics saw it as a soulless authoritarian state, or as a warning of the horrors that would inevitably follow if women were given free rein.

Even in classical Greece, those who wrote about Sparta either used it as a model of all things bad or held it up as an ideal to which their own states should aspire. In Birds, Aristophanes created the verb lakonomanein, ‘to go Sparta-crazy’, suggesting that some Athenians in 414 BC so greatly admired Sparta that they were trying to look and act like Spartans. The contradictions have caused some to abandon the search for the real Sparta, and to concentrate instead on the creation of the ‘Spartan mirage’, a phrase used by the French scholar François Ollier in 1933. For some pieces of information, we depend not only on a single source, but on a very brief mention in a Byzantine dictionary. Of the earlier and more substantial literary sources, it all depends on whether you favour Aristotle, Xenophon or Plutarch, all non-Spartans. None focuses on women, but all use them in their analyses of the alleged strengths or weaknesses of the Spartan constitution. Which came first: the inadequate constitution that allowed women to own property, or the undisciplined behaviour of women?

Of the ‘big three’, Pomeroy goes for Xenophon, on the grounds that he was as near as we can get to a participant observer of the Spartan system, serving in their army as a mercenary and then living as an exile from Athens on an estate near Olympia which the Spartans granted to him. Cartledge prefers the evidence of Aristotle, who presents women as passive objects in the Spartan system. As for Plutarch, he visited Sparta, but when the city was under Roman rule and had become what Pomeroy vividly describes as ‘a living museum, a theme park’ in which activities such as the whipping of boys (sometimes to death) at the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia were carried out for the entertainment of Roman tourists. Although such rituals were then being described as ‘ancestral customs’, there is no classical or Hellenistic evidence for them. At this time, Sparta was as implicated in the creation of the mirage as anyone else. But does that mean we should discount Plutarch altogether as evidence for Sparta in the archaic period? Indeed, is everything in Pomeroy’s book just a part of the ‘Spartan mirage’, with the real historical Sparta – or Spartas, since change occurred even in this state that so prided itself on stability – fated to remain for ever unknown?

One possible solution to the problem is to shift the balance towards archaeological rather than literary sources. The mirage constructs for us a bleak and austere Sparta, in contrast to Athens, epitome of the ‘glory that was Greece’. Pomeroy points out that this has led to archaeologists showing less interest in excavating Sparta; besides which, as the modern city doesn’t have a large and growing population, the accidental discovery of artefacts while building car parks or metro lines is less likely.

Figurines of women, decorative mirror handles, and some of the pottery hint at a different Sparta. But just how different? Pomeroy argues that Spartan women could ride, and could also drive horses. But Cynisca, in 396 the first woman to win the four-horse chariot race at Olympia, did not do it in person; she just owned the team. Furthermore, the sources claim that her brother, King Agesilaus, urged her to enter in order to show that victory was a function of wealth, so her participation does not seem to have been her own idea. Again, Xenophon claims that Spartan women did not do their own weaving – a task paradigmatic of the female in antiquity – yet at the site of the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia many pendants have been found which apparently show weaving patterns. How do we reconcile literary and archaeological sources here? Did free women weave only for ritual purposes, not for household use? Did the practice change over time? Pomeroy suggests that Xenophon and Plato ‘exaggerate the Spartans’ liberation from weaving’ in order to make Sparta seem more opposed to the norms of Greek life. As for the mirror handles, Homer called Sparta the ‘land of beautiful women’, famous for their height and their healthy good looks; most famous of all was Helen, who was ‘of Sparta’ before she became ‘of Troy’. Aristotle wrote that female excellence was best expressed in beauty, and the materials gathered by Pomeroy suggest that Spartan women were as interested in it as the next woman.

The patchy nature of the evidence often means that Pomeroy is forced into the realms of speculation. So, in the space of two pages, ‘we surmise that, compared to other Greek women, they had plenty of time to do whatever they wanted to do,’ so ‘they could well have learned reading and writing,’ but ‘doubtless the girls committed most information to memory, and did not write it down.’ There is very little hard evidence for female literacy: anecdotes in which a Spartan mother writes to exhort her son to bravery, for example. Pomeroy thinks that, as boys were away from their mothers for a long time, ‘the idea that they communicated by letters is not unthinkable.’ It isn’t, but even if they did, there is no way of knowing whether or not such letters were written on behalf of the mother by a third party.

Because there are so few sources of any substance, the same ones have to be recycled over and over, such as the story of the child prodigy Gorgo, who gave excellent advice to her father, the king. Plutarch’s story of the fiancés of Lysander’s daughters, who tried to end the engagement when they discovered the girls’ poverty, turns up several times in different versions. On one occasion, Pomeroy says that the girls ‘nearly lost their bridegrooms’; on another – and this is what Plutarch in fact says – the fiancés ‘broke their engagement’. Elsewhere, based this time on a different section of Plutarch’s Life of Lysander, the girls are described as ‘unable’ to find husbands, not because of their poverty so much as their extreme ugliness. Plutarch causes the confusion here by giving different versions of the story both in the Life and (several times) in the Moralia. But in no case is it clear that the girls are ugly; indeed, he suggests that the reason Lysander refused the tunics offered to his daughters as a gift by the tyrant of Sicily was that the clothes would ‘disgrace them more than adorn them’, or ‘make them look ugly rather than beautiful’.

And what about that freedom of sexual expression? It is claimed that there were various alternatives to monogamy in Sparta, so reducing the role of the family in favour of the state, but they could also have been designed to maximise fertility. A late third-century BC source, for example, suggests that spouses were found in the course of a mass grope in a darkened room. Other sources describe a wedding ceremony in which the bride was dressed as a man and had her head shaved for her wedding night. A wife could be shared by brothers, or lent to another man by her husband, so that he could produce healthy children by her. While many scholars interpret such customs to suggest that women were passed around as passive objects, Pomeroy emphasises Xenophon’s comment on ‘husband-doubling’, which suggests that women were keen to be involved with two men because it gave them an economic interest in two households. She also speculates that a woman would be content to be lent to a strong and healthy man, because this would reduce the chances of her producing a child who would be killed shortly after birth, as being too weak to be raised. There is one suggestion in Plutarch that lesbian relationships existed between older and younger women. Chastising Cartledge for his ‘Victorian stance’ in challenging Plutarch on this point, Pomeroy goes on to describe lesbian relationships as ‘a tradition in Sparta’ and later as a ‘fact’.

Pomeroy is also impressed by Plutarch’s account of Timaea – wife of King Agis – knowing the true paternity of the child she was carrying. She suggests that ‘it would only be reasonable to assume’ that Spartan women knew as much about contraception as other Greek women. But how much ancient women knew about contraception and abortion remains an issue for debate. Assuming that Timaea was sleeping with both Agis and Alcibiades, the actual father of the child, Pomeroy suggests that she ‘was probably using contraception during intercourse with her husband’. Not necessarily. This is to see ancient women in modern terms, when there is a possible ancient explanation: the fifth and fourth-century BC belief that women ‘know’ when they have conceived because they feel the womb close, and note that the seed has not fallen out of their bodies. Timaea’s ‘knowledge’ did not, therefore, have to be based on scrupulous use of contraception with one of her two sexual partners. Similarly, when Pomeroy notes the Spartan interest in fathering children by a woman who has already produced healthy offspring, she suggests that this ‘reveals a belief that the mother was more than merely a fertile field for the father’s seed, and that each woman continued to make her own particular contribution to the offspring’; but could it not equally well reveal the belief that she was, precisely, a fertile field, in this case outstandingly so?

In his Tusculan Disputations, Cicero suggests that Spartan virgines prefer wrestling and the outdoor life to fertilitas barbara, ‘barbarous fertility’. Pomeroy uses this to argue that the worrying decline in the Spartan population could have been at least partly due to women saying ‘no’ and using contraception. In view of the importance of fertility in Sparta, this seems an unlikely strategy. One could argue instead that, although unmarried girls didn’t want children, on marriage they were compelled to change their goals. This could be reflected in their dress: before marriage, long hair and skimpy clothes; after marriage, short hair and veils – if we can take the woman on the Vix crater as typical of the respectable Spartan matron. Cicero cites only virgines, or young unmarried girls, yet Pomeroy says that Cicero merely ‘included unmarried women when he stated that the women did not want to bear children’. By the conclusion, this has become: ‘According to Cicero, Spartan women were in charge of their own fertility.’ Mirage or reality: as elsewhere in this book, a small source can be made to go a long way.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.