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.

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.