Sparta Society to the Battle of Leuctra, 371 BC

- Syllabus Content - Map - Past Questions -

Role and status of women, land ownership, inheritance, education

See text: pp.56-62

Past HSC question - 2008:
(c) Describe the roles and status of women in Spartan society. (8 marks)

Examiners' comment:
(c) Responses that were awarded full marks provided detailed and accurate information about the role and status of women in Spartan society. A significant number of candidates failed to consider both parts of the question. Some saw role and status as synonymous and some ignored status altogether. This question was not limited to Spartiate women but could have included a description of perioikoi and helot women. Some better responses compared the status of Spartan women with that of Spartiate men and other women in Sparta, as well as other Greek women. The roles described included mothers, overseers of kleroi, religious and other less formal roles in society.

Past HSC question - 2006:
(e) With reference to Source 13 and other sources, explain the significance of women in Spartan society. (10 marks)
Source 13: Spartan woman involved in a religious rite

Examiners' comment:
(e) The best responses explained the significance of women in society with reference to the source and a range of evidence. This was essential to achieve higher marks. Better responses looked at the significance of women in a wider sense, covering helot and perioeci women as well as the wives of Spartiates. Many responses were far too long and tended to be narrative with little focus on ‘significance’.

  • Secondary to males
  • Not citizens: could not participate in ekklesia; go into politics or army
  • Royal women: no special public role; could not inherit the throne; sometimes exerted influence behind the scenes: e.g. Gorgo (Herodotus 5.51)
  • Role was to bear children
  • Under the authority of father, then husband
  • Had a defined public role, singing and dancing in choruses
  • Priestess of the goddess supervised the cult of Artemis Orthia
  • Regarded as promiscuous by other Greeks. Could have sex with another man who wasn’t husband to produce healthy children (Xenophon, Polybius, Plutarch)
  • Had no say in whether a child would survive: infanticide was state controlled

Education and physical training

  • Educated at home: it is assumed girls learned to weave, though not expected to stay home weaving. It is assumed they could read and write a little - Herodotus suggests Gorgo could read: “When the message reached its destination, no one was able to guess the secret until, as I understand, Cleomenes’ daughter Gorgo, who was the wife of Leonidas, divined it and told the others that, if they scraped the wax off, they would find something written on the wood underneath.” (Herodotus, Histories 7.238)
  • Exercised in public, with little or no clothing, to prepare for child bearing:

“First he toughened the girls physically by making them run and wrestle and throw the discus and javelin. Thereby their children in embryo would make a strong start in strong bodies and would develop better, while the women themselves would bear their pregnancies with vigour and would meet the challenge of childbirth in a successful, relaxed way.” Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, 14

Spartan women and the oikos

With men absent, the women had great power in the household. Barton Kunstler: women supervised Helots and servants. Nurses helped look after children.

Women and wealth: land and inheritance

  • Wealth of Spartan women legendary
  • Aristotle: numerous heiresses; women owned two-fifths of the land.
  • Dowries forbidden by Lycurgus; but became common practice
  • There was privately held land and maybe state allocated land – women could inherit land. Intermarriage in wealthy and royal families to keep property in the family. King had right to give decide husband of orphaned heiress - if not decided (Herodotus).
  • Elite women indulged in horse ownership and equestrian activity. Alkman: flattering to compare women to horses. Girls sometimes had horse-related names: Eupolia (well horsed), Porauga (flash of lightning), Prolyta (the breakaway). Hyakinthia: girls drove decorated carts. Women raced horses and chariots.