Sparta Society to the Battle of Leuctra, 371 BC

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Marriage customs

See text: pp.122-124

Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, 14-15

14. Since he regarded the upbringing of children as the greatest and noblest responsibility of the legislator, at an early stage he took his start from that by first showing concern for matters relating to marriages and births. Aristotle claims wrongly that he tried to discipline the women but gave up when he could not control the considerable degree of licence and power attained by women because of their husbands’ frequent campaigning. At these times the men were forced to leave them in full charge, and consequently they used to dance attendance on them to an improper extent and call them their Ladyships. Lycurgus, rather, showed all possible concern for them too. 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 also bear their pregnancies with vigour and would meet the challenge of childbirth in a successful, relaxed way. He did away with prudery, sheltered upbringing and effeminacy of any kind. He made young girls no less than young men grow used to walking nude in processions, as well as to dancing and singing at certain festivals with the young men present and looking on. On some occasions the girls would make fun of each of the young men, helpfully criticizing their mistakes. On other occasions they would rehearse in song the praises which they had composed about those meriting them, so that they filled the youngsters with a great sense of ambition and rivalry. For the one who was praised for his manliness and became a celebrated figure to the girls went off priding himself on their compliments; whereas the jibes of their playful humour were no less cutting than warnings of a serious type, especially as the kings and the Elders attended the spectacle along with the rest of the citizens.

There was nothing disreputable about the girls’ nudity. It was altogether modest, and there was no hint of immorality. Instead it encouraged simple habits and an enthusiasm for physical fitness, as well as giving the female sex a taste of masculine gallantry, since it too was granted equal participation in both excellence and ambition. As a result the women came to talk as well as to think in the way that Leonidas’ wife Gorgo is said to have done. For when some woman, evidently a foreigner, said to her: ‘You Laconian women are the only ones who can rule men,’ she replied: ‘That is because we are the only ones who give birth to men.’

15. There were then also these inducements to marry. I mean the processions of girls, and the nudity, and the competitions which the young men watched, attracted by a compulsion not of an intellectual type, but (as Plato says) a sexual one. In addition Lycurgus placed a certain civil disability on those who did not marry, for they were excluded from the spectacle of the Gymnopaediae.’ In winter the magistrates would order them to parade naked in a circle round the agora, and as they paraded they sang a special song composed about themselves, which said that their punishment was fair because they were flouting the laws. In addition they were deprived of the respect and deference which young men habitually showed their elders. Thus nobody objected to what was said to Dercyllidas, even though he was a distinguished general. When he approached, one of the younger men did not give up his seat to him, but said: ‘You have produced no son who will give his seat to me.’

The custom was to capture women for marriage not when they were slight or immature, but when they were in their prime and ripe for it. The so-called ‘bridesmaid’ took charge of the captured girl. She first shaved her head to the scalp, then dressed her in a man’s cloak and sandals, and laid her down alone on a mattress in the dark. The bridegroom who was not drunk and thus not impo¬tent, but was sober as always first had dinner in the messes, then would slip in, undo her belt, lift her and carry her to the bed. After spending only a short time with her, he would depart discreetly so as to sleep wherever he usually did along with the other young men. And this continued to be his practice thereafter: while spending the days with his contemporaries, and going to sleep with them, he would warily visit his bride in secret, ashamed and apprehensive in case someone in the house might notice him. His bride at the same time devised schemes and helped to plan how they might meet each other unobserved at suitable moments. It was not just for a short period that young men would do this, but for long enough that some might even have children before they saw their own wives in daylight. Such intercourse was not only an exercise in self-control and moderation, but also meant that partners were fertile physically, always fresh for love, and ready for intercourse rather than being sated and pale from unrestricted sexual activity. Moreover some lingering glow of desire and affection was always left in both.

After making marriage as modest and orderly as this, Lycurgus showed equal concern for removing absurd, unmanly jealousy. While excluding from marriage any kind of outrageous and disorderly behaviour, he made it honourable for worthy men to share children and their production, and derided people who hold that there can be no combination or sharing of such things, and who avenge any by assassinations and wars. Thus if an older man with a young wife should take a liking to one of the well-bred young men and approve of him, he might well introduce him to her so as to fill her with noble sperm and then adopt the child as his own. Conversely a respectable man who admired someone else’s wife noted for her lovely children and her good sense, might gain the husband’s permission to sleep with her thereby planting in fruitful soil, so to speak, and producing fine children who would be linked to fine ancestors by blood and family.

First and foremost Lycurgus considered children to belong not privately to their fathers, but jointly to the city, so that he wanted citizens produced not from random partners, but from the best. Moreover he observed a good deal of stupidity and humbug in others’ rules on these matters. Such people have their bitches and mares mounted by the finest dogs and stallions whose owners they can prevail upon for a favour or fee. But their wives they lock up and guard, claiming the right to produce their children exclusively, even though they may be imbeciles, or past their prime, or diseased. They forget that where children are born of poor stock, the first to suffer from their poor condition are those who possess and rear them, while the same applies conversely to the good qualities of those from sound stock. What was thus practised in the interests of breeding and of the state was at that time so far removed from the laxity for which the women later became notorious, that there was absolutely no notion of adultery among them. There is a story recorded about Geradas, a Spartiate of really ancient times, who when asked by a foreigner what their punishment for adulterers was, said: ‘There is no adulterer among us, stranger.’ When the latter replied: ‘But what if there should be one?’, Geradas’ answer was: ‘His fine would be a great bull which bends over Mount Taygetus to drink from the Eurotas.’ The foreigner was amazed at this and said: ‘But how could there be a bull of such size?’ At which Geradas laughed and said: ‘But how could there be an adulterer at Sparta?’ This, then, concludes my investigation of their marriages.