History's greatest conspiracy?
Almost everyone has heard about the men of ancient Sparta: fearsome warriors who devoted their lives to fighting, training for fighting, talking about fighting, and talking about training. What is rarely considered or discussed, but arguably much more interesting, is the contemporary sub-culture of the Spartan women.
Spartan women enjoyed a freedom far above the status of other women in the ancient world. At a time when others were being subjugated into virtual slavery by the patriarchal revolution, Spartan women enjoyed remarkable privilege and liberty, including the right to own property and have a voice in choosing their husbands. As children they were educated and well-fed, just like the Spartan boys, but unlike girls elsewhere. To other Greeks they were notorious for their assertiveness, and their power and influence over the men. Most fascinating of all, being freed from labor by the exploitation of slaves, they spent their days and nights engaged in athletics, song, dance, equitation, and celebration.
The source of the women's unique status is generally attributed to a legendary king named Lycurgus, who is said to have given them their freedom as part of a radical reform of Spartan society.
But when and where has anyone been given their freedom? When has the ingenuity and advantage of sharing freedom and power been clear enough to make it advisable, much less tolerable, to those with the freedom and power to share?
There is scant historical evidence to either confirm or refute the legendary explanation of the women's freedom, just the reporting of several non-Spartan men. The Spartans themselves were extremely exclusive and discreet about their society - except of course in the promulgation of their martial prowess.
But just by the measure of plausibility, the accepted story of the benevolent king doesn't stand well. I believe it's much more likely that Spartan women achieved and maintained their freedom by a cunning conspiracy. Having become aware of the wave of repression against women occuring all around them, and intensifying in Sparta too, they must have contrived to say something like this to the men: "You love your manhood? You value roughness and toughness above all else? You love to fight? Then go! Go off and fight! Go live together, all you men, and be the manliest men you can possibly be! We will celebrate your victories, and glorify your deaths! Just [under their breath] leave us alone...." And so, with the men either preoccupied or absent, the women were able to diverge themselves into a private sub-culture devoted to athletics and revelry - and, we might suppose, to each other.
The Evidence and the Opining