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Spartan Women: History's greatest conspiracy?

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History's greatest conspiracy?

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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?

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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

The story of the legendary Spartan lawgiver and women's benefactor comes down to us from just a few ancient sources. Only Plutarch, writing some five hundred years after Sparta's descent into every-town, and nearly a millenium after the reforms, specifically linked the women's basic freedoms to the laws that regimented the men. Xenophon, who was contemporary with classical Sparta and served with the Spartan army on campaign, described a number of regulations that functioned in many ways to moderate the men's relations toward the women. And he admitted he wasn't sure which laws actually came from Lycurgus' reforms. Plato, also a contemporary, criticized the laws for failing to restrict the women. A few years later, Aristotle said with unconcealed disgust that the women had been wanton and licentious from the beginning, and they resisted the regulations that fell upon the men.

The remarkable freedom of the Spartan women has sometimes been given a more plausible explanation. Because of the large number of slaves that needed to be kept under control during the men's long and frequent absences, it is said that the women had to be enlisted, and therefore enfranchised, to protect the homeland at such times. But this explanation ignores the evident preexistence of the women's freedom, it fails to explain their lack of regimentation, the many rights and liberties they enjoyed that weren't relevant to their role as a home guard, and it assumes that the rationality of the policy would be sufficient to have it instituted, although similar needs haven't produced similar solutions elsewhere.

As for my theory of a conspiracy to effectively banish the men from the women's quarter in order to ensure the women's freedom, it's dependent on different but I think more plausible interpretations of some of the facts. No one denies that the sexual bifurcation of Spartan society was extreme, for example, but a successful women's conspiracy would have required a more thorough-going isolation from the men than what is generally believed.

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There is no doubt that the men lived highly regulated lives, away in the barracks or off on campaigns. Boys went to live with the men at the age of 7 and had to reside there till age 30. But it is assumed that they returned to a normal life in a nuclear family after that, as-if coming home from a hard day's war to sit in their favorite chair with a daughter on their knee, to read the evening paper.

Wouldn't family life for such men have been an extremely difficult and unwelcome transition? In our time, just a year's absence at war or in prison has made re-assimilation problematic and oftentimes tragically unsuccessful. Isn't it more likely that leaving the barracks and making a home at age 30 usually meant settling with a close friend of the past 23 years?

These are the men who had spent the bulking-up of their lives in a world of men-only, who as bridegrooms had to be coaxed to the marriage bed for a brief liaison (before returning to the barracks) by shaving the bride's head, dressing her in a boy's cloak, and turning out the candles. Draw your own conclusion. And after that first night of marital brisk it's written that a husband would occasionally sneak away from the barracks to visit his wife while the other men slept, ashamed and apprehensive lest he be caught doing so. Even this has been described as a custom designed by the wise old king to foster desire through infrequency, and thereby, to have better baby-making. But with this explanation we're asked to believe that the men, who were already absent making war for long periods, were encouraged when they returned to make only occasional and furtive visits to their wives - a strategy for prolific procreation?

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A former visitant of UC Santa Cruz, former union boilermaker, ex-Marine, Vietnam vet, anti-war activist, dilettante in science with an earth-shaking theory on the nature of light (which no one will consider), philosopher in the tradition of Schelling, Hegel, Merleau-Ponty, Marx, and Fromm (sigh, no one listens to me on that either), author of a book on wine clubs (ahem), and cast-off programmer of ancient computer languages. I've recently had two physics articles published in an obscure but earnest Central European journal (European Scientific Journal but my main interests remain politics and philosophy.

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