The Role of Women in Sparta and Athens

Categories: Ancient GreeceWomen

Ever thought of a world where you wouldn’t be able to do “anything?” A world, where you couldn’t participate in sports, plays, or have your own job? Well, the women of Sparta and Athens certainly experienced that. Though Spartan and Athenian women both were not able to exercise some of the freedom Greek men did, Sparta was a better place for women to reside in because they were treaded almost as equally as men, given a proper education, could own and control land, held a place in the community, and could participate in sports; while Athenian women were only limited to the domestic arts and/or slave labor.

The two cities were drastically different from each other: Sparta being influenced mostly by war (and usually isolated from outside world) and Athens being influenced mostly by the outside world (and its new technologies) and the focus of education. An even more important concept the two city-states bickered on was the role of women.

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Though Athens believed in the importance of education, they did not give Greek women a chance to blossom and show their potential. Athenian girls did not have much of an educational opportunity. Unlike boys, who were educated in schools until they could work, girls did not attend school or receive any tutors: “It was very unusual for a father to spend money on his daughter’s education. Boys were educated because they were taught the skills they needed in order to succeed in public life” (Batchelor, 187). Instead, they stayed at home and learned the art of housework, and basic reading and writing skills with their mothers (Chrisp, 32).

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Since the girls would grow up to usually become housewives only, Athens believed that it was only “logical” to limit them to the domestic arts and very basic reading and writing. Thus, most Athenian women would occupy their time weaving, spinning, cleaning, and cooking; never knowing the possibilities and excitement an education could offer them.

However, the only girls who were given the opportunity to take on the task of learning were those with aristocratic families. Even at this, they did not usually receive an adequate formal curriculum or, “…never had a public role to showcase their talents” (Batchelor, 187). That is like learning medicine but never becoming a doctor, nurse, or scientist. What would be the point? If you think about it, since Athens did not allow the small amount of educated women to diffuse their ideas and knowledge into the world, a lot of great concepts that might have been there would never be discovered. For example, if Isaac Newton were not allowed to publish his ideas, a lot of things like the Internet and the concept of gravity might not be present today! In contrast to the trifling educational prospect of Athenian women, Sparta had much more to offer their girls. Sparta was a very controversial city-state already, focusing on isolation and war. However, an even more controversial topic was how they treated women. It was known that Sparta was very different compared to most Greek city-states.

Nevertheless, they were ridiculed to give their women too much power. Instead of lowering the status of women, as the other city states practiced, they treated girls equally to men the minute they were born. Since Sparta was very involved and, maybe even, infatuated with the war industry, a steady supply of young boys (around the age of 7) was needed to fuel and keep the military intact. Therefore, the women were seen as important beings to the community. They would produce strong boys, who would go on to the military, or girls, who would eventually produce more strong boys. Thus, women were seen as the forces that gave life to the Spartan military, and were deemed extremely important. Moreover, to produce strong children for the community, it was vital to create strong and healthy mothers. They would do this through giving Spartan girls the same physical training the boys received: “…running, and wrestling and throwing the discus and the javelin” (Chrisp, 30).

Exercise for women, during classical Greece, was very unusual; girls from Athens and other city states would barely have any physical exercises. Lycurgus, the appointer of Spartan laws, believed that strong and healthy bodies would help women in the pains of childbirth, and would help the child-mortality rate in Sparta to decline An illustration of how physically trained most girls and women were, is Spartan princess: Cynisca. Cynisca was the first woman ever to win the ancient Olympics. In fact, she won twice in the equestrian events, wielding a four-horse chariot, in the 390s B.C. Along with having the same rights to physical training as boys, they were given the opportunity in education as men. So besides exercise and training, Spartan girls were also given mostly the same schoolwork as boys: reading, writing, business transactions, music, and etc….unlike the Athenian women who almost were not able to read or write at all. Obviously, it is better for everyone (specifically all Spartan girls) to know some form of education than to not know anything at all (e.g. Athenian Women).

Spartan women were also empowered to such a state at which foreigners would call them the only Greek women who ruled over their husbands. They were able to roam freely and exercise certain rights that other Greek women did not possess: “They were said to appear often in public and engage in physical exercise, revealing their bodies like men” (Hall, 168). They had enough time for this, because the slave girls/women would take on the job of spinning and weaving. Married women were also given the responsibility of looking after and even controlling their husband’s land. During times of war, they were to protect the land against intruders, revolts, and other calamities until their husband would return. Sometimes, they could also privately acquire properties of land. This sometimes occurred because the male population declined, due to constant wars.

Sparta seems to be one of the first places in ancient history to give women the liberty to own and control land. Even British women could not acquire land until the late 19th century. In contrast to our empowered Spartan women, Athenian women were extremely isolated from men and were constantly degraded. In Athens, the women were not able to walk around freely (like Spartan women). Instead, they were only limited to walking to their neighbor’s house or to religious ceremonies. In addition, they were expected to concentrate their life around the household. In other words, they were to always stay at home, take care of the children, produce more children, and etc. You would think that they already got a lot of isolation from society.

However, the Athenian community went a step further and actually created isolated areas or quarters in each home where women would stay and keep busy. These secluded zones were called “gynaikonitises” and were meant to seclude women from unrelated men. This was done because the Athenian community was very focused on keeping all children of the household “legitimate”. They believed that if women were allowed contact with other men, accidents might ensue. This view of women was very degrading, which must have led a lot of wives to rebel. Rebellion against husband and community was even worse than being confined in a “gynaikonitis”. When husbands believed that their wives did not behave properly, they had the authority to lock them inside the house. In addition to all the brutality thrown at them, women were prohibited to buy land. All that they owned were considered their husband’s property. You would think that Athenian women and Spartan women have nothing in common.

However, there was one thing that Spartans and Athenians could agree upon: Political affairs. Women in both Sparta and Athens were not keen in allowing their women to participate or attend political gatherings. In Athens, the only people who could join public affairs were citizens, and the only citizens were men. How much more in terms of political gatherings? Women were forbidden to associate with anything political. For example, Aristotle wrote that women should not even listen to or talk about public affairs. Thus, women were kept in isolation in their homes, while the men went to vote in public areas. In Sparta, the same concept was applied: they were not allowed to attend political meetings. However, they were allowed to “associate” in and even influence public affairs through their husbands. For example, if a wife had a good political idea, she could tell her husband to talk about it in the meeting. Sometimes, the ideas have been followed and even praised. In fact, Aristotle went on to write that, “among Spartans in the days of their greatness; many things were managed by their women.”

So even though both Sparta and Athens had restrictions on letting women attend political meetings, Sparta still gave women some freedom as to influence politics through their husbands. In conclusion, Spartan women were able to live better lives compared to Athenian women, through their significance in the community; equality to men in terms of education and sports; and most importantly, their freedom. First, they were able to exercise the same educational and athletic opportunities as men. Second, they were given the freedom to go (almost) anywhere they wanted, no matter what their husbands thought. Finally, their voice in the community was heard and upheld.

On the contrary, Athenian women were not given the opportunity to learn, exercise their knowledge, or share their thoughts in the community. Instead, they were locked up and isolated. Like Athenian women, there are still many women out there who are berated, abused, and confined just because they are of a different sex. Women must learn to stand up for themselves and have a voice. Malala Yousafzai, a girl who stood up for women’s education rights but received a deadly shot to the head, once stated: “We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.”

Annotated Bibliography

  1. Batchelor, Stephen J. The Ancient Greeks for Dummies. West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, 2008. Print. This book source is very full of information describing every aspect of the ancient Greeks: how they came about (the Minoans and Mycenaeans), the several city-states, how most Greeks lived, philosophy, and religion. However, this book source can be a bit biased. Sometimes, it mostly talks about the Athenian side of things, especially when talking about Greek life. It does not really dwell on Sparta or the other Greek city-states. That is why I will be using this book as a guide on Athenian life. Even though the book is a bit biased, its author is very reliable. The author, Stephen Batchelor, taught ancient history and classical studies for several years and has “travelled extensively in the Mediterranean and worked there as an archaeological tour guide” (from the “About the Author” section of the book).
  2. Chrisp, Peter. Ancient Greece. London: DK, 2006. Print. This book source is very informative on ancient Greece and describes the most important aspects of the two most important Greek city-states: Athens and Sparta. This is book is more of an outline, and equally (without bias) describes the basic characteristics of the two societies. This book has more information on growing up in the two separate societies compared to the other Chair of the Art Department at the State University of New York, Oneonta. Sakoulas also does not show any bias by describing everything and not leaving out any information on important city-states.
  3. Plutarch. “The Advantages of Spartan Education and Marriage Customs.” N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Life of Lycurgus. Web. 23 Oct. 2015. <http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/wlgr/wlgr greeklegal98.shtml>. This primary source will be very useful in my project. It is a primary source that talks about a man named Lycurgus and how he affected the Spartan community. The source accurately presents the aspects of Spartan education and marriage. It also describes the aspects of Spartan education and marriage, from a first person point of view. The information written in this primary source is probably very accurate, since the author actually witnessed Spartan society. Even though the source is accurate, there are some traces of bias in the chapter. For example, the author mostly writes about all of Lycurgus’ great accomplishments and does not really talk about what he did wrong. Despite this, I will probably be quoting several lines from it, in my defense for Spartan society. It will be a great asset to my thesis. The author, Plutarch, was a Greek historian, and he wrote several accounts on Greek life and history.
  4. “Two Faces of Greece: Athens and Sparta.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2015. <http://www.pbs.org/empires/thegreeks/educational/index_html.html>. This web source is extremely informative in the differences and similarities between Athens and Sparta. It will give me some additional details to support my argument, which the more generalized books/websites cannot give me. This document will also help me understand the other differences between Athens and Sparta, besides the social side. Having an understanding of other things will help me understand why Athens and Sparta are different in the social side. The source seems reliable, since PBS published the document. Furthermore, I do not see any bias in this source.

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The Role of Women in Sparta and Athens. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/the-role-of-women-in-sparta-and-athens-essay

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