Collections: This. Isn’t. Sparta. Part III: Spartan Women

Today, in part III of our six (!) part look at Sparta (Part I; Part II) we’re going to take a close look at the role of women in Spartan society, keeping in mind the Spartan social hierarchy we established last time. Sparta has a reputation – often aided and abetted by textbooks – of being a more gender-egalitarian society. Is that true – and more importantly, for whom is that true?

Or, to ask the question another way: was Sparta – compared to other ancient societies – a ‘good’ place to be born a woman?

Cards on the table, this post was originally supposed to come in two parts: the first looking at the lives of women in Sparta (which is now this part) and the second looking at the impact of wealth disparity on Spartan families, with a section on the (lack of a) historical Lycurgus at the beginning. That ended up being too long for a single essay, both for you to read, but also for me to write (since I have to balance getting these out week by week with my academic writing, teaching, etc). I could have cut down this section to make it fit, but I think cutting down ‘the section on women’ to ‘make it fit’ is an all-too-common vice and I refuse to engage in it, so I split the essay in twain (also, in my defense, this is not the only time we’re going to talk about Spartan women. They are half of the society, after all).

That split leaves Lycurgus here at the front, the one fellow in a post that is focused on women, but I didn’t want to go any further before tackling the question of the historicity of Lycurgus and the age of the Spartan society we observe in our sources, so there he is. As we’ll see, the idea of Lycurgus matters for our understanding of basically all of Spartan society.

Finally, content warning. This post is going to include discussions of historical sexual violence. It’s nothing graphic, but I understand if you want to skip this one.

As before, a brief glossary of terms is available here, but we’ll be defining everything the first time we hit it, so you shouldn’t need to keep flipping back.

Mr. Lycurgus’ Neighborhood

But before we start talking in more detail about Spartan women, society and families – and indeed government and military (over the next several weeks), it’s time we talked about Lycurgus. We saw last time that our sources have a bad habit of – incorrectly – dismissing any problems or flaws in Sparta as only recent failures to keep to Lycurgus’ laws (even when our evidence makes it very plain that these ‘recent failures’ were in fact long-standing). Tackling this matters because it sets up a crucial question when we talk about Sparta – which Sparta?

Lycurgus was the name the Spartans gave for their mythical founder figure, a Spartan who had supposedly lived in the late 9th century and had set up the Spartan society as we see it in the classical period. Almost all of our details for his life come from a biography by Plutarch, written c. 100 A.D. (date to be significant in a moment). The story the Spartans told went thusly:

Lycurgus had been the younger brother of one of Sparta’s two kings, but had left Sparta to travel when his brother died, so that he would be no threat to his young nephew.

After a time, the Spartans begged Lycurgus to come back and reorganize society, and Lycurgus – with the blessing of the Oracle at Delphi – radically remade Spartan society into the form it would have for the next 400 years. He did not merely change the government, but legislated every facet of life, from child-rearing to marriage, to the structure of households, the economic structure, everything. Once he had accomplished that, Lycurgus went back to Delphi, but before he left he made all the Spartans promise not to change his laws until he returned. Once the Oracle told him his laws were good, he committed suicide, so that he would never return to Sparta, thus preventing his laws from ever being over turned. So the Spartans never changed Lycurgus’ laws, which had been declared perfect by Apollo himself. Subsequently, the Spartans accorded Lycurgus divine honors, and within Sparta he was worshiped as a god.

The role Lycurgus serves in the sources is as the perfect, infallible founder figure. No less than the Oracle at Delphi – the divine word of Apollo – declared Lycurgus a god (Hdt. 1.65.3). For later sources who, we must stress – believe their own religion (as people everywhere are wont to do) – that means, essentially a priori that Lycurgus’ ‘constitution’ must be practically flawless and all flaws must stem from its imperfect implementation.

But – wait a second – what is our evidence for the actual person of Lycurgus or the character of the state he set up?

Remember how I said Lycurgus is dated to the late 9th century – specifically the 820s B.C. or so. That’s a huge problem. The earliest Greek literature comes from around (very roughly – there is deep scholarly debate here that I’m glossing over) the mid-8th century (c. 750 or so) and is entirely mythological in nature. The first actual history is Herodotus, writing in the mid-400s. The earliest historical event we have evidence for is the Lelantine War (c. 700ish), at least a century after the life of Lycurgus. None of our sources have anything to go on about Lycurgus – save for what the Spartans – who already worship this figure as a god – tell them. Crucially, Tyrtaeus, writing in the 650s B.C., while he does mention the rhetra (an oracle the Spartans received concerning the arrangement of their government) does not mention Lycurgus (although Plutarch is quick to connect the two, Plut. Lyc. 6.5), meaning that the earliest source for Lycurgus’ existence is Herodotus.

Wait, it gets even better – the one thing we do know about Lycurgus’ laws is that they were not written down (Plut. Lyc. 13.1). Also, Lycurgus supposedly took steps to prevent his remains from returning to Sparta (Plut. Lyc. 29.5-6, but cf. 31.4) and no continued family line, which seems like exactly the sort of explanation you put at the end of a good campfire story for why there was absolutely no trace of such an important man save his legend. So not only the details of Lycrugus’ life, but also the society he created will have lived as oral tradition – potentially changing from one telling to the next, being embellished or expanded – for generations before being committed to the permanent, unchanging memory of written history.

In short, our only evidence for Lycurgus are the campfire stories told about him by people who worshiped him as a god, as related to individuals centuries later. Which is to say that, by historical standards, there is no reliable evidence at all that Lycurgus existed.

Pictured: Relief of Lycurgus as one of the 23 Great Lawgivers in the U.S. House of Representatives. I had to admit, if I were Solon, Hammurabi, Thomas Jefferson or Justinian (all actual historical figures included in the relief group), I would be a bit offended at being lumped in with Lycurgus (and Lycurgus presumably would be offended at being grouped with mere morals).

There are, in fact, some clear discrepancies in the accounts of Lycurgus we do have which suggest that the story of his laws cannot have happened as the Spartans told it. The most obvious is the issue of kleroi. Plutarch tells us that Lycurgus was responsible for this system (and the Spartans seem very much to have believed it) creating either 9,000 equal lots, or else 6,000 or even 4,500 lots which were later supplemented by the Spartan king Polydorus (r. c. 700 – c. 665, Plut. Lyc. 8.1-3).

As we discussed last week, each Spartan received a kleros – a plot of state land, worked by helots – to sustain his life-style. But – as we know – most of the kleroi and the vast majority of the helots were in Messenia, land Sparta would not have control over until the early 600s – a feat of conquest, you will recall from last week, that Tyrtaeus credits to his grandfather’s generation (Tyrtaeus f. 5, West (1993), 23). If the kleros-system was created in the period of Lycurgus there couldn’t have been 4,500 kleroi, much less 9,000.

Yet Lycurgus is often treated as a historical figure in textbooks or survey courses, particularly for dating the start of the Spartan social system. That in turn leaves students with the impression that these plaintive passages – ‘sure things in Sparta are bad now, but they were better under Lycurgus’ – in our sources reflect some kind of reality. Moreover, it gives a false impression of the stability of not just the Spartan state, but of Spartan society. Students are encouraged to imagine a society frozen with the same social, cultural and governmental institutions unbroken from 820 to at least 371. This cannot be true, if for no other reason than that the Sparta our sources describe – as we made clear last week – cannot work without the vast number of helots, most of which were in Messenia and as yet unconquered until the 7th century.

Lycurgus is often set against Solon – the early 6th century Athenian reformer. It is true that Athenians also tend to attribute things to Solon that were later developments, but we need to note the key differences: Solon comes two centuries after Lycurgus (thus, unlike Lycurgus, in the historical period), didn’t receive divine honors and most importantly writes to us (he wrote poetry, some of which survives), so that we can know he was an actual real person. Asking students – as I have seen done – to compare a real, flawed reformer with an idealized, semi-mythical demi-god without any kind of guidance as to the nature of these two figures is, quite frankly, educational malpractice.

Pictured: Relief of Actual Human Who Actually Existed, Solon as one of the 23 Great Lawgivers in the U.S. House of Representatives. Not his real likeness – we don’t know what Solon looked like, though we do know he wrote some solidly adequate poetry.

Oddly, if one is looking for an Athenian peer to Lycurgus, it isn’t 6th-century Solon, it’s Theseus. You know – the guy who slew the minotaur in the Labyrinth – that Theseus. Like Lycurgus, Theseus was a legendary founder figure – he was supposed to be responsible for the political unification of Athens – who received divine/heroic honors in his home city, and is the subject of a biography by Plutarch based primarily on 5th-to-3rd century sources (only some of which survive; indeed, Plutarch explicitly compares Lycurgus, Numa, Romulus and Theseus together (Plut. Thes. 1.2) – of these, only Lycrugus is really ever treated as a historical figure). There are even some attempts – foolish, to be clear – to place Theseus as a historical figure in the 9th or 8th century B.C. (which would make him a contemporary of Lycurgus and no I am not kidding, see RE Supp. XIII “Theseus”).

All of which is to say there is no reason to treat Lycurgus as a real historical person and no reason to treat his dates (c. 820) as the ‘start’ date for the Spartan state. Even if a Lycurgus existed (and I am unconvinced he is any more historical than Theseus), we can be quite sure that he did not create the Spartan state as we know it because the structure of that state is – as we discussed last time – utterly dependent on having a large number of helots, the great majority of which would not be forced into the Spartan state until the 680s, since most helots were Messenian, not Laconian.

This may seem obvious or even unimportant, but all too often we engage in a comparison between ancient states as they were and the Spartan state as it was imagined to be. Students are asked to compare the Athenian democracy as it existed in practice (because that is the evidence we have), with the idealized portraits of Sparta’s legendary past – remember, even our pro-Sparta sources admit, all of them, that in their day Sparta no longer functioned like they thought ‘it used to’ even if our evidence suggested that it never did.

Recognizing that the Lycurgan state is beyond recovery also has one very important ramification for our discussion going forward: we are discussing the Spartan state as it existed from c. 680 to 371. This is what we have evidence for. The Spartan state that existed before 680, the supposed Lycurgan state – whatever its form – is utterly lost to us, save through (very limited) archaeology and epigraphy. We can’t discuss that state, if it ever existed at all.

(Pedantry Note: it is by no means certain that the Spartan state as we are able to observe it through Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon in the fifth and fourth century actually dates back to 680 either. Just as some quick examples, Kennell, Spartans (2011) expressing skepticism at how far back the ‘Great Rhetra’ (we’ll get to it) actually goes, or P.-J Shaw “Olympiad chronography and ‘Early Spartan History” (1999) on the date of the ritual of the Gymnopaidiai (and perhaps associated Spartan austerity) being late-archaic (read: 490s), instead of Lycurgean as our sources suppose. We should always be very cautious when any society tells us that their current (or nostalgically remembered) customs extend into the mists of the past – they usually do not.)

In short, this post – and indeed, all of the previous and following posts – is discussing the Spartan state and society we actually see in the sources, rather than some mythical utopia our sources imagine in the deep past that was likely never more real than Theseus and his minotaur. That in turn is going to inform how we talk about Spartan society this week and next – we are not going to give Sparta the benefit of the doubt of assuming that everything in Spartan society just worked perfectly right up until half a second before our historical record becomes reliable…if for no other reason than we don’t give any other society that benefit of the doubt.

Spartiate Women, Spartan Women

And I think it’s time we talk in a more focused manner about the women of Sparta. Sparta has obtained a reputation in the popular culture – derived from the sources – for affording a greater degree of freedom and importance to its women than any other Greek polis (I should stress this is a very low bar) and, so long as we are talking about spartiate women there is some truth to this.

Spartiate girls went through a similar ‘rearing’ to spartiate boys, although they were not removed from the home as their brothers were. Spartiate girls ran races and were encouraged to be physically active (Plut. Lyk. 14.3; Mor. 227; Xen. Lac. 1.4). The evidence is thin, but points fairly strongly to the suggestion that spartiate women were generally literate, in quite the contrast (again, as the evidence permits) to the rest of Greece.. Now our sources make clear that this is in part a product of the leisure that spartiate women had, since the primary domestic tasks of Greek women – textile manufacture and food preparation – were done entirely by slave labor forced upon helot women (Xen. Lac. 1.3; Plato, Laws. VII; Plut. Mor. 241d).

Statuette of a Spartan girl running (c. 525-500 BC) from Prizren or Dodona, now in the British Museum, London. her clothing – normal in Sparta, would have been scandalous for a citizen woman in Athens – one way Spartiate women probably did have more freedom than other Greek elite citizen women.

Whereas the sources paint a portrait of elite citizen Athenian women as practically cloistered, spartiate women had significantly more freedom of movement, in part because they appear to have been the primary managers of their households. Male spartiates didn’t live at home until thirty and were likely frequently away even after that (Plut. Lyc. 14.1; Mor. 228b). Spartiate women could also inherit and hold property in their own name to a greater degree than in Athens or elsewhere in Greece (note for instance Plut. Agis 7.3-4). The strong impression one gets from the sources is that this gave spartiate women quite a bit more sway; our largely male sources, especially Aristotle, disapprove, but we don’t need to (and shouldn’t!) share their misogyny. The sources are also very clear that spartiate women and girls felt much freer to speak their minds in public than Greek women in most poleis, although they were still completely and universally excluded from formal politics.

Gorgo, as she appears in Civilization 6 as one of the possible leaders of the Greeks. This has been an odd creep in Gorgo’s pop-culture identity over time – to be clear Gorgo never led the Spartans, much less the Greeks. The Death of Leonidas resulted in a regency for her son, but the regent was Pausanias, who was actually the achitect of Spartan victory.
This is all the more frustrating, because there are absolutely awesome female Greek rulers who actually ruled who could be used in this place (Artemisia of Caria and Irene of Athens both come to mind).

But – and you knew there would be a but (surprise! there are two) – but the role of women in Spartan society as we can observe it remains fundamentally instrumental: in the Spartan social order, spartiate women existed to produce spartiate boys. The exercise that spartiate girls undertook was justified under the assumption that it produced fitter (male) children (Plut. Lyc. 14.2; Xen. Lac. 1.4). Plutarch implies that the age of marriage for spartiate women was set in law, though generally older than in the rest of Greece (Plut. Lyc. 15.3; Mor. 228a).

Spartiate women appear to have had no more say in who they married than other Greek women, which is to say effectively none. Marriages seem to have been arranged and the marriage ceremony itself as it it related to us was a ritualized abduction (Plut. Lyc. 15.3-5; Hdt. 6.65) without even a fig-leaf of (largely illusory) consent present in some other ancient marriage rituals. Husbands apparently also ‘lent out’ their wives to other spartiate men (Plut. Lyc 15.7; Xen. Lac. 1.7-8); descriptions of this passage stress the consent of the men involved, but completely omit the woman’s consent, although Xenophon implies that the woman involved will “want to take charge of two households” and thus presumably be in favor; I have my doubts.

Everything we have about the Spartans (honestly, just read Plutarch’s Sayings of Spartan Women, but also Xen. Lac. 1.4, 7-8, Plut. Lyc. 15, etc.) reinforces the impression that spartiate women were viewed primarily as a means towards producing spartiate boys. Gorgo’s retort that spartiate women “are the only women that are mothers of men” (Plut. Mor. 240e), her husband’s command that she in turn (when he died), “Marry a good man and bear good children” (Plut. Mor. 240e), the anonymous spartiate woman who shames an Ionian woman for being good at weaving because raising children “should be the employments of the good and honorable woman” (Plut Mor. 241d) and on and on. Most of the sayings that don’t involve the bearing of children, either involve spartiate women being happy that their sons died bravely, or disowning them for not doing so.

300, Gorgo speaking to the Gerousia. This is not in Herodotus’ account for the perhaps obvious reason that women were not allowed to speak in the Gerousia or the Apella (the general assembly). The closest we get is a mention that the story in Sparta was that it was Gorgo who discovered Demaratus’ ruse with a wax tablet and revealed it (Hdt. 7.239).

Now, there is a necessary and very important caveat here: this is the role of spartiate women as viewed by men. It is striking that the one of the largest things we can be reasonable sure that spartiate women did do – they seem to have had the full management of the household most of the time – doesn’t figure into these sayings or our sources hardly at all (save, to a degree, to Aristotles’ polemic in Book 2 of the Politics). We should not be surprised that our – elite, aristocratic and exclusively male sources pick out the roles that seem most important to them. The average spartiate woman may well have felt differently – for my part, I can hardly imagine many spartiate mothers were overjoyed to hear their sons had fallen in battle, whatever brave face they put on in polite society. And I have to imagine that many spartiate women were likely shrewd managers of their households, and probably took some pride in that skill.

All of that said, I think it is fair to say that, on the whole, spartiate women seem to have had a relatively better condition than free citizen women in other poleis in Greece. Where they were sharply constrained – and to be clear, by modern standards, spartiate women were still very sharply constrained – they were constrained in ways that were mostly typical in Greek society. Quite frankly, ancient Greek poleis did quite poorly by their women, even by the low, low standards of other pre-modern societies. But given that low bar, the life of spartiate women does seem quite a bit better and our sources reflect this fairly openly.

But – and this is the other ‘but’ I alluded to above – a huge part of this is that spartiate women were freed from the demand to do hours and hours of difficult labor preparing and serving food and producing textiles. And here we circle back to last week’s problem: spartiate women probably represented around 6% of Spartan (including the helots) women. If we want to talk about the condition of women in Sparta, we need to talk about helot women.

Helot Women

Now I’ve mentioned before that our sources care deeply about some things (rich people, free people, citizens, men, warriors) and not about other things (poor people, enslaved people, non-citizens, women, laborers). We’re now at the point where all of those second things collide (technically, in academic-speak, we’d say they ‘intersect’) talking about helot women, who were poor, enslaved, non-citizen female laborers. Because if we want to ask “What was life as a woman like in Sparta?” we really need to ask “What was life like as a helot woman?” because they represent c. 85% of all of our women and c. 42.5% of all of our humans.

And I want to stress the importance of this question, because there are more helot women in Sparta than there are free humans in Sparta (as from last time, around 15% of Sparta is free – men and women both included – but 42.5% of Sparta consists of enslaved helot women). If we want to say absolutely anything about the condition of life in Sparta, we simply cannot ignore such a large group of human beings living in Sparta.

And our sources here let us down catastrophically. There are, to my knowledge, no passages anywhere in the corpus of ancient literature which are actually about helot women, and every passage that mentions them could be included on a single typed page with space to spare. But that is no excuse to pretend they do not exist, and we are going to talk about them.

As far as we can tell, family structure and labor roles among the helots approximated what we see in the rest of Greece. Once freed, the Messenian helots establish a fairly normal polis in Messenia, so it hardly seems like they had some radically different social makeup. That gives us the beginnings of sketching out what life might have been like for a helot woman: we can then take the handful of things we know that are peculiar about their circumstances and combine them with what we know about the normal structure of life for ancient Greek peasant families.

The primary economic occupation of helot women was probably in food preparation and textile production. And if I know my students, I know that the moment I start talking about the economic role of women in ancient households, a very specific half of the class dozes off. Wake Up. There is an awful tendency to see this ‘women’s work’ as somehow lesser or optional. These tasks I just listed are not economically marginal, they are not unimportant. Yes, our ancient sources devalue them, but we should not.

First: let’s be clear – women in ancient households (or early modern households, or modern households) were not idle. They had important jobs every bit as important as the farming, which had to get done for the family to survive. I’ve estimated elsewhere that it probably takes a minimum of something like 2,220 hours per year to produce the minimum necessary textile goods for a household of five (that’s 42 hours a week spinning and weaving, every week). Most of that time is spent spinning raw fibers (either plant fibers from flax to make linen, or animal fibers from sheep to make wool). The next step after that is weaving those threads into fabric. Both weaving and spinning are slow, careful and painstaking exercises.

Food preparation is similarly essential, as you might imagine. As late as 1900, food preparation and cleanup consumed some 44 hours per week on average in American households, plus another 14 hours dedicated to laundry and cleaning (Lebergott, Pursuing Happiness (1993)). So even without child rearing – and ask any parent, there is a TON of work in that – a small peasant household (again, five members) is going to require something like 100 hours per week of ‘woman’s work’ merely to sustain itself.

Now, in a normal peasant household, that work will get split up between the women of the house at all ages. Girls will typically learn to spin and weave at very young ages, at first helping out with the simpler tasks before becoming fully proficient (but of course, now add ‘training time’ as a job requirement for their mothers). But at the same time (see Erdkamp, The Grain Market in the Roman Empire (2005) on this) women often also had to engage in agricultural labor during peak demand – sowing, harvesting, etc. That’s a lot of work to go around. Remember, we’re positing a roughly 5 individual household, so those 100 hours may well be split between only two people (one of whom may be either quite old or quite young and thus not as productive).

In short: these tasks, when combined with all of the other demands, is very much a full time job and then some. It’s also a job that someone very much needs to do if the family is to survive.

We can assume that these demands, along with marriage, the bearing and raising children, and religious rituals and festivals, likely shaped the contours of the lives of helot women, much as they would have for many poor women in the Greek (or Roman) countryside. But the Spartan system also shapes these contours and it does so in almost entirely negative ways.

Let’s start textiles. Spartiate women do not engage in textile manufacture (Xen. Lac. 1.4) as noted previously, nor do they seem (though the evidence here is weaker) to engage in food preparation. In the syssitia, at least, the meals are cooked and catered by helot slaves (Plut. Lyc. 12.5, 12.7). In the former case, we are told explicitly by Xenophon that it is slave labor (he uses the word doule, “female slave,” which clearly here must mean helot women) which does this. So helot women now have an additional demand on their time and energy: not only the 2,200 hours for clothing their own household, but even more clothing the spartiate household they are forced to serve. If we want to throw numbers at this, we might idly suppose something like five helot households serving one spartiate household, suggesting something like a 20% increase in the amount of textile work. We are not told, but it seems a safe bet that they were also forced to serve as ‘domestics’ in spartiate households. That’s actually a fairly heavy and onerous imposition of additional labor on these helot women who already have their hands full.

So we now have our context for this scene – enslaved women hauling wool that they will be forced to spin into nice clothes for their spartiate masters instead of for themselves of their own families. 300, of course, never mentions the helots at all and gives no impression that this market represents a truly unprecedented system of forced labor.

We also know – as discussed last time – that helot households were forced to turn over a significant portion of their produce, perhaps as high as half. I won’t drag you all through the details now – I love agricultural modeling precisely because it lets us peak into the lives of folks who don’t make it into our sources – but I know of no model of ancient agriculture which can tolerate that kind of extraction without bad consequences. And I hear the retort already coming: well, of course it couldn’t have been that bad, because there were still helots, right? Not quite, because that’s not how poor farming populations work. It can be very bad and still leave you with a stable – but miserable – population.

Grief and Loathing

Let’s talk about seasonal mortality.

As the primary food-preparers in the helot household, helot women are going to have the job of managing a constrained but variable flow of food through an extended family that may include their husband, children, older relatives, etc. Given the low productivity of ancient farming, this is a tricky operation in systems where rents are extracting 10% or 20% of the farming yield every year, but given the demands of supporting an entirely unproductive class of elites, it becomes even harder. The key task here is stretching one harvest through the next planting to the next harvest, every year. That means carefully measuring out the food consumption of the household against the available reserves, making sure there is enough to last over the winter. If too much food is extracted by the elites, or the harvest fails or (likely) some combination, the family will run into shortage.

Now, the clever helot woman knows this – peasants, male and female, are canny survivors, not idiots, and they plan for these things (seriously, far too many of my students seem to instinctively fall into the trap of assuming serfs, peasants, etc. are idiots who don’t know what they are doing. These people have survived for generations with very few resources, often in situations of significant volatility and violence; they’re not stupid, they’re poor, and there is a difference!) – so she will have strategies to stretch out that food to try to keep herself and her family alive. But that in turn often means inflicting a degree of malnutrition on the family unit, in order to avoid outright starvation – stretching the food out. It also probably means a lot of related strategies too: keeping up horizontal ties with other farming households so that there is someone to help you out in a shortage, for instance. Canny survivors. That said – especially in a situation where shortages hit everyone at once – a shortfall in food is often unavoidable.

But, we need to note two things here: first: humans of different ages and conditions react to malnutrition differently. Robust adults can tolerate and recover from periods of malnutrition relatively easily. For pregnant women, malnutrition increases all sorts of bad complications which will probably kill the child and may kill the mother. For the elderly and very young children, malnutrition dramatically increases mortality (read: lots of dead children and grandparents), as compromised immune systems (weakened by malnutrition) lead to diseases that the less robust old and young cannot fight off. Second – and this is the sad and brutal part – feeding the agricultural workers, meaning the adult males (and to a lesser extent, adult females), has to come first, because they need to make it to the planting with sufficient strength to manage the backbreaking labor of the next crop. If it’s a choice between the survival of the family unit, and taking a chance that you lose Tiny Tim, our helot mother knows she has to risk Tiny Tim.

So in a good year, there is food enough for the entire household. Families expand, children grow up, the elderly part of the family makes it through another winter, imparting wisdom and comfort. But the bad years carry off the very young and the very old (and the as-yet unborn). For children who make it out of infancy, a series of bad years in early childhood – quite a common thing – are likely to leave them physically stunted. It was very likely that most helots were actually physically smaller and weaker than their better nourished spartiate masters for this reason (this is a pattern visible archaeologically over a wide range of pre-modern societies). The population doesn’t contract, because the mortality isn’t hitting adults of child-bearing age nearly as hard, meaning that in future good years, there will be new children. In fact, societies stuck in this sad equilibrium tend to ‘bounce back’ demographically fairly quickly, because massive external mortality (say from war or plague) frees up land and agricultural surplus which leads to better nutrition which leads to less infant mortality which leads to rapid recovery.

300 is so profoundly uninterested in the helots that it really gives me no images to use here, so instead:
This is (in the distance), Mt. Ithome, the traditional site of Messenian helot resistance against Sparta.

But all of this is very clinical and bloodless and – as I hope I’ve made clear – I think that it is necessary to put the tears back in to truly understand this system. Because the high rate of extraction the Spartan state enforced on the helots will have necessarily meant that many borderline ‘good’ years for these families became ‘bad’ years. It should not surprise us that Spartan territory – despite its vast size (Sparta was, territorially, much larger than any other polis in mainland Greece) – was thinly populated compared to other Greek poleis (Xen, Lac. 1.1).

And so helot women must have spent a lot of time worrying about food scarcity, worrying if their sick and malnourished children or parents would make it through winter. Grieving for the lost child, the lost pregnancy, the parent taken too quickly. Probably all while being forced to do domestic labor for the spartiates, who were both the cause of her misery and at the same time did no labor at all themselves and yet were better fed than her family would ever be. Because peasant labor of any kind is so precariously balanced, we can really say that every garment woven for the spartiates, every bushel turned over, represented in some real sense an increase in that grief. Subsistence farming is always hard – but the Spartan system seems tailor made to push these subsistence farmers deeper and deeper into misery.

The instances of brutality against the helots – the murders and humiliations – which our sources preserve are directed at helot men, but it seems an unavoidable assumption that helot women were also treated poorly. Spartiate women were, after all, products of the same society which trained young men to ambush and murder helot men at night for no reason at all – it strikes me as an enormous and unsubstantiated leap to assume they were, for some reason, kind to their own female domestic servants.

In fact, the one thing we do know about spartiates – men and women alike – is that they seem to have held all manual laborers in contempt, regarding farming, weaving and crafting as tasks unbefitting of free people. I keep returning to it, but I want to again mention the spartiate woman who attempts to shame an Ionian woman because the latter is good at weaving, which in the mind of the spartiate, was labor unbecoming of a free person (Plut. Mor. 241d, note Xen. Lac. 1.4). The same attitude comes out of a spartiate man who, on seeing an Athenian convicted for idleness in court, praised the man, saying he had only been convicted of being free (Plut. Mor. 221c). This is a society that actively despises anyone who has to work for a living – even free people. Why wouldn’t that extend to its treatment of helot women?

Remember this scene in 300? “What is your Profession?”
I want all the work-a-day folks who idealize Sparta to watch this scene, but to feel the withering contempt the Spartans would have for them and for these men, for the shame of having a job. We’ll come back to this, but I want to say it here: this is a society that despised anyone who wasn’t rich enough that they did not need to work for a living. Now you know what the Spartans would think of you.

To this, of course, we must add now the krypteia and incidents like the 2,000 murdered helots recounted by Thucydides (Thuc. 4.80). While the murdered are men, we need to also think of the survivors: the widowed wives, orphaned daughters, grieving mothers. This must have been part of the pattern of life for helot women as well – the husband or brother or cousin or father or son who went out to the fields one day and didn’t come back. The beautiful boy who was too beautiful and was thus murdered by the spartiates because – as we are told – they expressly targeted the fittest seeming helots in an effort at reverse-eugenics (Plut. Lyc. 28.3).

Finally, we need to talk about the rape. We are not told that spartiate men rape helot women, but it takes wilful ignorance to deny that this happened. First of all, this is a society which sends armed men at night into the unarmed and defenseless countryside (Hdt. 4.146.2; Plut. Lyc. 28.2; Plato, Laws 633). These young men were almost certainly under the normal age of marriage and even if they weren’t, their sexual access to their actual spouse was restricted. Moreover (as we’ll see in a moment) there were clearly no rules against the sexual exploitation of helot women, just like there were no laws of any kind against the murder of helot men. To believe that these young men – under no direction, constrained by no military law, facing no social censure – did not engage in sexual violence requires disbelieving functionally the entire body of evidence about sexual violence in combat zones from all of human history. Anthropologically speaking, we can be absolutely sure this happened and we can be quite confident (and ought to be more than quite horrified) that it happened frequently.

But we don’t need to guess or rely on comparative evidence, because this rape was happening frequently enough that it produced an identifiable social class. The one secure passage we have to this effect is from Xenophon, who notes that the Spartan army marching to war included a group he calls the nothoi – the bastards (Xen. Hell. 5.3.9). The phrase typically means – and here clearly means – boys born to slave mothers. There is a strong reason to believe that these are the same as the mothakes or mothones which begin appearing with greater frequently in our sources. Several of these mothakes end up being fairly significant figures, most notably Lysander (note Plut. Lys. 2.1-4, where Plutarch politely sidesteps the question of why Lysander was raised in poverty and seemed unusually subservient and also the question of who his mother was).

We’ll get to the Spartan free-non-citizen-underclasses next week when we talk more about the Spartan manpower shortage, but for now, I just want to underline and bold something very clearly here: there was so much spartiate rape of helot women in Sparta that it created a significant, legally distinct underclass. And, just so we’re clear: yes, I am classifying all of that contact as rape, because sexual consent does not exist in master-slave relationships where one human being has the literal power of life and death over the other human being and her entire family. We may suppose that some helot women, trapped in this horrific and inhuman circumstance, may have sought out these relationships – but that does not change the dynamics of violence and compulsion permeating the entire system.

To recap quickly: poor peasant life in ancient Greece was already hard for anyone. Women in farming households had difficult, but extremely important jobs for maintaining themselves, their families and their society. To these difficulties, the Spartan state added unnecessary, callous and brutal conditions of poverty, malnutrition, violence, murder and rape.

To Be Continued…

As I said up at the top, this is the first half of what was intended to be a single post, but which I’ve split for length. As such, we’re going to pick up a number of our threads next week – we are by no means done talking about women, children or families in Sparta. We’re also going to look more closely at the role of the various Spartan non-citizen free underclasses next week too.

But first, I want to loop back to our original theme for today: what about the idea that Sparta was – for Greece at least – a good place to be a woman? Much like the Myth of Spartan Equality, it seems clear to me that this idea cannot stand. Sparta was a good place to be a woman only if that woman was a member of the tiny elite upper-class of the spartiates. That upper-class is far more visible in our sources, but it is by no means representative of what life was like in Sparta.

Instead, for the average woman – the helot woman – the Spartan state was a bag of horrors: forced labor and poverty against a backdrop of demeaning treatment, brutality and sexual violence. Sparta may, in fact, have been the worst place in Greece to be born a woman, given the overwhelming probability that you are born a helot woman into such a dystopian nightmare. Remember: there were more helot women in Sparta than all classes of free person – male and female – added together.

As I stressed last week, our sources often ignore certain classes of people in Greek society, but this doesn’t mean we should. Frequently our sources try to forget more people than they try to include! When we look to the past to find models or expand our thinking about societies, we need to be thinking about the entire society, and that means thinking about the people our sources ignore. What good is a system that provides marginal benefits to a handful if those benefits require crushing the great majority under foot?

Next week, we’re going to continue our look at Spartan society by looking at how the wealth disparity we discussed last week shaped Sparta and especially Sparta’s underclasses.

4 thoughts on “Collections: This. Isn’t. Sparta. Part III: Spartan Women

  1. Peasants should be in any society, in the long run, at the edge of subsistence. It’s what the basic Malthusian model predicts, which is it’s self, nothing more than the law of diminishing marginal returns.

    The only thing that matters to living standards in this position is the average demand for luxury goods, the level of rent extraction and inequality, and random shocks like higher taxes or bad harvests.

    The level of extraction doesn’t affect the long run living standards at all. It doesn’t matter if the farmland being worked is 20% worse or taxes are 20% higher, it is the same living standards either way.

    Farmland could’ve been 1000% higher for the helots and the only thing that would have changed is the size of the population. Just as 1000% higher taxes would only have affected the size of the population, though in a way that would reduce revenues for the spartiates, so they would never do that.

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