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How Women in Sparta Played a Role in the StateTerm Paper

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Spartan Women

The lives of Spartan women were unusual in the sense that they were very different from those of other Greek women. In Athens, for instance, women were confined to the domicile and wore clothing that covered and hid their form. In Sparta, this was not the case at all. Sparta enjoyed communal ownership of property and all things, in essence, belonged to the State -- men, women, children and goods. Thus, all were equal (or nearly so) before the State's needs and women had more freedom to move about. They were, as Simone de Beauvoir noted, liberated of patrimony by the fact that Sparta had no sense of patrimony in its culture (Foley 56). Spartan women were also comfortable with nudity and performed athletic feats in the nude just as the men did. They trained for war like the men, as did the children, and were in no way at the mercy of the men in terms of sexual relationships. On the contrary, it was customary for the women to engage in same-sex relationships as well as heterosexual relations with their husbands. These relations could even involve men who were not their husbands if a genetic demand saw it as necessary.

What the Spartans hoped to achieve with their unique way of managing women was a complete and utter subsistence of every member of the State to the State. In short, by woman to "escape from the family" as Simone de Beauvoir points out they did (Foley 56), Spartan society liberalized itself so that the State alone could be of the highest importance. All things were subordinated to its preservation: all citizens were made into warriors of the State, and no one had any identity other than as a citizen of the State. Thus, women were not viewed as being mothers or wives but as Spartans, just like the men and the women. The purpose was State preservation -- because in ancient Greece, wars were common and it was the Spartan culture to be the toughest of all so as to be able to defeat any force in combat. Thus, there was no hint of sentimentality in the Spartan culture and no concept of a "weaker" sex.

This system, of course, had its advantages and disadvantages. It worked in the sense that for a time Sparta was strong, feared and respected. However, the Spartans not only had to contend with foes outside their State but also with human nature which affects all peoples everywhere and has its own set of weaknesses and failings, whether they are manifested socially, politically, economically or spiritually. In Sparta, they were manifested in each way.

To understand how the system "worked," it is first important to define the term "work" and what it means. It is also important to discuss what is meant by the terms "advantageous" and "disadvantageous." Contextualizing and defining words permits one to better progress in an argument or discussion without fear or intentionally or unintentionally misleading a reader.

Thus, by "work" is meant the measure of success that the system or social structure within Sparta achieved its aim or end. The aim of Spartan society was to preserve itself through militancy and commitment to a single, solitary vision in which all of Spartan life was devoted to the cause of communality and devotion to the State. The degree to which the system "worked" can be assessed by the degree to which the State was preserved at any given one point in time.

The term "advantageous" is used in connection with this sense of preservation. If policy was "advantageous" to Spartan life then it was a facilitator in the preservation of that way of life and did not subtract from or hinder the overall aim of the State. The term "disadvantageous" refers to the opposite: if a policy or set of behaviors subtracted from or hindered the aim, then it was "disadvantageous" to the State.

These terms are thus viewed in the overall context of what was essential for the preservation of the State and not from any other cultural, social, political, economical, or religious context.

The most important thing to the Spartans was to be brave (Christesen 194) and to this end, men and women were educated equally, trained so as to be fit, strong and healthy, and taught to be moral and upstanding. Where Athenian women would have been viewed as immoral and lax (say, for example, by speaking back to their husbands -- or even at all in some cases -- or by appearing undressed or outside the home improperly), Spartan women had more freedom. As the men exercised in the nude, so too did the women -- and this was not deemed immoral and was not an indication of impropriety. It was the way they did things, without any eroticism about it. The Spartan women could also speak freely to the men and voice their opinions: they were viewed as equals and strong in this respect. As long as they showed bravery, they showed virtue. A cowardly Spartan was a shameful one -- one unworthy of being named a Spartan.

To the end that bravery was part of their national character and oriented towards maintaining the stability of the State, Sparta did very well for itself. The ancient historian Thucydides noted that Sparta had "achieved good order and possessed the same form of government for more than four hundred years" (Christesen 196) -- a considerable feat for a State so different in character from the others of Greece. It only shows, however, that the Spartan system "worked" and that as far as the men and women of the State were concerned, it was an advantageous system: there was equality and freedom and virtue and respect -- and each of these was instilled at an early age, fostered on the bravery that every Spartan was groomed to show.

However, there was also the fact that not all who lived in Sparta were free. The Spartans themselves had a considerable number of slaves. In fact, the slaves outnumbered the free citizens. And when a massive slave revolt occurred in 464 BC, following a devastating earthquake that rocked the city-state, the slaves for a moment took control, and the Spartans had to seek help in retaking their city from the Athenians to the north (though there was much distrust between the two cities and many Athenians did not want to help).

Thus, the disparity between slaves and free persons in Sparta casts something of a shadow over how well the system "worked," and what the situation of the women had to do with it. For example, had women not been used to being trained to be tough and like the men, is it possible that they may have had a different view of slavery and put pressure on the culture to have a more libertarian approach? It is possible, but there is no evidence to support that this would have been the case, as slavery was a common institution throughout most of the ancient world, whether civilized or not. Still, the slave revolt showed just how precarious the Spartan situation was, and how its advantages also had their disadvantages.

As Aristotle states, the Spartan women would have had some say in the governing of the city-state regardless, for they were, according to him, "luxurious and intemperate (in contrast to the ascetic men); they asserted themselves in political affairs (by seeking to control the male office-holders)" (Redfield 149). What the philosopher argues, notably, is that while this may have been advantageous to some degree, it may also have been disadvantageous, as the women lacked "true valor" and "made avarice a force in the state" -- but, of course, the same could be said of nearly all civilizations (Redfield 149). Yet the complaint that the women of Sparta lacked "true valor" is a barb tossed by Aristotle, indicating that the philosopher viewed women as having a different societal role than the one that Spartan women had.

Essentially, the sex roles in Sparta were reversed and "re-allocated," meaning that women tended to dominate and men tended to obey (Redfield 149) -- a situation that was completely reversed in Athens, for instance. Indeed, "Spartan gynecocracy appears most clearly in women's influence on male upbringing and masculine comportment" (Figuiera 265). In some sense, this is telling of the power that women wielded -- but there is also the notion that who best to know how a man should conduct himself but a woman? Thus, it is somewhat fitting that a woman hold sway over the upbringing of the man. On the other hand, one might see how a philosopher like Aristotle would view this as an indication of unnatural persuasion, as in his view men should learn of men and women of women, each to his or her own nature. In Sparta, however, there was an advantage to this inversion of the sex roles: the women took part in honoring the men during initiation… [END OF PREVIEW]

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