Written originally for Classical Studies, a Stage 2 subject, during 2005.
Stage 2 Classical Studies
Greek Society In The C5th
Essay: Women from Sparta and Athens Comparison
When comparing women, or anyone for that matter, from different nationalities, it is always certain that differences will be apparent. But, in my opinion, no two females from different nationalities contrast as well as those from Sparta and Athens. They seem very similar at a first glance, but, when digging deep into the pages of history; we see that this couldn't be more to the contrary.
In both Sparta and Athens, the woman's place was in the home – but, not in the same capacity. In Athens, it was the proper etiquette for a woman to be submissive and obedient. They were to stay at home, bearing and educating children, spinning and weaving, keeping the home tidy and preparing or, at least, overseeing the preparation, of food. Spartan women, on the other hand, were almost the complete opposite to this. They were permitted to own property without the "safekeeping" of a male, which, according to Aristotle, who estimated in the 4th century BCE that two-fifths of Sparta's land was owned by women, was one of the main reasons for the "weak" Spartan society. With most men away from home on a regular basis due to training for, and taking part in, wars, women would become the "default" principal figure during that period, and, when the husbands returned, they had no authority. Sue Blendell, an associate lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University in the UK, refers to Spartan women's dominant role as some that "was accepted and possibly even officially encouraged".
From a young age, Spartan women were taught to protect themselves, and also how to read and write, whereas Athenian women were taught how to do house-duties and such. Education, in the traditional sense that we class it as, was thought of highly in Spartan society and girls were given the same teachings as boys – the girls even had to participate in the same tests of strength that the boys did. Women participating in anything physical was very much frowned upon in Athens, though, and women weren't even allowed to be spectators in most athletic events. Spartan women took pride upon their physique, their bodies, while Athenian women took more pride in their clothes. Spartan women were known to be very capable athletes, taking part in sporting events such as wrestling and running, which they most likely would have done in the nude. A caricature, but still quite truthful portrayal of a female Spartan athlete can be seen in the character of Lampito, in Aristophanes Lysistrata.
The majority of an Athenian male's property is gained through inheritance, and it was an "unwritten rule" that it was passed on to a legitimate, related, heir. This is one of the main reasons why Athenian women weren't to take place in common events such as the entertaining of male guests – that would be left for the man of the house to do, and the women's quarters were away from the dining room. Also, it was quite common for women to be escorted in public.
The marriage process is one of the biggest differences between the two nations; while, in modern western society, people are free to court whoever they please and choose their own suitor, Athenian and Spartan women had it very different. Both nationalities had no courting period, and women had little, if any, say as to who they would marry. In Athens, girls were married off at quite an early age, usually at thirteen or fourteen; their husbands were chosen by their fathers, which gave the family the opportunity to join another family, ideally one that was quite prominent in society. The marriage process was very long. Spartan marriage, on the other hand, is quite different; it was an, almost, non-ceremonial event. The female would be abducted in the middle of the night by her future husband, then her head would be shaved and she had to wear men's attire. She would then, finally, meet her husband, mainly for child conception. Any Spartan man could choose a wife in this manner and this led to many wives to a husband and also many husbands to a wife. Both societies main reason for marriage was for procreation. Athenian women would have to take care of their children themselves, usually, while Spartan women wouldn't have to do much as they would, in most cases, have a nurse take care of the child. Sexuality was approached differently in both societies, too – Athenian medical theorists at the time considered women as, psychologically, shameless and uncontrollable; it was the husband's job to curb their wives' sexual hunger. Aristotle cautioned against young women masturbating. Spartan's, though, were very different and it was quite common for the husbands and wives to have lovers, some of the homosexual variety.
In conclusion, it is quite obvious that the two cultures had different views on how women should act and what was expected from them. But, if choosing the most fair, or close to equal, society, then it would have to be Sparta; women being able to own land and participate in sporting events with the opposite sex certainly overweighs Athens strict opposition on such things. Maybe, in some ways, Sparta was more advanced socially than Athens? While Athens may have influenced modern politics and thought; it could be quite possible for Sparta to have influenced our society and, simply, culture in the way that we regard women.