The women of ancient Sparta (Lacedaemon) were a special breed among ancient Greek women. Unlike other female Greeks, they were athletic and educated. The laws of Sparta were developed and written by Lycurgus, a legendary lawmaker who, in the 7th century B.C. reorganized the political and social structure of the polis, transforming it into a strictly disciplined and collective society, in which women had quite high social status.
Although quite few real historical documentation remain that spell out the ways of the women of Sparta, historians rely on the accounts of Archaic Greek (7th century) poets and other subsequent Greek historians and literary figures to piece together the history, and sometimes the mythology, of the lives and culture of Spartan women. The most known Spartan female character is legendary Helen, who was abducted by Paris and who allegedly caused the ten-year Trojan War. Everything we know about ancient Spartan women absolutely contradicts with the conventional image of Helen as a delicate obedient lady. By the way, Spartan women were known for their natural beauty, and that they were forbidden from wearing any kind of makeup or enhancements.
In pursuit of physical perfection and self-dependence, Spartan women had the advantage over their Athenian counterparts and other Greek women. Unlike them, Spartan women had wide legal rights, which were quite unusual for ancient societies - they could own land and slaves as well as lend money. Spartan girls were given the same food rations as the boys and were allowed to drink undiluted wine. Adolescent girls were subject to strict training regime that made them every bit as fit as their brothers and boy-cousins. Classical sources list as part of a girl’s education racing, wrestling, throwing the discus and javelin and trials of strength.
Ancient Roman poet Ovid who had better conception about ancient Sparta, painted young Helen in "Heroides" wrestling naked outdoor in palaestra (ancient Greek wrestling and athletics school) located in a remote training camp. Unlike the lower class of Helots who were kept away from any athletic or military training, free Spartans including women, were physically hardened and trained, they wielded weapon and techniques of hand-to-hand combat. Sparta always had a reputation for being the most war-like of the Greek city-states, and physical training was taken to the highest levels there. The Spartans were obsessed with physical perfectness, military training and sports. And the women were part of that combative culture.
Spartan girls were educated and trained in the same way as boys were. As early as in the age of 2-3, a girl's parents suggested an idea to her that she must be like "a fast doe rather than lazy sow". Lashing was a part of girls' physical education parallel with developing strength, dexterity and stamina. Every Spartan girl spent several hours for various physical training on the daily basis – they perfected themselves in running, in disc and spar throwing, in wrestling (and sometimes in fistfighting and Pancration); they also coached themselves in courageous standing pain. Any Spartan girl knew that birching was not just a punishment but also a training of "maternal power". She knew that with each whip, her legs and hips would become stronger; moreover, the more scars she has the more her girl-friends and adults would respect her. Girls who didn't have visible scars were mocked as weak boys and were called "milksop" and "coward".
Spartan principles of collectivism and education applied also to women, which meant a personality was respected in a woman. Morals and customs in Sparta were quite free (which was condemned by other Greeks), for instance, conjugal infidelity was not considered as a crime.Ancient Spartans thought that a woman might become a personality only if she developed masculine element from her subconsciousness. That's why combat training for women was as natural as for men.
Thus, it's impossible to imagine that self-dependent, strong and physically trained Spartan Helen could be hijacked by effeminate Priam's son against her will. The other way around – perhaps, Helen attached the dandy to her and departed with him to Troy. (Her sister Clytemnestra was also particularly brave and determined.*). In fact, Helen was a figure of power and danger, an embodiment of the threat posed by female sexuality.
Young Spartans were not locked up waiting for marriage. Just as boys, girls were broken into teams and trained in different athletic disciplines. Youngsters of both genders competed and trained in sight of the opposite gender – boys were naked, girls practiced sports either naked too or in light tunics which didn't cover too much. During holidays and mating games, boys and girls participated in gymnastic exercises, athletic contests, singing and dancing.
Spartan women rarely married before 20 while men started mandatory military training at 21 (it lasted for 10 years). So, until twenty, Helen and her coeval girls were grown in a rigorous environment – along with boys. As other girls and boys, she participated in the mating games where youngsters looked for future partners. First, girls and boys competed in running and stone throwing (sometimes together). Then girls wrestled each other while guys closely watched and warmed up, preparing to their own wrestling contests. Male youths stared at the strongest and deftest girls…
Spartan women being for a long time without husbands had to defend themselves their families and homes from enemies. Sparta feared a revolt from the Helots, and required strong women to fend off such an attack. Spartan women could fight among the men as near equal (with or without weapon). So, they considered natural diverting themselves by entertainments such as wrestling and fighting.
Now, it is clear who legendary Helen could be in reality (or a Spartan woman who might be her prototype). Helen was not a weak submissive woman who knuckles under to the fate and brute force (as many think) - thinking so is to be wide of the mark! According to the historian Bettany Hughes (Helen of Troy), "many images of Helen from Hollywood movies to romantic paintings and literature, have gotten her all wrong, drawing on later fantasies rather than the truth of Sparta of the Late Bronze Age – the world Helen inhabited more than 3,000 years ago. Spartan women at Helen's times can be compared to the Amazon women."
Research concerning the Amazons and Spartan women, is at best sketchy, however, it is evidenced by many historians that the Amazons did have some elements and influences in common with Sparta. Spartan women had much more political freedom than within other cities such as Athens. A Spartan woman was expected to be fierce and be able to defend her land. The patroness of Sparta and of the Amazons was Artemis, the goddess of the wild hunt, protector of animals, protector of women, young girls, and youth. Though the worship of Artemis was common throughout the Greek world, only in Sparta was a warrior spirit and sense of equality allowed to flourish among the upper-class Spartan men and women.
Was Sparta influenced by Amazon women? If so what are the differences and similarities between the two cultures? The answer to any of these questions is not entirely clear in that there is a limited amount of information on the Amazons. If the Amazons did exist that they lived largely within a matriarchy (female dominated), rather than in a patriarchy (male dominated) as in Sparta. Perhaps, the Spartans created their view of women from the stories they heard or from actual meetings with the Amazons. It is not inconceivable that the law giver Lycurgus, who upon hearing tales of the Amazon battles in the Trojan war, was inspired to raise the status of women, and give them the same brisk upbringing as a Spartan male.
In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy, also known as Helen of Sparta, was the daughter of Zeus and Spartan queen Leda (or Nemesis by other sources), and was a sister of Castor, Pollux, and Clytemnestra. Her official father was Spartan king Tyndareus. In Greek myths she was considered to be the most beautiful woman in the world and even goddesses envied her. Her abduction by Paris brought about the Trojan War.
In fact, Helen was abducted more than once. Two Athenians, Theseus and Pirithous, thought that since they were both sons of gods, both of them should have divine wives; they thus pledged to help each other abduct two daughters of Zeus. Theseus chose Helen, and Pirithous vowed to marry Persephone, the wife of Pluto (Hades). Theseus took Helen (who was very young then) and left her with his mother Aethra at Athens. Theseus and Pirithous then traveled to the underworld, the domain of Pluto, to kidnap Persephone (who was kidnapped by Pluto before). Pluto pretended to offer them hospitality and set a feast, but, as soon as the pair sat down, snakes coiled around their feet and held them there. While Theseus and Pirithous abode in the underworld, Helen's brother Castor and Pollux invaded Athens, captured Aethra in revenge, and returned their sister to Sparta.
When it was time for Helen to marry, many kings and princes from around the world came to seek her hand, bringing rich gifts with them, or sent emissaries to do so on their behalf. During the contest, Castor and Pollux had a prominent role in dealing with the suitors, although the final decision was in the hands of Tyndareus. Menelaus, her future husband, did not attend but sent his brother, Agamemnon, to represent him. There are three available and not entirely consistent lists of suitors, compiled by Pseudo-Apollodorus (31 suitors), Hesiod (11 suitors), and Hyginus (36 suitors), for a total of 45 distinct names. Achilles' absence from the lists is conspicuous, but Hesiod explains that he was too young to take part in the contest. Taken together, the list of suitors matches well with the captains in the Catalog of Ships from the Iliad.
The marriage of Helen and Menelaus marks the beginning of the end of the age of heroes. Concluding the catalog of Helen's suitors, Hesiod reports Zeus' plan to obliterate the race of men and the heroes in particular. The Trojan War, caused by Helen's elopement with Paris, is going to be his means to this end. It is recounted that Zeus held a banquet in celebration of the marriage of Peleus and Thetis (parents of Achilles). However, Eris, goddess of discord arrived at the celebration without invitation bringing a golden apple from the Garden of the Hesperides, which she threw into the proceedings addressed "To the Fairest. Three goddesses claimed the apple: Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. They asked Zeus to judge which of them was fairest, and eventually he, reluctant to favor any claim himself, declared that a mortal would judge their cases. He chose Paris, prince of Troy who selected Aphrodite. Then Paris traveled to Sparta on the advice of the goddess Aphrodite. She had promised him the most beautiful woman in the world after he proclaimed her the "fairest" goddess. When Paris saw Helen, he knew that Aphrodite had kept her promise. While Menelaus was away in Crete, Paris took Helen back to Troy. Some stories say Helen went willingly, seduced by Paris's charms. Others claim that Paris kidnapped her and took her by force. Then the Trojan war started.
Later in the war, after Philoctetes mortally wounded Paris, Helen made her way to Mount Ida where she begged Paris's first wife, the nymph Oenone, to heal him. Oenone refused. Helen returned alone to Troy, where Paris died later the same day. When Paris was dying, his brothers Deiphobus and Helenus argued over who would get Helen. Paris chose Deiphobus. Another version tells that after Paris died, Helen pitted the brothers against one another demanding them to fight over her. Deiphobus won the fight and became her husband. When Troy fell, Odysseus and Menelaus found Helen with Deiphobus. Menelaus killed Deiphobus, perhaps aided by Helen herself (according to another version, Helen killed Deiphobus herself seeking mercy from Menelaus.) Although Menelaus had intended to kill his unfaithful wife, her charms captivated him once again and he put her on his ship, announcing that he would kill her later. After seven years of travel on the sea, Helen and Menelaus reached Sparta and Menelaus had all but forgotten Helen's betrayal. In fact, Helen was never without a man.
Being quite obscure, Helen’s life story exploded with a lot of adventures and events. Being young, she was raped by Theseus who took her from Sparta to Athens from where she was returned home by her brothers who invaded Athens for her sake. Then she was the object of numerous powerful suitors. Eventually, she married Menelaus but soon after that was abducted by Trojan prince Paris (or, more likely seduced him). In fact, at that moment Paris was already married a mountain Nymph Oenone and had a son Corythus with her. Being a Trojan princess, Helen watched bloody battles of the long war caused by her from the wall of Troy (probably enjoying the bloodshed) and witnessed a fatal wound of her husband Paris by Philoctetes. After Paris died, his two brothers fought over her and she married one of them, Deiphobus. When the Trojan Horse was taken into the city, Helen accompanying by Deiphobus walked around the horse, calling out the names of the Greeks within in the voices of their wives, because she did not want to look like she was helping them. Menelaus and Odysseus had to hold their men inside back from responding. During the sack of Troy, Deiphobus was slain by her legitimate husband Menelaus (or by Odysseus), and his body was mutilated. Some accounts say, Helen not just assisted in the killing but it was Helen who killed Deiphobus by herself and celebrated his death.
So, it is difficult to say that Helen was just a helpless victim of tough circumstances. She was not just tough, guileful and even blood-and-guts, she was extremely smart and prudent. She always knew what to do in any situation; for instance, she justly figured out who were inside the Trojan Horse. She managed to survive the catastrophic fall of Troy and to avoid Menelaus’ vengeance helping him kill her then husband. She stole Paris from Oenone (who continue to love Paris for a long time and committed suicide after his death) and displayed long hostility to her. Finally, Helen has gone down in history as the fairest woman and the most famous ‘casus belli’. Finally, we can add that she was an outstanding and strong person (both mentally and physically) in the confusing appearance of an innocent helpless lady. Actually, Helen was a "bitch wolf in sheep's clothing."
A real personification of a Spartan woman is another Greek, Atalanta, a legendary female athlete who defeated men. Although she was born not in Sparta but in neighboring Arcadia, she may be definitely considered as a Spartan because all Peloponnesus polices were under Sparta's hegemony.
Legendary Atalanta is a realization of strength, courage combined with femininity and eroticism. Being a many-sided athlete (great runner, an archer sniper, a wrestler) and a brave beautiful woman far ahead of her time, she was famous for several feats she accomplished. Even though Atalanta is best known for participation in male activities – hunting, warfare, wrestling, running, at the same time she had an aura of femininity and sexuality surrounding her.
According to Greek Mythology, she sailed with the Argonauts to fetch the Golden Fleece from Colchis as the only female among them, suffered injury in the battle at Colchis and was healed by Medea. In Colhis Atalanta met Peleus whom she wrestled later on in the funeral games of Pelias.
Atalanta's father wanted a son, so he had the infant exposed in the forest. The legend says that a bear suckled the infant until Artemis sent hunters rescued her. These old hunters raised her as their own child. As Atalanta grew to adulthood, she enjoyed hunting so much that she wanted to remain unwedded and virgin like the goddess Artemis. She was athletic and strong, could outshoot anyone with the bow. She was сщтышвукув the most fleet-footed mortal alive, perhaps, with the exception of mythical Euphemus who was able to walk on water.
Every her suitor was offered a choice – to win a footrace and get her or to be executed if lost the race. She outran all her suitors, who were then executed (thye knew what had been expected). Only once Atalanta lost a footrace to her competitor and suitor Hippomenes (other legends mane Meleager). He prayed to Aphrodite for help, and she gave him three golden apples (quinces) from Hesperides to bowl across Atalanta’s path during the deciding race. Noticed the golden fruits on the race-track, the undefeated sprinter reached down to gather each fruit, and in doing so gave the suitor time to leave her behind. Had he lost the race, he would not only lose Atalanta asa prize but also forfeited his life.
The first feat young Atalanta accomplished was the Calydonian Boar Hunt. The giant fierce monster was sent by Artemis to ravage the region of Calydon because its king failed to honor her in his rites to the gods. In the Calydonian Hunt headed by Meleager, many male heroes took part, but also a young woman, chaste swift-footed Atalanta. Other male members of the hunt objected to her presence, but consumed with lust Meleager insisted that Atalanta be allowed to join. First blood was spilled when two centaurs tried to rape Atalanta but she killed both of them by arrows. It was Atalanta who first succeeded in wounding the boar with an arrow, although Meleager finished it off, and offered the prize to Atalanta, who had drawn first blood. But the sons of Thestios, who considered it disgraceful that a woman should get the trophy where men were involved, took the skin from her, saying that it was properly theirs by right of birth, if Meleagros chose not to accept it. Outraged by this, Meleagros slew the sons of Thestios and again gave the skin to Atalanta.
Her most known and famous feat was the victorious wrestling match against Peleus in the funeral games of Pelias. The woman managed to defeat the male hero. Peleus, who lost the wrestling match to Atalanta, later had a chance to use his experience of wrestling with a woman: in order to marry giant sea-nymph Thetis, Peleus managed to defeat her in a wrestling match and fathered hero Achilles by her.
Coincidently the paths of the three ancient heroines (Penthesilea, Helen and Atalanta) somehow oddly crossed at Troy. Peleus was a father of Achilles who fought with Penthesilea and killed her, while Helen would watch the battle from the walls of Troy.
Interestingly, the most widespread representation of female nude in the sixth century BC all over Greece was the popular portrayal of Atalanta wrestling with or standing in Palaestra behind Peleus as well as bronze statuettes with nude female athletes-victors. This indicates that in different parts of Greece they felt delight for Spartan women being able being athletic and even successfully competing against men.
Considering Sparta, it's impossible not to mention Olympic Games and their women's version - Heraea Games (also spelled Heraia), dedicated to the goddess Hera. A legend says that Atalanta participated in this first sanctioned (and recorded) women's athletic competition allegedly holding in the stadium at Olympia (possibly in the Olympic year, prior to the men's events.) It is dated as early as the 6th century BC. A college called the Sixteen Women wove a robe for Hera and held the games. The race was run between virgin girls who ran in order of age, the youngest first and the eldest last. To the winner was given a crown of olives and a share of the cow sacrificed to Hera. The winners were dedicated statues, one of them – "a girl-runner" from Sparta is kept in the Vatican Museum. On a stump beside the girl is a palm branch, a symbol of victory. There is also a Spartan statue of a girl running (presumably Atalanta) whose right shoulder is bare, as far as the breast.
In fact, the ancient Olympic Games were almost entirely male-only and women were forbidden even to attend the main stadium at Olympia, where running events and combat sports were held. Women caught breaking this rule, were swiftly hurled over the cliffs of Mount Typaeum, even though none of such executions are known. At the same time, women were allowed to enter only the equestrian events, not by running but by owning the horses.
Living in the fourt century VC, Spartan Cynisca employed men and entered her team at the Olympics, where it won in the four-horse chariot racing in 396 BC and again in 392 BC. The bitter irony is that she probably didn't see her victories.
According to the traveler and geographer of the 2nd century CE Pausanias, only one case was in the Olympic Games history when a woman presented at a fistfighting event. In 404 BC, Pherenike (Callipatira of Kallipateira), a mother and a trainer of a fistfighter, came to the stadium donned a long trainer’s robe in order to hide her gender. After her husband Callianax (who was a boxer and trained her son) died, Pherenike decided to become his trainer because she ahd come from the famous family of fistfighters of Diagoras of Rhodes and knew the sport not through hearsay. In his match, Pisodorus did his family proud, and won Olympic laurels. Pherenike, lost in the excitement of the moment, leapt into the ring to congratulate her son. This hasty maneuver revealed Pherenike’s true identity to everyone. There is not rule without exception though - Pherenike got lucky, her pedigree as a member of such a famous athletic dynasty softened the hearts of the judges, and spared her life. The judges did, however, pass a new law that was effective from that point forward. All trainers and competitors in the athletic games were to be naked.
Note. *) Durante absentia her husband (Agamemnon), Clytemnestra was unfaithful to him with her cousin Aegisthus, and after her husband came back from the Trojan War, she killed him and his lover Cassandra (Homer’s Odyssey).
Exclusive of the Female Single Combat Club
Greece (in Russian)
Spartan ginaecocracy by Yu. Andreev, 1995 (in Russian)
Sparta by N. Ionina (in Russian)
Spartan Experiment (in Russian)
Proud nudity (in Russian)
Olympic games in antiquity (in Russian)
"Scandalous" Spartan Women. Book Review. Sparta Reconsidered: Spartan Women by Helena Schrader
To Have Power or to Not Have Power: Athenian vs. Spartan Women
Spartan Women by Sarah B. Pomeroy. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Book review
Aristotle: Spartan Women
Plutarch. Sayings of Spartan Women
Ancient Greek Olympic Games and Women
Were There Women at the Ancient Olympic Games?
The Role of Spartan Women in Ancient Greece By Lisa Thibault Pietsch
Spartan Women by Elizabeth Hailey
The Women of Sparta
The Women of Sparta: Athletic, Educated, and Outspoken Radicals of the Greek World
Women in Sparta
Women in Athens and Sparta
Pherenike the Trainer
Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore by Bettany Hughes
Helen of Troy by Margaret George
Helen of Troy in Fine Arts
Atalanta, The Huntress
Atalanta Legend in Art and Literature by Reet Howell and Maxwell Howell
Greece Myths: Atalanta, an independent female
Atalanta’s Race: a Greek Myth by Shirley Climo
Edgar Degas. Edgar Degas, Young Spartans, 1860
Comment by the famous art critic Jeffrey Meyers to Edgar Degas’ painting Spartan Girls Provoking Boys (1860-62): "Four cheeky, aggressive, bare-breasted adolescent maidens, wearing short aprons open at the sides, challenge five naked boys to engage in a wrestling match or sexual combat. The stiff outstretched arm of one girl, thrust toward the enticing circle made by the arms of one boy, emphasizes the reversal of traditional sexual roles. The passive boys - one crouching on all fours, two others backing away- seem unable to respond to the intimidating challenge of the provocative girls. The girls may be taunting the boys for their athletic failure or trying to incite them to glorious exploits. It might also portray a war of the sexes in which, characteristically in Degas, the females and males confront each other on opposite sides of an open space. Or it could express their youthful hopes and fears of physical love. In the background a toga-clad, bearded sage lectures a group of matrons holding their babies, who will replace the deformed infants left to die on the mountain as well as the young Spartans killed in battle."
Giovanni Demin. Spartans in wrestling
Fresco, Villa Patt, Sedico. Photo by Zanfron.
The illustration is taken from the article Spartan Women
Ruins of Ancient Sparta
Ancient Sparta. Meeting Place of the Ephors. Reconstruction
Artemis. Copy of the statue by Cephisodotus (4th century BC). Luni marble, Roman artwork. Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy
Artemis was often seen as a Patron goddess and warrior in Sparta
Jean-Jacques-Francois Le Barbier. Spartan woman giving the shield to her son ("With it or on it!"), 1805. Portland Art Museum (Oregon, USA)
Gymnopaedia Festival held for Apollo in Sparta. Ancient sarcophage
Wrestling training in palaestra
Spartan woman trains a male athlete in palaestra
Tondo from an Attic red-figure plate, 520–510 BC. From Vulci. Louvre, Paris
Spartan woman and a male athlete in palaestra.
Late Archaic (ca 5 century BC). Attic Red Figure; Amphora.
A nude athlete talks with a woman (presumably his trainer). Louvre, Paris
Atalanta. Statue of a young girl; the palm branch on the trunk is a symbol of victory. Marble, Greek artwork, 1st century BC.
Spartan running girl. Bronze statuette.
Spartan work, around 520 BC. British Museum
Her tunic reaches a little above the knee and her right shoulder is bare, as far as the breast.
Victor. Spartan female athlete. Antient Greek bronze statuette
Bronze mirror handles, 6th century BC
Left: From Curium, Ciprus ,ca 530 BC.
Hair net is of type also seen on male athletes and sickle on shoulder strap, a possible prize for victory in a contest.
Right: ca 530 BC.
The diazoma or trunks are of the type worn by Atalanta depicted on wrestling scenes on Greek vases of that period.
Metropolitem Museum of Art, New York