The freedom and greater respect for Spartan women began at birth with laws that required female infants and children to be given the same care and food as their brothers, in contrast to other Greek cities, where girls were frequently given less and lower-quality food. Spartan women were renowned through the Greek world for their relative freedom. Other Greeks regarded it as immoral that Spartan girls trained with boys whilst minimally dressed. Women in Sparta were supposed to use the freedom from labour provided by the Helot system to keep themselves physically fit to bear healthy children and raise them to sustain Spartan values. Though Sparta eventually banned ordinary coined money to discourage the accumulation of material goods, women, like men, could own land privately. Daughters perhaps inherited portions of land and property equal to one half of what their brothers would receive. However they received their portion earlier at marriage rather than only upon a parentÃÂs death.
More and more land came into the hands of women in later Spartan history because the male population declined through losses in war especially during the classical age.
With their husbands so rarely at home, Spartan women directed the households, which included servants, daughters, and sons until they left for their common training. As a result, women in Sparta exercised more power in the household than did women elsewhere in Greece. Until a Spartan husband clocked thirty he was disallowed from living with his family. Even newlywed men were expected to only modestly visit their brides by sneaking into their houses at night. If there was cooperative consent a married woman with an infertile husband was entitled to children by a man other than her husband, so pressing was the need to reproduce in this strictly ordered society. The freedom of Spartan women from some of the restrictions imposed on them in other Greek city-states had the same purpose as the menÃÂs common messes: the production of manpower for the Spartan army. By the time the classical era immerged there beckoned an ongoing problem of producing enough children to keep the Spartan citizen population from decreasing too drastically. Men were legally required to get married. Bachelors were subjected to fines and public derision.
When Spartan girls reached sexual maturity they were not rushed, as were their sisters throughout the rest of the contemporary world, into marriage and childbed. On the contrary, the Spartan laws explicitly advocated marrying girls only after they had reached an age to "enjoy sex." The reasoning was simple: for young girls not yet psychologically ready for sexual intimacy, sex was an "act of violence." Nor were Spartan girls married to much older men as was usual in other Greek cities. It is estimated that most Spartan wives were only four to five years younger than their husbands.
With their husbands confined to barracks and on active service until the age of thirty-one, frequently called up for campaigns or engaged in political and civic duties thereafter, it was left to Sparta's matrons to run the estates. This meant that Spartan wives controlled the family wealth and in effect the entire Spartan agricultural economy. A Spartan citizen was dependent on his wife's efficiency to pay his dues to his dining club. This economic power is in particularly sharp contrast to cities such as Athens, where it was illegal for a woman to control more money than she needed to buy a bushel of grain. What was more; Spartan women could inherit and so transfer wealth. Economic power has always had the simultaneous effect of increasing status. This is clearly evidenced by contemporary descriptions of Spartan women. They were notorious for having opinions, even on political matters. What was clearly worse from the perspective of other Greek men, however, was that their husbands actually listened to them. Aristotle claimed that Spartan men were "ruled by their wives" and cited the freedom of Spartan women as one of two reasons why the Spartan Constitution was reprehensible.
In a frequently quoted incident, the wife of King Leonidas was allegedly asked why Spartan women were the only women in Greece who "ruled" their husbands. Gorgo replied, "Because we are the only women who give birth to men." In other words, only men with the self-confidence to accept women as equals were men at all.
In contrast to the freedom experienced by the women of the Spartan citizen group the entire male Spartan way of life was intended to keep the Spartan army at peak physical condition. Boys lived at home only until their seventh year, when they were taken away to live in communal barracks with other males until they were thirty. They spent most of their time exercising, hunting, training with weapons, and being acculturated to Spartan values by listening to tales of bravery and heroism at the common meals presided over by older men. The standard of discipline was strict to prepare young males for the hard life of a soldier on campaign. For example, they were not to speak at will. (Our word ÃÂlaconicÃÂ meaning ÃÂof few wordsÃÂ, comes from the Greek word ÃÂlaconian.ÃÂ) Boys were intentionally underfed so as to develop skills of stealth by stealing food. If caught, however, punishment and disgrace followed at once. A famous Spartan tale taught how seriously boys were supposed to fear such failure: having successfully stolen a fox which he was hiding under his clothing, a Spartan youth died because he let the panicked animal tear out his insides rather than be detected in the theft. When the classical era began, older boys would be dispatched to live in the wild for a time as members of the ÃÂsecret bandÃÂ or ÃÂkrypteiaÃÂ whose job it was to murder any helots who seemed likely to stimulate rebellion. Spartan men incapable of overcoming the tough conditions of their childhood training lapsed into societal disgrace and were not certified as Equals (ÃÂHomoioiÃÂ), the official name for adult males entitled to full citizen rights of participation in politics and the respect of the community. Only the sons of the royal family were exempted from this training, the ÃÂagogeÃÂ, most certainly to evade a prospective social crisis if a kingÃÂs son failed to stay the course.
Each Equal had to gain entry to a group that dined together at common meals, in a ÃÂcommon messÃÂ (sussition), each of which had about fifteen members. Applicants were scrutinised by current members of the sussition, any of whom could force the prospective member to look for another group to join. Once he passed scrutiny, the new member was admitted on a condition that he contribute a regular amount of barley, cheese, figs, condiments and wine to the mess from the produce provided by the helots working on his family plot. If any member failed to keep up his contributions, he was expelled from the mess and lost his full citizens rights. The experience of spending so much time in these common messes schooled SpartaÃÂs young men in the values of their society. It was here that they learned to call all older men ÃÂfatherÃÂ to emphasise that their chief loyalty rested with the group and not to their genetic families. There they were chosen to be the special favourites of males older than themselves to build bonds of affection including physical love, for others at whose side they would have to march into deadly battle. Here they learned to take the rough joking of army life for which Sparta was well known. The common mess in many ways served as a boyÃÂs school and even his alternate family while he was growing up. This group of males also remained his main social environment once he had reached adulthood. Its function was to mould and maintain his values consistent with the demands of the one honourable occupation for Spartan men: as soldiers obedient to orders.
Some of the conquered inhabitants of Laconia continued to live in self-governing communities. Literally dubbed ÃÂthose who live round aboutÃÂ (perioikoi), which might also be translated as ÃÂneighboursÃÂ, these Laconians were required to serve in the Spartan army and pay taxes but lacked citizen rights. Perhaps they retained their personal freedom and property, however, the perioikoi almost never rebelled against Spartan control. Far different was the fare of the conquered people who had to endure the slavery of Helot status, a term derived from the Greek term for ÃÂcaptureÃÂ. Later ancient commentators described the Helots as ÃÂbetween slave and freeÃÂ because they were not the personal property of individual Spartans but rather slaves belonging to the whole community, which alone could free them. Helots had a resemblance of family life because they were expected to produce children to maintain the size of their population, which were compelled to labour as farmers and household slaves as a way of freeing Spartan citizens from any need to do such work. Spartan men, in fact, wore their hair very long to show they were ÃÂgentlemenÃÂ rather than labourers, for whom long hair was an inconvenience.
In their private lives, helots could keep some personal possession and practise their religion, as could slaves generally in Greece. Publically, however, Helots lived under the threat of officially sanctioned violence. Every year the ephors formally declared a state of war to exist between Sparta and the Helots, thereby allowing any Spartan to kill a Helot without any civil penalty or fear of offending the gods by unsanctioned murder. By beating the Helots frequently, forcing them to get drunk in public as an object lesson to young Spartans, marking them out by having them wear dog-skin caps, and generally treating them with scorn, the Spartans consistently emphasised the otherness of the Helots compared to themselves. In this way, the Spartans erected a moral barrier between themselves and the helots to justify their harsh treatment of fellow Greeks.
Whilst Spartan women were excluded from holding public office and did not have the right to vote they did enjoy considerable freedom. They could accumulate property and exercise considerable power, even though they were deprived of a part in the actual government of Sparta. Women of Sparta enjoyed freedom and power unknown elsewhere in Greece at the same point in time. They were also allowed to have babies to men other than their husband. Their training had aimed at ridding them of any emotional weakness. Women were expected to deliver their sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands to the service of the state and, if need be, to death in battle. According to Xenophon, it was a great act of friendship to offer one's wife to a comrade-in-arms for the purpose of siring further children. There were many royalties extended to Spartan women that were lacking in other groups of Spartan society mainly due to the importance that Spartan women played in their society. It is therefore evident that they were held in extraordinarily higher regard than women elsewhere in Greece and it is clear that other groups of Spartan society did not receive such preferential treatment contrasting the two differing sections vividly.
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