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Legal Status in the Greek World


98 . The advantages of Spartan education and marriage customs (Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus 14-16, exc., 2nd cent. A.D. G)

(14. 1) As for education, he considered it to be a lawgiver's most significant and noblest work. For that reason he began first off by considering legislation about marriage and childbirth. For Aristotle is wrong when he says that it was because he tried and failed to make the women chaste that he gave up the idea of controlling the freedom and dominance the women had acquired because they were compelled to be in charge because of their husbands left them behind [while they were on campaign] and so were more considerate of them than was appropriate, and addressed them as ladies. [19]

Rather it was that Lycurgus took particular care about the women as well as the men. (14.2) He made the young women exercise their bodies by running [20] and wrestling and throwing the discus and the javelin, so that their offspring would have a sound start by taking root in sound bodies and grow stronger, and the women themselves would be able to use their strength to withstand childbearing and wrestle with labour pains. He freed them from softness and sitting in the shade and all female habits, and made it customary for girls no less than boys to go naked in processions and to dance naked at certain festivals and to sing naked while young men were present and looking on. [21]

(14.3) On occasion the girls made good-natured jokes about young men who had done something wrong, and again sang encomia set to music to the young men who deserved them, so as to inspire in the young men a desire for glory and emulation of their deeds. The man who was praised for his courage and was celebrated by the girls went away proud because of their praise. [22] But the sting of their jokes and mockery was as sharp as serious admonition, because along with the other citizens the kings and the senators attended the spectacle. (14.4) There was nothing shameful in the girls' nakedness, because it was accompanied by modesty and self-control. It produced in them simple habits and an intense desire for good health, and gave the female sex a taste for noble sentiments, since they shared with the males virtue and desire for glory. As a result they tended to speak and think the kind of thing that Gorgo, the wife of king Leonidas, is reported to have said. When (as it seems) a foreigner said to her, 'You Spartans are the only women who rule over their men', she replied, 'Because only we are the mothers of men'. [23]

(15.1) These customs also provided an incentive for marriage. I mean the naked processions of maidens and competitions in full view of the young men, who were attracted to them not (as Plato says) 'by sexual rather than logical inevitability'. [24] In addition, Lycurgus attached disgrace to bachelorhood; bachelors were forbidden to watch the naked processions (15.3) Men married the girls by kidnapping them, not when they were small and immature, but when they had reached their full prime. Once the girl had been kidnapped a so-called bridesmaid cropped her hair close to her head, clothed her in a man's cloak and sandals, and left her lying on a pallet in the dark. The bridegroom, not drunk or debauched, but sober, and after having dined as usual at the common table, came in and undid her belt [25] and carried her off to the marriage bed.

(15.4) After spending a short time with his wife he went off in a dignified way to his usual quarters, in order to sleep with the other young men. He kept on doing like this from then on: he would spend his days and sleep at night with his comrades, go to his wife secretly and cautiously, because he was ashamed and afraid that someone would discover him in her room, and meanwhile his wife was devising and planning with him how they might devise opportunities for secret meetings. (15.5) They carried on like this for some time, so long that some of them had children before they saw their wives in the daylight.

Such interviews not only provided opportunity to practise self-control and moderation, but kept their bodies fertile and always fresh for loving and eager for intercourse, because they were not satisfied and worn out by continual intercourse, but had always some remnant of an incentive for their mutual passion and pleasure.

(15.6) By endowing marriage with such restraint and order, he was equally able to dispel empty and womanish jealousy, by ensuring that although they removed unworthy offences from marriage, they could share the begetting of children with their fellows, and they made fun of anyone who turned to murder or war on the grounds that they could not share or participate in such practices. It was possible for an older man with a younger wife, if he was pleased with and thought highly of one of the virtuous young men, to bring him to his wife and having filled her with noble seed, to adopt the child as his own. Similarly it was possible for a good man, who admired the chaste wife of another man, to persuade her husband to let him sleep with her, so that he could plant his seed in a good garden plot and beget good children, to be brothers and kin to the best families ... (15.9) His physical and political program at that time was very far from the laxity among the women that was said to have developed later, and there was no thought of adultery among them.

(16.1) Fathers did not have authority over raising their offspring.

Instead, the father took his child and brought it to a place called Lesche, [26] where sat the elders of the tribe. They examined the child, and if it were well-formed and strong, ordered it to be raised, and gave it one of the nine-thousand lots.

But if the child were ill-born and maimed, they discarded it in the so-called Apothetae, a kind of pit near Mt. Taygetus, [27] (16.2) on the grounds that it was not profitable for it to live, either for itself or for the state, if it were not well-framed and strong right from the start. This is why [Spartan] women washed infants not in water but in wine, in order to test their strength. For it is said that undiluted wine causes convulsions in babies who are epileptic or weak, and that healthy babies are tempered by it and their frames strengthened.

(16.3) Their nurses took special care in their craft, so that they were able to raise infants without swaddling cloths around their limbs, and left their figures free, and the babies were contented with their regime, and not fussy about food, and not scared of the dark or afraid to be left alone, and free of ignoble irritability and whining. For this reason certain foreigners purchased Spartan nurses for their children. They say that Amycla, the nurse of the Athenian Alcibiades, [28] was a Spartan.


Notes

19. Cf. no. 72.

20. The poet Theocritus (third century B.C.) imagines that Helen as a young woman took part in such races on the banks of the river Eurotas, along with 240 other young girls. In Aristophanes, Lysistrata 82 a Spartan woman, Lampito, says she gets exercise by kicking her buttocks when she dances. According to the second-century. A.D. encyclopaedist Pollux (4.102) both boys and girls participated in this dance, known as the bibasis at athletic competitions. Cf. Lawler, 1964, 121). But there is no other evidence for girls' athletic competitions at Sparta (Cf. Gow, 1965, II 354). On girls' races elsewhere, cf. 87 note.

21. Cf. the ceremony at Brauron in Attica during which girls shed the krokotos, 398. Cf. Sourvinou-Inwood, 1988, 66. The philosopher Zeno (333-261 B.C.), founder of Stoicism, suggested that in his utopia wives should be shared and that men and women dress alike, covering no part of the body completely (Diogenes Laertius 7.33).

22. The pre-Lycurgan Spartan maiden-songs that survive describe the mythic past and concentrate on women. Cf. no. 401.

23. Cf. nos. 72, 99.

24. Cf. Plato, Republic 458d, no. 73.

25. Women wore a belt or girdle (zone) just above their hips; removing it is a euphemism for sexual intercourse; cf. Homer, Odyssey 11.245.

26. A lesche was a public building or meeting-place, here probably the tribe's headquarters. Cf. the legitimisation ritual in Athens, no. 87.

27. I.e. the 'putting away' place.

28. An Athenian general of noble birth and notorious character, who in 415 B.C., during the Peloponnesian war, defected to Sparta.