Women in Classical Athens and Sparta
Judy Gaughan
Colorado State University
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View Primary Source(s):
On the Murder of Eratosthenes
Against Neaira
Constitution of the Lacedaemonians
Life of Lycurgus

Primary texts about women in classical Athens and Sparta provide an excellent, if extreme, example of one of the main themes in the 100-level “World History to 1500.” This theme is the relationship between social structure and political institutions. My reason for choosing politics and society as one of my main themes is that I would like students to understand how social relationships, customs, and biases are not products of nature, but are formed by a complex interweaving of belief systems, political institutions, economic necessities, and a myriad of other elements. The reason I chose these particular texts to illustrate the relationship between society and politics is that they demonstrate two dramatically different notions of a woman’s role in what students believe is one culture—classical Greece.

We read two Athenian texts. One is a collection of excerpts from Lysias’ speech On the Murder of Eratosthenes where we are given a glimpse into the relationship between husbands and wives in Athens. In this speech, a man defends himself against a murder accusation, claiming that his killing of his wife’s lover was justifiable homicide. The case reflects family structure, the presence of “women’s quarters” in the Athenian household, and attitudes toward women with regard to questions of chastity, loyalty, and weakness. We also read excerpts from Apollodorus’ speech Against Neaira, which revolves around the activities of a non-Athenian courtesan and by default reveals information about “proper” Athenian women.

Since there are no extant writings about Spartan women by Spartans, we read excerpts from the Athenian Xenophon’s Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, which discusses how Spartan women were educated. In addition, we read from Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus, which talks about Spartan education and marriage customs, and his Moralia, where he reports sayings about Spartan women.

It is curious for students to observe that in the cradle of democracy, where each individual male citizen had rights to full civic participation, women’s movements were restricted, and women were excluded from most civic obligations and privileges. At the same time, the militaristic structure of Spartan society ended up allowing women far greater freedom of movement and financial independence than any other contemporary Greek city-state.

In the swift moving pace of the history of the world to 1500 in 30 days, I have not found a way to provide context in lectures before they read the sources, though that is still a method I hope to use in the future. Instead, to provide context for primary sources—which we read in abundance—I assign readings from field-specific textbooks that are available online or that I scan and place online for students to access.1 This short reading assignment will provide students with a bare outline of the organization of the Greek city-state and a little about the political structure of classical Sparta and Athens. My expectation is that the students, with some well-directed facilitation questions, will make connections between the political structure of each city-state and its social structure. This background reading will provide the students with enough general information about Athens and Sparta so that their primary sources will have some context.

The students get facilitation questions to help guide their reading of the primary texts. They post answers to these questions to an online discussion list. Then, I lecture in class on how the goals of the political institutions in classical Greece have an impact on social structure. In particular, I point out that since Athens does not make distinctions by class as strongly as do many other ancient societies, the distinction by gender becomes more important. With regard to Sparta, I point out how all Spartiates, regardless of gender, have an obligation to serve the militaristic ends of the state. The result of this is that Spartan women have greater mobility and independence than women in any other Greek city-state. It is my hope that students might have considered some of this in their own discussions, as well.

The discussion postings are based on reading primary texts. Thus, before they enter the class on the day I talk about these texts, they will have already thought critically about them and will have posted their responses to a question (or more than one question) posed by a classmate—the facilitator for that week. Here is an example of the one facilitator’s questions that I found moderately successful:

“QUESTIONS: Please remember that the women of Sparta and the women of Athens lived their lives in two separate ways! With this in mind:

—How did the women of Athens seem to be depicted? How did the women of Sparta seem to be depicted? Compare the similarities and differences between the women and their lifestyles.

—How was the role of women different in Athens compared to the role of women in Sparta? What do you think the women’s roles were exactly and do you think they were okay with their roles as women?

—How do the women in Athens and the women in Sparta compare and contrast with women in present day America? Remember, not every woman in America lives the way you might live.”

I find these questions to be thoughtful, but not as critical as a more experienced questioner might pose. For example, in posing questions about comparison, the discussion can end up being simply a list of similarities and differences. These are good preliminary questions for addressing the questions that I would like the students to consider. For example, how might the depiction of these women be connected with the nature of the political system in which they lived? I would also like students to consider whether the depiction of women is an accurate reflection of the roles they actually played.

The students’ essays for the class have come out of the facilitation assignments. Each student has written one essay for the week that that student facilitated the online discussion. The essay is meant to demonstrate that the student is thinking critically about a primary text and that she or he is trying to draw conclusions from it. With this in mind, the assignment is that they must take one of their own questions and answer it in a two-page argument using supporting evidence from the primary texts. Students must provide an argumentative thesis with specific and cited examples and critical analysis of those examples.

Overall, the texts work well, because they show that the lives of Athenian and Spartan women are so dramatically different from each other and yet students generally come to the class with the assumption that Greek society is a monolithic entity. Since I am trying to get them to recognize that social structure and gender attributes are culturally specific, it is even more powerful to use evidence from two different cultures that they have seen as one.

1 For classical Athens and Sparta I am going to start using Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander. Looking particularly useful are chapters 5.1-5.2; 6.2-6.4; 6.22; 6.30; 9.2.3; 9.3 and 9.3.1. The chapter number can be typed into the “go to” box; a table of contents is also available.