One of my favourite objects in the Ancient Worlds gallery is the Spartan warrior helmet. Bryan Sitch, the Museum’s curator of archaeology recently gave a tour of the gallery and discussed the helmet. Listening to him talk sparked a thought; what was the role of women during that time? I narrowed my thought process down to the difference between Spartan women and those of Athens. Could they really be so different? At first glance they seem very similar, but when digging into the history I realised this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The life of Athenian women was one of privilege and comfort. They were expected to be submissive and to act in a particular manner; to do as they were told without question. Athenian women were kept indoors and rarely seen outside the family home or husband’s house. Their role consisted of weaving and spinning, bearing and educating the children, keeping house and overseeing the preparation of food. They were not allowed to become involved with any political issues. It was commonplace to be married at an early age – sometimes as young as thirteen – to men who were much older and chosen by their fathers. They were therefore not physically or mentally prepared when bearing children, and this caused problems during childbirth.
In Athens it was deemed futile to allow females to have a formal education; only males were given such an opportunity, while young girls were prepared for the life of a mother and wife. Performing in religious ceremonies was likely to have been one of the few occasions that women left the house.
In contrast, Spartan women were provided with a good education; they learned how to read and write, and were able to train alongside males in order to gain defence skills. They were not only allowed to leave the house, but Spartan women were encouraged to engage in physical activities and participate in sports activities; taking pride in their physiques. They were permitted to look after their husband’s property without the safekeeping of a male. When husbands were absent training and fighting in battles, the women would keep the land and deal with issues involving their husband’s estate.
With regard to family life, Spartan men had little or no part in raising children; it was the mother’s responsibility to raise daughters and care for their sons up to the age of seven, after which the state would take over. Young males would then live in barracks until the age of thirty-five, even when married. They would train to become Spartan warriors; a formidable force, and amongst whom it was considered the ultimate honor to die in battle. Women of Sparta viewed it as their duty give birth to and raise strong Spartans; a mother’s words to her son going into battle, suggesting as such: “either come back with your shield or on it”.
In light of this information about the lives of Athenian and Spartan women, the question now must be; given the option today, which way of life would you choose?