A paper written by me October 3, 2008 for my History of Western Civilization class. It is a little history lesson, but I’m particularly fond of the research I did in comparing Athenian and Spartan women. When studying history it is so very important to not only study those great ones who many have written about, but also those less fortunate ones whose names we may never know. To understand an era one must learn about the entire society, not just the elite.
Brains vs. Brawn: Athens and Sparta
The rise of the polis, or city state, encouraged the emergence to two enormously successful and powerful Greek commonwealths, Athens and Sparta. The societies of these great poleis had several similarities but even more differences. Although Archaic and Classical Greek culture was overall very militaristic, Sparta, from the very beginning was much more militant. The city arose by force when several small villages united to conquer much of the surrounding territory. Athenian foundations were perhaps less violent, but by no means was it a less turbulent road to political stability. Corruption and an unhappy population encouraged one political change after another. Notable contributors to Athens’ eventual political solidity were Solon, whose reforms led to an economic and trade boom that made the city wealthy, and Cleisthenes, who helped relinquish power from the authoritative Eupatrid by altering Solon’s Council of 400. Years of almost continual rebellion led to a political revolution influenced by Pericles. He was able to strip the power from the aristocratic elite and hand it to the people. Pericles’ actions became the stepping stones for the first democracy. The political route that Athens took of demokratia, or literally “power of the people”, is what western societies in modern times have been modeled after.
Although Athenian politics led the way for modern democracy, it was a far cry from what we have today. Admittance into the government assembly was open to all male citizens over twenty years of age, and this entitled them to have an active role in their state government. Citizenship was only granted to men over eighteen years old who could prove they were a legitimate son of an Athenian citizen. The title was never awarded to women or foreigners. A child born inside Athens by anything other than a citizen father was considered a resident alien and also could never receive citizenship. These stipulations left the eligible voting population very small.
Not only did most of the population not have a say in state politics but slavery ran rampant as well. Slaves worked in agriculture, mines, military (usually rowers for Athens’ great navy fleet), or as domestics. Athenian slaves were sometimes able to pay for their freedom and granted emancipation. Sparta, on the other hand, had a different approach to slavery. In fact, their entire social system was based off the fact that they had to physically control the peoples they had conquered during their initial territorial annexation. A failed slave rebellion occurred sometime between 675 and 650 B.C., which led Sparta to invest in a powerful military to enforce compliance. A three-part class system emerged with Helots (slaves) at the bottom, the Perioikoi (free people not given citizenship rights), and on top were the Similars.
Sparta’s entire society was based on this martial control over the population. From birth to death, a Spartan was prepared to fight for what he thought was appropriately his. Although most of Greece is reported to have at times practiced infanticide, Sparta made it a public policy for all “unfit” males (this was never practiced for Spartan females). All healthy male Similars were raised by their mothers until the age of seven when they were admitted into a life program referred to as the agoge, or upbringing, which included almost a lifetime of military service. Rigorous training, both physical and practical reading and writing skills, continued until the age of eighteen. For the next two years these soldiers were put to the test as they served in the krypteia (secret service), where they would have to basically survive on their own instincts and training. If they survived, they were able to become full fledged hoplites who would serve in the army until the age of sixty. The life of a Spartan revolved around war, or at least preparing for it. At the age of thirty a Similar was granted admission into the government assembly and is offered the chance to hold public office. Each of these privileged males were given an allotment of land and helots to work on it. Not only did his reestablish his rights as a Similar to dominate the lower classes, but freed him to fight and partake in military exercises.
Sparta was a war machine. From birth until death Spartans, both men and women alike, worked as a unit producing some of the most passionate soldiers the world has ever seen. I don’t think in Sparta there was as much oppression of women as in Athens. Spartan women were a very involved part of the military unit. The women were pushed just as hard as men to live up to their gender potential. Men were pushed harder than most can even imagine to be courageous, harsh, and to show absolutely no fear. Women were expected to produce offspring for the army of Sparta. They were just as much a part of society as men, but perhaps did not participate in exciting enough events for scholars to write about. Spartan women basically controlled the city while men were at war, which was most of the time. They had enormous power and influence over their city-state. Women making decisions for war itself was probably unlikely, but since women made up most of the stagnant population within the city walls it wouldn’t be far fetched to suggest that their influence toward Spartan culture had great control over keeping the same militaristic lifestyle from one generation to the next. They held the social structure together with their cooperation with the military, and it is clear that women in Sparta thought of themselves as very much a part of society as their male counterparts. A perfect example is the Spartan woman’s independence and educational encouragement was their physical fitness routine. No other Greek women during this time period were encouraged to exercise, it was not considered feminine. Spartan women took initiative to make sure their bodies were strong for more successful childbearing. In the days of high infant mortality and a time when many mothers died in childbirth, Spartan women felt producing soldiers (including producing future mothers) was their duty. Most Spartan graves were anonymous, except men who died in battle and women who died in childbirth. There is no doubt in my mind that these women were regarded as warriors of their home front.
Athenian women lived a much different life. Often treated as intellectual inferiors, they were not encouraged to have an education or even allowed to leave the house without permission. Athenian women controlled and coordinated the household life and slaves. Their lives revolved around raising future male citizens that would be soldiers or intellectuals of some sort. Unlike Spartan women, they could not inherit property. Anything they inherited was passed to the closest male relative for control. Female infanticide was practiced frequently, most likely due to society’s opinion that women were dependents whom men had to care for. Regardless of what we may think of ancient Greek culture, it is arguable that women weren’t unhappy in Athens. Like Spartan women, they may have also felt they were an essential part of the working social unit, which in their case was to promote democracy and philosophical thinking.
Later in the Classical period women did rise in status. Some could become priestesses (interestingly enough both cities worshiped the female Goddess Athena as their city protector), participate in festivals, and attended plays. However, very few (perhaps a few poets) were able to gain ranks along side the men in philosophical debates. While women were allowed to prosper in Sparta, philosophy and art flourished in Athens.
Socrates. Plato. Aristotle. Three names that prove the intellectual explosion in Athens. Philosophical debates, sophist rhetoric, and politics were very important aspects of life for many Athenian citizens. Plays in the genres of tragedy and comedy were performed at large seasonal festivals. Herodotus and Thucydides wrote invaluable historical accounts of Greek and world history. Art and architecture soared. The Parthenon is a glorious representation of how Athenians embraced the arts. We will forever remember Athens for its influence over western civilization. Sparta’s restrictions on trade and blockage of foreign influence created a suspicious world view for a very militaristic people; this caused an inevitable war with the extremely different Athens. Sparta is the ultimate example of just how mentally and physically strong men and women can be. While Sparta consumed itself with warfare, Athens initiated an intellectual revolution that continues to this day. In the classic battle of brains versus brawn, the intellectual Athenians prevailed in maintaining a lasting influence over western civilization.