Despite the neo-con vision of early liberty-loving patriots in the film 300, Ancient Sparta was a totalitarian state which depended upon an enslaved population of Helots. Still, it is hard not to find its unique setup fascinating, and fellow Greeks (such as Plutarch) were no exception. Most intriguing, perhaps, was the place of free women. In the rest of Greece, women received no education, needed a dowry to marry, were wed at puberty, stayed in the house, and busied themselves with weaving. Spartan women were citizens and could own property. They wore scandalously short skirts and walked about freely. (No one dared assault them.) The spinning and weaving was left to drudges. They could not marry before eighteen and dowries were illegal. Spartan girls participated in athletic contests, and received a formal education which included music, poetry, and track and field. Spartan women were forbidden the adornments of makeup or jewelry, but apparently didn’t need any: they were famous for their beauty. (Homer calls Sparta the Land of Beautiful Women—Helen being the most famous specimen.) Exercise and education were thought to make better mothers—and the one job of a Spartan woman was to breed future soldiers for Sparta. Sparta even condoned polyandry if the husband was infertile. A Spartan man only got his name on a headstone if he died in battle; a Spartan woman if she died in childbirth. No doubt many of these collected apothegms (literally, “plain speakings”) are apocryphal or popular anecdotes, but some are from historical figures. Herodotus relates the story of Gorgo advising her father, putting her age at the time at a precocious eight or nine years old. Spartans spoke a Doric dialect (a descendant of which is still spoken in the region), and English translators have sometimes rendered the Spartan into Scots to indicate the differences, linguistic and cultural, from the home counties of Athens. This seems to introduce more issues than it resolves. I have not tried to color the quotations, but hope to convey some vernacular verve. I hope I am punchy rather than literal where I could not have both. Some apology is needed for translating the famous “with it or on it” as “as a shield or a stretcher,” but the former always seems to need a footnote.aes

Originally Published: July 1st, 2011

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

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