This week I have been reading Sparta: The Body Politic (The Classical Press of Wales, 2010, editors Anton Powell and Stephen Hodkinson), which contains a number of interesting essays on ancient Sparta but the one that really got me thinking was “Gynecocracy: How Women Policed Masculine Behaviour in Archaic and Classical Sparta” by Thomas J Figueira. In it Figueira looks at the evidence for gynaikokratia (“rule by women” – Aristotle’s phrase for “an unusual influence over public affairs and social relations” enjoyed by Spartan women) and the attitudes towards it. The essay  is interesting because while there are an increasing number of people writing about the economic, sexual and political influence of Spartan women and the notion of their “liberation” (or absence thereof), Figueira attempts a partial reconstruction of the social psychology of Spartan society (and non-Spartan Greek and Roman attitudes to it) based on the existing sources.

I was struck first by a passage on the way Aristotle and Plato use the position of women in Spartan society as evidence of an essential flaw in the Spartan character. Figueira starts with an analysis of a passage from Plutarch’s Sayings of Spartan Women (culled from Herodotus) in which, as a child, Gorgo (later wife of Leonidas) stepped in to stop her father being ruined by the temptations of foreign wealth

Gorgo, daughter of king Kleomenes, when Aristagoras of Miletus was urging her father to enter upon the war against the Persian king on behalf of the Ionians, promising a vast sum of money, and, in answer to Kleomenes’ objections, making the amount larger and larger, said, “Father, the miserable foreigner will be your ruin if you don’t get him out of the house pretty soon!”

Figueira notes how this passage undermines the common ancient criticisms of societies in which women were given too much influence – because women were naturally acquisitive and would drive their husbands to break social taboos in pursuit of wealth and comfort.

“Aristotle, in his Politics, not only insisted that the Spartan lawgiver had tried and failed to impose a system of rules on women, but also declared the concept of … political ascendency of  women, to lay bare the social disorder of the Spartan politeia. Nor was Aristotle innovating in his position. Plato had earlier noted the …indulgence of Spartan women and argued in his Republic that a timocratic polity would be influenced by elite women with a secret lust for acquisition. Notice how little Gorgo, saving Kleomenes from a bribe, in a sense rebuts this accusation, paradoxically long before Plato implied it. Herodotus’ Gorgo also speaks about gynecocracy in a different way, for she is a young girl judging male behaviour, while gunaikokratia might otherwise imply ‘rule by wives’ as much as ‘rule by women’… In popular appreciation, gunaikokratia also connotes female sexual or domestic domination in an individual relationship. For the Greeks, what is sexual in microcosm becomes political in macrocosm.” (267)

Gorgo, the Spartan woman most lauded in ancient history, is not the pushy, pestering wife driving her husband to disaster – the archetype that so concerns Aristotle and Plato and that features so often in ancient Greek and later Western art and mythology. She is, as a female (even though very young), in a position to play the role of upholder of Spartan social norms and state law. Far from being a destructive influence, this girl acts as a bulwark agains the breakdown of order, able (even expected) to prevent men succumbing to their inherent weakness.

Building on this Figueira notes that Aristotle’s criticisms assume politics is a zero sum game in which there is only so much freedom or political power to go around and, therefore, more influence for women must mean less for men. This is an interesting point both in relation to attitudes to gender but also in attitudes to power. It demonstrates how deeply entrenched in Western culture is the idea that advancement for one group necessarily means retreat for another. Our limited “common sense” notion of what it means to exercise power or to have greater rights remains a block to greater equality, not just for women but for a variety of underprivileged groups as entrenched interests seek to defend “their slice of the pie”. Because Aristotle “exhibits a Greek tendence for thinking in polarities” there was, literally, a war between sexes.

“The hegemony or arkhē of the Athenians had propagated democracy, while the arkhē of the Spartans that had replaced it was marked by gynecocracy. Gunaikokratia is therefore an inversion of dēmokratia… Aristotle deliberately invites our viewing [of the Peloponnesian War] as a confrontation between demoi of ordinary men at Athens and in the allied democracies, on the one side, and the elite women of Sparta and their male thralls on the other.” (269)

Figueira then goes on to consider how Spartan girls and women exercised influence in Spartan society using a variety of techniques, not the least of which was the power of public speech.

“Girls involved in competitive singing and dancing in ritual settings mocked the faults of young men and praised their exploits… Thus Spartan women wielded the emollient of praise and the sting of abuse against male compliance with, and deviation from, norms of behaviour… [this was the] role for women in enforcing the imperatives of Spartan masculinity.” (270-1)

But Spartan women weren’t just on the sidelines, making rude (or admiring) comments. We know that their role as property owners and managers of estates was crucial in freeing the male Spartiates for their martial duties and there has been much (occasionally prurient) speculation about Spartan women’s sexual liberation, but Spartan women’s role was not confined to the oikos “home” in the same way as other Greek women. When a Spartan man was appointed to the Gerousia, the council of elders that advised Sparta’s dual kingship and played a crucial role in Spartan decision-making, Figueira notes that his “most honoured kinswoman” received the same honours – elevated for the celebrations to the position of messmate, given battle honours, paraded through the streets – and Plutarch’s Sayings contains no shortage of women holding forth on public matters.

But, for Figueira, the real value of the evidence we have about Spartan women is not what it reveals about their actual influence or their real conditions (which may be forever lost to us), but what it demonstrates about how the Spartans perceived themselves and their society.

“To relegate the conceptual or ideological to the realm of ‘mirage’ (Spartan or other) discards without warrant swathes of evidence on social psychology. The apophthegms do not derive their historical significance from their actual reportage of mother/child interaction in classical Sparta, any more than one would study contemporary American urban legends to determine the probability of experiencing a home invasion or the risk of child abduction at the mall. Rather the simplified ‘sayings’ uncover attitudes, preoccupations, and anxieties that influenced behaviour in more complex everyday social settings. Undoubtedly, actual behaviour in its untidiness and contradiction may often have trumped the ideology of maternal comportment, but the overwhelming record of subsequent retelling indicates that ideology of the ‘sayings’ was equally triumphant on the field of memory as in the realm of expectation.” (275)

It is clear, then, from the evidence that has been passed down to us in the historical sources that the Spartan’s ideological commitment to strong women with powerful public roles in enforcing social norms was deeply engrained and important to them. And, Figueira argues in his conclusion, this ideological commitment was not just expressed in the stories they told themselves, but can also be seen in the way they constructed their entire social order and suggests there was something more going on in Sparta than just the preparation of war. Figueira notes the response Plutarch puts in the mouth of Lycurgus, Sparta’s (probably) legendary lawgiver, to the arguments of a democrat: “you first make democracy in your household” – the exact details of the exchange may be anachronistic but the spirit seems to reflect something real in the Spartan’s approach to the organisation of their society.

“Central was the elongation of maturation for the entire citizen class, female as well as male, that was made possible by Helotage, for it allowed young women more time for female mentorship and habituated them to perform in quasi-public settings; it postponed marriage; it delayed the establishment of independent households with husbands present; and it equalized the psychological resources that men and women brought to adult life. While a more complex male agōgē seems an obvious extrapolation from the creation of a hoplite polity, enriching the maturation cycle for women indicates more subtle social engineering.” (284)

Figueira’s essay is followed by an equally interesting piece by Stephen Hodkinson: “Sparta and Nazi Germany in mid-20th-Century British liberal and left-wing thought” in which he examines how the dominant view of Sparta in modern times became caught up in the process of defining the German enemy. Partly in reaction to the co-option of the Spartan mythos by German scholars sympathetic to National Socialism, British writers like Crossman, Murray, Toynbee and Zimmern (and later, and with most vitriol, Finley) came to identify with an Athenocentric viewpoint and to place Britain (and, by extension, America) in a special position as the “true heir of Civilisation”. As a result, Sparta became the prototypical enemy of “freedom” – mono (or anti) cultural, mindlessly militaristic, irrational, threatening and cruel – to be pitted against (and contrasted with) Athens, the source of art and philosophy, democracy and liberty. Sparta became, therefore, the root of all that was despicable about Nazi Germany.

It is a process, I think, that was repeated as American historians retrofitted the Spartan/Athenian relationship to stand as surrogate for their struggle with the Russians as they reinterpreted history to place themselves as standard-bearers of a deep tradition in Western politics and philosophy.

The problem with all this, as Figueira’s essay gives us a glimpse, is that Sparta was in important ways as different from Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia as it was from wartime Britain or cold war America or modern Iran. And the attempt to force the Spartans into narrow ideological slots that neatly align with our modern categorisations distorts not only the history of Sparta, Athens and ancient Greece but also our understanding of the states in which we live today.


  1. Stephen Hodkinson

    Dear Martin,

    I’ve by accident just come across your interesting blog on Tom Figueira’s and my chapters in Sparta: The Body Politic. At the end of your blog you comment that “American historians retrofitted the Spartan/Athenian relationship to stand as surrogate for their struggle with the Russians”.

    I’ve actually recently published an article which may interest you on “Sparta and the Soviet Union in U.S. Cold War Foreign Policy and Intelligence Analysis”, in Sparta in Modern Thought (The Classical Press of Wales, 2010, editors Stephen Hodkinson and Ian Macgregor Morris), pp. 343-392. It shows how during the early 1980s certain influential intelligence analysts, including Robert M. Gates, used Sparta as a model for the Soviet Union when they started re-thinking the nature of the Soviet economy at the time when U.S. policy moved from détente to the adversarial policies of the early Reagan administration.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    Best wishes,

  2. Stephen,

    Welcome to my blog. I’m a big fan of your work!

    Oddly, I only just bought Sparta in Modern Thought earlier this month. It arrived right in the middle of essay marking, so I haven’t got around to reading it yet.

    I’m working on a bit about Sparta’s lessons for modern democracies for a course I’m teaching, your essay was one I was particularly looking forward to. I’ll let you know what I think.


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