A Critical Book Review: Spartan Women by: Sarah B. Pomeroy It goes without saying that during the time of Ancient Greeks, the lives of human beings and the things considered important vary greatly compared to those living today. More heavily centered on male-dominance and government, the land of Sparta was very different from its surrounding Greek counterparts. It was known for not only its great warriors, but also for its unusual treatment of women. By unusual, I don’t mean treatment of inequality or lack of superiority compared to men, because women were just as valued as men, if not more; for they bared the gift of life. Spartan Women” takes an inside look of the personal lives of Spartans, and in particular, Spartan women living during this era. From the very first moment a Spartan woman is born, her treatment was incomparable to that of other Greek women. She is valued, because she brings the gift of life. Throughout the book, Pomeroy examines the differences between the lives of females paralleled to males. If we were to compare a female infant to a male infant born into Sparta, it was much more stressful to be a male. At birth, Spartans practiced infanticide on male infants, and deformed or weak babies would be thrown into a chasm on Mount Taygetos.
This is a form of eugenics, according to Pomeroy, and it ensured a strong military for the state, by only allowing physically strong infants the gift of being reared. Although every male was entitled to owning land and receiving an education, they must first pass the physical test put on by the state that classified a physically fit male. Not all male babies were capable of being warriors, but as long as it didn’t have obvious deformities, it passed the test. Female babies were not scrutinized in the same fashion as males were, since their main objective wasn’t to be warriors.
They were still valued, because even “weak” females could still grow into mothers of warriors. Progressing further into childhood, males are taught from the very start how to become strong warriors, and females are taught how to become mothers of strong warriors. Because their state revolved around the physical superiority of their military, children are taught a variety of athletic skills. The training girls participated in was similar to boys, but less extreme. During puberty, girls participated in trials of strength that included racing, hurling the javelin, wrestling, and discus throwing.
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Girls were trained just as much as boys because it was believed that by having two parents that were physically healthy, the odds of producing even healthier offspring were greater. Along with training in sports, girls were also thoroughly educated. In other Greek states, women did not have nearly as much free time as Spartan women did. Since the men of Sparta began warrior training at age 7, girls started their education around the same time. They were cultured in the arts, in areas such as dancing, singing, and playing instruments.
Spartan women also were granted the privilege of becoming literate. They were said to write letters to their sons away at war. Although most Spartan women were married by the age of 18, some today would consider this rather young, other Greek women were married even younger. The sole duty in the society of Sparta for women was to grow up physically healthy, become educated, get married, and rear healthy children, in particular, healthy warriors. Newly married Spartan couples would not live together until they passed the age of 30, because it was believed that absence made the heart grow stronger.
Stronger passions between each other resulted in a physically stronger child. Being a mother was the highest honor for women, and being a mother of a brave warrior was even better. Pomeroy states many activities and roles women played in Spartan society, but the main running theme is that they lived in the shadow of men. From birth, they were evaluated and examined to determine if they’d be fit for motherhood. Growing up, they’re physically trained to rear strong children. They then are married at a young age, and produce children for the rest of their days.
Granted, Spartan women had much more of a say on who they married and whether or not to bear children compared to other Greek women, but a women did not stand very high in society if she was not married to a man, or a mother. The author’s thesis is not clearly stated at first, but after reading a few chapters, it is easy to connect the running theme of motherhood. She consistently talks about girls striving to attract mates, and obtaining marital status in order to bear children. For example, when girls and boys practiced their sports together, the girls were said to have been promiscuous and flirty in hopes of grabbing the boys’ attention.
Girls would participate in nude Olympics, so that potential partners could come and observe. After marriage, a girl is bedded with her husband the very first night; some would call a little eager to become pregnant. And throughout adulthood, a woman plays the sole role of a mother who rears strong children to play out the same pattern. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I have always taken an interest to Ancient Greek civilizations, and in particular, Sparta. The beginning of the book flowed pretty smoothly, until the author started to reference works that only ancient historians would be able to relate to.
I am not fully familiar with the Spartan timeline or history, so when she referenced to certain wars, philosophers or works of poetry, I would just skim over those parts and keep reading. Before reading the book, I hoped to learn the social roles women played in Spartan society, as well as what went on in their personal lives. I feel that this was accomplished after reading, and I gained valuable insight on what it was like to be a woman during that time period. I found myself talking to other people about the topics I was reading, because it blew me away how male-dominated their society was.
Today, getting married and having children is only one of a million options a woman can choose to pursue. There are more things that I wish I could learn further, such as the thoughts and feelings of Spartan women. Although they portrayed a strong exterior similar to their male warrior counterparts, I wonder if deep down they were really unhappy with their status in society. This is not something that could possibly be easily figured out though, so I do not blame Pomeroy for excluding this kind of information. I have already recommended this book to others, and will continue to do so for those that are interested in Ancient Greek history.
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