In Aristotle’s Politics, Book 2, Chapter IX, Aristotle makes a clear connection between the dominant role of women and Spartan society as having a connotation of lawlessness; at the same time, Aristotle’s other statements about women show his slant towards women. At the same time, his ideas about Athens and Athenian government being superior to all others completes a philosophical circle supporting his belief that females are not superior to males and, sometimes, the inabilities of women and the inferiority of females. Aristotle attributes Lycurgus the Lawgiver’s Constitution’s success to Lacedaemonian men, because they were soldiers, they were disciplined and willing to follow whatever orders their superiors decided to give. The women, however, protested Lycurgus’ orders and were hence not governed under the same laws as the men. Aristotle sees this as disadvantageous for many reasons: half the city of Sparta is ungoverned, women can easily achieve dominance over men (unheard of in Athens), and that the constitution and the ideas of Lycurgus set Sparta up to be the armpit of Greece.
Lycurgus [circa 850 BCE] did not believe Sparta was the armpit of Greece, nor was it, in actuality; Spartans lived very simple lives. Money was not allowed in the city until the rule of Lysander, nor was any contention about superiority or even any foreign travel.1 The greatest hang-up Athenians and even modern historians have is a misunderstanding of the goals of Sparta – they just did not care. In a more modern context, they remind me of the communist nations that sprang up during the early to mid 1900s, viewed both as a horrible way to live and also a serious threat to other ways of life based on their radical ideas.2 Plutarch claims that Spartans thought Athenians ways to be “evil,” just as Athenians thought Spartans to be “ignorant;” while both are critical of each other, there is an obvious connotation of superiority from the Athenians that is not found in Spartan society. Even such Athenian ideas as democracy in the city-state, when mentioned to Lycurgus, said, “Begin with your family.”3
The men of Sparta were educated within a military system from the age of seven to sixty; as it was that men were preoccupied with the military (and women had no part in said military), the women were forced to function as both the traditional man and woman in the Classical Greek household. This meant that instead of having no political or social life and simply bearing children, cleaning, and weaving as was the culture in twenty-eight other city-states, women had a great deal of control over many aspects of life in Sparta.4
Aristotle mentions “…nearly two-fifths of the whole country are held by women; this is owing to the number of heiresses and to the large dowries which are customary. It would surely have been better to have given no dowries at all, or, if any, but small or moderate ones. As the law now stands, a man may bestow his heiress on any one whom he pleases, and, if he die intestate, the privilege of giving her away descends to his heir.”5 This is a perfect example of Athenian misunderstanding of Spartan lifestyle. Aristotle had never even met a Spartan man, let alone a Spartan woman. Spartans were poor, Athenians were rich, and both liked it that way; at the same time, they each hated each other for being the opposite of what they were. Their oppositional nature was well-represented in the flux of the desire for a land-based war by the Spartans and a sea-based war by the Athenians. Spartans do not care about inheritance – they have nothing to really inherit; their lives, while allowing for individualism, were based in a system that did not view citizens as valuable. This is not to say Spartans viewed their citizens as worthless or expendable, they simply did not assign their citizenry different authority based on wealth or prominence like Athenians did.
Aristotle mentions that Sparta managed the men effectively, but women were more difficult; “…this is what has actually happened at Sparta; the legislator wanted to make the whole state hardy and temperate, and he has carried out his intention in the case of the men, but he has neglected the women, who live in every sort of intemperance and luxury.”6 This statement says that the men of Sparta were the “strong silent type,” while women were greedy and disruptive, in the next statement, “The consequence is that in such a state wealth is too highly valued, especially if the citizen fall under the dominion of their wives, after the manner of most warlike races, except the Celts and a few others who openly approve of male loves.”7 Women were often “loaned out” by husbands in Sparta to other men, a thought forbidden in Athens. They were not allowed to wear any jewelry or cosmetics, which shows what sort of “luxury” they lived in.8
Interestingly, women were not educated the same way as the men were in Sparta, which was a big reason that the “independent woman” idea in Sparta continued just as the militaristic tradition did with the men. When the cat’s away, the mice will play, so-to-speak; since there were few men to hold women to any restrictions, and there were few laws so that female citizens could be held accountable to the state. Women had a separate magistrate called armosunoi, and that is all that is mentioned of them.9
Aristotle makes the statement “…the facts show that all martial races are prone to passionate attachments either to men or women. It was the attachments of the latter sort which were common in Sparta; and the result was that, in the days of her hegemony, affairs largely fell into the hands of women.”10 Later in the text, “…some of the Spartans come to possess an excessively large amount of property, others have been reduced to the merest fraction…”11 and then “…about two fifths of the whole country belongs to [a few owners, and those few] women; this is due to the number of heiresses and the practice of giving dowries.”12 The problem was this: women would marry and, as customary, the new husband would be presented with land from the daughter’s family (which, let’s say, is part of this two-fifths, already). This woman would then have as many children as possible, as there was a law on the books in Sparta that stated if a man had three sons he was exempt from military service. But, as was the case for most Spartan men (including this man’s wife’s father), the husband is killed in battle, allowing the wife to inherit the land that had previously belonged to her mother, and before that her father. The problem was that, while this was not always the case, it was becoming the case more and more, and wealthy women that had no voting power as far as the city-state were concerned had political power under the oligarchy system.13
While the male training kept the men in line, the lack of the same female disciple allowed for the women of Sparta to be freer in thought and deed than anywhere else in Classical Greek society. Women run a large part of Spartan society, and Aristotle disagrees with that in mere principle. However, he states, “This was exemplified among the Spartans in the days of their greatness; many things were managed by their women,”14 as if to say that women shouldn’t manage anything because they are inept, but when they do manage things, society does well. Much of what Aristotle writes is rhetoric – many arrogant ideas about “defective constitutions” of Sparta, as opposed to the other twenty-eight city-states that had adopted Aristotle’s ideas of Constitutions.15
Aristotle seems to have a great distain for Spartan women, especially their “toughness,” making statements like, “The evil showed itself in the Theban invasion, when, unlike the women other cities, they were utterly useless and caused more confusion than the enemy.” Indeed, Aristotle interprets things in terms of good and bad, right and wrong, happy and sad; in Aristotle’s eyes, a woman that is not subdued is not a happy woman, nor is she right or good, ergo she must be bad, wrong, and sad. Aristotle’s view is skewed because, instead of viewing Spartan women in their own respect, he interprets what he believes Spartan women would be like based on the Athenian women he has known.16 Since his presumptions about women are based in a culture that is inherently oppressive to women (but also, at the same time, unaware and accepting of said oppression), it is not surprising he has different ideas about what is fair towards women. For a typical Greek man, a “good life” for a woman was bearing children and doing housework; a bad life would be one led without a husband, whereas in Sparta, there were all kinds of women without husbands, it was inevitable. For the Spartans, it was not bad or good, it was simply the way it was, and their laws were reflective of their society and environment.17
Aristotle was a Macedonian born in 384, a couple of decades after the Peloponnesian War. He left Macedonia for Athens at the age of seventeen to pursue higher education; after Plato’s death in 347 he went from court to court, finally resting back in Macedonia to teach Alexander the Great (starting at age thirteen, in 343). After Alexander’s death in 323, Aristotle was charged with impiety by Athens and fled to Euboea, where he died in 322.18
Athenian women, similar to most other Greek women, were completely different than Spartan women. Since Sparta did not allow visitors, and there was no reason to leave Sparta unless making war, and women did not make war, it is extraordinarily unlikely that Aristotle had ever met one. Many of his preemptions about Spartan women come from his experience with Athenian women, such as the statement, “…what is the difference between governors being governed by women and women being actually governors?”19 In Aristotle’s opinion, there is none. According to Aristotle, Spartan women “…indulge in all sorts of license and live a luxurious life.”20 This would, of course, be the case, if one’s assessment of women was that of Aristotle’s; to him, a woman that was allowed outside the house every day led a luxurious life, so of course he would say that about Spartan women. In actuality, Spartan women had no more luxurious lives than normal Athenian men – perhaps this is what god Aristotle so upset.
Aristotle’s premonitions are two-fold – his first is about Sparta, his second women; these two prejudices create another discrimination against Spartan women. Aristotle’s style of constitution, best noted in the Constitution of Athens, had been adopted by twenty-eight other Greek city-states. After the Peloponnesian War, Athens was under Spartan rule until just before Aristotle’s birth, so the restructuring of the city-state of Athens and a total hated of past Spartan laws was inherent in Aristotle.
For Aristotle, the “freedom” of Spartan women had little to do with Spartan women, and more to do with Aristotle. His premonitions about Greek women as well as his ideas about Sparta lead to (many incorrect) insights on Spartan women.
Archeology of Household Activities, The. Edited by Penelope M. Allison. New York City, Routledge Press, 2002. 43-50.
Aristotle. Constitution of Athens and Related Texts. Translated by Kurt von Fritz and Ernst Kapp. New York, Hafner Press, MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1950.
Bury, J. B. A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great, 3rd Edition. New York City, St. Martin’s Press, 1966. 120-157.
Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, The. Jonathan Barnes (editor). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995. 233-255.
Chuska, Jeff. Aristotle’s Best Regime: A Reading of Aristotle’s Politics VII. 1-10. New York, University Press of America, 2000. 192, 201, 300.
Companion to Greek Studies, A. Edited by Leonard Whibley, M.A. Cambridge, University Press, 1931. 457-462.
Dunstan, William E. Ancient Greece. New York City, Harcourt College Press, 2000. 93-101.
Lord, Carnes. Education and Culture in the Political Thought of Aristotle. London, Cornell University Press, 1982.
Plutarch. Lives [electronic resource]. Translated by Robin Waterford. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998. 3-8.
Politics of Aristotle, The. Translated by Ernest Barker. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1946. 75-76.
Powell, Anton. Athens and Sparta [electronic resource]: constructing Greek political and social history from 478 BC. New York City, Routledge Press, 2001. 218-225, 348-352.
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