The Rights of Spartan Women

By Jessica Williams

Throughout history, the Spartans have been known for many things: for their militaristic society, for enforcing equality, for breeding and racing horses as well as for the beauty of their women. However what they are most famous for is their defeat at Thermopylae against the massive Persian forces of King Xerxes. This is the plot of the movie 300 directed by Zack Snyder. The movie 300 chronicles the days in which 300 Spartan soldiers (all of whom have sons to carry on their names) as well as a few willing Akkadian craftsmen turned soldiers, hold the mighty horde of Persian soldiers at bay as they are attempting to conquer Greece. As King Leonidas is fighting, Queen Gorgo is also “fighting” to get the Spartan army to join the 300 at Thermopylae. Sparta’s army remains behind because of the sacred Carneian Festival during which no fighting can occur.

I believe that 300 captured the Spartans in an accurate, but romanticized way. Their costumes (though given a modern sexy twist) were close to what the Spartans would have worn. Since Sparta was a very militaristic society, men often practiced in a nude or seminude state but they would have worn about 50 pounds of armor in an actual battle. The women would have worn clothes that had as few layers as possible and they were forbidden to wear gold and cosmetics. In 300 the Persian messenger tries to admonish Queen Gorgo when she advises him to be neither coy nor stupid and she proudly replies “Because only Spartan women give birth to real men.”

It is true that Spartan women enjoyed more rights than women of any other country at the time. 300 touches on this briefly throughout the film but what is shown is amazingly accurate. The daily life of a Spartan was filled with the state-mandated educational programs for both men and women which was unique to the Spartans. The goal in the physical training for the men was to create a fighting force of professional soldiers; while the goal for women was to bear more healthy children to fight for Sparta. There were women’s competitions in racing, wrestling, strength, discus, and javelin though it was less intense than the training the men went through. The Spartan women were stronger and were revered for their beauty because of this training and were even able to defend themselves or Sparta if necessary. King Leonidas jokes about this with Xerxes when he taunts him, saying that the Persian soldiers are so poorly trained that he should have marched the women up to the pass rather than waste his soldiers fighting in the first skirmish. Some of the Spartan girls were even quoted as saying “we all run the same racecourses and rub ourselves with oil like men along the bathing places of the Eurotas.”

Queen Gorgo in 300 meets a loyal council member in what seems to be a market or town square in the hopes of arguing in front of the council that they should send the Spartan army as soon as possible to aid her husband against the Persians. In the background there are people going about their daily business but there are more women than men. When you take out the male population aged seven to sixty for training and war, it’s no wonder that there are more women. In the market place of Sparta, it was the women who would enforce the unspoken laws of Sparta. They would shout encouragement to soldiers while also shouting insults at confirmed bachelors and cowards. Sparta was not a good place to be if you were a confirmed bachelor, because you were looked down upon for not contributing to the state. It was also the Spartan women pushing their sons and husband forward with sayings such as “return with this shield or on it” which is what Queen Gorgo says to King Leonidas as a goodbye.

Towards the end of the movie, Queen Gorgo actually goes to the council meeting to argue her reasons for wanting to send the Spartan army after Leonidas. This was not an uncommon event in Sparta. Women were trained and even encouraged to speak in public. Some women even served in the government with a ratio of 12 women to every 100 men serving in the Spartan government. In Sparta, women had more time to learn the liberal arts because even though they participated in physical activities, they were not going out every summer fighting in wars and they possessed slaves to do all the everyday work for them. This led to a high literacy rate among the women; however, the history of Sparta was mainly recorded orally.

The movie 300 does an excellent job of portraying the pride and loyalty felt by Spartans for Sparta. Everything done in the movie is done to protect the Spartan way of life. When the Spartan 300 meet with the Akkadians and Daxos is surprised that he brought more men, Leonidas asks “Spartans, what is your profession?” and is answered by a chorus of “AUH-OH”. In Sparta, only two types of people were allowed to be buried with their names of tombstones, 1) men who die in battle 2) women who die in childbirth because both gave their lives in service to Sparta. Spartan women were the best fed women in all of Greece (in Sparta the men were given smaller rations than the women) and were even allowed to drink wine because a healthy mother would be more likely to produce healthy babies for Sparta’s future. Sparta was a state of extreme discipline and self-sacrifice where the rights and duties of the citizens were spelled out for everyone to follow.

Spartan women were smart, independent, and physically outstanding and Queen Gorgo played by Lena Headey does an excellent job of portraying that. She gives advice to Leonidas when he is trying to decide what to do after his visit to the Ephors (priests/fortunetellers). She also speaks her mind when she has something to say, regardless of what other people may think of her. She is also willing to do whatever it takes to help her husband protect Sparta. Spartan women enjoyed more freedoms than were portrayed in the film 300. For example, women could be landowners, property holders and could inherit property as well. Women even gained political influence through their economic power. They could choose not to marry and they could even choose whom they were going to marry. One custom of a man gaining a wife was through “capture” where he would try to subdue her by force; however if the woman was successful in beating the man down, then he failed at getting that particular woman for his bride.

In the later years of Sparta and the Olympics, women were allowed to compete in the games; some even took this a step further by winning not once but multiple times such as Princess Kyniska whose horse team won the games twice. After her victories, she built a monument to herself at Olympia that said “I Kyniska, victorious with a chariot of swift footed horses, have erected this statue. I declare that I am the only woman in all Greece to have won the [Olympic] crown.” The women of Sparta even held jobs, in most cases as nannies. They were so renowned for raising children who were independent, not afraid of the dark, and who didn’t shy away from foods that were highly sought after all throughout Greece.

In 300, King Leonidas and Queen Gorgo are very affectionate towards each other and seem to spend a lot of time together when Leonidas is not fighting. This, however, would not have happened in Sparta. Men and women lived apart for much of their lives; even after marriage husbands and wives saw each other only for purposes of procreation. The men were off training and fighting wars and if they had any free time at all they would spend it relaxing in the company of other men at a type of Spartan “gentlemen’s” club.

Overall, I believe that 300 did an excellent job of portraying the Spartans as they were in the ancient world but it is still more of a war-fantasy movie. Spartan women did enjoy greater freedom than other Greek women at the time but to assume that Sparta was “A state run by women” (Aristotle) would be inaccurate. Although women could speak in public and participate in government, it was the older retired soldiers along with the Spartan monarchy who actually ran the Greek polis. The best place to be a woman in ancient Greece was Sparta because women there were considered beautiful, smart and independent. They had their state mandated education and the restriction on wearing cosmetics (which actually prevented exposure to toxins), and they even had a say when it came to marriage and childbearing.