Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.30

Sarah B. Pomeroy, Spartan Women.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002.  Pp. xvii, 198.  ISBN 0-19-513067-7.  $19.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Nicholas F. Jones, University of Pittsburgh (
Word count: 3448 words

With Spartan Women, Sarah Pomeroy has given us the first full-length historical study of the subject (p. vii). But why not until now, a full half-century since the appearance of the English translation of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex and a quarter-century after the initial publication of Pomeroy's own Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity? Perhaps the cause is the intractable difficulties posed by the source materials? Notoriously, Sparta's xenophobic closed society, which both prohibited visits by observers from without and forbade the production of a written record -- epigraphic or historiographical -- from within, predictably brought about the virtual absence of a contemporary documentary record. Attempts by other Greeks to fill in the void gave rise to a literature of questionable authenticity, to be encapsulated in modern times with Ollier's work in the 1930s and 1940s by the term "mirage." Such formidable impediments to the discovery of truth would apply a fortiori to Spartan women, given the general silence about females across Greece even in the best of conditions. Pomeroy, however, perhaps out of necessity, sets about her task with a tendency to grant "more credence" to the primary sources than "some contemporary hypercritical Spartanologists are wont to do" (p. viii). But hypercriticism (and hence rejection) of the sources does not tell the entire story about why the history of Spartan women was not to be published until 2002. Pomeroy also finds a contributing negative cause in the practice, and the influence upon his students, of a leading Anglo-American ancient historian, now deceased. "The influence of Marxism and of M.I. Finley, who taught many ancient historians at Cambridge, has been in large part responsible for the popularity of the study of Spartan history through the lens of the mirage. Finley ignored women in his analyses of Greek economy, slavery, and citizenship. Thus it is no surprise that, as was customary among mainstream ancient historians until the end of the twentieth century, [Paul] Cartledge [author of well known major works of scholarship on Sparta] did not devote much space to women in his books" (pp. 159-160). These remarks might have appeared earlier in the book as part of the author's apologia, but coming near the end they will surprise no one who has pursued Pomeroy's incisively feminist reading to this point.

Chapter 1, "Education," examines the system at Sparta where alone in Greece inclusion of girls from childhood as well as boys was practiced. The earliest datable evidence for the girls' program is archaic (with continuation into the classical period); in Hellenistic times, the traditional apparatus was discontinued in its entirety; under Cleomenes III, the boys' curriculum was certainly re-instituted, while the case of the girls' is less certain; and with the Roman revival, the education of females was conducted under the authority of the gynaikonomos. Thus through much of antiquity arrangements were in place for the achievement of the Spartans' fundamental societal goal for freeborn females: to create mothers who would produce the best hoplites and mothers of hoplites (p. 4). By acknowledging this basic commonality shared with free women throughout the ancient Greek world, Pomeroy implicitly lays the groundwork for the paradox that will characterize her Spartan women throughout: that, while subject to the reproductive mandate shared by contemporary non-Spartan females, they nonetheless are made out to be "distinctive" across virtually the full spectrum of their recorded activity.

An educational system might produce literacy, and Pomeroy makes a circumstantial case for female reading and writing. Dismissing a disproportionately high count of males in major epigraphic sources as owing to the fact that men inevitably had more opportunities to perform acts worthy of commemoration and generally were better able financially to pay for inscriptions, Pomeroy suggests that girls, with time to spare until their relatively late first marriages at eighteen, could have acquired literacy skills amidst their all-female milieu and as members of all-female choirs would have committed to memory the poems of Alcman and others -- and so may well have attained a cultural level superior to that of boys (p. 8). Anecdotes about literate Spartan women, dedications by females to female divinities, and the contemporary testimony of Plato in particular would seem to support Pomeroy's inferences. Named Spartan "learned women" prove to be few (the poets Megalostrata and Cleitagora, plus the Pythagoreans headed by Chilonis, daughter of Chilon, one of the Seven Sages), but such "learning" clearly could not been produced under the conditions known to have obtained among the citizen class in contemporary Athens. Beyond mousike, "education" embraced the well-known -- and certainly distinctive -- programs in physical exercise (provocatively illustrated by 19th century paintings of Demin and Degas, in the latter of which Pomeroy is perhaps correct in finding female homoerotic content missed by previous interpreters, see p. 16 with note 44), possibly extending to hunting and even military training; and in the more securely attested case of driving and riding horses Pomeroy finds a potential for "autonomy" unique for women in the Greek world (p. 21). Spartan female distinctiveness was put on public display in running races in which Spartans competed partially or entirely unclothed (nudity for Pomeroy indicating the high priority attached to female athletic prowess) and was further evident, negatively, in that Spartan women's involvement with textile-production -- notoriously the domestic task consuming the waking lives of Athenian females in particular -- was largely confined to the supervision of slaves, while free born women wove only for ritual purposes.

All this female distinctiveness, again, emerged while in the service of the fundamental goal shared by all Greek cultures---reproduction of the citizen elite class of warriors and mothers of warriors. Chapter 2, "Becoming a Wife," opens with Xenophon's explicit linking of the power (and fame) achieved by only a few Spartans with Lycurgus's policy of cultivating fitness in parents, notably (in contrast with prevailing Greek practice) the mother (Lac. Pol. 1.1-4). Pomeroy explores the linkage under the headings "Eugenics: Nature in Alliance with Nurture," "Marriage," "Sexuality," and "Infanticide and Sex Ratio." Throughout she is at pains to lay bare the mechanics, cultural norms, and psychology in play, especially with a view to portraying women as fully conscious purposeful actors rather than as the passive objects of male manipulations. Selective male infanticide (preferred by Pomeroy despite Plutarch's use of neuters to denote the infants concerned) would have spared the state the expense of raising to adulthood newborns unfit for citizenship and especially military service, while continuing concerns with diminishing Spartiate numbers would have discouraged the killing of future mothers. At the age of reproduction, eugenic/dysgenic motivations are explicitly ascribed to the spouse-sharing practices described in the late sources, and here Pomeroy offers a fresh perspective. Departing from Daniel Ogden's notion of "partible paternity" -- the belief that an offspring could have two male parents, with the spouse-lending social husband and father indirectly benefiting from the injection of his wife's extra-marital partner's seed--and, from the woman's point of view (and thus more to the point for Pomeroy's approach), exploiting Sarah Hrdy's arguments that polyandry can be beneficial to mothers because it will increase the number of possible fathers who will help with the care of infants and thus perpetuate the mother's genetic legacy (pp. 37-38), Pomeroy provides both husband and wife with a rational, biologically rooted (even if, as in the former case, factually erroneous) basis for so dramatic a deviation from generally prevailing marital norms. Female initiative in these arrangements receives explicit support from Xenophon's statement (not acknowledged by previous commentators, p. 40 with note 21) that Lycurgus's marital innovations were in part motivated by the desire of women to get possession of two households (Lac. Pol. 1.9), hence Pomeroy's preference for a term reflecting a female perspective such as "husband-doubling" (in contrast to "wife-sharing" vel sim.). Specific circumstances could also favor female initiative when, as in one of Xenophon's scenarios, a young wife might exert influence on an elderly enfeebled husband, perhaps soliciting the attentions of her new partner. Here, as elsewhere in her presentation, it is crucial to note that Pomeroy's actors are represented as acting consciously on generally accepted belief systems (again, however ill-founded), rather than in unthinking response to inborn genetic codes.

With some overlap of subject-matter, chapter 3, "The Creation of Mothers", continues in the same vein, more or less consistently finding in the citizen-class woman the embodiment of modern feminist ideals or aspirations. The scene of her activity was not unexpectedly the oikos which was a locus primarily of reproduction but, in contrast with its Athenian counterpart, less so one of production. If a woman's goal in life was not only to bear children but to bear superior children as well, diet would be crucial, and Pomeroy finds that the "basic diet" for males and females was arguably the same, and indeed girls may have been given more food than their male counterparts. That "Spartiate women were never underfed" (p. 54) was made possible by the fact that the income from a male-held kleros served to support his dependents as well as the holder himself. Fertility, however, could work against the interests of the private household should too many heirs be created, so in the face of homosexuality, non-reproductive heterosexual copulation, or other failure to produce legitimate offspring, the state formally supported "child production" through rewards to fathers (prefiguring, as Pomeroy notes, the Augustan legislation at Rome). Responsibility for such production rested, in the absence of soldier-males, squarely on the shoulders of Spartiate matronae, and it is here that Pomeroy is perhaps most vigorous in presenting her case for wives and mothers as "active players in making arrangements beneficial to their families and to themselves" (p. 71). "At least some of the time, not only did women sanction the official ideology of motherhood, but several, in fact, were architects of it" (p. 58).

Underpinning the approach is the premise that no particular version of human maternal behavior is "natural", that motherhood is socially as well as biologically constructed (pp. 57-58). But the consequences are startling, to say the least, and readers may well hesitate to follow Pomeroy's lead in the face of the consistent tradition that Spartan women were renowned for enthusiastically sacrificing their sons to the welfare of the state. Thus, for example, "Another Spartan woman killed her son, who had deserted his post because he was unworthy of Sparta. She declared: 'He was not my offspring ... for I did not bear one unworthy of Sparta'" (Sayings of Spartan Women, 241.1, quoted on p. 59). As Pomeroy herself observes (p. 59-60, with note 33), such sentiments recall reports concerning the patriarchal powers wielded over their adult children by Roman fathers, on which grounds even a mild skeptic might be inclined towards the "mirage," but her enduring faith in the primary sources (see p. viii) hardly allows her even so much as to flinch. Besides, the behavior can be given a more substantial basis, if, owing to an evidently widely accepted belief that acquired characteristics could be inherited, it was feared that the son, if allowed to live and to reproduce, would transmit his cowardice to the next generation. Examples of "Republican motherhood" from American history may, it is suggested by Pomeroy, serve as "a heuristic model", but this evidence is undercut by the fact she herself acknowledges that upper-class southerners were familiar with Greek and Roman history (pp. 62-63) -- that is, it has no independent value since they were working with the same set of facts that we are. Rather, it is the denial of any biological determinism and removal of any cross-cultural norms seemingly demanded by ordinary experience and feelings that make possible acceptance of the Spartan "mirage" as factual: "At any rate, these examples from the more recent [American] past persuade me that there is no universal maternal instinct which inspires mothers to save their son's life without hesitation" (p. 63).

The fourth chapter, "Elite Women", concerns in part historical developments, events, and figures prominent in literary sources and so familiar to many readers, but additional interest is created by the injection of some of the book's recurrent themes: change over time, especially as evidenced in the triumph of private over public interests; the supportive roles played variously for men and women by the kleros-system; and the strategies whereby women promoted themselves in the face of seemingly male-dominated social and political institutions. "Royal Women" are treated with respect to marriage, succession, adultery and bigamy, and authority; "wealth" with respect to land tenure, luxury, dowry, heiresses, and "change over time." Post-classical developments fall under "Women and the Reforms of Agis and Cleomenes" and "The Last Reformers: Apega and Nabis and Chaeron." A conclusion sums up under the rubric "Autonomy and Social Power" the harvest of positive manifestations of Spartan female empowerment. Individual women exercised significant influence on male members of their own family and on society at large; women in groups asserted themselves by publicly praising brave men and reviling cowards and bachelors; women are reported to have been involved in elections to the extent that no other Greek women were (p. 92). Again, Roman parallels spring easily to mind, and, had this been Pomeroy's project, a more thoroughgoing comparative analysis of the two cases might have been carried out. With approval, previous scholars' contrasting characterizations of the nature (and source) of Spartan female power and influence are cited: property ownership (G.E.M. de Ste Croix), the system of marriage exchange (James Redfield), the disposition of household and communal wealth (Barton Kunstler), the management of the kleroi by women (Maria H. Dettenhofer). Pomeroy's own formulation hardly differs from the preponderantly material, rather than ideological, drift of this consensus: "For elite women at Sparta at that time, wealth was probably the only secure basis of influence and autonomy" (p. 93). Acquisition by these reform-era royal women of the wealth normally accessible only to men thrust them willy-nilly into the arena of male politics, and some paid for their involvement with their lives. "That they were executed is testimony to their power," concludes Pomeroy (p. 93).

"The Lower Classes" will always be elusive subjects when studied from so great a distance, but chapter 5 performs the very useful task (and one performed by the book as a whole) of making gender a defining category -- something done by no other study of the subject, ancient or modern. Within the narrow scope of nine pages, Pomeroy takes up, with consistent attention to females, the helots, free non-citizens (with subcategories, viz. perioikoi, neodamodeis, mothakes, hypomeiones), working women (embracing prostitutes and nurses), religion, doulai (i.e. privately owned chattel slaves as opposed to the state-owned helots), and once again the omnipresent "reproduction." Study of the last-mentioned topic yields the conclusions that, unlike elsewhere in the ancient Greek world, the Spartans engaged in slave-breeding; that in so doing they applied the same eugenic/dysgenic principles that they applied to themselves (again, evidently acting on a belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics); and that, unlike their treatment of their own newborns, may have practiced female infanticide (pp. 101-103). The chapter ends with a startling conclusion: "... it is clear that Sparta served as a kind of laboratory for demographic ideas or actual experiments in which the state and private individuals made investments in order to reap dividends in the form of human capital" (p. 103). If this were true, the assumption of such independence of thought and action from traditional modes of behavior might also prompt a rather different characterization of Pomeroy's Spartan elite and citizen-class women: that they too, as opposed to the mere expression of their undeniable property-power, were likewise the products of society-wide (or even male) experiments in the "laboratory" that was Sparta. But it is clear that Pomeroy does not wish us to regard her upper class Spartan women as mere human guinea pigs.

"As had been true throughout Athenian history, in Hellenistic Sparta religion offered the only acceptable milieu in which respectable women could play a public role" (p. 129). The same will have applied in earlier periods, hence the sustained attention to "Women and Religion" in chapter 6, which examines female religious experience in all its multifarious dimensions. The arrangement is by cult: Artemis Orthia, Eileithyia, Hera, Helen, Dionysus, Demeter, Apollo, Athena, Aphrodite; and, in the Roman period, priestesses, and the visit to Sparta by Julia Balbilla, the Pious. The presentation is dense, detailed, well documented, and occasionally illustrated. But precisely because other Greek city-states accorded prominence and visibility to females in the domain of cult, specific evidences of this kind at Sparta can provide only scant support to Pomeroy's efforts to reconstruct the socially and economic independent woman as free agent to the fore in the preceding chapters. Perhaps the best candidate for such a figure is Julia Balbilla, a granddaughter of Antiochus IV who accompanied Hadrian and Sabina on a trip to Egypt in A.D. 130 (the visit to Sparta was not to occur until late in life for the purpose of attending to the construction of a heroon in honor of her cousin Herculanus). Writer of poetry in the Aeolic dialect of Sappho, with no recorded husband or child, a possible exemplar of lesbian relationships, if she was the lover of Sabina (perhaps modeled on the emperor's own liaison with Antinous) (pp. 128-129) -- a more unconventional female figure (by the standards of Greek antiquity) would be difficult to imagine, but strictly speaking we are no longer here within the limits of religion, much less religion at Sparta.

A principal goal of Pomeroy's book is to establish the distinctiveness of Spartan women (versus other Greek women), and the conclusion entitled "Gender and Ethnicity" is largely concerned with drawing together the various bits of information and strands of inference by which such distinctiveness could be demonstrated. Since Spartan women were recognized for their peculiarity even in antiquity, the author's task will in large part be one of expansion and refinement on an already-accepted base. Attention to sources is for this (and other) reasons especially crucial, and Pomeroy has wisely provided a lengthy Appendix on sources for the history of Spartan women, running to over 30 pages and covering "written sources" (by period and genre, but with insufficient attention to inscriptions), prosopographical problems, secondary literature, and archaeological material (which, besides references to the site, includes mirrors and bronze statuettes, vase painting, and sculpture).

Everywhere, Pomeroy's skills as a trained papyrologist (as well as general classicist) are in evidence, skills that she deftly transfers to all matters textual. Bibliography appears to be up-to-date, errors I have noticed are of the usual typographic kinds and easily corrected, and I have found the Index helpful in preparing this review. The absence of an index locorum (which would have had the salutary effect of pointing up the general lateness and/or derivativeness of the great majority of the sources on which her arguments rest) is somewhat compensated for by the Appendix mentioned in the previous paragraph. Pomeroy is given to the odd contemporary parallel, and, while I personally have no objection to references to the training of female New York City firefighters, lycra and spandex, or miniskirts, an inevitable consequence of the practice is to isolate one's work both in place and time. If I were to seriously fault the presentation, it would be on the head of repetition. Separate chapters about wives, mothers, and elite women have produced overlapping that is impossible to ignore; and in one instance that I have noticed several sentences are repeated nearly verbatim in two different chapters without acknowledgment (p. 55, second new paragraph and p. 80, first new paragraph). But it's the content that matters, and nearly everywhere Pomeroy's prose is to the point and readable, even if the eventual outcome of her clear communication sometimes is to prompt the reader to entertain an alternative point of view.

The book makes a valuable contribution to ancient Greek history and will immediately take its rightful place as the standard work in any language on a major but astonishingly long-neglected topic. The approach is unabashedly feminist (cf. "the modern feminist scholar" at p. 39), but the simple truth is that Pomeroy has found in her Spartan women a feminist subject---both in comparison with their contemporary ancient Greek counterparts and when measured against the ideals and aspirations of moderns who call themselves feminists -- and so the fit was perhaps pre-ordained to be a close one. But whatever might be the reader's ideological allegiances, Pomeroy's female-oriented interrogation of the record is one that needed to be made, and in so doing she has significantly advanced our understanding of a critical -- and diagnostically interesting -- chapter in the history of women.

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