Life in Sparta
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My name is Catherine and I am one of those happy women who is lucky to be born in Sparta. To tell the truth, I believe that Greek civilization is one of the best of all existing cultures and Sparta is the most outstanding its poleis. This theme troubles me and many other people and often becomes the key one in our conversations with other citizens of Greece. Yesterday I had a long conversation with one of our close friends, Tiberium. He arrived suddenly from one of Greek poleis situated on the northern shores of Pont Euxine where he lived with his big family.
It was the first time for many years when Tiberium visited Laconica. I remember Tiberium since my childhood when my family and I lived in Chersonese. Even at that time he stroke me with his acquisitive mind. He was a merchant, travelled a lot and knew a lot of things and facts. He told me interesting stories about far provinces of Greece and other countries. Yesterday he told me that it was time to repay debt and now it was my turn to tell him about the polis I was living in. He asked me so many questions about our traditions, education, everyday life and then asked me to put everything down in order he could use this information in the book he was writing. So, here is my story.
As I have already mentioned, Sparta is a great state and even self-conceited people as Athenians admit this. Initially, it was much less different from other Greek cities. In the earlier period Sparta had as many good poets and actors, as the other Greek regions. However, later much was sacrificed to the success of the war and Sparta went its own way. For a stranger from Athens or citizen of Miletus, who visit our straggling villages that form a modest wall-free city, it seems that they find themselves in the past, when people were braver, and more simple, not spoiled by wealth and concerned with ideas. At least they often say so. An ordinary Greek man believes that the political system of Sparta has a strict and simple beauty; it is the Doric city - stately, like the Doric temple, far more noble than his own place of residence, but not so easy to live in it.
Another reason due to which other Greeks envy us is the stability of Sparta. In all other Greek cities revolutions happen very often, but the Spartan government remains unchanged for centuries, except for a gradual increase in power of the ephors, which happens legally, without violence.
However, our traditions are what really differs us from all other Greeks. Our great prince Lycurgus was the father of our national identity. When he decided to give the law to Sparta, he travelled a lot to get familiarized with other institutions. He wanted to compare the simplicity and rigor of the life of Cretans with luxury and effeminacy of Ionians, giving preference to the laws of the former and rejecting the life of the latter. He divided the land equally among all the citizens of Sparta, to destroy the pride, envy, crime, luxury, wealth and poverty in the city. He forbade the use of gold and silver money, allowing only producing iron coins. Lycurgus thought parenting to be highest and best task of the legislator and now like all who take care mainly of the strengthening of military power, we are concerned to maintain a high level of fertility. For example, we have a custom to treat marriage in the first few years, as if it were a secret deal, and this helps both spouses to preserve ardent love. We also do not think badly about a man who being old and having a young wife, allows a young man to have children from her. We do not admit jealousy as this feeling destroys the soul and family.
When a child is given birth, his father brings him to be examined by the elders of his family, and if he turned out to be healthy, his father gives him to be fed. If it is weak, his father throws him into the deep gulf of water. Our children from birth are severely tempered which is beneficial for their health; for example, we never swaddle our children.
At the age of seven, boys are taken from their home and placed in a boarding school, where they are divided into groups, each of which is headed by one of them, who has shown a greater comprehension and courage. They are taught to read and write, but the rest of their education pursues one goal: to develop unquestioning obedience, endurance and ability to win. Most of the time they play together, being naked. They never wear shirts, never take warm bath as this is considered to be excessiveness. They sleep on beds made from reeds. They are taught to steal and punished if they fall: not for stealing, but for awkwardness. This allows to raise a strong, skilled and experienced soldier by the age of twenty. Spartan soldiers are the best in Greece. In Sparta, we practice many types of athletic training and competitions.
Another distinguishing fact is that our girls are brought up almost in the same manner. Sports - running, wrestling, discus and javelin is obligatory for us. Physical education of girls is very important, in order for their future children to have a strong body in the womb of their healthy mother, to develop correctly and for the mothers themselves to resolve the burden successfully and easily due to the strength of their bodies.
Our position (I mean women) in Sparta is very unusual for Greece. We are not isolated from society, like respectable women in all other parts of Greece. The girls have the same physical training as boys, boys and girls go in for sport together being naked. We think that there is nothing indecent in the nakedness of girls.
Women are not allowed to show any emotions, disadvantageous to the state. We can express contempt for the coward, and we are praised, if it is our son; but we cannot show our grief when our newborn babies are sentenced to death as weak or if our sons have been killed in a battle.
A childless married woman should not mind if the government tells her to check, whether any other man is more fortunate than her husband, in making new citizens. As I have already mentioned, legislation encourages the birth of children.
In addition, we are able to fight with weapons, because, if Helots raise the revolt when Spartan men are at war, it will be our duty to repel the rebels.
Prior to marriage, Spartan women stay in the family home. However, unlike other Greek girls, we live not as hermits. We are required to participate in the celebrations and solemn processions, including singing and dancing naked or in a short tunic, in the presence of young people. In Athens, it is unthinkable.
I must say that sports do not spoil our statures. Quite the opposite, Spartan women are considered to be the most beautiful in the entire Greece. Our customs require from young Spartan girls to tempt the young men. We do not spend time for long courtship – this is not customary. Our culture and traditions are devoted to things that are more serious and long love-making is unacceptable.
Girls wear tunics with a deep sidecut which opens girlish thigh at each step. Throughout Greece, Spartan girls are nicknamed "phainomerides," "baring thighs." Our cloth is designed in such a way that it allows to bare almost entire body.
It is interesting that in Sparta girls get married at the age of 18-25 years while in Athens this happens at the age of 14. We are not given any dowry, except personal things, not to break up the family property. The groom has the right to choose a bride (any Spartan man is obliged to get married before the age of 30).
According to an ancient custom, the young man abducts his future wife and hides her at her friend’s home. Then she returns home, but they do not have wedding yet. For a long time, young people meet secretly. In the daytime man spends time with peers, and at night he visits his wife. We believe that this tradition is very favorable for family relations. Such restraint helps preserve the novelty of spouses’ feelings, while frequent love pleasures satiate people and extinguish their love. During this period the woman stays in the family home, not leaving it. This lasts for rather a long time, some couples have children but continue to see each other only at night.
Having finally moved to her husband’s house, Spartan woman begins to do housework, but not spinning and weaving, like other Greek women. We consider this work indecent and give needlework to slaves. Spartan women are free of the monotonous and stultifying domestic labor, which in other Greek states turns women into a special kind of slaves. The legend says that when one of Spartan women has been captured and sold to slavery, being asked what she could do the answer was “to be free.”
It may seem, perhaps, that a strong and decisive Spartan woman is deprived of sex compared to fragile and timid Athenian woman. It is true that we try to be equal with men in everything. Often we wear men’s cloths. We do not like jewelry, do not use cosmetics and perfume. However, there are no women in Greece stronger and more energetic than the women of Sparta. Unlike other Greek women we are free and independent. In Athens, for example, a woman shares with her husband a bed but not a table; she is not allowed to call him by name but only calls him “aster” she lives in her part of the house. Athenian woman listens and keeps silence. Athenian men even say that silence makes a woman beautiful. We may ask our men any questions; moreover, we are allowed to criticize them and give any comments. Spartan women and girls can join the conversation with a stranger, not fearing anyone's complaints. Our witty “laconic” are mentioned across the entire Greece. Many times our guests from other regions expressed their excitement and astonishment regarding the freedom of women in Sparta. All these facts make me feel a daughter of a great country and I am ready to give all my blood for it, as any of us, Spartan women!
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