Life – and Love – in Ancient Sparta

On 9 March, Paul Cartledge (Professor Emeritus of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge), a long time friend of the LSA CA, joined us online to deliver a captivating insight into what love – and sex – meant in ancient Sparta:

Eminent historian Professor Cartledge introduced us to Sparta’s distinctive culture, with a focus on the period from the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE to Alexander the Great and the rise of Macedon in 323 BCE, around the same timespan as presented in his excellent book ‘The Spartans’. He warned that he might be somewhat laconic – fitting since Professor Cartledge is himself an honorary citizen of modern-day Sparta, formerly called ‘Lacedaemon’ – however, his eloquence and generosity in sharing his vast knowledge made him anything but. Nevertheless, he began with a proviso: our reliance upon other sources such as Plutarch (writing in the 1st Century CE) and the Athenian writer and soldier Xenophon (writing in the 4th-3rd century BCE) means that we have a distorted and crooked perception of Sparta and its society, as we are presented with a lack of authentic contemporary Spartan accounts – meaning ancient Sparta is a bit of a ‘mirage’.

Professor Cartledge unpacked the title of his lecture and explained how the ancient Greeks had five distinct definitions for love, with ‘ἔρως’ (Eros) meaning sexual, erotic and sensual love, desire, attraction and lust. Introducing us to a “kylix,” a drinking goblet, discovered in a grave in Italy, he teased us with a partial explanation of the image from the goblet, reassuring us that all would be revealed as the lecture delved further into the Spartan way of life and explaining that the image most likely came from the Archaic pre-Classical period of the 7th and 6th Century. This was a time when the Spartans were more focused on military matters, such as the Persian wars, the Helot Revolt, and tensions with other Greek city-states. Professor Cartledge presented a map and highlighted the southern Peloponnese, specifically the Spartans’ position on the river Rhodas flowing down to the ‘Laconian Gulf.’ Sparta occupied vast amounts of the Southern Peloponnese, making their ‘Polis’ territory the largest in the Hellenic world and their population was divided between three types: full citizens, subordinate members of the ‘polis,’ and the Helots, who were considered slaves to the Spartans.

Recounting the history of Sparta and highlighting that the city centre was made up of four distinct villages, Professor Cartledge explained that modern-day Sparta was built on top of the ancient city, following the Greek revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Noting that the focal point of medieval or Byzantine Sparta was the Maestra site, Professor Cartledge emphasised the communal lifestyle of the Spartans. He questioned how they were able to conquer and maintain territories like Messenia and, in doing so, explored the hyper-masculine image of Spartan men for whom Hercules was a mythical model and who was worshipped in many forms. Heracles, as a hoplite-stylised figure captures, was idealised for his fighting prowess and his sexuality, and Spartan kings claimed to be ‘Heraclids’, his direct blood descendants. Providing us with an insight into the nuances of Spartan society in comparison to other Greek city-states, Professor Cartledge revealed that the Spartans often skipped communal meals to go hunting, particularly for wild boar, using spears and nets with the help of their Helots, according to Plutarch. It is a hunting scene that is depicted on the aforementioned kylix.

During his talk, Professor Cartledge highlighted the importance of legitimacy in Spartan society. To be considered a Spartan citizen, one had to have both a legitimate Spartan mother and father, be recognised by one’s father as legitimate and considered suitable to become a fully-fledged adult male Spartan warrior. Spartan boys were granted a state education, from the age of 7, separate from girls, which focused heavily on militaristic skill and capabilities. In contrast, Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle believed in the equity of all Greek cities receiving a mandatory state education, focusing considerably less on militaristic skills. Spartan women had enslaved women or helots to do domestic chores like weaving or cooking, unlike their Athenian counterparts, but they were firmly viewed as future mothers and their education reflected this.

Thinking back to his introduction, Professor Cartledge explained that non-Spartan sources vary in their content, quality, and value. Of the many anecdotes surrounding Sparta, there were prevailing accounts that portrayed Spartan women as overtly sexual: both Plutarch and Xenophon’s corroborating sources acknowledge differences in the education provided to boys and girls and Plutarch’s account exaggerates the extent to which girls’ education emulated that of boys, including homoeroticism as part of the system. Dancing was a key part of a young girl’s education and was not just a form of entertainment but a type of competitive physical training, with contests held across the Peloponnese and songs composed by lyric poets like Alcmaeon.

Discussing the practice of pederasty in Ancient Greece, Professor Cartledge explained that this was a socially acknowledged and widely practised romantic relationship between an older male and a younger male usually in his teens. This practice was characteristic of the Archaic and Classical periods, and the older male was held accountable for the wrongdoings of the younger partner. Aristophanes, an Athenian comedic playwright during the Peloponnesian War, mocked homoeroticism and its role in Spartan society. Emphasising the differences in marriage between Spartan and Athenian society, Professor Cartledge discussed Athenian girls marrying at a much younger age compared to Spartan women, who married at the hands and the choice of their fathers at a much later age of eighteen or nineteen. We learnt how almost all Spartan marriages were affected by capture, it being customary for the union to be enacted by the groom in an almost violent way of coition to ensure the next generation of legitimate Spartan warriors.

Presenting us with the masculinist Spartan men depicted on the Vix Krater, a mixing bowl, Professor Cartledge described the illustrated hoplites, heavy armed infantrymen. The lid had a handle in the shape of a feminine physique, possibly depicting Helen of Troy who was worshipped at a shrine in Sparta. Interestingly, despite the infamous origins of the Trojan War, adultery in Sparta did not carry the stigma that it did in other parts of ancient Greece. According to Plutarch, the Spartans considered themselves unique and superior to the rest of ancient Greece in their consistent preoccupation with procreation and securing the next legitimate generation of Spartan warriors.

1814 — by Jacques Louis David — Image by © The Gallery Collection/Corbis

Delving briefly into the homoeroticism that existed in Ancient Sparta, Professor Cartledge showed images from Jacques-Louis David’s painting of the battle of Thermopylae, which included young naked boys among the celebratory scene. He also presented a hoplite shield found in Athens, which reasserted Sparta’s military achievements and territory. 

Finally, he presented the Kyniska inscription of a woman who won a four-chariot race at the games of Olympia, demonstrating the equality  between legitimate Spartan men and women in their society.

‘Kings of Sparta are my father and brothers

Kyniska, victorious with a chariot of swift footed horses,

Have erected this statue. I declare myself the only woman in all Hellas to have won this crown’

Thank you so much to Professor Cartledge for such an interesting romp through a fascinating subject matter, though making us keep in mind the possibility that we take our sources with a ‘pinch of proverbial Athenian salt’!