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Differences In Power Status Of Men And Women In Athens And Sparta

The two Greek city-states, Sparta and Athens, were set apart by a number of cultural and political differences. These differences were mainly portrayed in their systems of governments, militaristic set ups, and in the way each society perceived and accorded power to its citizens on gender basis. These gender based differences were quite prominent in social gatherings of each community. In terms of power levels and rights of women, Sparta had a more accommodating status than Athens. The treatment of women in the Athenian society can only be described as appalling in comparison to Sparta. Men in Athens enjoyed unlimited freedom in contrast to their counterparts in militaristic Sparta who had strict regulations imposed on their daily activities. The differences in the power and freedom accorded to men and women in both Sparta and Athens can largely be attributed to the political and cultural set-ups of the two city states.

The major difference between these two great powers of ancient Greece was their systems of government. Sparta is referred to as an oligarchy. The name oligarchy is derived from the Greek words oligos which means few and archia which translates to rule therefore oligarchy is a system of government where the state is ruled by a few. Sparta was ruled a council of five Ephors and two kings. The Ephors were elected every year while kingship was hereditary and was passed on to chosen sons.

The Spartan Ephors and kings regularly met in general assemblies to vote on decisions and to pass legislations. The decision making process was by acclamation where legislation and civil decisions were passed by the loudest yes or no proclamation. The Ephors had more power than the kings but were more involved with religious and military responsibilities. The government in Sparta was not only male dominated but was also an exclusive system whose operations were only known to people with the highest social standing.

In stark contrast to Sparta, Athens was ruled by a democratic system. A democracy meant it was ruled by the people. In the Athenian democracy, over five thousand men were divided into groups of five hundred who would also form other groups of fifty individuals. Each of the groups of fifty would take charge of state matters for a month with ten generals elected on the basis of their military experience. The rest of the leaders were chosen by a technique known as “lot” voting. Athens, being the birthplace of democracy, had a system that allowed a large number of citizens to participate in the decision making process in state affairs. The major objectives of both the Athenian and Spartan systems of governance were to ensure that their citizens acted within the confines of the law and performed their duties and obligations to the state. Neither of the Greek city-states had an autocratic ruler. No one had an absolute power in both states.

Sparta was known for its militaristic way of life that imposed more responsibilities and expectations on its male population unlike Athens which was a democracy where philosophers and thinkers largely influenced the lives of men and women. The two societies treated women quite differently. Sparta’s lawgiver, known as Lycurgus, was famous for his warden-like method of treating men in preparation for war. The Lycurgus was also known for according almost equal rights to women. There have been assertions that women equality in Sparta arose from the fables of the Amazons in the Trojan wars. The Amazons were a class of women warriors in the Bronze Age.

In contrast, Athens was a democracy that relied on the voice of the people in all decision making processes through the senate and the Council. It was therefore quite expected for Athenian women to be highly protected and monitored. The Athenian man believed that “women were…highly sexual beings who could not control their sexual urges and therefore had to be restricted for their own benefit” (Graham). Euripides, a great literary figure in Athens, wrote in his book titled Meda, “If only children could be gotten some other way with the female sex!  If women didn’t exist, human life would be free of all its miseries” (Graham). Euripides mindset was commonly shared among the Athenian male population. Athenian women were prohibited in participating in politics primarily because their function in the society was limited to childbearing and housekeeping roles.

In order to properly understand the differences between the Spartan and Athenian treatment of men and women, it is imperative to consider how each of these groups were taught, their responsibilities, and rights in each of the two Greek societies. In both cases, it is the Athenian woman who fared in the worst way as much as Athens had a democratic rule. By as late as the 5th century BC in ancient Greece, the status of Athenian women was barely any better than that of slaves. They were neither taught how to read and write and nor were they expected to be educated. Prior to the 7th century, Athenian women were even expected to undergo similar rights of passage as the ones boys underwent (Graham).

The society’s expectation of women did not go beyond overseeing slaves in the running of domestic affairs and bearing many children. Athenian women were classified into slaves who did housework, women citizens, and Hetaerae who were prostitutes. The Hetaerae and concubines had more rights than women citizens by virtue of being sexually exploited. However their children were denied citizenship rights as it Casey Graham states: “citizen wives and daughters were protected, but the prostitutes or pornoi were open to all forms of sexual exploitation… and were maintained by men, or worked in brothels and on the streets” (Graham).

The most important role an Athenian woman performed was to act as a bargaining chip in arranged marriages for the benefit of the bride’s father. In pursuit of large dowries, fathers were known to marry off their teenage daughters to older men. An Athenian woman was forever under the strict rule of a man. She began her life under the supervision of her father and later became the property of her husband. The Athenian society had implemented measures that forbade women from divorcing their husbands. However, the husbands could divorce their wives any time they felt like. A divorced woman relinquished all rights to her children. Athenian women could not be seen in public and neither could they watch or participate in Olympic Games which were performed in the nude. Her major role was to ensure the prominence of the city-state was guaranteed by continuously procreating. Religion played a minor role here in elevating the status of women. For all of Athens one hundred and twenty annual religious festivals, the most important occupation a woman could have was as a religious priestess. The men however defined how the gods were to be worshipped.

The people of Sparta on the other hand had a more open minded approach to gender roles. They appreciated the fact that “regardless of gender all Spartans had an obligation to serve the militaristic end of Sparta” (Gaughan). Their obligation to the state facilitated greater freedom and independence in Spartan women unlike their counterparts in Athens. Religion played a major role in elevating the position of women in Sparta through their representation in the goddess Artemis, “the goddess of the hunters and protector of animals, women, girls, youth, and had a connection with adolescence and childbirth” (Pomeroy 35). The women of Sparta were “taught to read, write and protect themselves” (The Women of Sparta). They were allowed to participate in athletic events such as “javelin, discus, foot races and arranged battles” (Women of Sparta). This was primarily due to the societal belief that exercise would make the women strong for healthy childbirth.

There were no marriage ceremonies in Sparta. At the age of eighteen a woman was automatically assigned a husband who would later abduct her from her home. However, men did not live with their wives and could have multiple wives too. The women were allowed to be married to another husband “if the first husband was away too long at war” (The Women of Sparta). In the Spartan society, child rearing was not done by their mothers but by nurses in special nurseries. This gave women more freedom to train as warriors in order to guide their family property when the husband was away at war. In comparison to their counterparts in Athens, Spartan women enjoyed more freedom, mobility, and respect.

The status of men and women in Sparta and Athens were differentiated mainly by the political systems that existed in each of the two city-states. Spartan militaristic governance exerted more responsibility and obligations on men thus denying them their freedom and gave it to the women. In Athens, a male dominated democracy followed the rule of the majority who were all men and thus denied women a voice in the decision making process. As a result women were relegated to lower positions barely above that of slaves.

Works Cited

Gaughan, Judy. “Women in Classical Athens and Sparta.” Women in World History. ColoradoState University. 25 Feb. 2012 <http://chnm.gmu/wwh/d/94/wwh.html>  

Graham, Casey. “What was the role of women in Athens?.” Ancient Greek Women in Athens. 25Feb. 2012 <>.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Spartan Women, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

“The Women of Sparta.” Ancient Greek Civilizations. 25 Feb. 2012 <>



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