Lycurgus was a legendary figure attributed with shaping ancient Sparta’s laws and society sometime between the 9th and 6th century BCE. The most famous ‘Spartan’ reforms attributed to him were Sparta’s rejection of excess luxury and its increased attention to militancy. Yet, Lycurgus also stood out from fellow ancient Greek lawgivers by allowing women more freedoms and openness in Spartan society. Lycurgus’ philosophical rivals in Athens, however, did not agree with the level of autonomy and status that was given to women in Sparta.
Curiously, famous philosophers in Athens, such as Plato (c. 427-347 BCE) and Aristotle (384-322 BCE), went on the attack against Lycurgus over the issue of uncontrolled women. Plato questioned Lycurgus’ drive and conviction, stating, “The lawgiver ought to be whole-hearted, not half-hearted—letting the female sex indulge in luxury and expense and disorderly ways of life, while supervising the male sex” (Plato, Laws, Bekker page 806). As for Aristotle, he proposed for his non-Spartan audience that Lycurgus had planned to restrict the freedoms of women all along, but that the lawgiver had hesitated when the Spartan women began to resist his laws. Aristotle wrote, “It is said that Lycurgus endeavored to bring them under the control of his laws, but that when they resisted he gave up the attempt” (Aristotle, Politics, Bekker page 1270a). Nevertheless, sources more sympathetic to the Spartans refuted such claims, and instead wrote that women’s freedoms in Sparta were not due to negligence or defeat on the part of Lycurgus, but that it was all part of the societal plan. The great biographer, Plutarch (c. 50-120), directly called out Aristotle in this regard:
“Aristotle claims wrongly that he [Lycurgus] tried to discipline the women but gave up when he could not control the considerable degree of license and power attained by women because of their husbands’ frequent campaigning…Lycurgus, rather, showed all possible concern for them too. First he toughened the girls physically by making them run and wrestle and throw the discus and javelin. Thereby their children in embryo would make a strong start in strong bodies and would develop better, while the women themselves would also bear their pregnancies with vigour and would meet the challenge of childbirth in a successful, relaxed way. He did away with prudery, sheltered upbringing and effeminacy of any kind. He made young girls no less than young men grow used to walking nude in processions, as well as to dancing and singing at certain festivals with the young men present and looking on. On some occasions the girls would make fun of each of the young men, helpfully criticizing their mistakes” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Lycurgus, 14).
Contrasting with Plato and Aristotle, pro-Spartan sources such as Plutarch claimed that the freedoms and social elevation given to women in Spartan society were not an accident or a defect. Instead, it was a calculated decision meant to improve the people of Sparta and their future generations. Nevertheless, Lycurgus’ ideas were ultimately outshined by the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle—and their assertions that women needed to be controlled unfortunately gripped Western civilization for millennia.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Les Lois de Lycurgue, by Cholet and Favre Petitpierre, (c. 1802–1818), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Smithsonian Institute).
- The Politics by Aristotle, translated by T. A. Sinclair and revised by T. J. Saunders. London: Penguin Classics, 1962, 1992.
- On Sparta (Life of Lycurgus), by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.