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The Spartan Soldier’s Love Life: Dating & The Spartan Way of Life
What comes to your mind when you think of Spartans? War, perhaps? Battle? Terrible movies? Epic leaders? Short sentences?
Few would deny that Spartans exude toughness and badassery, but one must keep in mind that these people had to... erm... reproduce at some point. This means that Spartan ladies and gents had to engage in at least some rudimentary form of guy-girl relations.
It gives me immense pleasure to report that Spartan courtship is not only beyond rudimentary, but exciting, surprisingly feminist-friendly, and utterly fascinating.
What follows is a basic overview of Spartan courtship and marriage. Soon you will agree that, when it comes to romance, these war-loving citizens do not disappoint.
Basic Background on a Spartan Soldier's Life
Before we can explore the delicious details of Spartan dating protocol, one must have a basic understanding of a Spartan soldier's life.
Until age seven, Spartan boys and girls played and trained together. Compulsory training included racing, riding, swimming, and various sports, and was apparently enjoyed in the nude (just imagine their tasteful absence of tan lines!).
From ages seven to 21, Spartan boys left home to train in an agoge (essentially, a compulsory military school) and live with a syssition (pronounced sis-sis-tee-on, often defined as a "dining club" or a Spartan soldier's cohort) with fellow Spartan younglings (not an ancient Greek term). Girls continued to live at home, but were still expected to live rigorous, disciplined lives (supposedly directed by their rigorous, disciplined, and rather empowered mothers).
From ages 21 to 30, young Spartan men transitioned from the agoge to formal military barracks. At age 30, Spartan soldiers who survived training and war were given a kleros (land alotted to all Spartan soldiers who had survived thus far without leaving military training) and allowed to live on it. Though allowed to live at home, Spartan soliders over 30 were still expected to train and eat with their peers.
Clearly Spartan men spent very little time hanging out at home. You might be wondering where quality time with the gals factored into all of this, right? Don't worry. They had a solution, and I think it's quite elegant.
While Spartan soliders were required to live in military barracks throughout their twenties, they weren't discouraged from marrying or even having children! It was considered absolutely fine for a twenty-something Spartan man to have a wife and kids- just so long as it didn't keep them from being badass killing machines.
Ensuring such conditions was easy given Spartan courtship guidelines:
- Spartan 20-something husbands could not live at home with their wives
- Spartan couples in their 20s were only allowed to meet in secret
Don't believe me? That's fine. But here's what Plutarch himself says in his Life of Lycurgus:
"The Spartan husband took care to visit his wife in secret, ashamed and anxious, in case he was seen by someone in his house. His wife came up with all sorts of intrigues and schemes about how they could meet up with each other and no one would see them."
You may be asking yourself, "WHAT IS GOING ON HERE??"
Ninja dating is going on, my friend. That's right, Spartans dated in secret. Like ninja. Because they are magnificent.
What do you think?
Spartan marriage ceremony: GO.
If you can't fathom how Spartan courtship could get any better, consider the Spartan marriage ritual:
- Girl shaves head
- Girl dons men's clothing
- Girl waits alone in the dark
- Boy sneaks out after curfew
- Couple GETS IT AWN!
There were no dowries, so marriage resembled elopement more than any traditional ceremony. Now, ladies. Before you get in a huff about the whole head-shaving-and-cross-dressing-thing, remember that Spartan gals did all of this by choice. Both parties had to put a lot of effort in all this sneakiness and secrecy. Girls were not arbitrarily foisted off on random men. Considering how marriage worked in other Greek city states during this time period, I'd argue that this arrangement is quite progressive.
The Married Life of a Spartan Twenty Something
After marrying, a young Spartan couple was expected to continue to see each other in secret.
Romantic Spartan assignations were required to be:
- Only at night
- Only in secret
- Only on nights when there is no moon
Theoretically speaking, a Spartan father might not spend quality time with his children by the light of day until they were ten years old- though if they were boys, they would have left for the agoge by then!
So far as the Spartans were concerned, this was a small sacrifice to make. This system had several theoretical benefits. Some suggest the marriage ritual was designed to ward off the evil eye, but the subsequent sneaking around had much more to it than simple superstition.
The secrecy required that they sharpen their skills as cunning warriors. Spartan soldiers were also encouraged to steal on military training exercises. If they were caught, they would be whipped. Not for stealing, mind you, but for being caught! Stealth was considered very important.
What's more, it was thought that the less one had sex, the the more likely one would be to bear strong children, and that was the entire point of marrying in the first place! It should also be noted that Spartan soldiers did not drink very much, as there was a general concern that being tipsy would contribute to impotency (and generally make one sluggish, which is a big no-no in Spartan life).
One might also argue that these sorts of limits would guarantee that the couple was very passionate and not lazy and overindulgent in the way they went about their courtship. So hey- Spartan love was true love! Spartan love was ardent love! Spartans were serious about this stuff!
Life After Age 30
We've established that it was considered respectable to be married in one's 20s, but one should also keep in mind that, by age 30, Spartan men were required to marry. The benefit of getting started early was that a man would receive his kleros with kids already growing up! It makes for a nice head start.
That said, Spartan men weren't exactly boring homebodies. Because Spartan soldiers were expected to spend so much time with their syssitia (every weekend, plus dinner every day), Spartan women were really the heads of family households. Spartan women had rights not only to control their own property, but those of male relatives who were away on military service. It was at one point estimated that Spartan women owned over a third of the land in Sparta!
We've established that Spartan couples were splendidly secretive, extremely disciplined, and surprisingly feminist-friendly (what with women having so much influence in running the household and proactively choosing their hubbies), but did you know that Spartans were also surprisingly creative when it came to fidelity?
In ancient Sparta, a big emphasis was put on bearing strong children. If a woman was considered to be particularly fertile or good at bearing strong children, she might take on additional sexual partners. In fact, bearing children of other men was encouraged. What was important was that strong spartan soldiers, or women who would bear lots of strong soldiers, were produced.
So in Sparta one might also find a rare instance of perfectly respectable and happily married women being encouraged to sleep around!
That's not to say that Spartan women had it easy. Spartan women were intense. Mothers were only allowed to keep their children if they were healthy. Babies not deemed fit (e.g. unhealthy or deformed) would be left out on a hillside to die. And of course boys left home at the age of seven to go through extremely intense military training.
- Sparta Reconsidered - Spartan and Athenian Marriage
Historic information about Athenian and Spartan views and practices of marriage.
Spartan Dating: Yay or Nay?
Whether you find it alluring or not, guy-gal relations in Sparta, what with their:
- Secretive, moonless-night assignations,
- Cross-dressing marriage ceremonies,
- Odd young couple arrangements,
- Lack of boring domestic bliss,
- Emphasis on producing strong citizens- regardless of monogamy, and
- Refreshing female empowerment- and impressive toughness from both genders
were highly interesting.
What do you think of it all? Do you see value in secret courtship and sneaky weddings? Do you like the idea of being married but working (and for the most part, living) separately? Do you like the idea of boys being shipped off at age seven and enduring rigorous military training? Do our modern dating and marriage norms make us soft and pathetic? Share your thoughts in the comments below!