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Spartan Women in Ancient Greek Athletics

Royce F. MurrayPursuing his BEd at the University of Winnipeg

These days women are all over sports, most recently exemplifed by the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015. In ancient Greece, the pursuit of athletics was almost for men. Only men could receive a formal physical education (at venues called gymnasia), and only men could participate in the great sporting events of the day such as the games at Olympia. Women were largely excluded from such activity as it was believed that the only exercise they required was what was gained while fulfilling their domestic duties, including looking after children, collecting water, and otherwise caring for the home. Additionally (from about the 8th century BCE), Greek men both trained and competed in the nude. Because of this, while events such as the Olympics were also religious festivals, women were forbidden to attend as spectators; even in support of their fathers, husbands, or sons who may have been competing. One prominent exception to this is the women of Sparta.

As made famous by the movie 300 (featuring Lena Headey as queen Gorgo), Spartan women stood out among their peers on mainland Greece in many respects, including athletics. Possibly as a means of better surviving the traumas of childbirth and bearing strong healthy children, or serving as a reserve force to defend the city while the men were off at war in some other part of the country, it was tradition for Spartan women to maintain their bodies in peak physical condition at all times. Starting in their pre-teens, they exercised in groups called agelai (“herds”) in the nude or semi-nude and did so on an open venue in view of Spartan men doing the same, perhaps displaying their worthiness as wives to their future husbands. They were trained in many of the same skills as the men, such as running, discus and javelin throwing, and wrestling. Spartan women were also accomplished horse-riders. 

For more information on the lives of Spartan women—including their physical education as well as references to the various artistic and written sources in which they are featured—please see Sarah B. Pomeroy’s book Spartan Women (Oxford University Press: New York, 2002).

Royce F. Murray is pursuing his Bachelor of Education at the University of Winnipeg.