When Gorgo, Queen of Sparta and wife to leader-of-the-300 Leonidas, was asked why Spartans were the only women in Greece able to rule over men, she allegedly replied: “Because we are the only ones who give birth to men!” It’s a snappy line, boasting of both the superiority of Spartan warriors, and the influence and freedoms enjoyed by its women.

From what is known, based on admittedly scant documentation, the differences began in childhood. Spartan girls received a formal education and were encouraged to take part in exercise, providing them with greater intellect and athleticism than seen in other Greek states. By competing in public – either in short tunics or, more shockingly to outsiders, naked – Spartan girls learned how to stand their ground against men.

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Spartan women had more free time than other Greeks, as menial tasks were performed by a large population of slaves, the helots. The outnumbered Spartans kept control by declaring war on the helots once a year, so that they could cull them guilt-free.

The main purpose was so they grew into strong, healthy women able to have strong, healthy babies. As Gorgo alluded to, Spartan society held motherhood as the chief honour for women. With that in mind, they tended to marry later than usual, as late as their 20s, when they were in peak physical condition.

By competing in public, Spartan girls learned how to stand their ground against men

As Spartan men dedicated much of their lives to the army, the women did not just stay home raising children. They conducted business affairs on behalf of their husbands and could own property. And, unlike in other areas of Greece, they had the legal right to divorce their husbands too.

This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine