Primary Source

Life of Lycurgus


Part of Plutarch's Parallel Lives, Life of Lycurgus, is a collection of anecdotes on the Spartan law-giver, Lycurgus, that provides valuable information about the laws and customs of the Greek city-state. This excerpt concerns laws related to the education of women and marriage. It reveals that Spartan girls were encouraged to engage in similar exercise and physical activity under the reasoning that physical strength was necessary for giving birth to children. Also evident is the relative independence accorded to Spartan women in their home life. This source is a part of the Women in Classical Athens and Sparta teaching module.


In the matter of education, which he regarded as the greatest and noblest task of the law-giver, he began at the very source, by carefully regulating marriages and births. For it is not true that, as Aristotle says,13 he tried to bring the women under proper restraint, but desisted, because he could not overcome the great licence and power which the women enjoyed on account of the many expeditions in which their husbands were engaged. During these the men were indeed obliged to leave their wives in sole control at home, and for this reason paid them greater deference than was their due, and gave them the title of Mistress. But even to the women Lycurgus paid all possible attention. 2 He made the maidens exercise their bodies in running, wrestling, casting the discus, and hurling the javelin, in order that the fruit of their wombs might have vigorous root in vigorous bodies and come to better maturity, and that they themselves might come with vigor to the fulness of their times, and struggle successfully and easily with the pangs of child-birth. He freed them from softness and delicacy and all effeminacy by accustoming the maidens no less than the youths to wear tunics only in processions, 48and at certain festivals to dance and sing when the young men were present as spectators. 3 There they sometimes even mocked and railed good-naturedly at any youth who had misbehaved himself; and again they would sing the praises of those who had shown themselves worthy, and so inspire the young men with great ambition and ardor. For he who was thus extolled for his valor and held in honor among the maidens, went away exalted by their praises; while the sting of their playful raillery was no less sharp than that of serious admonitions, especially as the kings and senators, together with the rest of the citizens, were all present at the spectacle.

Nor was there anything disgraceful in this scant clothing of the maidens, for modesty attended them, and wantonness was banished; nay, rather, it produced in them habits of simplicity and an ardent desire for health and beauty of body. It gave also to woman-kind a taste of lofty sentiment, for they felt that they too had a place in the arena of bravery and ambition. Wherefore they were led to think and speak as Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas, is said to have done. When some foreign woman, as it would seem, said to her: "You Spartan women are the only ones who rule their men," she answered: "Yes, we are the only ones that give birth to men."


From The Parallel Lives by Plutarch published in Vol. I of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914. Via Bill Thayer's website.*.html

How to Cite This Source

"Life of Lycurgus," in World History Commons, [accessed July 23, 2024]