is guided solely by eugenic considerations. Female guardians will not have to perform domestic labor, for members of the lower classes perform the work usually accomplished by Greek women. Their only gender-related task is that of giving birth to children. Marriage is dispensed with, since the state educates all children. Private property and money are likewise outlawed to minimize the envy and class conflict that perpetually threatened to dissolve the fabric of Greek society.
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The controversy about Sparta and its critics, both ancient and modern, continues to the present day. For the past 2400 years, historians and philosophers have put forward views that vary radically, though they are based on readings of precisely the same texts. Readers have widely differing reactions to the veritable fountain of anecdotes that has survived from antiquity embodying the underpinnings of the Spartan ethos. Several of these are collected in Plutarch Sayings of Spartan Women. A Spartan mother burying her son, Plutarch reports, received condolences from an old woman who commented on her bad luck. "No, by the heavens," the mother replied, "but rather good luck, for I bore him so that he could die for Sparta, and this is precisely what has happened." Another woman, seeing her son coming toward her after a battle and hearing from him that everyone else had died, picked up a tile and, hurling it at him, struck him dead, saying "And so they sent you to tell us the bad news?"
The notion of a people whose response to stimuli is the very opposite of what human nature would seem to dictate has exercised quite a hold on the human imagination. As late as the twentieth century, critics of western capitalist society have idealized the Spartans as highly virtuous, patriotic people produced by a stable noncapitalistic society. In recent years, however, those who cherish individual freedom and social mobility have come to see in Sparta a forerunner of totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany, and in fact some Nazis did identify with Sparta. Furthermore the blueprint for twentieth-century Communism had many affinities with the Spartan utopia. Even today, however, the old idealization of Sparta has reappeared in the works of some feminist theorists, who have noted that the lives of women in aristocratic Sparta appear to have been more enjoyable and in many ways preferable to those of women in democratic Athens.
Although Athens was no more a typical Greek polis than was Sparta, examining Athens and Sparta together is a useful way of understanding the ancient Greek view of life. It is to Athens that we now turn.
Bing, Peter and Rip Cohen. 1991. Games of Venus. New York: Routledge.
Blanco, Walter. 1998. The Peloponnesian War, from Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War, Walter Blanco and Jennifer Roberts, eds. New York: W.W. Norton.
Lattimore, Richmond. 1960. Greek Lyrics. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.