Arachidamia of Sparta

The Greeks did not have a good track record on women’s rights in the ancient world.  However, there was an anomaly in a strange place.  The city-state of Sparta was not generally a tolerant place.  Men were expected to give life long service to the military and boys were separated from their families to build esprit de corps.  A coming of age ritual was killing a slave and not getting caught.  It was a messed up place. (For more on the Spartans, please see these posts:  http://www.historynaked.com/leonidas-unlikely-king/ and http://www.historynaked.com/historical-inaccuracies-300/ )  However,  women there were given extraordinary rights.  This was because the men were off fighting and the women were left to take care of everything else.  Spartan women were quite formidable.   Arachidamia was one such woman.

She was born in Sparta in the third century BCE and in due time became the wife of Eudamidas I and bore him a son, the future Archidamus IV. Not much is known about her until Sparta came under attack by the forces of Pyrrhus of Epirus in 273 BCE.  Pyrrhus was a legendary general, whose reputation gave even the Spartans pause.  Although he was at the end of his career, Pyrrhus had agreed to come out for one last hurrah by a rival contender for the Spartan throne.  The king and the bulk of the army were off fighting somewhere else.  This was a slam dunk.

The Spartan Gerousia, or council of elders, knew they were outmanned and outgunned and started to make plans.  They decided it would be best to send the women and children to the relative safety of Crete and then mount a defence of the city.  The Gerousia discussing this proposal when Arachidamia let them know she had other plans.  She marched in with a sword and asked the men how the expected Spartan women to survive the destruction of their city.   She declared every woman and child would step up to the defense.

And they did not falter.  Part of the defense plan was to dig a trench parallel to Pyrrhus’ army’s camp.  Arachidamia organized the women and children to dig, and the completed at least one third of it themselves.  It was in the nick of time as Pyrrhus attacked with 20,000 men and 5,000 elephants.  But Sparta was ready.  During the heat of the battle, some of the women pulled wounded to safety and nursed them while others fought alongside the men.  Together,  the pushed back the enemy and saved Sparta.  Pyrrhus fled to Argos and was beheaded by a falling statue.  I want to believe a Spartan woman pushed it, but that is completely my own fiction.

So, dear reader, don’t go after the home of formidable woman.  You’ll end up stomped.

ER