It appears from the quotes Plutarch pulls from relevant sources such as Plato that Sparta was best known among its contemporary cities for its prowess in war, its unique governmental structure, and its tightlipped philosophizing. Plutarch himself adds to this portrait by discussing the way in which society and the family were structured within the city. In reading about the life of a preeminent lawgiver and social experimenter such as Lycurgus, it is only natural to wonder what his laws meant for the average citizens and for the life of the families within his realm. This question about the lives of the women and children of Sparta is partly answered in Plutarch's telling of the tale, though some questions remain. According to what Plutarch writes, the family in Sparta is subordinated to the good of the state, which in some ways is a burden to the children (particularly the male children) of the state, and yet in other ways seems to provide a startling amount of freedom and liberation for women and youngsters alike which is not seen in more "democratic" but highly patriarchal societies such as Athens.
In Plato's Republic, Socrates suggests that wives and children should be held in common and that paternity should be secret, so that the entire state might be one great family, and men and women equal -- in many ways, it seems this principle might have been drawn from some of the Spartan practices. Because Lycurgus believed that jealousy would rip the nation apart and that the strength of the nation would be greater if the best paternity were assured for all children, non-monogamy was standard in relationships in Sparta. "He made it... honorable for men to give the use of their wives to those whom they should think fit, that so they might have children by them..." (Plutarch) By allowing for honorable and consensual sexuality outside monogamous relationships, Lycurgus managed to eradicate the very concept and social problem of adultery.
Women were apparently given much more freedom in daily life than in other Greek cities, possibly because they were not being socially constricted out of fear they would be immoral. "the women of Lacedaemon were the only women in the world who could rule men." (Plutarch) Young women were encouraged to dance naked, just as the young men were. They were allowed to participate in sports and in other pursuits that would strengthen their bodies and minds. It was believed that such activity would create a kind of honesty to their characters and a strength for childbearing that more sheltered women did not have. Additionally, women were never married when they were very young, as in other cities, but allowed to reach full maturity first. Once married, a woman's hair was cut short and she was dressed as a boy, as if to show her new equality with her husband. Yet marriage itself was not a cohabitation until the man was at least thirty years old. This allowed man and woman to keep their romance alive and to develop their own individual selves. During the meantime, they would have to catch furtive moments with one another, and this excitement added to the strength of their relationship. This "served not only for continual exercise of their self-control, but brought them together... unsated and undulled by easy access and long continuance with each other; while their partings were always early enough to leave behind... some remaining fire of longing and mutual delight." (Plutarch)
Sexual equality and freedom did not under Lycurgus' laws just exist between men and women, but apparently existed also for same-sex relationships. Though the import of this seems to be slightly obscured by the translation, it is clear that Lycurgus allowed for the honorable expression of love between males and between females. When Plutarch speaks of boys trying to keep warm in the winter in their little bands, he writes that this is made easier because "By the time they were come to this age there was not any of the more hopeful boys who had not a lover to bear him company." (Plutarch) Considering that boys were not to keep company with their spouses, this is obviously a reference to same-sex relationships in the barracks. This is made more explicit later when on man is said to have taken responsibility for "the lad whom he loved" (Plutarch) This seems to have been thought to make men more, and not less, masculine, for the elder of the lovers is seen being fined if the younger is effeminate, and the machoism of these warriors seems obvious. Among same-sex lovers, as among married peoples, it appears that jealousy was unthought of, and that sexuality was used to form bonds of social love and protection rather than of exclusivity. "Rivalry did not exist, and if several men's fancies met in one person, it was rather the beginning of an intimate friendship, whilst they all jointly conspired to render the object of their affection as accomplished as possible." (Plutarch) Nor was homosexual expression celebrated only among men (as it may have been in Athens), but seems to have also been expected and allowed for among women. "The most virtuous matrons would make professions of it to young girls" (Plutarch) Yet despite this acceptance and celebration of same-sex love, reproduction and marriage remained highly valued, to such a degree that an unmarried man might be mocked for not contributing children to the society. So women were assured of the continued importance of their role as mothers, despite the focus on male love that might be though to otherwise supplant women.
Yet if Sparta was in some ways better than its contemporaries in terms of the equal and respectful treatment of women, one might say that it lapsed some in the protection of their maternal rights and instincts. When children were born in Sparta, the mothers were not allowed to choose whether or not they would keep the baby. This choice was instead given to a council who judged the infants health. "If they found it puny and ill-shaped, [they] ordered it to be taken to... A sort of chasm under Taygetus; as thinking it neither for the good of the child itself, nor for the public interest, that it should be brought up, if it did not, from the very outset, appear made to be healthy and vigorous." (Plutarch) So infanticide was the standard for inferior children, which no doubt improved the breeding stock but cannot be considered the most humane of actions or necessarily the best thing for the mothers of these children. Women were also required to give up their male children at the tender age of seven to be enrolled in a harsh school for warriors in which they would never be fed enough or treated with a mother's tender mercies. This must have been difficult to some degree. However, one assumes that women learned to take great comfort in their daughters (and would form stronger bonds with them in absence of sons) and that the young age of a son's departure would in some ways become as standard and painless as a later age might for different cultures.
The outlook for the children themselves seems somewhat more grim. Plutarch does not say much about the environment in which female children were raised, and one is left to assume that their care was left in the hands of their mothers. For male children, however, it seems that life was very harsh. "Their chief care was...to teach them to endure pain and conquer in battle. To this end, as they grew in years, their discipline was proportionately increased; their heads were close-clipped, they were accustomed to go barefoot, and for the most part to play naked." (Plutarch) By the time they were twelve years old they were not allowed any clothing whatsoever other than a coat or cloak, and were forced to sleep on bed of reeds they picked with their own hands. One can imagine how tough they must have been to survive, especially considering that as they aged their food rations were consistently reduced to below subsistence level. This forced them to learn to forage and steal to survive, which taught them wit and strength. "If they were taken in the fact, they were whipped without mercy, for thieving so ill and awkwardly...I myself have seen several of the youths endure whipping to death." (Plutarch) These children were organized into strict hierarchies, with the strongest and wisest of them serving as a leader for the others.
It seems fit to say that family structure and experience in Sparta was neither all good nor all bad in comparison with his contemporaries or with some imagined ideal. On the one hand, the freedom allowed to its women and the open way in which sexuality was expressed in order to strengthen rather than weaken the bonds of society seems truly progressive and a remarkable step past the fearful approach to sexual…