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  1. Beloved of Assur

    Beloved of Assur Active Member

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    Active women in ancient Greece?

    Discussion in 'Research' started by Beloved of Assur, Feb 15, 2018.

    I've come up against a little of a wall in my writing and conceptualizing of stories set in the ancient Greek world. My problem is that I can't come up with ways to get women more active, within a Hellenic society, and the stories often degenerate into sausage feasts. Especially when I try to set it in ancient Athens.

    What I'm asking for is either someone knowledgable on the subject to offer some insight into this side of ancient Greece society or can give some recommendations on affordable literature about women's active roles in society in this time period and cultural sphere. I've already checked around for literature but nothing really jumped at me as "This is has what I need!". I know of the hetaira who can play a role, but you can only use courtesans so often in stories as women characters.

    I'm fearing that I will need to abandon ancient Greece in my writing due to this as I find stories without women characters to be boring. :(
     
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2018
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  2. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    This suggests that your stories are almost entirely male based, but you'd like an occasional woman around the edges. Is that accurate, or are you OK with stories that are in the women's sphere? Women were half the world; they surely were doing something, even if their stories might tend to be focused around the home.
     
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  3. John-Wayne

    John-Wayne Madman Extradinor Contributor

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    Sorry, I created my own world for my stories so that I can bend the rules. :p .
     
  4. CerebralEcstasy

    CerebralEcstasy Active Member

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    The Encyclopedia Americana offers this view: “The ultimate social unit was the patriarchal household. . . . The patriarchal tradition was strongly entrenched in Greek culture: the active citizens of a city-state (polis) were adult males only. The patriarchal family was enclosed within a series of concentric kinship circles—the clan (genos), the phratry [or group of families], the tribe.” (1956, Vol. XIII, p. 377)

    Most Greek city-states were small, usually having no more than 10,000 citizens (plus women, slaves, and children). At its height, in the fifth century B.C.E., Athens is said to have had only about 43,000 male citizens. Sparta had only about 5,000. Like the Canaanite petty kingdoms, the Greek city-states sometimes leagued together and also fought among themselves. The country remained politically fragmented until the time of Philip (II) of Macedon.

    While I shudder to write this, I could imagine women were very much involved in the gossiping, gadding about between houses and playing at the games of political intrigue just as much as the men they supported. More than likely would have been used to gain information in a horizontal setting, or been concubines, temple prostitutes, or perhaps even an oracle trying to put meaning to one of the many gods that the Athenians would have been thought to worship.

    http://listamaze.com/top-10-most-beautiful-women-in-ancient-world/

    Aspasia was an influential immigrant to Classical era Athens who was the partner and lover of the statesman Pericles (Most prominent and influential Greek statesman). The exact details regarding the marital status of the couple are still unknown. Aspasia’s house became the center of intellectual teaching in Athens, attracting and influencing prominent teachers like Socrates. Many philosophers wrote about the influencing nature of Aspasia in their works. Many historians and scholars suggest that Aspasia was a brothel keeper and a prostitute. Aspasia is known to have to become a hetaera (courtesan) in Athens. Aspasia was known to have displayed great physical beauty and intelligence. Aspasia’s role in history proves to be crucial to the clues for understanding the women of ancient Greece. In Athens, she was more than just an object of physical beauty and also she was noted for her ability as a conversationalist and adviser. In 1835 Lydia Maria Child, an American writer published a classical romance – Philothea, which portrays Aspasia as a beautiful woman and also showcases her delicacy.

    http://www.historywiz.com/historymakers/aspasia.htm
     
  5. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    Spartan women had more freedom, so maybe you could shift your focus to Sparta?

    But I agree with Chickenfreak that there were women in ancient Athens, and they were doing something. They had dreams and fears and loves and hates, just like anyone else. Yes, the history that survives is the stuff written by men, but your imagination can help fill in the gaps. Maybe you have a sympathetic young male character who is allowed to go to the agora and listen to Socrates, but he doesn't really understand it until he comes home and talks it over with his much smarter sister (who has to remain mostly cloistered in the home) and then some big event befalls them and they're forced to work together to achieve whatever their goal is. Like Remington Steele, the brother is the acceptable social face while the sister is the brains behind the operation.

    Or maybe you write about a young woman married to an older man she barely knows and how she struggles with that and finds ways to run the household and make things better for herself without him learning how powerful she is. Until the final climax when he orders her to do something reprehensible and she refuses and pulls all her strings at once to make him pay.

    Or maybe your character is a female slave who secretly works for an underground crime syndicate and is saving money to buy herself/her younger siblings out of slavery.

    Whatever.

    Anywhere there were women, there were women's stories. Which ones do you want to tell?
     
  6. Lew

    Lew Contributor Contributor

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    In general, Greek society was not very open toward women. Women ate separately from men, at least among the upper classes, who could afford this segregation and wrote most of the history. The lower classes were probably more equal in load-sharing. That said, there WERE significant women in ancient Greece. There were women poets in Greece, including one who wrote erotica... Why can't I remember her name? Oh, yes, Sappho. And there are different ways to exercise power. In the oldest of Greek literature, the Odyssey, there is Penelope, wife of Odysseus, who kept his household together during his years-long absence, when everyone else thought he was dead or would not return. She had to have exercised power, but how? And there were many other women in that story (Circe, etc) who wielded power, by magic, sorcery, etc.

    The women of Lesbos conspired to cut their men off from sex, if the damned warring didn't stop.

    Women had a lot more rights and status in Rome, were much more open about running things, and occasionally rose to quite high status in unusual fields: the Aelia sisters were millionaire shipping mistresses in the Indian ocean trade.

    What might work is to have some women in this society strive to attain some achievable status goal, and then look at the obstacles that society would place before her, and how she would overcome them. What would she have to give up to get what she wanted? Don't give up on the ancient Greek setting. That fact that Greece was perhaps the most hostile of ancient cultures to "uppity women" makes it a challenge to create a character who broke the mold
     
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  7. FifthofAscalante

    FifthofAscalante Member

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    This is kind of a separate subject, kind of not... But why would you choose a historic setting focused on men, where ladies couldn’t officially hold offices, and then do mental gymnastics to force them in? Why not either choose a another period or place, make it a fictional setting with different rules, or even not include active women (not keen on tokening). This is not a rhetorical question.
     
  8. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    How do you distinguish "mental gymnastics" from "thinking about my story"?

    And do you really think there were no "active" women in ancient Greece?
     
  9. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    Did this really happen? I know about the play Lysistratus, but that was set in Athens...
     
  10. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I feel as if there's a focus here on how to get women interacting with men, and men outside their own households. That seems to be the definition of "active".

    But I would assume (and I realize that this assumption would call for research; I'm certainly not snarking about the need for research) that women interacted with other women. And with children, and with servants, and as servants, and with their husbands and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters, and with craftspeople, and as craftspeople. Women's stories would probably tend to be more focused on the home, but that doesn't make the women not "active". There are many, many stories that can be set in the home, and even more that are outside the home and don't require speechifying and holding office and going to war.

    I'm not disagreeing with the need for research, I'm just feeling that people are looking toward a very narrow subset of stories.
     
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  11. FifthofAscalante

    FifthofAscalante Member

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    Mental gymnastics is perhaps too strong, but I have already defined it. Ancient Greece is undoubtedly a patriarchal setting. That is not to say there were no important women, but again, women weren’t allowed to hold public offices. Don’t quote me on that, but I think their rights were about the same as those of slavery.
     
  12. JLT

    JLT Contributor Contributor

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    I don't have much to add to this, since my last real exposure to the subject was reading Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way a half a century ago. But I seem to recall that she addressed the issue.
     
  13. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Yeah, but...there are a lot of stories with protagonists that aren't public office holders. I'd say that's true of the majority of stories.

    A little Googling tells me that women were allowed to learn to read and write, were allowed to leave the home, had responsibilities in household management and in crafts like weaving. That female slaves might be found working in shops and other businesses.

    That's ample for having stories about women.

    And, really, even if a plot involving public office were the goal, a woman could well be the brains behind a public-office-holding son or brother. She could also be the brains behind a husband, but a son or brother would allow her to have been an adult during the man's childhood, and that makes a position of emotional authority more plausible.

    Research is needed, certainly. Googling suggests that women normally remarried after their husband's death, to keep the property in the family. But if a woman's husband dies, would her son inherit and could she remain a widow in her son's household? Similarly, if a father dies with an adult son and daughter, would it be a scandal if the brother didn't marry the sister off to someone?

    This is all, of course, suggesting that a woman couldn't possibly be a power in her own home if she had a husband--again, I'm seeing a past adult/child power imbalance of a son or brother as useful for establishing a woman's power in her own household sphere and for exercising power outside that sphere through the man.

    I note that Cersei, in Game of Thrones, seems to have zero actual power of her own--in the early days, she draws all her power from her father, her husband, her brother, her sons--and we don't see her being a retiring wallflower.
     
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2018
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  14. Beloved of Assur

    Beloved of Assur Active Member

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    This became a long post but here it goes and I hope I won't piss anyone off.

    I'm sorry you think so. I can only hope I will give you cause to reconsider your view of me.

    I will admit that I use more male than female characters in my stories set in Greece but that's something I want to break away from. Hence the reason for this thread. And I've been perfectly capable of writing stories with only female characters in them before. I am totally ok with writing stories within the female sphere of ancient Greece but the thing is this. Whenever I take the story away from the home and hearth I feel I could risk to lose contact with my female characters. Thus I'm looking for a way to keep them active in the story also when it comes to politics or war. I really want to avoid, if at all possible, the divison of labor of the women waiting back home while the men fight, engage in politics or philosophy or travels, and then tell the women about it.

    And I realize that this will require both knowledge of ancient Greek society and history as well as some planning by me. But that's what I made this thread for. To start moving in the direction to get more active and diverse women as characters in my stories set in ancient Greece. I've got no problem involving women as characters in medieval or fantasy stories, but ancient Greece has my passion so its there I want to focus my creative efforts in writing.

    I hope that makes some sense.

    That's certainly a solution but I've become bored with fantasy and finding that magic is, in effect, more of a diversion from the story than an addition to it. The more magic and the more complex magic system, the more it pushes the core of the story with human interaction away from the reader. Or at least's that's my experience of it and takes up valuable space on the pages.

    Some good points and I thank you for the mentioning of Aspasia who is certainly a colorful woman in ancient Greece.

    You are very correct in that women could be active behind the scenes and its something that I have considered, but I am also looking to take it to the next level and how to bring that activity into the story.

    Well, to start with I detest Sparta due to them having fair treatment of the women of the upmost elite as the single positive aspect of their state. So I'm more looking to use the Spartans as bad guys in my stories. Now I can totally see me writing stories set in Sparta, but it would probably be more about their oppression of the helots, the lack of intellectual or cultural achivement and things like that. Regardless of how interesting a society and state it was. In fact I'd be more interested in telling stories set in Elis, Thebes or Corinth, or why not Ionia across the Aegean Sea, before Sparta. Save perhaps stories about the helots.

    But I totally agree that women in Athens were doing things. I agree that what they did is worth telling about, that's not the issue as I see it. All of your suggestions for stories are great and I'd be happy to tell them. The issue is that I need to some help in how to get the women active. Because a woman will always be under a male guardianship from craddle to grave and thus I wonder how women can go about countering this when they, in the case of Athens, are both shut out from public life to a large degree as well as not having the kind of independence that's offered to males without a serious backlash from society.

    Since there's been some discussion on my choice of words for "active" I'll give two examples below of what I think of with active and passive. And then people can see what I mean with it.

    Active: A woman has some property, her husband takes it away from her control, and in return she works to get her property back by pulling strings, meeting with people and pressing a case to get her stuff back. The important part here is that the woman does it herself, she don't need someone else to do it for her. The story is thus about what she does.

    Passive: A woman has some property, her husband takes it away from her control, and in return she calls on her father and brother and the two of them pull strings, has meetings and presses a case to get her stuff back to her. The important part here is that the woman does very little, other people do it for her while she fades into the background. The story is thus about what her father and brother does.

    I hope it some sense.

    With women being so much shut out from public life I'm wondering in how to make them active themselves and not damsels in distress that male characters, who have access to public life, go in to rescue. Sure, women can act as "powers-behind-the-throne" with their male guardians, but even so I feel that I need more to keep variety in how my female characters act in my stories.

    And which stories I want to tell? Every single one I can get my hands on. :D

    Excellent suggestions and examples. The Greek misogynism is certainly something which makes it harder to write active women characters in ancient Greece. And I thank you for your support. I have contemplated to shift attention to a culture that's more open for women, like the Etruscans, Celts, Norse or Occitania. All of whom interests me but Greece has a special place in my heart, ao I shall soldier on regarding this.

    *****

    And for the record, my great idea to get serious historical fiction written about ancient Greece is neither Sparta nor Athens. But rather, if I can solve my issues with getting women more active in my stories, to get my hands on this book, see link below, and set the stage in ancient Elis. Due to the fact that it isn't as well known or have left such an imprint in the sources makes me think that I can perhaps take some leeways with stories set within it.

    https://www.amazon.com/dp/0415749573/?tag=writingfor07a-20

    Additional bonuses for using Elis as a base is also that I can get into the ancient Olympic games as well as the Heraean Games as both of them would take place within Elis' territory.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heraean_Games
     
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2018
  15. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Ah, OK, then your definition of "active" does make sense to me. Not that you need my approval. :)

    My first thoughts, in phrase form, was "blackmail, bribery, and bargaining." I'm imagining a string of interactions triggered by her--the right relatively-poor man to bribe by "losing" a piece of her jewelry, that man takes action to produce a blackmailable situation involving a man with more power...and so on, and so on.

    Would that strike you as active or still passive? To me, it's active, because while the moving parts require someone's help, it's help that's happening because she's exercising power, rather than just appealing to their good nature.
     
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  16. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    A woman has some property, her husband takes it away from her control, she schemes and steals his secrets and sets up an elaborate set of "omens" and other plot devices to drive him to return it.

    A woman has some property, her husband takes it away from her control, she calls on her father and brother but the two of them take her husband's side, so she dresses up as a boy, runs away, has adventures in the countryside, falls in love with a young man who is also running away, the young man offers to murder the woman's husband, the woman has a crisis of conscience, the husband tracks them down and in a struggle kills the young man, the woman in a fit of rage kills her husband, then, still dressed as a boy, runs to town, confesses the crime, and then runs away, going back home where she dresses as a woman and nobody even knows she was ever out of the house because she's so sequestered.

    Whatever. Millions of stories in which women have agency over their own lives. My ideas are all pretty sensationalistic, but obviously you could do something more subtle. I enjoyed Atwood's Penelopiad, in which I don't think Penelope ever left home.

    Women have been disenfranchised for the vast majority of human history. You can make the lack of political power a feature of your work rather than a detriment to it.
     
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  17. Beloved of Assur

    Beloved of Assur Active Member

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    Thanks everyone for your input! I've got lots of things to think about and will see if I can get my ancient Greek ambitions going forward with this as a base. I'm definitly going to get hold of a book on ancient Greek women and together with the suggestions in the thread see what I can weave together.
     
  18. Beloved of Assur

    Beloved of Assur Active Member

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    Forgive me for a late reply. I saw that I had missed to adress the points you raised and for that I apologize. :(

    Well, its a bit between my fascination for ancient Greece and my want to create a diverse set of characters that breaks any "straight male" model for what a main character should be. I think that stories are enriched with a reasonably diverse set of characters and will try to write the kind of stories that I like to read. Thus having stories that are only about men is, in my opinion, boring.

    Now I've look at other periods and places as well. Like Neo-Assyrian Empire (this might come as no suprise :p), Rome, Etruscans, medieval France and Occitania, medieval and renaissance Spain, Scots, Irish, Norse and the world of the Victorian Age (and in this I include both the Anglophone world as well as Russian Empire, Germany, Mexico and many other fascinating places where stories can be set) as well as the Napoleonic world. But I keep coming back to ancient Greece because I already knew some about it, I don't think the setting will get to weird for my readers and because I can at reasonable prices get hold of material on this period about almost all aspects of society and culture. Not to mention earlier historical fiction written about ancient Greece so I can get to see how other writers have handled the subject, without it being so much that I'm destined to be lost in a sea of "one-of-a-dozen" novels. And unlike many other historical settings, non-straight relations are pretty much ok so I can write that kind of stuff to provide diversity to my characters without a hitch. I feel that if I can just solve my problem of how to involve women as characters more in the stories, I have a great setting for all kinds of stories and characters.

    Right now for example I'm plowing through Mary Renault's books set in ancient Greece and I from my own limited reading such literature, I think she has one of the best depictions of romantic relations I have yet to see. And if all goes well I will try to tackle "Kristin Lavransdotter" after Mary Renault. Provided I go forward with ancient Greece. If I would change I will probably change to the 19th century and the Victorian + Edwardian world.

    Well, I'm afraid I won't use that due to the age of the book as I seek to use as recent material as possible to keep myself reasonably up-to-date on what's going on in the Classics field. I'd be ashamed if people would point out that the historical facts I use for a novel have been disproven or discredited and pushed out of the field several decades before I get my story out to be read.
     
  19. Lew

    Lew Contributor Contributor

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    I may be confused!
     
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  20. Lew

    Lew Contributor Contributor

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    And I was, @BayView. Lesbos is the home of Sappho. However, she does look like a womanwho rose against the wind of Greek mysogynism. "Sappho was a prolific poet, probably composing around 10,000 lines. Her poetry was well-known and greatly admired through much of antiquity, and she was among the canon of nine lyric poets most highly esteemed by scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria. Sappho's poetry is still considered extraordinary and her works continue to influence other writers. Beyond her poetry, she is well known as a symbol of love and desire between women.[3]."
     
  21. surrealscenes

    surrealscenes Senior Member

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    People have always been people and ancient Greek society wasn't all that different than the society we live within (it was based on theirs). Women have always had active roles in society and nearly every society would have folded without women in leading roles. Women are often overlooked due to male dominated societies and the powers that arise within them.
    The rights they didn't have, only came to women in our societies in the last hundred years or so.
     
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  22. Beloved of Assur

    Beloved of Assur Active Member

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    I agree that Sappho is an interesting person and a shinning example of being active in a society that wants women to be passive. And while she can certainly serve and an inspiration I feel that there are some things that makes her not very representative for women in general in ancient Greece. The most important being that she lived in the Archaic Age and that she was from a elite family. Now of course this is something which I also need to take into consideration as women would be afforded more freedome before and after the Archaic, and most importantly Classical, Ages of Greece.

    Thus I think that you, knowingly or not, strike close to the goal in that a story set during the Dark Ages or the Hellenistic Age is likely to allow women more room to manouver in society than one set during the Classical Age in particular. Save Sparta, of course. And that perhaps I should strike out to see if I can't write some stuff set in earlier Greek times and see how that goes before turning to the difficult period, the Classical Age of Greece, where I would need careful plotting and planning to ensure that women characters can operate the way I want them to in the story, and not be regulated to essentially supporting characters. Thus I think that I may have found a way forward for the time being.

    And just digressing, but the Archaic Age would also allow me to play with dynastic politics in the form of both tyrants, and if I go further back even kings, as I do love dynastic politics and the delightful intrigues they allow me to play with. :D

    Well, while people will be people, society will change and the values people hold, the connections they make and what they prioritize beyond basic survival will change greatly over time. But also within a single time as well between people different from each other. But in regards to women I agree to a part with you. But it seems to me that the challenge that is put before me has to do with how to handle women with agendas in a society which really, really don't want women to have agendas.
     
  23. surrealscenes

    surrealscenes Senior Member

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    For me it is the same as always. There have always been, and always will be, marginalized groups that have an agenda and the gumption to do it. Lots of things change, but human nature doesn't.

    Think about the society you live within, it is similar to ancient Greece. Bottom line is if someone is making a contribution, most go along with it. Plenty of women owned businesses, became wealthy, had influence, all while the laws of their society said they couldn't. Most people (including those who uphold law and make law) only follow laws that they feel pertain to them (unless punishment is heavy). If a marginalized person rises within a society that is against their rise, on paper, the thing that usually brings them back down is threat/jealousy of someone that didn't make it but had the society (on paper) behind them.

    Try to make a comparison, something like- Being an illegal alien in the US means, by law, you can't do anything or own anything. So that means that our streets are filled with the dead bodies of illegal aliens since they can't eat. They come here knowing law is the only thing we care about and they want to die.
    We all know that is false. Illegal aliens do just about everything everyone else does, same as women do in societies that say they can't.
     
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  24. halisme

    halisme Contributor Contributor

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    Okay, the first thing to note is that ancient greek culture as a whole was not a solid thing, and as such, asking for advice on the greeks is not accurate as you need a small geographical area. I know very little about Athens apart from women were generally treated as second-class citizens, though they were allowed to be midwifes and there were shelters for them. They were not allowed to vote.

    Sparta however, I do know because it gets real interesting. Okay, the first thing to talk about is inheritance law. When a man died, his given estate went back to the state, and anything else he earned went to his wife. Then when she died, it was divided equally between her children. This resulted in there being many, many wealthy women who would grow their money further. At one point, over ten percent of all public land in Sparta was owned by less than twenty women.
     

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