This article seeks to situate the athletic activities of Spartiates and their unmarried daughters during the Classical period in their broader societal context by using theoretical perspectives taken from sociology in general and the sociology of sport in particular to explore how those activities contributed to the maintenance of social order in Sparta. Social order is here taken to denote a system of interlocking societal institutions, practices, and norms that is relatively stable over time. Athletics was a powerful mechanism that helped to generate consensus and to socialize and coerce individuals. It thus induced compliance with behavioral norms on the part of both females and males and thereby contributed meaningfully to the maintenance of social order in Sparta. Athletics inculcated conformity to norms that called for females to be compliant, beautiful objects of male desire. Athletics had an equally profound effect on Spartan males because it inculcated compliance with norms that valorized subordination of the individual to the group, playing the part of the soldier, and meritocratic status competition. Athletics may well have also to some degree empowered both Spartan females and males, but its liberatory dimensions can easily be unduly amplified. There is an ever-present dialectic in athletics, between its ability to reinforce norms that underpin the prevailing social order and its ability to foster individual autonomy. In the case of Sparta, the balance in that dialectic always inclined very much toward the former.
Athletics and Social Order in Sparta in the Classical Period
Special thanks are due to Donald Kyle, Jeremy Rutter, and the anonymous reviewers for Classical Antiquity for their detailed and insightful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Responsibility for the views expressed here and for any errors or omissions is solely my own.
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P. Christesen; Athletics and Social Order in Sparta in the Classical Period. Classical Antiquity 1 October 2012; 31 (2): 193–255. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/CA.2012.31.2.193
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