The figurine above is slightly earlier than the period we are currently looking at, but she exemplifies much of the culture clash between Athens and Sparta which would lead, ultimately, to the long-drawn-out Peloponnesian War at the end of the 5th century between these two Greek superpowers, and the final defeat of Athens by Sparta. Just over ten centimetres high, the statuette shows a girl running: her back leg bent, toes pressed into the ground to propel her forwards; her front foot arched as she springs ahead; her left hand holding up the hem of her chiton (tunic). Women in other ancient Greek city-states were largely forbidden from taking place in sports: in Athens, the ideal wife and mother, as Pericles points out in Thucydides' famous version of his funeral oration, gains good repute if she 'is least talked about among men, either for her good deeds or bad'. Another, later ancient historian goes even further: 'neither the arm nor the speech of the self-controlled woman should be made public, and she should be modest in her voice and guard it in the hearing of men outside the house, as it strips her naked; for in her speech can be seen her emotions, her character, and her disposition.'
But in Sparta, things were different. Women were, as many Athenian commentators report in shocked tones, allowed to compete in sports and to train alongside the men; the idea being that the stronger and fitter the Spartan mothers were, the stronger their sons (and thus, the soldiers of the state, who were made up entirely of Spartan citizens or Spartiatai). One well-known story about Spartan mothers goes that they would send their sons to battle with the dictum: 'Either with it, or on it', referring to the soldiers' shields – either the Spartiatai should return holding their shields and victorious in battle, or lying dead upon them. How much this characterisation of Spartan females is a figment of the male Athenian imagination (and fetishisation) we cannot know; but this statuette, with its lithe silhouette and lightness of step, provides us with a tantalising and important glimpse into Spartan culture.