Classical Sparta produced a nearly unique socio-political structure in history. The structure employed elements of monarchy, oligarchy and democracy combined with a highly stratified class system. Its chief characteristic was its totalitarianism; the individual served the state, and not vice versa. While it enjoyed similarities to cities on Crete, Sparta was widely viewed by other Greeks as an anomaly in the political landscape, and an enigmatic one at that. For a period it enjoyed a remarkable degree of internal political stability and although the Great Rhetra of Lycurgus was passed down verbally, its laws were perhaps more closely adhered to than those of cities with written constitutions. To be sure, Lacedaemon did not suffer from the high degree of factionalism, turmoil and political upheaval that Athens did. Such loyalty to the law was celebrated as ‘eunomia’ (good order) by contemporary observers and historians.
Commonly referred to as the “Spartans”, the warrior class, even caste, of Lacedaemon was but a small fraction of its total population. These were the descendants of the original Dorian conquerors who had subjugated the local Aecheans, forcing the latter to become helots and outdwellers in Laconia. The Spartiates were the only full citizens and they owned the majority of the fertile land in Laconia and later Messenia which the helots worked for them. Ownership of the land was allotted by the state and inherited through the Spartiate families. Freed from labour, and forbidden the pursuit of tradecrafts or business, the Spartiate men devoted the greater part of their lives to military training and associated pursuits. In greek they were known as the ‘homoi’, i.e. the equals or the peers because of the egalitarianism which the Lycurgan laws imposed on them. In practice, family standing, economic status and martial reputation would have distinguished one Spartiate from another to no small degree.
For males, becoming a Spartiate necessitated graduating the agoge and being accepted to a mess group of warriors. All male Spartiates could vote in the Assembly. For females, the obstacles were less, but they too had training and a curriculum to follow in their youth, before being married off to a Spartiate once they achieved the appropriate age. In comparison to other greek city-states, Spartiate women had a greater degree of freedom and power. They pursued physical training in public, and given how absent the male Spartiates were from daily life, they were the de facto mistresses of the household.
Between the end of the sixth century and the middle of the fourth century, the Spartiates experienced a dramatic decline in their numbers. Thought at one time to have numbered nearly ten thousand, the Spartiate hoplites probably numbered less than a thousand by 350 B.C. As discussed elsewhere, the decline weakened the Spartiates grasp on power; they faced helot uprisings, internal dissent, the loss of empire and ultimately invasion.
Below the Spartiates ranked the outdwellers; these folk constituted the class of artisans, traders and craftsmen of Laconia. They were not citizens and they tended to live separately in villages of their own, and they would not have had much social intercourse with their betters. Outdwellers, known as periocoi in greek, occupied a critical role in the economy, and without them and the helots, the Spartiates would have been unable to pursue a lifestyle dedicated to martial matters. As freemen, outdwellers likely did not resent the Spartiates as much as the helot slaves did. They probably also benefited from the lack of attention of the Spartiates, being thus left to their own devices. However, their position did not automatically imbue them with strong loyalty to their rulers and it is likely that many had ambivalent feelings about the political structure. To be sure, there are many examples of outdwellers receiving military training and serving on the front lines in war, but the practice probably arose out of necessity as Spartiate numbers dwindled, rather than from an overabundance of patriotism amongst the outdwellers.
The helots were the slaves of Laconia and Messenia who worked the agricultural plots and estates of their Spartan masters. They outnumbered the Spartiates by many multiples. While the Laconian helots were likely of Achaean stock, the Messenians were Dorians like the Spartiates, and the latter greatly resented their masters. The feeling was mutual and the Spartiates would formally declare war on the helots every year in order that any violence against the helots would be legitimate in the eyes of the gods. For their part, the Messenian helots launched uprisings when they perceived that the hand of Sparta was weak. While the Spartiates clearly scorned the helots, accounts differ widely as to the level of violence and oppression used against the slaves. A secretive unit known as the Crypteia would watch the helots and assassinate those considered dangerous. It is also told that two thousand helots were tricked into volunteering for war and then murdered en masse. In later periods, helot hoplite units would become more commonplace; they were promised their freedom in return for a period of service, and some, such as the Brasidae, achieved remarkable successes. As Laconian helots were probably more loyal and docile than their Messenian counterparts, the diversity of accounts is probably caused by this dichotomy in the helot population.
The Two Kings
With roots going back to its founding myth, Sparta had not one, but two royal houses: the Eurypontid and the Agiad. A dyarchy, rather than a monarchy, effectively divided the strength of the kings and introduced a permanent tension and state of competition between the two houses. Indeed the history of classical Sparta is rife with examples of the royal houses butting heads politically. As they both claimed descent from Hercules, the kings were considered above the other Spartiates by virtue of their leadership position as well as by virtue of their birth. Other Spartiate families claimed Heraclid descent as well, but no son, royal or not, was exempt from the agoge except the royal heirs apparent. Some of Sparta’s most famous kings, such as Leonidas the Agiad and Agesilaus the Eurypontid, had passed through the agoge as they had not been first-in-line for succession in their youth.
While the Agiad house was considered senior to the Eurypontid, there was no distinction between the responsibilities of the two kings. They both had military and religious roles to play. Spartan kings were the supreme generals of the land forces, and while they did not make military policy on their own, they had great discretionary powers once in the field where their word was law. They decided when to attack, retreat, whom to appoint as officers and whom to execute for cowardice, and so forth. In a society as mindful of warrior prowess as Sparta was, the kings, as a consequence of their generalships, became powerful political patrons who could make or break a Spartiates military career. Originally, the two kings had campaigned together but the practice was discontinued after a stunning disagreement between the kings Cleomenes (an Agiad and the predecessor of Leonidas) and Demaratus the Eurypontid who jointly commanded an invasion of Attica in 505 BC. Facing the Athenians at Eleusis, the Corinthian allies abandoned the Spartans after which Demaratus and his followers also left the camp, resulting in the complete unravelling of the campaign. In the wake of this failure, the Lacedaemonians determined that only one king would be in command of a single force, though it would still be possible for the kings to command separate armies simultaneously, and campaign together.
The kings used religious sacrifice and omens to guide and legitimize their actions both politically and militarily. Abroad on campaign, sacrifices were made frequently at key decision points such as when crossing into enemy territory or deciding whether to give battle or deny it, allowing the king to claim divine legitimacy for whatever decision he made. Spartan kings also appointed the Spartiates who were sent to the Oracle of Delphi as messengers on behalf of the city; these messengers might see benefit for themselves in delivering messages and prophecies which aligned with their appointer’s interests. Indeed, there were times when it was plain that the Oracle had been bribed one king or another for political purposes. King Cleomenes famously managed to have his rival King Demaratus deposed from his kingship (on grounds of illegitimacy) as a result of such a bribe; the malfeasance was discovered eventually and the tables turned on Cleomenes. The religious responsibilities of the royals were clearly tools which they manipulated to serve their own agendas.
While the kings could do as they pleased once on campaign, they were held accountable for all their decisions and the repercussions upon their return to Sparta. Two ephors would accompany a king on campaign and make careful note of the king’s leadership. If nothing else, their presence served as a reminder that the king would have to answer for his conduct back home. While on campaign, a king received a significant proportion of the spoils, as well as the skins of the sacrificed animals.
It was not unheard for a king to stand trial in Sparta for having failed in his endeavours or for having failed to live up to the high Spartan standards. When in 494 BC, King Cleomenes inflicted a complete defeat on Sparta’s rivals to the north, the Argives, he was castigated and put on trial for failing to follow through and taking the city of Argos. Cleomenes claimed that he had fulfilled the prophecy which he had been given by the Oracle, but he was likely using that as an excuse to cover for his reluctance to subjugate Argos, for Sparta’s junior Peloponnesian allies might have taken such a ruthless approach poorly, and become less trusting of Sparta’s intentions. In the event, Cleomenes was acquitted.
Domestically, the royals also had roles to play which granted them power and influence, and which made them powerful political patrons able to bestow gifts and favors. Both were members of the Gerousia and wealthy landowners – perhaps the wealthiest in Sparta. They were the recipients of a special tax and a piglet from every litter in the land. They were also entrusted with power over the orphaned daughters of Spartiates; significantly, the betrothal of the orphan-maidens was a decision for the kings to make for a period in Sparta’s history. As daughters inherited land, the wealthier maidens were targets for young Spartiate suitors who aimed to share in that wealth. The orphaned maidens became useful bargaining chips for the kings when seeking to extend or strengthen their network of political patronage.
In death, the kings of Sparta were given extensive honors, designed to underscore the divine mandate that their houses and lineage possessed and which were critical to Spartan self-perception. Since the Spartans understood themselves to be non-indigenous to the Peloponnese, Dorian invaders in point of fact, the Heraclid heritage of their kings was the keystone to their claims of Laconia and later Messenia. A period of mourning of ten days marked by majestic ceremony was thus instrumental in reminding all Spartiates of the importance of the royals.
The thirty members of the Gerousia represented the social and political elite of the Spartiates. An honorable martyrdom on the battlefield aside, membership of the council, which was for life, was the highest honor a Spartiate could achieve. Besides the two kings, who were automatic members, the remaining twenty-eight had been elected through a curious process of public acclamation. Each candidate would individually pass silently through the general assembly of Spartans and the crowd would indicate the strength of its endorsement for him by cheers. Whoever got the loudest cheers won the election.
These men were the august elders of Sparta, its oligarchy, and they deliberated the most important and fundamental questions facing the city. Many would have been associates of one of the royal houses, but presumably most had their own vested interests to protect and preserve. While they lacked the executive powers of the kings and the legislative powers of the ephors and Assembly, the Gerousia had strong influences over the two, and no change of great significance was decided in Lacedaemon without the Gerousia having a say. Effectively, the council reflected the interests of the wealthiest landowners and served to counterbalance the tyrannical inclinations the kings might have, and the tendencies to impulsive mob rule which might characterize the Assembly. The council members were guardians of the Lycurgan status quo, except where their own interests might trump those of the collective – for example, as they did with regard to the decline of economic egalitarianism and the increasing pursuit of wealth in Sparta.
In practice, the Gerousia decided which proposals would go to the Assembly for a vote thereby setting the agenda for the latter. If a decision by the Assembly had exceeded the mandate of the proposal then the council was within its rights to reject said decision. War could not be declared without the Gerousia’s consent, and in capital cases it along with the ephors formed the jury. When a king was put on trial the Gerousia served as the supreme court, and it therefore behooved the kings to be on as good terms as possible with the council’s members.
The Ephors and the Assembly
Every Spartiate male was a member of the Assembly which was the legislative body of Sparta. Changes in law, and declarations of war were voted on by all who were present. The administrators of the Assembly were the ephors of whom there were five. They decided which proposals from the Gerousia were submitted and by whom, when they would be voted on, and they determined whether the proposals had been carried or rejected by the acclamation of the Assembly.
The ephors were elected on an annual basis, and Spartiates were apparently only allowed to serve as such once in their lifetimes. To be an ephor required a minimum age of forty-five and, presumably, good standing. In that year, the ephors held greater power even than the kings whom they monitored closely. A monthly exchange of oaths bound the kings and the ephors: the former swore to uphold the laws, and the latter swore to uphold the kingship as long as he maintained his oath. A king who crossed the ephors might quickly find himself arrested, accused and on trial for violating the laws. On the other hand, outgoing ephors were held accountable for their decisions by the incoming pentet through a formal process.
The ephors were the head magistrates, the ‘big brothers’ of the totalitarian regime; a great many decisions and powers came with their office. In daily life, they were the de facto government and enforcers of the law. They could hand out fines and punishments for infringements of the Rhetra; they sat as judges in civil suits. They conducted foreign relations by sending ambassadors, receiving ambassadors, and deciding which foreigners could enter and stay in Lacedaemon. They influenced the choice of military leaders for Spartan forces deployed elsewhere, and decided whom and how many Spartans to call up in times of war or emergencies. They oversaw the youths in the agoge and the Hebontes; they ran the Crypteia and selected for the Hippeis. There were few aspects of life in Sparta that their dictates did not influence. Perhaps their power and influence is best illustrated by the episode recounted by Xenophon when news of the disastrous defeat at Leuctra reached Sparta:
After these events, a messenger was despatched to Lacedaemon with news of the calamity. He reached his destination on the last day of the gymnopaediae [a summer festival] just when the chorus of grown men had entered the theatre. The ephors heard the mournful tidings not without grief and pain, as needs they must, I take it; but for all that they did not dismiss the chorus, but allowed the contest to run out its natural course. What they did was to deliver the names of those who had fallen to their friends and families, with a word of warning to the women not to make any loud lamentations but to bear their sorrow in silence; and the next day it was a striking spectacle to see those who had relations among the slain moving to and fro in public with bright and radiant looks, whilst of those whose friends were reported to be living barely a man was to be seen, and these flitted by with lowered heads and scowling brows, as if in humiliation.
After this the ephors proceeded to call out the ban, including the forty-years-service men of the two remaining regiments; and they proceeded further to despatch the reserves of the same age belonging to the six regiments already on foreign service. Hitherto the Phocian campaign had only drawn upon the thirty-five-years-service list. Besides these they now ordered out on active service the troops retained at the beginning of the campaign in attendance on the magistrates at the government offices. [King] Agesilaus being still disabled by his infirmity, the city imposed the duty of command upon his son Archidamus.
- Thomas, C.G. On the Role of Spartan Kings. Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte Bd. 23, H. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1974)
- Xenophon. Hellenica.
- Xenophon. The Polity of the Athenians and the Lacedaemonians.
- Rahe, Paul A. The Spartan Regime.
- Cartledge, Paul. The Spartans.