Miscellanea: Sparta Glossary

The following post is intended as a ‘reference sheet’ of sorts for any of the difficult or obscure terminology that is going to get used in the “This. Isn’t. Sparta.” series. As a rule, I think a good historian ought to be able to explain themselves without needing to rely on lots of jargon or obscure terms – good history writing is clear before all else. In this case, however, some amount of specialized terminology for the parts of Spartan society and government is simply unavoidable.

So I have made this list of terms, with definitions. All of these terms will be defined and explained in the posts proper – this is just intended as an easy reference for the reader who is halfway through Part III and trying to remember a term from Part I. This list may expand as I draft subsequent posts in this series.

Glossary of Terms

  • Acclamation. A vote held by acclamation (sometimes called a ‘voice vote’) is a vote where, instead of getting an exact count of yes and no votes, the outcome is judged by the volume of people calling out yes or no. Obviously it would be very hard to tell who had really won a close vote. This is used in modern democracies only for very lopsided (typically unanimous) votes; in Classical Sparta, this was the only voting system, votes were never counted.
  • Apella. The Apella was the popular assembly of Sparta, consisting of all adult male spartitates over the age of thirty. The Apella was presided over by the ephors and all votes were by acclamation. The Apella did not engage in debate, but could only vote ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ The gerousia had the power to ignore the decisions of the Apella.
  • Ephor. The ephors were a board of five officials in Sparta, elected annually by the Apella (technically plus the two kings). The ephors oversaw the two hereditary Spartan kings and could even bring a king up on charges before the gerousia. In practice, the ephors – not the kings – wielded the most political power in Sparta. The ephors were also responsible for ritually declaring war on the helots every year. The institution as a whole is sometimes collectively referred to as the ephorate.
  • Gerousia. The Gerousia – literally a council of old men (the members were ‘gerontes’ – literally ‘old men’) consisted of thirty members, 28 elected (by acclamation in the Apella) plus the two hereditary kings. The elected members all had to be over the age of 60. Gerontes were elected for life. The Gerousia decided what motions could be voted on by the Apella and had the power to cancel any decision of the Apella. It also functioned as a court, with the power to try spartiates and even the kings. In practice, with the ephors, the Gerousia wielded the real political power in Sparta.
  • Helot. The subjugated slave class of Sparta, which made up the overwhelming majority of its residents, the helots did the agricultural labor which kept the Spartan state running. Helots can be further subdivided into the Laconia helots (those living in Sparta proper) and the Messenian helots (the populace of Messenia which had been reduced to helotry after being conquered by Sparta in the 7th century B.C.). Helots often fought in Sparta’s armies, apparently as screening light-infantry forces (and also as camp followers and servants).
  • Homoioi. See: Spartiate.
  • Hoplite. Hoplites were Greek heavy infantry soldiers who fought with a heavy round shield (sometimes called a ‘hoplon’ but more correctly an ‘aspis’) and a spear, typically in armor.
  • Hypomeiones. One of several sub-citizen underclasses in Sparta, the Hypomeiones (literally “the inferiors”) were former Spartiates who had fallen off of the bottom of the Spartan social system, either through cowardice or (more likely) being unable to pay the contribution to the syssitia. Though free, they had no role in government.
  • Kleros (pl. kleroi). Literally ‘an allotment,’ kleros most commonly refers to a plot of agricultural land assigned to a citizen. Within Sparta this term is used to describe the land owned by the spartiates (but worked by the helots), with each spartiate possessing one or more kleroi which provided the income to sustain the spartiate’s lifestyle.
  • Mothax. One of several sub-citizen underclasses in Sparta, the Mothakes were non-citizen men, generally thought to have been the children of Spartiate fathers and helot mothers, brought up alongside their full-citizen half-siblings. Mothakes fought in the Spartan army alongside spartiates, but had no role in government. A surprising number of innovative Spartan commanders – Gylippus and Lysander in particular – came from this class.
  • Neodamodes. One of several sub-citizen underclasses in Sparta, the Neodamodes were freed helots, granted disputed land on the border with Elis. Though they served in the Spartan army, the Neodamodes lacked any role in government. We might consider the helots who served in Brasidas’ army, the Brasideioi as a type of the Neodamodes (they did settle in the same place).
  • Oliganthropia. Meaning ‘people-shortage’ this term has come to refer to the observed trend in Sparta for the number of male spartiates to precipitously decline in the fifth and fourth centuries. Although the term implies a reduction in total population, it appears that it was only a reduction in the size of the spartiate class; the other classes may have been unaffected and may even have expanded during this time.
  • Peers: See: Spartiate.
  • Peloponnesian League. A loose alliance of poleis in the Peloponnese. Sparta was the chief of these states but actions by the league as a whole required consensus. Established in the sixth century, this league forms the framework of the Spartan alliance against Athens during the Peloponnesian War (431-404BC), but collapses into infighting in the 390s.
  • Perioikoi (sing. Perioikos). The perioikoi (literally the ‘dwellers around’) were one of several sub-citizen underclasses in Sparta. The perioikoi were residents of communities which were subjected to the Spartan state, but not reduced to helotry. They lived in their own settlements under the control of the Spartan state, but with limited internal autonomy. The perioikoi seem to have included Sparta’s artisans, producing weapons, armor and tools; they were also made to fight in Sparta’s armies as hoplites.
  • Phalanx. A Greek fighting formation composed of hoplites arranged in a mutually supporting shield-and-spear wall. Scholars differ as to when this system of fighting was fully formed; evidence of ‘proto-phalanxes’ occur as early as the seventh century but the ‘mature’ fifth century phalanx visible in Thucydides may be a relatively late development. Nevertheless, by the time we can see Greek warfare clearly, the hoplite phalanx is the standard fighting style of Greek poleis.
  • Polis (pl. poleis). A complicated and effectively untranslatable term, polis most nearly means ‘community’ and is often translated as ‘city-state.’ However, there were poleis in Greece without cities (Sparta being one – a fact often concealed by translators rendering polis as city). Instead a polis consists of a body of citizens, their state, and the territory it controls (including smaller villages but not other subjugated poleis), usually but not always centered on a single urban center. Poleis are almost by definition independent and self-governing (that is, they have eleutheria and autonomia).
  • Skiritai. The Skiritai were one of several sub-citizen underclasses in Sparta. Dwellers in Skiritis, the mountains between Laconia and Arcadia, they were mostly rural people who were free, but subject to the Spartan state, similar to the perioikoi. The main difference between the two was that the Skiritai – perhaps because of their mountainous homes – served not as hoplites, but as an elite corps of light infantry in the Spartan army.
  • Spartiates, also called peers or homoioi. The citizen class at Sparta, the spartiates were a closed ethnic aristocracy. Membership required both a spartiate father and a spartiate mother, as well as successful completion of the agoge and membership in a syssitia. Spartiate males over thirty were the only individuals in Sparta who could participate in government, although the political power of the average spartiate was extremely limited.
  • Syssitia (sing. syssition). The syssitia were the common mess-groups into which all adult spartiates were divided. Each member of the syssitia contributed a portion of the mess-groups food; the contribution was a condition of citizenship. Spartiates who could not make the contribution lost citizenship and became hypomeiones.