Collections: This. Isn’t. Sparta, Part V: Spartan Government

This week, we’re going to look at how the Spartan state governs itself. We’re going to lay out a broad picture of how the parts of the Spartan government function, but we are remaining focused on one main question, the one we raised last time: We know that the demographic decline in the number of spartiates was catastrophic and visible at the time. Given the severity of the crisis, why wasn’t the Spartan government able to respond effectively?

This is Part V of our our look at the gap between Sparta’s place in the popular imagination and the Sparta of history (previous parts: I, II, III, IV). This week’s essay also marks a change in our focus. The last three essays focused on important parts of Spartan society which are generally rendered invisible in pop-culture and even in a lot of history classes. And so I want to re-emphasize again, before we go on, that the topics in those posts – the helots, the underclasses, women – make up something like 90% of Sparta.

That meant that the ratio of ‘history to pop-culture’ on this history-and-pop-culture blog swung way towards ‘history’ because these people simply are not in the pop-culture portrayal. The relative silence of the sources often keeps these folks from showing up even in classroom discussions.

But we are now turning back to the tiny, tiny fraction of Sparta that pop-culture cares about: the spartiates, and in particular their government. Sparta has had a good-government reputation since the ancient period – Aristotle says as much in his Politics, although he himself is much more skeptical that Spartan government has been successful. Assessing that impression is going to require laying out the parts of the Spartan government, but it is also going to require contrasting how that government is supposed to work with how it actually works.

As a reminder, this series comes with a glossary here, in case you hit a technical term you don’t recall from a previous week (or are reading these posts out of order).

How to Polis 101

Before we dive in, I want to give a brief primer on the basics of how nearly all Greek poleis – Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Plataea, Tegea, whatever – are structured, because it’ll help in understanding Sparta. (Reminder: the polis, sometimes called a city-state, is the basic unit of Greek governance – these are all independent micro-states).

The standard ingredients of a Greek polis are an assembly of all adult citizen males (often called an ekklesia, meaning ‘assembly’), a smaller advisory committee (frequently called a boule), and then a set number of elected officials who carried out the laws of the other two (magistrates). I’ve given the common names for these components, but they often have different names in different poleis.

Those basic units don’t change from a democracy (like Athens) to an oligarchy (like Corinth) or even a tyranny (like Syracuse) – the type of government just reflects the division of power between them, and the method of selection. In a democracy, like Athens, the ekklesia will have most of the power, being able to overrule the boule or the magistrates. Often the members of the boule can come from a wide range of wealth classes or even be randomly selected.

In an oligarchy, power is generally focused in the magistrates – drawn from the upper-crust of society – and a smaller boule, with the ekklesia having much less power to restrain them. Alternately, the ekklesia may be restricted in size to only wealthy subset of the citizenry. In a tyranny, a single person (the tyrant) is able to gain control of the system, through a mix of demagoguery, charisma and well-placed cronies. Even under a tyranny, the basic three-part system still exists, it is simply subverted and controlled by one person (much like how some modern dictatorships have all of the institutions of a democracy – courts, elections, etc – but all of the power is still in one set of hands and the elections are shams).

I want to note this up front because it is important to recognize that the existence of a popular assembly does not make a Greek polis a democracy, nor does the existence of a powerful magistrate make it a tyranny. As we’ll see, Sparta has an assembly, it is just laughably weak; it also has two very powerful magistrates, but their power is strongly checked. What matters is the division of power between these parts. I also wanted to start here because Sparta follows this basic model, but with some interesting variations. Knowing what the normal model looks like will make it easier to spot the variations that are unique to Sparta.

So let’s walk through the basic units of Spartan governance. Starting with perhaps the most unusual:

Double Kings: Well-Kicker-in-Chief

Sparta – never ones to do anything by half – had two kings at all times. There were two royal lines, the Agaids and the Eurypontids. For the curious, the -id ending you see on dynastic names (Seleucid, Antigonid, Lagid, Sassanid, etc.) is the English version of the -ιδης, -ιδαι suffix put on a name which indicates “the descendants of.” Thus the Atreidai (ἀτρείδαι) would be the sons of Atreus (in the event, Agamemnon and Menelaus; of course the singular, Atreides (ἀτρειδης) can mean Agamemnon, Menelaus or – obligatory sci-fi joke – the Kwisatz Haderach). Of the two, the Agaids seem to have always been the more important, but that is hardly to say that the Eurypontids were unimportant. Notionally, the two houses had the same set of powers.

300’s depiction of Leonidas as primarily a war-leader with additional religious duties is largely accurate, although – as we’ll see – his religious duties are criminally underrepresented in the film. I mean, he begins a battle without a sacrifice of any kind – no wonder he lost!

As we noted last time, the kings held significant estates, carved out of perioikic land (Xen. Lac. 15.3). It isn’t clear how the inheritance of this land worked, but the kings seem to have always been the wealthiest folks in Sparta. The kingship itself passed from father to eldest son. It was not able to pass through women, nor does it appear that women could rule as regents for their sons. There is a popular idea that Gorgo ruled in some way after the death of Leonidas, but she didn’t – Cleombrotus, Leonidas’ younger brother became the regent for Leonidas’ young son (Pleistarchos); when Cleombrotus died, his son, Pausanias become regent, until Pleistarchos could rule on his own. In the absence of an heir, the nearest male relative would do – thus when Pleistarchos died without a male heir, the crown passed to Pleistoanax, son of Pausanias (the regent just before).

The kings had two other powers – privileges, really – that I want to note here. First: the kings had the power to legalize the adoption of children and to secure husbands for widows and heiresses – the latter power is eventually limited if the woman’s father was still alive, but in a low life-expectancy society, this must have frequently been untrue.

Second, the kings did not eat in a syssition (because they were not one of the homoioi). Instead they had a special mess of their own. Each king appointed two officials called pythioi who kept records and ate with the kings (Xen. Lac. 15.5). On campaign, the kings mess instead consisted of the top officers (the polemarchs). The king’s social circle thus essentially consisted of the most successful – in both war and peace – spartiates.

In terms of formal powers, the kings were actually fairly restricted. The impression one gets (particularly from Xen. Lac. 13 and Arist. Pol. 2.1270b) is that the kings were primarily war-leaders with additional religious functions, but few governing powers. The kings don’t handle diplomacy, or make decisions on war-and-peace (famously, Archidamus, then king, cautioned the Spartans not to go to war with Athens precipitously – a war which would, perversely, bear his name, Thuc. 1.80-85), or the public treasury, or legal disputes. On the whole, the king looks quite limited. We’ll come back to this.

That said, watch over the king is kept by:

The Ephors: Not Actually Mutants

So, to be clear, I have no idea why 300 decided that the ephors were some sort of strange, malformed priests. They were not…any of those things. I mean, obviously they were not strange, malformed mutants. But they were also not religious officials or priests.

Pictured: what 300 thinks an ephor looks like. No, I don’t know why.
I find it a bit odd, for a film that makes so much about Greek resistance against Persia supposedly ‘saving the world from mysticism’ – absolute nonsense, as a side note, the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire was if anything more advanced and less superstitious than early-fifth-century-Greece – Sparta sure seems to have a lot of strange and arbitrary religious rules for Leonidas to navigate.

The ephors were a set of five annually chosen magistrates, with a wide range of jobs which included making sure that all of the officials of the state – especially the kings – were executing the laws (Arist. Pol. 1271a). The ephors had quite a few disparate functions – they declared war on the helots every year (Plut. Lyc. 28.4), levy fines and handle legal matters (Xen. Lac. 8.3-4), root out conspiracies (Xen. Hell. 3.3), keep an eye on the kings (Plut. Lyc. 7.1-2) and so on. The array of formal powers the ephors had was considerable.

Yet we know the names of very few ephors from our sources. When they appear, they are almost always reactive, acting against some overreach by the king or in a crisis (one of the few notable exceptions is the intervention of an ephor in favor of war with Athens, Thuc. 1.86). In this, they were frequently effective – we know of quite a few kings successfully referred for prosecution – such cases were tried by the gerousia. As a check on the power of the kings to make themselves tyrants, the ephorate seems to have been very successful.

But the ephors did not represent a long-term political power the way, say, the US Congress or Supreme court does. Ephors only served one year and could not serve a second time, so no ephor was liable to build up any kind of political position of his own. Moreover, as Aristotle notes, the fact that any spartiate could become an ephor made the office vulnerable to being co-opted by the wealthiest spartiates, since poor spartiates were vulnerable to bribes (Arist. Pol. 2.1271a; by whom, Aristotle does not say, but the obvious candidates would be the kings, e.g. Plut. Cleom. 6.1).

The Ephors in 300 again. At least they got the number right – five, alongside the kings. Although if this is a meeting of the ephorate, both kings ought to be present, if they are not campaigning (which they very explicitly aren’t).

The Gerousia: 30 Angry Old Men

The gerousia is fantastically descriptively named – gerousia derives from gerontes (old men) and it is literally a council of old men. It consists of 28 members, all over the age of 60, plus the two kings. All members serve for life.

Some of the gerontes, along with evil-traitor (::checks notes::) Theron. I am entirely unclear as to exactly what Theron is supposed to be. He can’t be an ephor, because they’re evil mutants in the film for no reason. He can’t be a geron, unless he is the youngest looking sixty-year-old in Sparta.
300 makes the gerontes out to be basically a bunch of very cautious ‘whimps’ – which is an accurate portrayal of the gerousia’s normal foreign policy preferences, as we’ll see – but very strange given that these guys are the most successful products of the Spartan system that this movie insists produces hardened, badass warriors.

The gerousia is the Spartan equivalent of a boule, and like a boule, it sets the agenda for the main Spartan assembly, the apella, discussed below. We’ll say more about the extent of these powers – which is far wider than they sound at first glance, but I want to make sure we have all our players on the board first. The gerousia also advises the kings, which sounds very tame until you add that it is also the court which tries the kings, should they break the law or exceed their authority (and be brought up on such charges by one of the ephors).

The gerontes are elected for life by the assembly. Membership in the gerousia was a tremendous honor, the “prize allotted to virtue” (Dem. 20.107; Arist. Pol. 1270b; Plut. Lyc. 26). How might one show virtue? The normal methods in any Greek polis were conspicious leadership in war, the execution of public offices, and generosity with wealth – all three, as we’ll see, route back through the kings. Positions are gerontes were convassed for, and Paul Rahe notes that “the two royal houses played a crucial role in promoting the selection of their adherents” (The Spartan Regime (2016), 55).

Gorgo before what is presumably supposed to be the gerousia (it certainly isn’t anywhere big enough to be the apella). Strange that a lot of the fellows look to be really spry for sixty years and up.

The Apella

The Spartan equivalent of the ekklesia is generally called the Apella (Kennell (2010) contends that we ought to call it the ekklesia – the argument is technical; I am going to call it the Apella because that’s what you’ll find it called in most textbooks and the like and I don’t want to be confusing). Most pop-culture representations of the Spartan state tend to leave this body out entirely; it is, for instance, the only part of the Spartan government which does not appear at all in 300.

At first glance, the Apella appears to run the Spartan state. It is the Apella which decides on the passage or failure of new legislation, the declaration of war (except for the helots) or peace, and on the election of gerontes. So on the face of it, this body has the final say in all matters of Spartan government.

And this sounds pretty good, at least for the spartiate class. Of course, we must remember that more than 90% of all of the people in Sparta were completely excluded from all of these governing bodies.

I don’t have a picture of the Apella because it does not appear in 300 or any other pop-culture representation of Sparta I could find.
So in the best and truest tradition of the internet, here is a cat picture.
This is a Roman mosaic from Pompeii (from the House of the Faun).

But appearances are deceiving, and in fact the Apella is remarkably weak compared to other Greek assemblies. There are a few crucial problems:

First: the apella did not set its own agenda, nor could it debate. The agenda for the apella was set by the gerousia and the ephors. Moreover, the apella could not – like a modern legislature – craft its own solution to problem brought by the gerousia or the ephors. It could only vote yes or no to proposals provided to it. No matter how good the solution, if the 35 men – 28 gerontes, 2 kings, 5 ephors – did not propose that solution to the apella, it could never be enacted.

Second: the decisions of the apella were not binding! This is the significance of the ‘Great Rhetra,’ a law attributed either to the time of Lycurgus or shortly after which specified, among other things that “if the people should adopt a crooked motion, the kings and the gerousia shall have the power to set it aside” (Plut. Lyc. 6.4). What this meant in practice was that the gerousia could veto any decision of the apella with no opportunity for the apella – or anyone – to override that veto.

Finally: the apella voted by acclamation, not by a strict count. That is, when the apella voted (on if to go to war, or to pass a law or to elect a geron), they simply shouted, with the victory going to the loudest – no person-for-person vote was taken (Thuc. 1.87). Consequently, the power of the ephors and the gerontes who attempt to determine which side was loudest is considerable.

So this is a voting body which can only approve or deny the motions of the officials who decide who won the votes (about if their own measure passed!) and who can also revoke the results of any vote they don’t like. This is not a system for popular decision making, it is a system for consensus building, a system to convince everyone – even if they disagree with the action – that most of the spartiates agree and that they should thus go along.

Stability through Tension

First, I want to note the things Sparta does well. The system of government is quite good at keeping balance between the main centers of power, the ephorate, the gerousia and the kings. Our sources amusingly differ on exactly which part of the Spartan system seemed to them most like a tyranny, some thought it was the ephors (Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle among them), some thought it was the gerousia (Demosthenes and Dionysius of Halicarnassus), while in the biographies of Plutarch, the kings seem to dominate. As a ‘mixed constitution’ – not quite democratic, oligarchic or monarchic – Sparta’s system was a success (as was Rome’s, note Plb. 6.14).

We can think of this in terms of stopping any one person or part of the government from usurping complete control. The ephors can’t do it – they only serve for a single year and cannot serve twice, leaving little reason to aggrandize an office you will have to hand off to who-knows-who in just 12 months. The gerousia can’t do it, because it lacks control of the army or any direct administration of anything. The apella can’t do it, because it is laughably weak. Even the kings are controlled: the two of them must often have been in conflict (a point Rahe (2016) makes), looking to undermine the other through their friends in the ephorate and the gerousia. In turn, it would always be in the interests of the gerontes to rein in a king who was exceeding his authority (and in the interest of the other king to help them).

All of which brings us back to our big question: why didn’t Sparta act to halt its decline? The men of the gerousia of 410 must have known at their own citizen body was once more than double the size it stood in their day. The same would have been true of the gerousia of 371. Some demographic declines are so slow as to be imperceptible, but the Spartan citizen population collapses by 80% in just a century, from 464 to 371. The decline would have been obvious – and evidently it was obvious.

We know it was obvious because Cinadon points it out, c. 390 (Xen. Hell. 3.3.5). We know it was obvious because we can see the sad half-measures to arrest the problem: the creation of classes of freed helots (the neodamodes) to serve in the army and the increasing prominence of mothakes and hypomeiones in the years leading up to Cinadon’s conspiracy. In short, we know it was obvious because we can see our historical subjects observing it. Why couldn’t they arrest this decline?

In Sparta, the Rich Eat You

The problem, of course, is that if a situation ever arose within this system where the gerousia and the kings specifically had a community of interests (read: they wanted the same things) – even if it was to the disadvantage of the community as a whole – the neat system of restrained power falls apart. And that’s exactly what seems to have happened.

In essence, what we have is the formation of a clique around the two kings which consisted of the wealthiest of the spartiates – the ones who had benefited the most from the steady consolidation of kleroi into ever larger and ever fewer estates. We know that the wealthiest families tended to want to marry each other in order to keep and consolidate those large estates (Plut. Lys. 30.5, Agis. 5.1-4). Success in this necessarily meant being close to the kings, because they approved of the marriages of heiresses and widows (discussed above). So friends of the kings might land favorable marriages for themselves or their children – alternately, a rich spartiate would want to make friends with a king to pursue the interests of their estates. Of course, the kings themselves were the richest men in Sparta, and so could also bestow gifts and wealth all on their own.

Meanwhile, election to the gerousia was the one office actively canvassed for (ancient canvassing often more nearly resembled modern electoral bribery). The kings – in their competition with each other – had a vested interest in seeing their own friends on the gerousia. But consider what might make a spartiate’s service conspicuous enough to win election. He might have been a capable officer – positions appointed by the kings (in their role as chief warleaders), with the most successful officers dining with the kings while on campaign. He might have held some sort of public office – the ephorate is random, but the pythioi are selected by the kings. Or he might be generous with his wealth – as we’ve already established, the wealth is arrayed in a phalanx around the kings.

So the friends of the king are the men in the best position to become gerontes when they turn sixty – and it will be in the king’s interest (in his competition with the other king!) to see that they become so, using his considerable influence and wealth to ease that path. While our sources don’t explicitly tell us this is what happened, we do know that the wealthiest spartiates dominated the state (e.g. Arist. Pol. 2.1270b; Plut. Agis 7.1-2), that this was the result of the inheritance system, that the kings controlled that system, and that the kings and their families ended up at the center of the web of wealth and influence running the Spartan state (Plut. Agis 9.3).

It isn’t that the system lets the kings consolidate power – there are two of them, after all and the gerousia is always looking to preserve its privilege in judging the conduct of the kings. Rather, the system practically ensures that the wealthiest spartiate families will be socially arrayed around the kings and that these families will tend to be dominant in the gerousia.

None of these people is going to want to redistribute land or bring the hypomeiones back into full citizenship, because that would mean de-consolidating their land holdings, in order to provide kleroi for the new spartiates it would create.

The problem is that, in any case where the gerousia and the kings have a community of interest, the checks in this system immediately break down. The ephors are supposed to police the actions of the kings, but they do so by recommending the kings to prosecutions before the gerousia. So while a king might be brought low for self-aggrandizement abroad or dissolute behavior at home, one imagines that the gerontes will not be quick to convict a king for using his authority over heiresses and widows to expand the fortunes of…the gerontes and their families.

And the weakness of the apella explains why the spartiate families slowly but surely falling off of the bottom of the the spartiate class were unable to do anything to help themselves. The apella can’t set its own agenda. Even if they got very lucky and one – or several! – ephors were sympathetic to their plight, the gerousia could simply set aside the decision of the apella. And, of course, to top it off, anyone who actually did fall below the financial threshold was ineligible for the apella or the ephorate. The system ‘solved’ the problem of poor spartiates by removing poor spartiates from the system.

You know, I criticized this shot for literally erasing the helot farming class (and I stand by that).
But as a metaphor for the fate of the spartiates, its perfect: fine houses and full fields and almost no one around to enjoy them.

The Failure of Reform

This makes sense of the half-solutions tried in the late fifth century. In order to serve in the army as a hoplite (the Greek heavy infantryman who was the basic unit of every polis army) – the key concern around the declining spartiate citizen body – a man had to have enough wealth to afford the arms and armor. In a state where – because of the oft-praised Spartan austerity – functionally all wealth was tied to the land, that meant that any new hoplites needed to be given land in order to be able to serve. But all the best land in Sparta was tied up in an ever-shrinking number of kleroi.

Thus the Spartan state might grant marginal, borderland to small groups of freed helots – the neodamodes and the brasidioi – but actually bringing up the military strength of the polis in full could only be achieved by de-consolidating the kleroi – the best, most productive land (because you can only support so many hoplites on disputed, marginal land). This is one thing, of course, that the wealthy spartiates who dominated the state were unwilling to do. The mothakes and hypomeiones, pushed to the edges of Spartan society, might be brought in to make up the difference, but unless they were made equals – homoioi – this was a recipe for instability, as seen with Lysander and Cinadon. This is the other thing the spartiates were unwilling to do – if I had my guess, because for the poor spartiates who still clung to their status (and might still use the apella to block reform, even if they couldn’t use it to propose reform), that status differential was just about the only thing they had (apart from all of the slave labor they enjoyed the benefits of, of course).

(A different polis might have tried to make up this difference by either hiring large numbers of mercenaries, or arming its own people at state expense, as a way of using the fortunes of the rich to fund military activity without expanding the citizenry. But, as Aristotle notes – (we’ll come back to this when we talk about Spartan war performance) the public finances of Sparta were pitiful even by ancient standards – for precisely the same reason that deconsolidating the kleroi was politically impossible: the state was dominated by the wealthy (Arist. Pol. 2.1271b). With no real source of wealth outside of landholding and all of the good land held by the spartiates, it seems that Sparta – despite being by far the largest polis in Greece and holding some of the best farmland outside of Thessaly, was never able to raise significant revenue.)

Instead, the clique of wealthy spartiates arrayed about the kings did nothing, decade on decade, as the spartiate citizen body – and the military power of Sparta – slowly shrunk, until at least, in 371 it broke for good. But what is perhaps most illustrative of the disfunction in the Spartan political system is the sad epilogue of efforts in the second half of the third century (in the 240s and 220s) to finally reform the system by two Spartan kings.

The first effort was by Agis IV (r. 245-241; Plut. Agis). By the time Agis came to power, there were only a few hundred spartiate households. Agis tried to reform through the system by redividing all of the kleruchal land into 4,500 plots for spartiates and another 15,000 for the perioikoi (who might also fight as hoplites). Agis gets the apella to support his motion – his offer to put his own royal estates into the redistribution put first earns him a lot of respect – but the gerousia, by a narrow margin, rejects it. Agis is eventually politically isolated and finally executed by the ephors (along with his mother and grandmother, who had backed his idea) – the first Spartan king ever executed (I have left out some of the twists and turns here. If you want to know Plutarch has you covered).

Cleomenes III (r. 235-222) recognizes what Agis seemingly did not – reform to the Spartan system could not happen within the system. Instead, he stages a coup, having four of the five ephors murdered, exiled eighty citizens – one assumes these are wealthy and prominent opponents – and possibly had the other king assassinated (Plut. Cleom. 8, 10.1; Plb. 5.37). Cleomenes then redistributed the kleroi into 4,000 plots and made his own brother his co-king (Plut. Cleom. 11), essentially making him a tyrant in the typical Greek mold. he then set about continuing his war with the neighboring Achaean League in an effort to re-establish Spartan hegemony in the Peloponnese and presumably retake Messenia (which by that point was free and part of the Achaean league).

It was far, far too late. Had this been done in the 380s or even the 350s, Sparta might well have resumed its position of prominence. But this was the 220s – Macedon had dominated Greek affairs now for a century and the Antigonids – the dynasty then ruling in Macedon – had no intention of humoring a resurgent Sparta. In 224, a Macedonian army marched into the Peloponnese in support of Sparta’s enemies and in 222 it smashed the Spartan army flat at Sellasia, almost entirely wiping out the spartiate citizen body – new and old – in the process (Plutarch claims only 200 adult spartiate males survived, Plut. Cleom 28.5). The victorious Macedonian – Antigonis III Doson – for his part re-crippled Sparta: he occupied it, restored its constitution to what it had been before Cleomenes and then left, presumably content that it would not threaten him again (Plut. Cleom. 30.1). The time when a state with a citizen body in the few thousands could be a major player had been over for a century and the great empires of the third century were in no mood to humor self-important poleis who hadn’t gotten the message.


Sparta’s reputation for good government came from its ability to avoid the crippling political instability that plagued many Greek poleis. And, as we noted above, there is some truth to that. But much of that apparent stability was achieved by the exclusion of voices – not only the helots or the perioikoi (who were, I should remind you, completely excluded from political power) – but also the steady exclusion of the poor spartiates, one by one. The system was stable precisely because it could do nothing while the citizen body slowly died.

Asking the question, “was Sparta well governed” thus immediately devolves into a question of what the purpose of government is. If the purpose of Sparta’s government was the protection of the wealth and status of its small elite, then we might say that Sparta was fantastically successful. But if the purpose of Sparta’s government was extended to even just the mere survival of its citizenry, it was a failure.

Next week, the part you have all been waiting for – we’ll begin looking at the other great myth of Sparta: the myth of Spartan Military Excellence.

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