Development of the Spartan Political System
Lycurgus was a murky figure in the history of Sparta. We don’t know for sure that he existed but a man with that name is credited with the development of the Spartan political system. Whether or not Lycurgus existed is irrelevant to this article because we want to focus on the system itself, its development, and the forces that pushed it forward.
Prior to the advent of its militaristic model, Sparta, like many of the other Greek Poleis, was managed by an aristocratic faction. Oddly, there were two kings; descendants of competing royal houses who could never gain superiority over the other. Sparta had its experiments in government systems, like the other Poleis, but at some point, possibly the mid-eighth century B.C, the Spartans began to evolve in a unique direction. Was Lycurgus the prime mover? Maybe, but there were certainly forces at work moving the Spartans in the direction of equality whether or not they were driven by a single individual.
The foundational step in this process was the creation of the Council of Elders, which as Plato stated had the effect of “cooling the high fever of royalty”, and since the Elders had equal vote with the kings, they could bring “caution and sobriety to their deliberations”. The Council of Elders was called the Gerousia and it was made up of thirty senior politicians including the two kings.
The second body of government was the Ecclesia or Assembly, made up of all members of the Spartan army (hoplites). These members were referred to as Homoioi. The Assembly was mandated by a Rhetra (pronouncement of the Oracle) of Lycurgus near the end of the 8th century B.C, making it the first citizen legislative body in history.
Plutarch tells us what happened next. “Even though these changes had the effect of mixing the several powers of the state, successor generations, seeing that the powers of the oligarchy were unimpaired, and that it was, as Plato calls it, full of life and vigor, placed as a curb to it the power of the Ephors. The first Ephors, of whom Elatus was one, were elected during the reign of Theopompus” circa 675 B.C. The five Ephors were administrators elected for one year who were granted power greater than the kings with regards to the management of Spartan society, although in military matters, the kings were supreme. Speculation is that the Ephors were originally part of the king’s staff, but spun off as a separate governmental unit to reduce royal authority.
So we can see a balanced Republican government of three bodies: Gerousia, Assembly, and Ephors, remarkably similar to the Roman Republic which would come along two hundred years later. Seeing a similar structure in Greece and Rome, separated by time and space, one can’t help thinking that the Republic was a natural development of human society – the bridge system between autocrats and democracy.
For the next step in the evolution of the Spartan government, we again turn to Plutarch. “The second and the boldest of political reforms of Sparta was the redistribution of the land. Great inequalities existed, many poor and needy people had become a burden to the state, while wealth had got into a very few hands.”
According to our sources, thirty thousand lots were granted to the Perioeci (neighboring villages) and nine thousand (later twelve thousand) to Spartiates.
One wonders about the land distribution and it impetus. What factor would have caused the rich to share their land? While the formation of a Council of Elders and Assembly are logical, even inevitable, the redistribution of land is not. There answer of course is that the rich did not give up their land. The land distribution was public land similar to the Roman agar publicus. Embedded in the land distribution somewhere is the evolving relationship between Sparta and Messenia - the territory of fertile lands west of the Taygetos Mountains. See map below.
The Messenian people fought the Spartans twice. The first time, circa 730 B.C, led to their subjugation as helots. Perhaps only half the Messenian land was taken. Then, circa 675 B.C, the Messenians revolted and had to be brought under control again. The latter event most likely sealed the “Devil’s bargain” between Sparta and Messenia. The Spartans needed an army to keep the Messenians subjugated and the need to train that army meant that Spartans had no time for activities separate from war, so the helots were engaged to serve them – growing the crops, providing services, etc. Helots were not slaves in the traditional sense – they weren’t chattels. They were assigned to Spartans as their workers, married to the land that a Spartan owed but eligible to keep half its produce. The Spartans were left with nothing to do except train for war and as professional soldiers, they became the greatest fighting machine of all time.
The military mindset of Sparta created some unique institutions like the Mess, an institutionalized meal ritual among Homoioi designed to create camaraderie between them. Each Spartiate ate his meals with the same men he fought beside in war and each man was required to contribute food to the mess on a monthly basis. It has been written that Lycurgus got the idea for the mess from a visit to Crete where he saw it in action, but Crete is not the only example of this ritual in antiquity.
The Agoge (military training) was developed to build the Spartan army and there is nothing that can be compared to it in history. Starting at age seven, boys received a “traditional education” along with physical training. Twenty-three years later at 30, the training ended and they became Spartiates. The Agoge was extreme – including periods of surviving in the wilderness, learning to steal to survive, and even killing Helots for practice, if writers from the time are to be believed.
The more extreme the Spartan point of view became, the more it impacted the institutions of the society. Gold and silver money were banned, workers in useless trades were exiled, and physical fitness was promoted among girls. Most of these were changes were attributed to Lycurgus.
So we see an evolved Spartan Republic, perhaps by 650 B.C, consisting of a balanced political system built to support a militaristic society.