Sparta – XI


The government

“Now once it had struck me that Sparta, despite having one of the lowest populations, had nonetheless clearly become the most powerful and most famous in Greece, I wondered how this had ever happened. But I stopped wondering once I had pondered the Spartiate institutions, for they have achieved success by obeying the laws laid down for them by Lycurgus.” —Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaemonians

The Spartan power was not a cold bureaucratic machine in the dark about passions and impulses. It was a spiritual being that had taken root in the soul of every Spartan that was alive and had a will. Spartan leaders measured their quality in that they were able to be worthy of being receptacles and transmitters of such will, which was precisely the aim of their training and their discipline: to become the tools by which the Spartan state, intangible but irresistible, materialized on Earth and expressed its will.

The whole organization of Sparta was such a unique and exemplary power that it deserves that we focus now on its various separate political institutions, after having addressed nurture, education, the military and marriage, which were themselves institutions.

A) The dyarchy. The Spartan government was headed by two kings who ruled together. Being heads of the political, military and religious power, they carried out the jobs of chief priests and leaders of the Army. This curious sign of two-headed power came out not only because this way a king controlled the authority of the other, but as a symbolic stroke (remember Romulus and Remus) of the ancient, mythical kings.

In the case of Sparta, both kings were symbolically related in religious worship with the mythical twins Castor and Pollux, supernatural giants endowed with overdeveloped senses; sons of Zeus and members of the männerbund of the Argonauts that, mythologically, were the first monarchs of the country.

Each king chose two representatives to the oracle of Delphi. In wartime, only one of the kings was with the army, while the other remained to rule in the city. The belligerent king was obliged to be the first to go to war and the last to return. In combat, he also stood in the place of greatest risk—in the first row on the far right of the phalanx. (In the first row of the phalanx, composed exclusively of officers, the shields formed a wall. As the shields were wielded with the left arm and the weapons with the right, the shield protected the wearer’s left side and the right of the adjacent comrade. It was a great symbol of fellowship, for the protection of the right side depended on the adjacent comrade. However, the warrior who was on the extreme right of the shield lacked a partner to protect his right side, so he should be especially bold: it was the royal post.)

It was tradition that the king and the commanders who made war surround themselves with an elite guard of 300 selected men, the Hippeis. It is said that a Spartan aspired to this body and, inexplicably, was glad when he was informed that he had not been admitted. A foreigner, unaccustomed to the Spartan ways, asked why he rejoiced and the Spartan answered, with the utmost sincerity, that he was glad that his country was well protected if you had three hundred men better than himself.

In the elite guard there always was at least one Spartan that had been crowned victor in the Olympic games, and certainly there was no lack of champions in Sparta, as in the various Olympic games from 720 BCE to 576 BCE of eighty-one known winners, forty-six—more than half—were Spartans; and of thirty-six winners of foot races, twenty-one were Spartans. And Sparta was the least populous state in Greece and its men were not “professional” athletes specializing in a particular discipline, but full-time soldiers for which overall athleticism was a mere hobby. There was a Spartan wrestler who someone attempted to bribe to lose in a competition during the Olympic games. Having refused the bribe and winning the fight, he was asked: “Spartan, what good has earned your victory?” He responded with a smile from ear to ear: “I will fight against the enemy next to my king.” The victors in the Olympic games were regarded as touched by the gods.

The first kings of Sparta were the twin sons of King Aristodemus; henceforth, every king came from an ancient and legendary Spartan family, that of Eurysthenes and Procles, both claiming descent from Heracles, although Eurysthenes was more revered by virtue of his greater antiquity.

Strange as it might seem, in all Hellas Spartan monarchy was regarded as the oldest in the world: a very remote descendant of a line going back to the very gods and the ancient, “among the snow” hyperborean homeland of the distant ancestors of the Hellenes.

The princes were not educated in the standard Agoge like the other Spartan children. Their education strongly emphasized military skill and strategy, but added the notions of diplomacy and political thought. In addition, the princes were allowed to double food rations of the rest of the people.

In short, the monarchy of Sparta had a mystical and sacred character that permeated their subjects and inspired self-improvement. The kings were regarded as the embodiment of all that Spartan people had as divine.

B) The Ephorate. Under the kings—although in practice even more powerful—was a five ephoroi cabinet (ephors, or “guards”) called Ephorate. Originally they were the high priests of each of the five villages, districts or military garrisons that formed the archaic Sparta, but their power gradually escalated once Lycurgus disappeared; they somehow became to replace him.

The Ephorate was the most powerful institution of Sparta. It ran eugenics, parenting, education, the military and foreign policy, and also had the power to veto any decision from the Senate or the Assembly. They served as supreme judges and presided the diplomatic meetings and assemblies. Two ephors always accompanied the king in season, and had the power to call the kings to their presence in order to seek explanations for their behavior if they acted wrong. They even had the power to arrest or depose them if necessary if an offence was committed, but they needed divine authorization through an oracle. The ephors, who were elderly veterans selected for their prestige and wisdom, did not even stood up in the presence of kings, and it could be said they were their “overseers,” ensuring that no king was asleep in the laurels or fell into tyranny.

C) The senate. Under the ephors was the Gerousia, the senate or council of thirty lifetime gerontes, including the two kings and twenty-eight other citizens who have passed the age of sixty, selected among the volunteers from prestigious and old Spartan families. The Spartan senate tradition came from the thirty military chiefs who swore allegiance to Lycurgus during his coup.


D) The assembly. Called Apella or Ecclesia, this assembly was a popular body that included all Spartan males over thirty years, who elected the members of the Senate and the Ephorate. Sometimes they could approve or veto the decisions of the Senate, although they had no right to question the decisions of the ephors.

E) On the elections. It has been mentioned the existence of elections to choose leaders. These elections had nothing to do with the current elections, where the fashionable whim of a sheepish majority imposes an anonymous, and therefore cowardly vote lacking responsibility and maturity. In Sparta the ratings were made by acclamation: the candidate who received the most overwhelming cheers and the most tumultuous applause triumphed. (Schiller wrote: “the votes should be weighed, not counted.”) Contrary to what it may seem, this method is smarter than the incumbent democratic, insofar as it empowered the candidate who always had the loyalty of the citizens, or at least its most determined mass, which is what matters.

Do not forget that this citizenship had nothing of a mob since it was made up only of the Spartan males of more than thirty years whose loyalty, righteousness and strength were more than proven over twenty-three years of enormous sacrifices and privations. In case of doubt, they resorted to a simple method: supporters stood to one side, and the other to the other side. So the vote was direct and those responsible could be called into account, in case of wrong decision.

F) Nomocracy: the kings obeying the law. All these institutions and methods were certainly unique arrangements. Plato, speaking about the Spartan power said:

Megillus: And yet, Stranger, I perceive that I cannot say, without more thought, what I should call the government of Lacedaemon, for it seems to me to be like a tyranny—the power of our Ephors is marvelously tyrannical; and sometimes it appears to me to be of all cities the most democratical; and who can reasonably deny that it is an aristocracy? We have also a monarchy which is held for life, and is said by all mankind, and not by ourselves only, to be the most ancient of all monarchies; and, therefore, when asked on a sudden, I cannot precisely say which form of government the Spartan is [Laws, IV, 712].

The Spartans, however, didn’t split hairs and called their form of government Eunomia, that is, good order. They also called their system Cosmos as it was everything they knew: it was the world in which they moved and was unique with respect to all other systems.

King Archidamus II of Sparta, the son of king Zeuxidamus, when asked who was in charge of Sparta, responded: “The laws, and the judges according to the laws.” But these laws were not written down at all, but in the blood and the scars of the children of Sparta. They dwelt within men after a long process of training and internalization that made them suitable depositories. They were not girded dogmas blinded to the exceptions, but were perfectly flexible and adaptable to various cases. The kings voluntarily submitted to the laws, as they were considered a gift that the gods themselves had done to Sparta through the Lycurgus mediation.

In conclusion, in Sparta Lycurgus’ laws governed, a sort of nomocracy (as formerly in Brahmanic India or as Judaism to this day), so they made sure that Lycurgus in Sparta continued to rule even centuries after his death.

Published in: on September 25, 2013 at 6:05 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] Like the Republican Romans, I believe that Caesarism is risky business. See my May 2013 post, “Two consuls.” (See also the form of government in Sparta, here.) […]

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