The Constitution of the Spartans

November 19, 2019 0 By Kody Olson


“It occurred to me one day that Sparta, though
among the most thinly populated of the states, was evidently the most powerful and most celebrated
city in Greece; and I fell to wondering how this could have happened. But when I considered the institutions of
the Spartans, I wondered no longer.” So begins a seminal text called “The Constitution
of the Spartans,” written by a guy called Xenophon in the early 4th century B.C.E. Xenophon was a native Athenian who was allowed
to live with the Spartans for several years, leaving us the best surviving account of the
Spartan way of life. If not for Xenophon, we would know very little
of their strange customs. What were these strange customs? Basically, ancient Sparta configured their
entire society to maximize military proficiency at all costs. Their incredible discipline and their ability
to mobilize their entire male population allowed this tiny city to become the dominant land
power in Greece. Their Greek contemporaries spoke the same
language and worshipped the same gods, and yet they all looked at Sparta like they were
from another planet. So, what do we know about Spartan institutions,
and why did Xenophon consider them the source of Spartan strength? Sparta was a diarchy. That means that they had two kings, from two
royal dynasties, who were equal in power, operating in parallel. According to Sparta’s founding myth, Heracles
himself came from across the sea with his supporters, conquering the land that would
later become Sparta, and enslaving the local Greek population. He then gifted this land to two of his descendents,
the twins Eurysthenes and Procles. Their descendents would go on to found the
Agiad and Eurypontid royal dynasties, who, together, would rule the city for the next
700+ years. So, according to the story that they told
themselves, the Spartans were foreign occupiers. This was central to the Spartan identity. So central that they viewed every non-Spartan
as a potential threat. This even applied to their own slaves. The descendants of the original enslaved Greeks
were known as the Helots. The Helots outnumbered the Spartans at, well,
we don’t know, I’ve seen 3 to 1, I’ve seen 7 to 1, either way by a lot. Because of this, the Spartans lived in a state
of constant anxiety that the enslaved Greeks would one day get their act together and rise
up against their foreign overlords. The Spartans held it as almost an article
of faith that that if their city ever fell, the killing blow would be delivered by a Helot
rebellion. So why did they tolerate the constant stress
that came with the domination of the Helots? Well, this large scale enslavement produced
a massive amount of wealth. When each Spartan male reached adulthood,
the city of Sparta awarded him an allotment of public farmland, and a contingent of Helot
slaves to work on it. The wealth that each farm generated was enough
to basically turned every Spartan citizen into a landed aristocrat. In other words, they were so rich that nobody
had to work for a living. And yet, even with all of this free public
farmland subsidizing the Spartan lifestyle, private property still existed. Why does this matter? Because Spartan inheritance law was so radical
that it terrified everybody else in Greece. Stick with me. When a Spartan man died, his public alotment
of farmland went back to the state, but his private property went to his wife. Not his son. His wife. This may seem like a small difference at first,
but consider this: husbands dying young was an extremely common occurrence in such a militarized
society. Many of these women who had inherited their
husband’s wealth would devote the rest of their lives to taking their small fortunes
and turn them into large ones. Eventually, when these wealthy women died,
their land would pass equally to their male and female children. This is the radical bit. Now, imagine a rich young woman with inherrited
wealth marrying an equally rich young man. If that young man died in battle, which happened
a lot, his wife would inherit his entire estate, and go from rich to ultra-rich. Then, she had her whole life ahead of her
to expand her wealth even further, and pass it on to her sons and daughters. In other words, rich women tended to produce
more rich women. These rich women married rich men, and during
periods when lots of husbands died young, this created a snowball effect. These ultra-rich women are sometimes referred
to as the Spartan Heiresses. Aristotle wrote that in his time, nearly 40%
of all Spartan territory was owned and administered by a small group of extremely wealthy women. Their wealth dwarfed every other Spartan’s
by orders of magnitude, including the two Spartan kings. They were a political constituency unto themselves. I want to drive this point home. A times, some of the most powerful men in
Sparta, even the kings, were completely dependent on loans from the Spartan Heiresses. Their influence was immense. Periodically, politicians in Sparta would
start talking about land reform, and every time, the Spartan Heiresses would block it
by flooding the system with money and buying off politicians. The rest of Greece was horrified that such
a small group of women had such a tight grip on Spartan politics. Aristotle complains at length about how wealthy
Spartan wives tended to dominate their less wealthy husbands, and that the entire population
of women have been ruined by their “intemperance and luxury.” To me, “intemperance and luxury” just sounds
like they were havin’ a good time. So the Spartans were ridiculously wealthy,
but even after hundreds of years, they still obsessively thought of themselves as foreign
occupiers. In their minds, they were always just one
misstep away from the total destruction of their civilization. For this reason, the Spartans placed an extremely
high importance on prophecy, and omens. Managing a bunch of sometimes contradictory
prophecies can be a full time job, so each king had two attendants to keep track of all
of this. If one of the kings had a question for one
of the oracles in the region, such as the Oracle of Delphi or Delphi, they would send
one of these attendants to go and ask it for them. So in a sense, the kings were the chief religious
officials in the city. Their presence served as a religious justification
for the city’s continued existence, which was central to Spartan religious life. But in a practical sense, the city continued
to exist because of Sparta’s incredible military prowess. Strictly speaking, the kings were the only
two people allowed to lead Sparta’s armies. While one of the kings was on campaign, he
basically transformed into an absolute monarch. His word was law. He held life and death power over every Spartan
citizen, and could even confiscate property if he deemed it necessary for the war effort. The Spartan kings were entitled to a portion
of everything that was captured in battle, but this didn’t necessarily make them super
wealthy. Being king was an expensive job. As I said before, the kings regularly, you
might even say compulsively, consulted with oracles. When doing this, the kings were expected to
make a king-sized donation to the host temple. To short-change the temple would be to directly
insult that temple’s god. This was unthinkable to the superstitious
Spartans. The kings had another massive expense, often
overlooked. When on campaign, they had to bring some of
their personal livestock with them, and make animal sacrifices before virtually every important
decision. If, after the sacrifice, the omens were still
bad, the king had to continue making sacrifices until the omens changed. Slaughtering this many animals meant that
while on campaign, the kings would just be hemorrhaging money. Animal sacrifices became so frequent that
at some point, to ensure that the kings never ran out, there was a law passed that said
that one piglet from every litter had to be taken and added to the king’s personal livestock. That’s an insane number of pigs. I mentioned a law being passed. The kings had nothing to do with that. Their jobs were religious and military, and
that’s it. Governence was left to others. The people in Sparta who actually wrote legislation
were called the Ephors. Their name translates as something like the
overseers, and why the Spartans called them that will become clear in a minute. Sparta had 5 Ephors, each at least 45 years
old, and each elected for a 1-year term. Once an Ephor had served his term, he was
barred from ever serving again. I say elected, but it was more complicated
than that. We don’t have a complete picture of exactly
how this worked, but from what we can tell the Spartans popularly elected an unknown
number of candidates, and then five of those elected were chosen at random to serve as
Ephors for that year. In other words, we know that the selection
process was randomized to a degree, but we don’t know to what degree. Were there 10 candidates to chose from, or
100? We have no idea. Aristotle says that this office usually went
to relatively poor Spartans, and if that’s true, there may have been a lot of randomness
at play. At the beginning of the Spartan new year,
when the Ephors assumed office, they immediately renewed Sparta’s war against the Helots in
an elaborate ceremony. The whole thing served as a reminder to all
Spartans that they were not native to this land, and that in theory, they were in a state
of perpetual warfare against their own slaves. In practice, the Spartans used this state
of war to justify all sorts of autrocities toward the Helot population, who, from what
we can tell, did nothing to deserve any of it. I would encourage you to go and look some
of this stuff up. It’s chilling. So on their first day, the Ephors singled
out the Helots. What did they do for the rest of the year? What did they oversee? They oversaw the kings. At the beginning of each new month, the 2
kings and the 5 Ephors would get together, and exchange the following oaths. The kings would say to the Ephors, “I will
reign according to the established laws of the state,” and the Ephors would answer, “while
you abide by your oath, we will keep the kingship unshaken.” “Kingship unshaken?” What does that mean? The Ephors had an incredible amount of power
to exercise oversight. If the king was acting in a way they didn’t
like, they could hold a vote, and with a straight majority of 3 to 2, they could formally charge
a king with a crime. If a king was charged, there would be a trial. The Ephors were responsiblie for collecting
and presenting the evidence, and then they would join forces with another body called
the Gerousia to serve together as a jury. I’ll talk about them later. If a king was found guilty, a bunch of things
could happen. On one end of the spectrum he could be fined,
and on the other, he could be stripped of the crown and banished from Sparta. In the case of banishment, the crown simply
passed to the next in line to the throne. Remember, according to the Spartans, Heracles
himself had given their kings the right to rule this land. Removing a king was bad enough, but they would
never upset the line of succession. But the removal of a king was a rare occurrence. Even if a king was stuck with a group of hostile
Ephors, they were going to be gone in a year. The kings would have been savvy enough to
know when to keep a low profile and wait for their enemies to leave office. But during wartime, the kings couldn’t hide. They needed to be out leading Sparta’s armies,
and when they went on campaign, two Ephors went with them. Two is an important number here. Two Ephors couldn’t do anything on their own,
they couldn’t charge the king with a crime, or interfere in any way with the conduct of
the war, but they could take notes, and report to the Ephors back home what they saw. Once hostilities had ceased, together they
could decide if the king had overstepped his bounds. But during normal streches of time, when Sparta
was not at war, the Ephors spent most of their time writing policy. Simple votes were taken between the 5 Ephors,
and with a simple majority of 3, a proposal was approved. There were virtually no constraints on what
they could dream up, but just because something got the approval of the Ephors didn’t meant
that it became law. There was a mechanism for that, and we’ll
cover it later. Debates about taxes and spending obviously
took up a lot of their time, but so did basic rules about morality, and Spartan lifestyle. Once the Ephors agreed on a piece of legislation,
they would present it before an assembly of all adult male Spartan citizens. Once they heard the proposal, the Spartans
would verbally vote yea or nay. No ammendments, no discussion, just yea or
nay. So if you want to summarize what we have so
far, the two kings served as Sparta’s religious figureheads and military leaders, while the
5 Ephors provided oversight, and passed legislation with the consent of the people. There were also a bunch of smaller things
that the Ephors had control over. They got to decide who was allowed into and
out of Spartan territory. This included merchants, diplomats, and curious
writers, like Xenophon, whose work was crutial in the research for this video. Xenophon was able to live in Sparta for several
years, striking up a close friendship with one of the kings. But even for Xenophon, his future in Sparta
was always uncertain. Every year new Ephors came to power, and every
year they reevaluated whether or not they would allow this foreigner to live in their
midst. The Ephors were always reluctant to send Spartans
abroad, even if there was a good reason for it. This is because Spartans had a reputation
for going hog wild once they were away from home. We’re talkin’ out of control drinking, gambling,
whoring, fighting, it was like a Spartan rumpspringa. Spartans were very good at living under their
strict code of conduct in their own communities, but once they were out on their own, anything
was up for grabs. What else did the Ephors do? Well, they took an active role the education
of children. When a group of boys graduated into adulthood,
the Ephors picked three from the “graduating class,” who, in their opinion, had outperformed
their peers, and best exemplified Spartan values. These three boys were then each allowed to
pick 100 of their peers, with the Ephors scrutinizing and questioning each selection along the way. When it was all done, the three boys selected
by the Ephors became officers, each boy’s 100 selections became their subordinates. Together, they became the royal guard to one
of the kings. As soon as the Ephors completed their 1-year
term, they were hauled in before their successors, to account for everything that they had done
during their year in power. Basically, they had to undergo a formal review. If any of them were found to be abusing their
power, their successors had the authority to punish them in any way they saw fit. The randomized selection process and the 1-year
terms of the Ephors could have introduced a lot of instability into the Spartan system,
but this review mechanism discouraged the Ephors from trying anything too radical. Maybe to a fault. Every surviving account we have of the Ephors
is missing something important. There are no stories of any significant legislative
accomplishments. None. That’s weird, right? There could be a few reasons for this. Maybe everybody was scared of this formal
review process at the end of the year. Or, maybe it happened, but nobody there to
write it down. As it is, our sources are super patchy, and
the only reason we know half of this stuff was because Xenophon happened to be pals with
one of the kings. Or, maybe the Ephors were constrained by an
external group. That brings us to the Gerousia. The Gerousia provided a check on the power
of the Ephors, which we’ll get into in a minute. Gerousia means something like the Council
of Elders, and it was made up of 28 members. The two kings were also honourary members,
bringing its official number up to 30. Apart from the two kings, members of the Gerousia
had to be men over the age of 60, and were expected to be men of merit and accomplishment. That was the expectation, anyway. In practice, they all seemed to come from
the same small circle of wealthy, well connected families. This was an elected position, but unlike the
Ephors, these ones were held for life. When a member died, there seems to have been
intense competition for the open spot. It’s hard to be certain, but some scholars
believe that political factions rose up around the two royal houses, and that each faction
jockeyed to get their candidate elected. So what did the Gerousia do? This body was allowed to set aside any decision
that was approved by the assembly of Spartan citizens. In other words, they had veto power. The Ephors could write the legislation, Spartan
citizens could approve it, and at the last minute the Gerousia could step and be like
“nah, we’re good.” They could even take it one step further. The Gerousia set the agenda for every meeting
of the Assembly, which meant that the Ephors could have all of this lovely legislation
written, and all the Gerousia had to do was say “no, that’s not going on the schedule.” Since the Ephors only served for one year,
the Gerousia could easily block them until a new batch was elected. As you can imagine, the Gerousia had a significant
conservative influence on Spartan political culture. Reforms were not going to happen unless the
Gerousia was on board. When an assembly of Spartan citizens were
voting, the Gerousia had a super weird job. Members of the Gerousia would sit in another
building, not far from the proceedings. The Ephors would preside over the meeting
and present their legislation, and the people would vote on it. Again, voting was done verbally. The Gerousia, sitting a short distance away,
could not see what was going on, but could hear the voting. After the vote, the Gerousia would come forward,
and announce which side was louder. The louder side won the vote. The idea was that this would keep the Gerousia
impartial, but I mean… they were still allowed to veto the results if they didn’t like them. As I mentioned before, if a king was on trial,
or a citizen was on trial for a serious crime like murder, the Ephors and the Gerousia joined
forces to form a 35 person jury. Presumably, since the kings were honourary
members of the Gerousia, they got to be on the jury at their own trial. Weird. A simple majority decided the result, and
since the elected members of the Gerousia held 28 of the 35 seats on the jury, they
always held the balance of power. Just in case anything they did ever went to
trial, the kings liked to informally consult with the Gerousia before any major decision. It made the old men feel important, and if
the Ephors decided to come after the king, it was always nice to know that he had acted
with the Gerousia’s consent. Sparta was a notoriously cautious and conservative
state, and it’s clear to me that the Gerousia was the primary institutional source of that
caution. Writing centuries after Sparta’s decline,
the Roman politician Cicero, you know, that guy, heaped praise upon the Spartan system. He liked how the kings were always hyper-aware
that they could be removed from office at a moment’s notice. He liked how the Ephors had to justify all
of their actions to their successors at the end of their term. He liked how powerful the Gerousia was, and
how these wise old men could balance competing interests, or shut down legislation if things
were getting out of hand. He thought that this was an incredibly stable
way to build institutions, and as a conservative, Cicero loved stability. Xenophon agreed, calling Spartan institutions
and the stability they provided the source of its strength. But in the end, maybe it was too stable. At the height of its power, Sparta was able
to mobilize its entire male citizenry into an army of at least 20,000 men, maybe more. 150 years later, in Alexander the Great’s
time, this number had shrunk to 1,000 men, for unknown reasons. This is why Alexander’s father Philip felt
comfortable shrugging off Spartan threats. 150 years after that, when the Romans started
getting their hands dirty in Greece, Sparta was nothing more than an insignificant village,
a curiosity, still living under kings, and Ephors, and the Gerousia, and still observing
their strict ancient customs. The causes of this precipitous decline are
not known to us, but maybe, over the couse of those 300 years, a key reform or two could
triggered a recovery. Maybe increasing in immigration rate from
zero would have helped. Maybe they could have offered citizenship
to certain number of Helot slaves. Maybe they could have relaxed their strict
marriage laws. You know. Reforms. Ideas. Solve the problem. This is what governments are for. Despite their worst fears, the Spartans invaders
were never overthrown by a Helot uprising, or by a coalition of angry Greeks. Instead, they allowed themselves to wither,
and atrophy, only to be conqured by another set of invaders, who saw them as nothing more
than a bunch of archaic freaks, left over from a more illustrious time.