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Polity of Ancient Sparta (political institutions of Sparta)

According to Spartan  tradition its polity was created by a lawgiver, Lycurgus (or Lycourgos, Lykourgos). Historians are not sure if he really existed, and some of them think that the political system of Sparta at the beginning was not so restrictive as described below. But in a very short time after Lycurgus, the city-state of Sparta started a very rapid military expansion. So there is the possibility that the story of Lycurgus is partially true and it is a reminder of the beginning of a populistic system in Sparta.  

Social classes

There were three major social classes in Sparta:
  • Spartiates - the only class that had full political rights (full citizenship). It was the class of the soldiers. When they were young, they lived in barracks, did hard military training and were the core of the heavy infantry of Sparta. When they were older, they could try for city offices. They did not have to work at all, because everyone had land with dependent farmers called helots. It was quite a limited group.
  • Perioikoi - they had personal freedom, and some autonomy, but no political rights. They also served in the army, but the heavy infantry units made up of perioikoi were not so elite as the units of Spartiates.
  • Helots - were the dependent farmers who had to pay half of their income (i.e. fruits of the land) to the Spartiates, who were the real owners of the land. They had no political or civil rights, but could not be sold like slaves nor freed by a Spartiate who owned them.
Generally the first two groups were the “political base” for the state of Sparta. A great mass of helots were oppressed and from time to time rebelled unsuccessfully. So there was a special institution - we can call it the “secret police” (but of course it was not such a formal organization as a modern secret policy) – the cryptia (or Krypteria) that continuously terrorized helots.

The state of Sparta is probably the first known totalitarian populistic state (but this changed over time). State of Sparta had an enclosed society, with brainwashing (militaristic) ideology that preserved the political system of the state, strong control of the contacts abroad, and the institutionalized mechanism of terror (cryptia and other political traditions invented to oppress helots).


Polity of Sparta

Two kings

At the top were two kings, who ruled the city-state of Sparta. After some time their power was reduced with the introduction of the office of ephores, and since then kings were only responsible for commanding the army of Sparta and for the diplomacy of the city-state. The two kings always came from two powerful families of Sparta: Agiades and Euripontides.

Five ephores

The office of ephore was introduced to reduce the power of kings. They had full administrative and executive authority in Sparta, and had Power to supervise kings of Sparta. They had a one-year tenure - i.e. were elected every year by the meetting of citizens.

Gerusia (council of elders)

The members of Gerusia were all citizens (i.e. Spartiates) who were more than 60 years old, so it was quite a limited group and therefore the council was naturally very conservative. Gerusia had Power to  prepare laws that were then voted upon at the meeting of citizens. And they  were also able to control the voting process. 

Meeting of citizens (Apella)

Because only the Spartiates had citizens privileges, it was a meeting of Spariates. The meeting was convened by kings, ephores or Gerusia (who could not convene it by themselves). Citizens had the privilege of electing ephores and voting upon laws prepared by Gerusia. They could not prepare laws by themselves, or make any modifications to laws prepared by Gerusia - if they did, Gerusia could annul the voting.

As you can see, the polity of Sparta preserved the power of the most important families, had built-in institutional solutions, that made the political system almost invariable and all representative institutions (like ex. meeting of citizens) were strongly controlled by the ruling oligarchy. Because of the important role of the elders from Gerusia the  political system of Sparta was sometimes called gerontocracy (rule of elders). 

Good introduction to Sparta you can find at sikyon.com


Text revised and corrected  by Christopher Jolley: (June 2005)
Slawomir Dzieniszewski

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