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.
There were three major social classes in Sparta:
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.
- 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.
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
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.
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
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: